Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

Alexander Bogdanov, Soviet SF Writer and Originator of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

September 18, 2021

One of my friends gave me a copy of A.M. Gittlitz’s I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, for which I’m really grateful. It’s fascinating! Posadism is a weird Trotskyite sect, founded by Posadas, the nom-de-guerre of Homero Cristalli, an Argentinian Marxist. They were hardline Marxists, joining other Communist and Trotskyite guerrillas fighting a war against capitalism and Fascist oppression across Latin America and Cuba. From what I remember from an article about them in the Fortean Times, they also looked forward to an apocalyptic nuclear war that would destroy the capitalist nations and allow the workers of the world to seize power. This is frightening, as any such war would have destroyed the planet or at least killed countless billions and sent the survivors hurtling back into the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it was also shared by Chairman Mao, who really couldn’t believe why Khrushchev hadn’t launched a nuclear attack on America during the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev was certainly no angel. During Stalin’s reign he was responsible for organising purges of dissidents in Ukraine and when in power led a brutal crackdown on religion that sent thousands of people of faith, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, shamanists to the gulags. He was also responsible for creating the system of curtained shops which served only members of the Communist party. But in refusing to start a nuclear war, Khrushchev helped save the world and showed himself a far better man than Mao.

But Posadas also had some other, rather more eccentric views. He believed in establishing contact with intelligent aliens and also believed dolphins were another intelligent species with whom we should establish real, meaningful contact and understanding. A college friend of mine told me that they wanted to make contact with aliens because of their belief in the inevitable victory of Marxism. If there were alien civilisations, they reasoned, they would have achieved true, Marxist socialism and could therefore help us do the same. It sound completely bonkers, but they took their views on dolphin intelligence from the scientist and psychologist John Lilley. Many others shared their views. I have a feeling that dolphins feature in several of Larry Niven’s novels as intelligent creatures with whom humans have a relationship as equal species. To help them interact with us, they have been given artificial arms and mobile pods containing the water they need to support them.

There was a brief resurgence of Posadism on the Net in 2016, and the book contains amongst its illustrations a number of memes posted by them. One contrasts the despair and defeatism of capitalism and the mainstream socialist parties with Posadism. It features a grey alien looking on accompanied with slogans like ‘Solidarity with the space comrades’ – not ‘space brothers’, note, like the old-fashioned UFO contactees talked about, but Marxist aliens determined to overthrow capitalism. Other slogans included ‘It’s Communism, Jim, but not a we know it’, clearly a parody of the famous line from Star Trek, ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’. And there’s also a parody of one of the famous sayings of the Space Prophet himself, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Posadist meme reworked this as ‘Dialectical Materialism so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.’ They are also in favour of fully automated luxury communism. This is the doctrine, embraced by Yannis Varoufakis amongst others, that mechanisation will make most workers redundant. To prevent the immense harm this will do, the only choice will be for the state to take over industry and run it so that everyone has free access to goods and services. This got reworked in one of the Posadist memes as ‘Fully automated luxury gay communism.’ I have to say this sounds distinctly unappealing. Not because I’m opposed to gay rights, but because it sounds like only gays will be allowed into the new utopia. I hope if it comes, it will benefit everyone, whatever their sexuality.

In fact the idea of fully automated luxury communism and alien contact goes back a long way in Marxist history. Alexander Bogdanov, an early rival to Marx, wrote an SF novel, Red Star. Inspired by Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket pioneer, and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this was about a revolutionary from the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising, who is abducted to Mars. Martian society is advanced both technologically and socially. All the factories are automated, so that goods are plentiful and money is obsolete, as everyone has access to all the goods and services they need or want. As a result, Martians share their possessions. What work remains is entirely voluntary, but done idealistically for the good of society. This includes young Martians donating blood to increase the lives of the elderly. (see page 5 of the above book).

As the Bard says in The Tempest ‘Oh brave new world that hath such people in it!’

Posadas was an eccentric with some extremely dangerous views, but some of his ideas aren’t so daft. If mechanisation proceeds, then I feel that fully automated luxury communism, or something very like it, will have to come into existence. It’s the only humane alternative to the grind mass poverty and despair depicted in dystopian SF stories like 2000 AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’, where 95 per cent of the population of Megacity 1 is unemployed and films like Elysium, where the world’s masses live in shanty towns, workers are exploited and disposable, and the rich live in luxury orbital colonies.

And serious scientists are still looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, following American astronomer Frank Drake and scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan. Interestingly, the book states that Sagan, a Humanist and left-wing activist, denied being a Marxist. But he and his wife Anne Druyan smuggled copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, so that Soviet citizens could read its real, suppressed history. I think most SETI scientists believe that real aliens would probably be so different from us that their political and institutions may well be inapplicable to us. Nevertheless advocates of SETI believe that aliens may nevertheless be able to give us vital scientific information, including the cure of disease and how to extend our lifespan. It probably won’t be Marxism, but if the aliens do have something like it or Fascism, then these ideologies will become popular on Earth after contact.

Communist aliens sounds like a ridiculous idea, but until we make contact, we won’t know if there are or aren’t any.

As for the Martian society of Red Star, the absence of a money economy, the abolition of scarcity and work as a purely voluntary activity sound very much like the Federation in Star Trek. Thanks to contact with the Vulcans and other aliens, humans had overcome racism, poverty and starvation. People didn’t need to work, but they did so in order to better themselves. It should be said, though, that the series never openly advocated socialism. It simply said that ‘the economics of the future are different’ and implied that both capitalism and socialism had been transcended. Nevertheless, the parallels are so close that the far right, like Sargon of Gasbag and his fellow Lotus Eaters, have been moaning that Star Trek’s communist. I doubt it, not least because the actress who plays Seven Of Nine is married to a Republican politico. I think Star Trek is broadly liberal and presents an inspiring utopian society. One of the complaints about Star Trek: Picard is that it has now abandoned this utopian optimism in favour of portraying the Federation as a standard SF dystopia and that it’s liberal slant has become too shrill and intolerant at the expense of good stories, plots and characterisation. Utopias are unattainable, but we need them to inspire us, to show us that ‘another world is possible’ and that, in the words of The Style Council, ‘you don’t have to take this crap/ You don’t have to sit back and relax’. Or work yourselves to death to increase the profits of already bloated big business elites.

Apart from this, the book is also a fascinating look at the history of Marxism in Argentina and Latin America, and I intend to review on this blog when I finish it.

As for aliens, well, I’d rather we made contact with benign Space Comrades than the little Grey buggers that haunt our nightmares of UFOs, abductions and malign conspiracies at the moment.

And yes, the title very definitely is taken from the poster of a UFO hanging in Fox Mulder’s office in the X-Files.

Tokyo Bans Sale of Comics ‘Subversive of the Social Order’ to Children

August 28, 2021

It seems to me that there’s a real war going on in ostensibly democratic countries against freedom of speech and conscience. I don’t think this is confined to either the left or right either. In Britain we have had a successions of governments that have been determined to limit the right to public protest from David Cameron to Johnson with his wretched Criminal Justice Bill. And before then there was Tony Blair and his attempts to control what was being said about him and his coterie on state broadcasting, just as Berlusconi was doing to the Italian state media. John Kampfner wrote a rather good book about it, Freedom for Sale, a few years ago, arguing that governments from Blair to Putin were trying to bargain with their peoples. They got material prosperity in return for severe infringements on their ability to protest against their governments. Well, Blair was wretched, but he did at least tackle poverty with no little success. Cameron, Tweezer and Johnson are simply increasing it.

On the other side of the political aisle, the right are complaining about the imposition of curbs on free speech as part of the campaign against hate crime and the ‘cancel culture’. Some of this is exaggerated. Zelo Street demolished some of the claims Toby Young, Douglas Murray and the rest were making about right-wingers being prevented from speaking at universities by giving the precise statistics. These showed that, while it had happened, the percentage of speakers cancelled was minute. But I do think they have a point. For example, it should be accepted that trans people should not despised, persecuted or suffer discrimination. But I think there are legitimate issues and questions voiced by gender critical feminists about trans activism and that there are spaces that should only be reserved for ‘cis’ women. But to some people, simply voicing what to many people are reasonable questions and criticisms constitute hate speech. There are similar problems regarding the reporting and discussion of racial issues. Nobody should want to empower real bigots and Fascists, but it does seem that legislation put in place to protect minorities from real hate has now expanded into Orwellian thoughtcrime.

And these attempts to limit freedom of speech have got into what is permissible in comics. One of the astonishing snippets I found while flicking through Paul Gravett’s Comics Art yesterday, was that in 2011 Tokyo municipality expanded its ban on the sale of certain comics (manga) and animated movies (anime) to children under 18 by including materials ‘excessively disruptive of the social order’. (Page 72). I realise that Japan is a very conservative society. The right-wing Liberal Democratic party were in power for fifty years or so after the end of World War II. The country is very Confucian in that one respects one’s elders and superiors. Gender roles are very traditional, as are conceptions of nationality. I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but under Japanese law at one time a person could only be a Japanese citizen if both their parents were ethnic Japanese. I gather that there are ways you can become a naturalised citizen, but it’s extremely difficult. It’s also supposed to be a very conformist society, in which children are taught at school that ‘the nail that stands up must be hammered down’. But this attack on comics is extreme.

Such attacks on the four-colour funnies and related media haven’t been restricted by Japan by any means. In the 1950s there was a moral panic in America and the United States against comics, one of the major figures in which was the Austrian psychiatrist, Dr Frederic Wertham. Wertham was one of a number of left-wing, emigre intellectuals who believed that popular culture had assisted the Nazis into power. He believed that American youth was being corrupted into crime and sexual deviancy by comics. He accused Superman of being a Nazi, despite the fact that the character’s only similarity to Nietzsche’s superman is the name, and that the Man of Steel’s creators were American Jews. Batman and Robin were an idealised homosexual couple, an accusation that has continued to plague attempts to reintroduce Robin in the strips. Oh yes, and Wonder Woman was a sado-masochist feminist lesbian. I doubt any of these accusations would have been recognised by the kids who actually bought and read the strips. But Wertham’s denunciations were taken up by a variety of groups, from the religious right to the Communist party and led to the passing of laws across America banning or restricting the sale of comics to children. The ban led to the collapse of particular comic genres, specifically the horror and true crime comics, which were particular targets of the legislators’ ire. It also affected the SF comics, because some of them strayed into politically dubious areas. The superhero comics survived, not because they were the most popular, but because they were the type of comics least affected by the new regulations.

One of the SF comics singled out for censorship was a story in which an astronaut from Earth travels to a world populated entirely by robots. His face hidden in his spacesuit, he tells the robots that they’re being considered as candidates for joining a galactic federation. Shades of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets by a slightly different name here. However, the robots are divided into two types, blue and orange, and there is hatred and conflict between them. At the end of the story, the astronaut informs them that they have been rejected because of these divisions. It was only when the people of Earth rejected their differences and united, that real progress was made, he states at the end of the story. In the last panel he removes his helmet, and reveals that he’s Black.

Shock horror! An anti-racist message! This was too much for one New York judge, who wanted the strip banned on religious grounds. He believed that God had only given speech to humanity, and hated the idea of talking robots. But the underlying issue is obviously its attack on racism at a time when Jim Crow was still very much in force. Eventually the judge had to back down, and the issue degenerated into a fight between the publisher, EC, and the authorities over how many beads of sweat they could show on the Earthman.

Well, at least there were comics creators in America prepared to deal with the issue. Pat Mills, the creator of zarjaz British comic 2000 AD, says in his book about British comics and his career in them, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! that even in the late 1960s, the policeman heroes in British comics were making quite racist comments about Blacks. Part of what made 2000 AD’s predecessor, Action, so controversial was that Mills and the other creators there had been determined to make it as relevant as possible to contemporary British youth culture and deal with the issues and stories affecting and demanded by the young readership of the time. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after Dr Martens’ distinctively rebellious footwear, followed by the years. So ‘Boots 1977′, Boots 1978’ and so on. But this was too much for the publishers, and the name Action settled on instead. In the end, the comic only lasted a couple of years because it was so controversial, with the major criticism that it was far too violent. 2000 AD was its successor, but here, unlike Action, the violence would be done in support of the law. This led to Judge Dredd, who was deliberately designed as a Fascist cop. The strip’s founding artist, Carlos Ezquerra, was Spanish, and so incorporated into Dredd’s uniform the style of the Fascists then making life a misery in Franco’s Spain, the helmet, the shoulder pads and the eagle badge. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the light reflected in Dredd’s visor looks like ‘SS’. Dredd was thus partly a comment by Mills and Wagner on some of the authoritarian trends in contemporary policing. Other strips tackled issues of racism and religious bigotry – Strontium Dog and Nemesis the Warlock, for example, and sexism, like The Ballad of Halo Jones. There was also a strong anti-war message in the ABC Warriors. Mainstream American comics had been tackling some of these issues for a decade or so previously. There were issues of Spiderman, for example, that tackled racism, and the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s led to the appearance of Black superheroes like Powerman, Brother Voodoo and the Black Panther. Since then, and particularly since the collapse of the Comics Code Authority in the 1990s, comics have become an accepted and critically respected medium for the discussion of political and social issues. This has reached the point where Conservative and more traditional fans and comics creators believe that the medium and related forms of popular culture, such as SF and Fantasy film and television has become too politicised. In their opinion, contemporary comics writers and artists are too concerned with pushing overt messages about racism, sexism and gay rights at the expense of creating good, likeable characters and engaging plots and stories.

Martin Barker describes how comics have always been the subject of suspicion by the left and the right, going back to the Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls of Victorian Britain, and the cheap, popular novels being read by ‘the democracy’ in his Comics, Ideology and Power. Girls’ comics seem to me to have come in for a particular bashing. They were attacked by conservatives for being too radical and challenging traditional female roles. The left attacked them for being too conservative and not teaching girls their proper, traditional place. Barker shows how these attacks were way off, tearing to pieces specific criticisms of various strips. He argues that children actually subtly negotiate the content of the comics they read. They accept only those elements of the strips which appeal to them and ignore the rest. They do not simply accept everything they read. Barker’s final chapter is a passionate attack on those, who were trying to censor comics at the time he was writing. This included Thatcher and the Tories, but he was also angry at his own camp, the left. Brent and Lambeth councils were also leading an attack on popular literature through their zeal to purge their municipal libraries of anything they considered racist.

And they attack on popular literature has carried on. I remember the furore at the beginning of this century against the Harry Potter books. American Evangelical Christians accused J.K. Rowling of leading children into Satanism and the occult. Well, I admit I’ve only seen the films, not read the books, but I must have missed that one. It’s always seemed to me that the Harry Potter books actually were part of a long tradition of supernatural fantasy in children’s literature going right back to E. Nesbitt and beyond, and including The Worst Witch and Gobbelino the Witch’s Cat. Their attacks on Potter contrast with the Pope’s, who praised them and J.K. Rowling for encouraging children’s imaginations. There was also a rabbi, who wrote a piece praising Potter as a kind of model for Jews.

I’m not a free speech absolutist. I believe the promotion of certain opinions should be outlawed. Obvious examples include anything that encourages the sexual abuse of children or real hatred and violence towards minorities. I have no problem with the law banning the incitement to racial hatred. This was introduced in the 1920s or ’30s with the aim of combating the rise of real Fascism in the form of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Arnold Leese’s The Britons and other violent, deeply racist and anti-Semitic outfits. I also believe that parents have every right to exercise concern and control about what their children read or listen to, or are taught at school regarding certain highly controversial issues.

But I am afraid that the rules against certain types of hate are being used to silence perfectly reasonable criticism. One of the quotes that my accusers have cited to show that I am an evil anti-Semite is a statement where I say that every state and ideology should be open to discussion and criticism, even Israel and Zionism. There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic in that. Even the wretched I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism states that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic only if it is applied solely to Israel. But that sentence makes it very clear that I don’t single out Israel and Zionism for especial criticism. I simply state that they should not be above it. But to the anti-Semitism hunters, this is obviously too much.

I am very much afraid that freedom of speech, discussion and conscience and true liberty of the press is under attack. The Conservatives want to close down any view that isn’t their own, all while arguing they’re simply standing up for free speech against the censorious ‘woke’ left. And there are forces on the left trying to close down reasonable debate and criticism under the guise of protecting people from hate.

We have to be careful, and defending freedom of speech and publication from attacks, whether by left-wing councils like Brent and Lambeth in the 1980s, or right-wing local authorities like Tokyo and its law of 2011.

This should not be a partisan issue, but should stretch across the political spectrum. But my fear is that it won’t. And as both sides struggle to establish the kind of censorship they want, real freedom of expression will die.

Vox Political on the Real Face of Boris Johnson

August 5, 2021

It’s sad but true that many people have been taken in by Boris Johnson’s image as an affable buffoon. Whatever he does, no matter how inept or offensive, like reciting ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in Thailand’s holiest temple, coming back from talks in Moscow to ratchet up tensions with Russia rather than decrease them, the massive cronyism and corruption, the continuing destruction of the NHS, the tens of thousands whose deaths from Covid could have been prevented, there seem to be any number of people ready to ignore all those because of Johnson’s jovial persona. He’s a buffoon, yes, he’s bumbling, but he’s well intentioned and has the nation’s interests at heart. Yes, he went to Eton, but somehow, like that other scion of money and privilege Nigel Farage, he has managed to convince too many ordinary people that he’s somehow one of them. The American radical magazine Counterpunch once quoted a porter in one of the northern English fish markets as saying that Johnson was working class like him. The reality is, of course, far different. Johnson’s an aristo, and as Jeeves once said to Spode in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster all those years ago, he and the working classes are barely on nodding terms. Like his hair, which is normally neatly combed but which he deliberately messes for effect, all the bonhomie and the image of being a man of the people is a carefully crafted pose. Johnson is genuinely inept, but what is false is the image he projects of having any kind of regard for working people and their concerns.

Mike has put up a very revealing piece originally put up by Damian Furniss, about the real face behind the carefully constructed mask. And, as the Ferengi used to scream about anything they didn’t like on Star Trek, it’s ‘Ugly. Verreeee ugleeee.’ Mr Furniss had the misfortune to encounter Boris while having a pint in the bar while awaiting an interview to get into Oxford. The future Prime Minister then amused himself and his similar rich and snobby friends by sneering at Furniss, mocking everything from his speech impediment to his far humbler social background. Mike’s put up this quote from Furniss about Johnson’s nasty performance.

“Three years older than me, and half way through the second class degree in Classics he coasted through with the diligence he later applied to journalism and red box briefings, you’d have expected him to play the ambassador role, welcoming an aspiring member of his college.

“Instead, his piss-taking was brutal. In the course of the pint I felt obliged to finish he mocked my speech impediment, my accent, my school, my dress sense, my haircut, my background, my father’s work as farm worker and garage proprietor, and my prospects in the scholarship interview I was there for. His only motive was to amuse his posh boy mates.

“In short, he demonstrated all of the character flaws that make him unfit to be our Prime Minister. Nothing I see today suggests he has changed. He’s not Falstaff, he’s Faust. If you are an ordinary working person and think he has your interests at heart, think again.”

I can’t say I’m surprised by any of this. I’ve heard stories myself about how he was a vile bully at Eton, though that’s hardly anything extraordinary given the vicious bullying culture that’s run rampant there and in the other public schools. And for all his aristocratic background, it also shows a monumental lack of good breeding. At some of Bristol’s grammar schools, for example, the pupils were taught that they were to show the same respect to the gardener and the ancillary staff that they would to the teachers. It’s bad form for someone from such a privileged background to sneer at those further down the social hierarchy. But clearly, Boris and his noxious chums regard such morals as for grammar school oiks rather than such lofty personages as themselves.

Unfortunately, I doubt Mr Furniss’ piece will make much of a dent in the impressions of those who continue to be taken in by Johnson. Some of this is, no doubt, because they want to be deceived. They want to believe that somehow Johnson represents the working people of this country, in the same way that there were people more than willing to believe Tweezer when she said that she and her cabinet weren’t members of the ‘elite’, when every single one of them was a millionaire. It’s the other side of the Tories’ equally carefully constructed image of the left and especially the ‘woke’. Membership of the elite isn’t just a matter of wealth and social class, but also of values. The elite, as described ad nauseam by the Tories over here and the Republicans in America, are rich leftists who attack decent, working people with their assaults on national pride and aggressive attacks on racism, misogyny, homophobia and anything else they consider bigoted. Highly privileged individuals, who don’t share the concerns and values of ordinary working people. Unlike them, of course.

But this is all just right-wing rhetoric and propaganda. Johnson, Tweezer and the rest of the Tories are the real elite. They’re millionaires from extremely privileged backgrounds, unlike very many of the Labour party, and particularly the Labour left. There are many MPs from that side of the party, who do come from a real working class background, and whose socialism reflects their genuine concern with improving conditions for ordinary working people. This is despite the attempts by Blair and Starmer to turn Labour once again into a middle class party pursuing Conservative policies and voters.

Johnson and the Tories have nothing in common with the working class, for whom they have nothing but contempt. But they’re very good at manipulating their public image, and so have succeeded in persuading many working people that somehow they represent them.

But every so often the mask slips to reveal the seething mass of class hatred, greed and snobbery beneath.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2021/08/05/how-can-anyone-support-boris-johnson-knowing-the-contempt-he-has-for-them/

Wishing Mike All the Best for His Appeal Hearing Today

April 27, 2021

This is just to wish Mike over at Vox Political all the very best of luck for his appeal hearing against the court ruling in favour of Rachel Riley. The proceedings will be screened on YouTube sometime after 10.30 this morning. Mike has the details up on his blog, including the YouTube address. See Riley appeal hearing: at last, the details! | Vox Political (voxpoliticalonline.com) As a long time Star Trek fan, I say this: Qipla! (Klingon for ‘success’).

Video of Original Star Trek Theme Played on the Theremin

January 31, 2021

Here’s a link to a very fun video on YouTube. It’s from Katica Illenyi’s channel on YouTube, and is of her and the Animae Musicae Chamber Orchestra playing the theme tune of the Classic Star Trek series, with Illenyi herself on Theremin. That’s the weird instrument that operates through subtle changes in a magnetic field produced by the position of the player’s hands, so that you play it without touching it. It’s a strange, fascinating instrument with a very weird sound, and so has featured in the music for a number of SF and horror movies, as well as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. I like the Next Generation Star Trek theme, which was taken from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but for me the real Star Trek theme is still the original. I hope other Star Trek fans enjoy this as much as I did.

KATICA ILLÉNYI – STAR TREK (theremin) – YouTube

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

MechaRandom on Israeli Space General’s Claim that the Aliens Really Are Here

December 9, 2020

Here’s a piece about Israel, which doesn’t involve them maltreating the Palestinians. But are they really in touch, along with the US, with beings from another planet?

MechaRandom42 is a vlogger, who talks about SF/Fantasy film, TV and comics, especially Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who. She’s very critical about recent treatment of these classic series and film franchises, which she and many other fans believe have been ruined for explicitly ideological reasons. For example, popular, long-standing male characters in her view have been deliberately humiliated and undermined in order to give centre stage to poorly written and unlikeable female characters in order to preach an explicit and simplistic feminist message. At the same time gay and trans characters are also included in popular film franchises and TV series, like Batwoman, but the treatment given them is also simplistic. It’s tokenism, and this forced diversity comes at the expense of creating genuinely well-crafted, popular characters or intelligent, coherent and involving plots and stories. She’s also critical of recent Star Trek series, like Star Trek Picard, for abandoning the utopian optimism of previous series, like Classic Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and so forth, for a darker, dystopian future that’s robbed the series of its soul and reduced it to a generic SF show which just uses the settings and characters of Trek. She also laments the series’ decline in their ability to treat issues like racism, sexism and gayness. Previous series of Trek did so intelligently and from the perspective that humanity had already transcended these problems. The series often had an explicit message, but it took the trouble to explain them to the audience and didn’t patronise or insult them if they disagreed. Now their treatment is much cruder, reasoned argument is replaced by shrill preaching and there’s an underlying attitude that everyone who disagrees with the message must be an ‘-ist’ or a ‘-phobe’. This has resulted in these once popular film franchises, TV series and comics losing viewers and readers. And it’s one of the reasons the last series of Dr. Who catastrophically lost viewers.

It’s a controversial view, but one shared by a number of other Youtubers and fans of these genres. Some of this criticism comes from people on the political right, but it has also been expressed by peeps on the other side of the political spectrum. They argue that there have always been a concern with these issues in popular entertainment, and that there hasn’t been a shortage of strong female characters in SF. The Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley is a classic example. The problem is that these issues aren’t being intelligently handled, but instead have been taken over by creators who are ideologically intolerant and seem intent on alienating their audience rather than winning them other.

In this video, however, she moves away from this to discuss the claims of Haim Eshad, a retired Israeli general, professor and former head of their Space Security Force, that the US and Israel really have made contact with aliens. According to the Jerusalem Post, citing another Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, the two countries have made contact with the Galactic Federation, and they’re operating an underground base on Mars jointly with the aliens. Donald Trump was on the verge of announcing the extraterrestrial presence on Earth, but was stopped from doing so. The aliens don’t which to cause mass panic, and believe we are not ready for them just yet. He’s also got a book coming out, which he says contains more details and evidence.

MechaRandom compares this with the Star Trek universe and its theme of whether humanity is sufficiently evolved to meet aliens. She believes that we aren’t, and that this is due to the way society has dumbed down so we don’t use our ability to do Maths. This is the area we need to be concentrating on, in her opinion, if we are to meet aliens. She also wonders whether the retired military gentleman really is telling the truth, or if he’s ‘a crazy old guy’. He’s 87.

Aliens & The Galactic Federation Are Real For Reals This Time? – YouTube

To people with more than a superficial knowledge of Ufolore, this is very familiar stuff. Ever since Kenneth Arnold made his sighting of them over the Rockies in the 1947, there have been tales of secret government pacts with aliens, underground bases and so on. And there have been a string of Contactees, like George Adamski, who claimed that they had personally made contact with aliens, who had given them a message for humanity. These aliens also claimed to come from some kind of galactic or interplanetary federation, and their messages reflected the pressing global concerns of the day. In the 1950s this was the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s and 1990s this was the threat to the environment, mirroring the rise of the Green movement. Whole religions have been built on such claimed contact, like the Raelians, UNARIUS and the Aetherius Society. This was set up in the 1950s by taxi driver George King, who heard a voice in his kitchen one day telling him that he should ‘prepare to be the voice of interplanetary parliament’. The Society claimed that King was in touch with an alien, Aetherius, on Venus, where Jesus was also alive and well, as well as Mars Sector 6.

There have been rumours of underground bases since at least the 1980s, as well as various newspaper and magazine articles and books written by government or military officials like Donald Keyhoe, Nick Pope, and the pseudonymous ‘Commander X’. The British hoax TV programme, Alternative 3, broadcast in the 1970s as an April Fool’s joke, also claimed that the Americans and Russians were secretly operating bases on the Moon and Mars, to which people were being kidnapped for use as slave labour in the event of global environmental collapse and the extinction of terrestrial humanity.

There are also stories that President Truman made contact with aliens when they landed at Holloman AFB in the ’40s or ’50s. JFK is also supposed to have been about to reveal the truth about the aliens, which is why he was assassinated. Ronald Reagan is also supposed to have been privy to this information, as shown by his remark to Steven Spielberg during a screening of ET at the White House: ‘Only five people in this room know how true all this is’.

You get the picture. Nothing Eshad has said, at least according to the Jerusalem Post article, is original. If anything, it’s curiously dated. The Contactee Howard Menger claimed to have seen Americans and Russians cooperating together on a secret base on the Moon when the space brothers took him there on one of his extraterrestrial jaunts. Menger was not a military man, but a barber. Hence the title of one of his books was Hairdresser to the Space People, or something like it.

Is Eshad telling the truth, or is he deluded or actually lying? My guess it’s one of the last two. Age and the pressures of holding such a senior command in the tense, war-torn Middle East could have taken their toll on the old boy’s mental health. It might also be that he may have personally had some kind of UFO sighting or experience, like some of the US astronauts. Or had UFO reports from the service personnel under him passed up for his comments. Researching the subject, he’s come across all the tall tales and rumours, and managed to convince himself they’re true.

On the other hand, he could very well be spinning yarns himself. He could be telling these stories as some kind of personal joke and to make a buck on the side from the sales of his forthcoming book. Or there may be something far more sinister going on here. There’s a large amount of evidence that the US intelligence agencies have been deliberately spreading disinformation about alien contact, crashed spacecraft and secret underground bases for their own purposes. Some of this might be destabilise the UFO community, which they have often viewed as a security threat because of the interest taken in secret aircraft and the air force and other bases, which are supposed to hide alien spacecraft and bodies. Some UFO sightings have been of American spy planes. These were often flown from US airbases in Britain and elsewhere, but were so secret that the Americans didn’t tell their allies in the host nations. It might be that Eshad is telling these tales of alien contact in order to have everyone looking in the wrong direction and so ignoring something that his country is really doing in space. At present the militarisation of space is banned under international law. Trump wants to break this and set up an American Space Force. Perhaps Israel is considering doing the same, but wants everyone to disregard it on the grounds that people think that what they’ve seen are alien spacecraft, and only nutters believe in UFOs and aliens.

And you could go on speculating. We really don’t know he’s telling these stories about secret contact with aliens, and can only guess at his motives. But I’m certain that aliens aren’t here, that Trump wasn’t going to spill the beans about them and that there definitely isn’t a secret US-alien base on Mars.

No Flesh Is Spared in Richard Stanley’s H.P. Lovecraft Adaptation.

October 20, 2020

Well, almost none. There is one survivor. Warning: Contains spoilers.

Color out of Space, directed by Richard Stanley, script by Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris. Starring

Nicholas Cage … Nathan Gardner,

Joely Richardson… Theresa Gardner,

Madeleine Arthur… Lavinia Gardner

Brendan Meyer… Benny Gardner

Julian Meyer… Jack Gardner

Elliot Knight… Ward

Tommy Chong… Ezra

Josh C. Waller… Sheriff Pierce

Q’orianka Kilcher… Mayor Tooma

This is a welcome return to big screen cinema of South African director Richard Stanley. Stanley was responsible for the cult SF cyberpunk flick, Hardware, about a killer war robot going running amok in an apartment block in a future devastated by nuclear war and industrial pollution. It’s a great film, but its striking similarities to a story in 2000AD resulted in him being successfully sued by the comic for plagiarism. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made a major film for the cinema since he was sacked as director during the filming of the ’90s adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Th film came close to collapse and was eventually completed by John Frankenheimer. A large part of the chaos was due to the bizarre, irresponsible and completely unprofessional behaviour of the two main stars, Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer.

Previous Lovecraft Adaptations

Stanley’s been a fan of Lovecraft ever since he was a child when his mother read him the short stories. There have been many attempts to translate old Howard Phillips’ tales of cosmic horror to the big screen, but few have been successful. The notable exceptions include Brian Yuzna’s Reanimator, From Beyond and Dagon. Reanimator and From Beyond were ’80s pieces of gleeful splatter, based very roughly – and that is very roughly – on the short stories Herbert West – Reanimator and From Beyond the Walls of Sleep. These eschewed the atmosphere of eerie, unnatural terror of the original stories for over the top special effects, with zombies and predatory creatures from other realities running out of control. Dagon came out in the early years of this century. It was a more straightforward adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, transplanted to Spain. It generally followed the plot of the original short story, though at the climax there was a piece of nudity and gore that certainly wasn’t in Lovecraft.

Plot

Color out of Space is based on the short story of the same name. It takes some liberties, as do most movie adaptations, but tries to preserve the genuinely eerie atmosphere of otherworldly horror of the original, as well as include some of the other quintessential elements of Lovecraft’s horror from his other works. The original short story is told by a surveyor, come to that part of the American backwoods in preparation for the construction of a new reservoir. The land is blasted and blighted, poisoned by meteorite that came down years before. The surveyor recounted what he has been told about this by Ammi Pierce, an old man. The meteorite landed on the farm of Nahum Gardner and his family, slowly poisoning them and twisting their minds and bodies, as it poisons and twists the land around them.

In Stanley’s film, the surveyor is Ward, a Black hydrologist from Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. He also investigates the meteorite, which in the story is done by three scientists from the university. The movie begins with shots of the deep American forest accompanied by a soliloquy by Ward, which is a direct quote from the story’s beginning. It ends with a similar soliloquy, which is largely the invention of the scriptwriters, but which also contains a quote from the story’s ending about the meteorite coming from unknown realms. Lovecraft was, if not the creator of cosmic horror, then certainly its foremost practitioner. Lovecraftian horror is centred around the horrifying idea that humanity is an insignificant, transient creature in a vast, incomprehensible and utterly uncaring if not actively hostile cosmos. Lovecraft was also something of an enthusiast for the history of New England, and the opening shots of the terrible grandeur of the American wilderness puts him in the tradition of America’s Puritan settlers. These saw themselves as Godly exiles, like the Old Testament Israelites, in a wilderness of supernatural threat.

The film centres on the gradual destruction of Nathan Gardner and his family – his wife, Theresa, daughter Lavinia, and sons Benny and Jack – as their minds and bodies are poisoned and mutated by the strange meteorite and its otherworldly inhabitant, the mysterious Color of the title. Which is a kind of fuchsia. Its rich colour recalls the deep reds Stanley uses to paint the poisoned landscape of Hardware. Credit is due to the director of photography, Steve Annis, as the film and its opening vista of the forest looks beautiful. The film’s eerie, electronic score is composed by Colin Stetson, which also suits the movie’s tone exactly.

Other Tales of Alien Visitors Warping and Mutating People and Environment

Color out of Space comes after a number of other SF tales based on the similar idea of an extraterrestrial object or invader that twists and mutates the environment and its human victims. This includes the TV series, The Expanse, in which humanity is confronted by the threat of a protomolecule sent into the solar system by unknown aliens. Then there was the film Annihilation, about a group of women soldiers sent into the zone of mutated beauty and terrible danger created by an unknown object that has crashed to Earth and now threatens to overwhelm it. It also recalls John Carpenter’s cult horror movie, The Thing, in the twisting mutations and fusing of animal and human bodies. In the original story, Gardner and his family are reduced to emaciated, ashen creatures. It could be a straightforward description of radiation poisoning, and it indeed that is how some of the mutated animal victims of the Color are described in the film. But the film’s mutation and amalgamation of the Color’s victims is much more like that of Carpenter’s Thing as it infects its victims. The scene in which Gardner discovers the fused mass of his alpacas out in the barn recalls the scene in Carpenter’s earlier flick where the members of an American Antarctic base discover their infected dogs in the kennel. In another moment of terror, the Color blasts Theresa as she clutches Jack, fusing them together. It’s a piece of body horror like the split-faced corpse in Carpenter’s The Thing, the merged mother and daughter in Yuzna’s Society, and the fused humans in The Thing’s 2012 prequel. But it’s made Lovecraftian by the whimpering and gibbering noises the fused couple make, noises that appear in much Lovecraftian fiction.

Elements from Other Lovecraft Fiction

In the film, Nathan Gardner is a painter, who has taken his family back to live on his father’s farm. This is a trope from other Lovecraft short stories, in which the hero goes back to his ancestral home, such as the narrator of The Rats in the Walls. The other characters are also updated to give a modern, or postmodern twist. Gardner’s wife, Theresa, is a high-powered financial advisor, speaking to her clients from the farm over the internet. The daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch of the Wiccan variety. She is entirely benign, however, casting spells to save her mother from cancer, and get her away from the family. In Lovecraft, magic and its practitioners are an active threat, using their occult powers to summon the ancient and immeasurably evil gods they worship, the Great Old Ones. This is a positive twist for the New Age/ Goth generations.

There’s a similar, positive view of the local squatter. In Lovecraft, the squatters are barely human White trash heading slowly back down the evolutionary ladder through poverty and inbreeding. The film’s squatter, Ezra, is a tech-savvy former electrician using solar power to live off-grid. But there’s another touch here which recalls another of Lovecraft’s classic stories. Investigating what may have become of Ezra, Ward and Pierce discover him motionless, possessed by the Color. However, he is speaking to them about the Color and the threat it presents from a tape recorder. This is similar to the voices of the disembodied human brains preserved in jars by the Fungi from Yuggoth, speaking through electronic apparatus in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness. Visiting Ezra earlier in the film, Ward finds him listening intently to the aliens from the meteorite that now have taken up residence under the Earth. This also seems to be a touch taken from Lovecraft’s fiction, which means mysterious noises and cracking sounds from under the ground. Near the climax Ward catches a glimpse through an enraptured Lavinia of the alien, malign beauty of the Color’s homeworld, This follows the logic of the story, but also seems to hark back to the alien vistas glimpsed by the narrator in The Music of Erich Zann. And of course it wouldn’t be a Lovecraft movie without the appearance of the abhorred Necronomicon. It is not, however, the Olaus Wormius edition, but a modern paperback, used by Lavinia as she desperately invokes the supernatural for protection.

Fairy Tale and Ghost Story Elements

Other elements in the movie seem to come from other literary sources. The Color takes up residence in the farm’s well, from which it speaks to the younger son, Jack. Later, Benny, the elder son tries to climb down it in an attempt to rescue their dog, Sam, during which he is also blasted by the Color. When Ward asks Gardner what has happened to them all, he is simply told that they’re all present, except Benny, who lives in the well now. This episode is similar to the creepy atmosphere of children’s fairy tales, the ghost stories of M.R. James and Walter de la Mare’s poems, which feature ghostly entities tied to specific locales.

Oh yes, and there’s also a reference to Stanley’s own classic film, Hardware. When they enter Benny’s room, glimpsed on his wall is the phrase ‘No flesh shall be spared’. This is a quote from Mark’s Gospel, which was used as the opening text and slogan in the earlier movie.

The film is notable for its relatively slow start, taking care to introduce the characters and build up atmosphere. This is in stark contrast to the frenzied action in other, recent SF flicks, such as the J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboots and Michael Bay’s Transformers. The Color first begins having its malign effects by driving the family slowly mad. Theresa accidentally cuts off the ends of her fingers slicing vegetables in the kitchen as she falls into a trance. Later on, Lavinia starts cutting herself as she performs her desperate ritual calling for protection. And Jack and later Gardner sit enraptured looking at the television, vacant except for snow behind which is just the hint of something. That seems to go back to Spielberg’s movie, Poltergeist, but it’s also somewhat like the hallucinatory scenes when the robot attacks the hero from behind a television, which shows fractal graphics, in Hardware.

Finally, the Color destroys the farm and its environs completely, blasting it and its human victims to ash. The film ends with Ward contemplating the new reservoir, hoping the waters will bury it all very deep. But even then, he will not drink its water.

Lovecraft and Racism

I really enjoyed the movie. I think it does an excellent job of preserving the tone and some of the characteristic motifs of Lovecraft’s work, while updating them for a modern audience. Despite his immense popularity, Lovecraft is a controversial figure because of his racism. There were objections last year or so to him being given an award at the Hugo’s by the very ostentatiously, sanctimoniously anti-racist. And a games company announced that they were going to release a series of games based on his Cthulhu mythos, but not drawing on any of his characters or stories because of this racism. Now the character of an artist does not necessarily invalidate their work, in the same way that the second best bed Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife doesn’t make Hamlet any the less a towering piece of English literature. But while Lovecraft was racist, he also had black friends and writing partners. His wife was Jewish, and at the end of his life he bitterly regretted his earlier racism. Also, when Lovecraft was writing in from the 1920s to the 1940s, American and western society in general was much more racist. This was the era of segregation and Jim Crow. It may be that Lovecraft actually wasn’t any more racist than any others. He was just more open about it. And it hasn’t stopped one of the internet movie companies producing Lovecraft Country, about a Black hero and his family during segregation encountering eldritch horrors from beyond.

I don’t know if Stanley’s adaptation will be to everyone’s taste, though the film does credit the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society among the organisations and individuals who have rendered their assistance. If you’re interested, I recommend that you give it a look. I wanted to see it at the cinema, but this has been impossible due to the lockdown. It is, however, out on DVD released by Studio Canal. Stanley has also said that if this is a success, he intends to make an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. I hope the film is, despite present circumstances, and we can look forward to that piece of classic horror coming to our screens. But this might be too much to expect, given the current crisis and the difficulties of filming while social distancing.

The Overlord on Rumours that Mark Hamill Has Sold Image for Hollywood CGI Clone of Luke Skywalker

August 8, 2020

‘The Overlord’ is another YouTube channel devoted to news and views about genre cinema and television. It’s hosted by Dictor von Doomcock, a masked alien supervillain supposedly living at the centre of the Earth. And who is definitely not impressed at all at the state of contemporary popular culture, and particularly the way beloved film classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and so on are now being trashed by producers who have no respect for these series and their fans. And in this video he talks about the bizarre next step in this process: the recreation of favourite film characters like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker through CGI, completely removing the need for human actors.

A website, WDW Pro, has claimed that Disney are looking for ways they can break the pause in filming imposed by the Coronavirus lockdown. They are therefore looking at ways to do without human actors. They have therefore been looking at a technological solution to this problem, using the same computer techniques used to create the films The Lion King of 2019 and the 2016 film version of The Jungle Book, as well as the facial recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue 1. Frustrated at the hold-up filming the third Guardians of the Galaxy flick, Disney will use the technology, Cosmic Rewind, to create a completely computer generated movie, but one that would be presented as using human characters. This is going to be an experiment to test the possibility of creating films without human actors and the need for their salaries. According to a rumour, which WDW Pro has not been able to confirm, the projected film is about Young Indy, and its effectiveness will be tested when a rollercoaster based on the film comes on as part of Disneyworld.

Lucasfilm has also apparently made a deal with Mark Hamill within the last 18 months in which he has signed over his image to them so that they can use it to create a CGI Luke Skywalker. This Virtual Skywalker may also be used in the projected Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park. However, due to the project’s severe financial problems, this may not happen anytime soon. Disney are slowly moving towards using this technology to dispense with human actors so that they won’t have to suffer a similar pause in filming ever again, although they won’t move away from human actors altogether immediately.

Doomcock himself laments this development, and feels that it is inevitable in a world where Deep Fake technology has advanced so far that we don’t know if the people we see or the news we watch are real, or that the characters we see on the screen are brought to life by real actors using the skills and craft they have learned. He wonders what will happen to our civilisation – what we will lose – if everything we see on the screen is synthetic, and we are removed another step again from reality and anything that has ‘heart’. It might all be all right, but it seems to him that the more we remove the human element from art and culture and make it the creation of AIs, the more removed we are from our culture.

He also vents his spleen about the choice of subject for this putative movie, pointing out that there was a TV series about Young Indiana Jones years ago, and nobody wanted it. He recommends instead that if this grave-robbing technology is to be used, it should be used to recreate the mature Indy of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. He also criticises Hamill for what he sees as his poor judgement in making the deal with Disney. Hamill should know personally how a poor director can ruin a beloved legacy character, the actor’s own contribution and a favourite film franchise through his experience playing Skywalker in The Last Jedi. He famously wept on set during that movie and bitterly criticised the director’s decisions. He’s sarcastic about the respect Disney shows such legacy characters. It’s rumoured that George Lucas is returning to helm the Star Wars films, in which everything will be fine and we can look forward to a bright, new golden age. But considering the potential for abuse, Doomcock states that he is dismayed, flabbergasted and disgusted by Hamill’s decision and fearful for humanity’s future. As human culture becomes made by machines, hasn’t Skynet won? Who needs to launch nukes, when we have a CGI Skywalker dancing like a monkey in a bikini?

Here’s the video, but as Doomcock himself warns you, it isn’t for children. It has adult humour. Blatantly adult humour.

As you can see, there’s more than a little hyperbole in Doomcock’s argument, and some people will take issue at what he views as the humiliation of Luke Skywalker to push a feminist or anti-racist message, like Black Lives Matter. But his fears of the abuse of such technology aren’t unfounded, and have been around for quite some time. The possibility that actors would sell their images to film companies to recreate them Virtually, while making the flesh and blood person redundant, was explored a few years ago in the SF film The Congress by Ari Folman. This was loosely based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, The Futurological Congress, but is very different, and, in my opinion, inferior. For one thing, the Lem novel is hilariously funny, while the movie is grim and depressing. The movie is about a Hollywood actress, Robin Wright, playing herself, who makes precisely the deal Hamill is rumoured to have made. She then stars in a series of action movies, including one sequence that is definitely a tip to Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove. But this is all computer animation. The Wright herself isn’t remotely involved in their filming. Indeed, it is a condition of her contract that she not act at all, and live the rest of her life in a very comfortable retirement. These developments are followed by the discovery of a drug that allows people to enter a vast, consensual Virtual Reality, in which they can be and do anyone and anything they want. The world’s masses abandon reality, so that civilisation decays into a very grim, dystopia of ruin, poverty and misery. At one point Wright takes the drug, which will return her to reality, only to find herself in a food queue in a burned out, abandoned building. Unable to come with this, she returns to the Virtual world to search for the son she lost while in a coma as a result of a terrorist attack on the Las Vegas congress she was attending at which the hallucinogenic drug was launched. As I said, it’s a depressing film in which such illusions really are bringing about the destruction of humanity. And there is no escape, except into the Virtual world that has caused it.

The film follows a number of other SF works that have also predicted similar dystopias brought about by the hyperreality of mass entertainment. This includes John D. MacDonald’s short story, Spectator Sport, in which a time traveller appears in a future in which all human achievement has ceased as the public live out their lives as characters in VR plays. Another, similar tale is Good Night, Sophie, by the Italian writer Lino Aldani, about an actress in a similar world in which people live harsh, austere lives in order to escape into a far brighter, more vivid fantasy world of entertainment. Rather less pessimistic was the appearance of the SF film, Final Fantasy, all those years ago. This was supposed to be the first film in which all the characters were CGI, and who were supposedly indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood reality. The fact that further films like it haven’t been made suggests that, reassuringly, people want real humans in their movies, not computer simulations.

We’ve also seen the appearance of a number of computer generated celebrities. The first of these was the vid jockey, Max Headroom on Channel 4 in the 1980s. He was supposed to  be entirely computer-generated, but in reality was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer under a lot of makeup. Then in the 1990s William Gibson, one of the creators of Cyberpunk SF, published Idoru. This was a novel about a man, who begins an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Soon after it came out, a Japanese company announced that it had created its own Virtual celeb, a female pop star. Gibson’s books are intelligent, near-future SF which contain more than an element of the ‘literature as warning’. The worlds of his Cyberspace books are dystopias, warnings of the kind of society that may emerge if the technology gets out of hand or corporations are given too much power. The creation of the Virtual pop star looked instead as though the corporation had uncritically read Gibson, and thought what he was describing was a good idea.

But going further back, I seem to recall that there was a programme on late at night, presented by Robert Powell, on the impact the new information technology would have on society. It was on well after my bedtime, and children didn’t have their own TVs in those days. Or at least, not so much. I therefore didn’t see it, only read about it in the Radio Times. But one of its predictions was that there would be widespread unemployment caused by automation. This would include actors, who would instead by replaced by computer simulations.

Computer technology has also been used to create fresh performances by deceased stars, sometimes duetting with contemporary performers. This worried one of my aunts when it appeared in the 1980s/90s. Dead performers have also been recreated as holograms, to make the stage or television appearances they never made in life. The late, great comedian Les Dawson was revived as one such image, giving post-mortem Audience With… on ITV. It was convincing, and based very much on Dawson’s own live performances and work. It was good to see him again, even if only as Virtual ghost, and a reminder of how good he was when alive.

I don’t know how reliable the rumours Doomcock reports and on which he comments are. This could all be baseless, and come to nothing. But I share his fears about the damage to our culture, if we allow our films and television to be generated by technicians and algorithms rather than flesh and blood thesps. Especially as the rising cost of movies mean that the film companies are unwilling to take risks and seem determined to rake over and exploit past classics rather than experiment with creating fresh material.

CGI’s a great tool. It’s used to create vividly real worlds and creatures. But I don’t want it replacing humans. Even if that means waiting a few years for new flicks to come out.

 

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

August 4, 2020

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation  has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.