Posts Tagged ‘‘The Dispossessed’’

Star Trek: Was Gene Roddenberry Influenced by Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ Novels

March 20, 2020

This is just a bit of SF fan speculation before I start writing about the really serious stuff. I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Pirates of the Asteroids. First published in 1952, this is the second of five novels about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, Space Ranger. In  it, Starr goes after the Space Pirates, who killed his parents and left him to die when he was four. He tries to infiltrate their organisation by stowing away aboard a remote-controlled ship that’s deliberately sent into the asteroids to be attacked and boarded by the pirates. He’s captured, forced to fight for his life in a duel fought with the compressed air push guns NASA developed to help astronauts maneuver during spacewalks. After fighting off an attempt on his life by his opponent, Starr is taken by the pirates to the asteroid lair of a reclusive, elderly man, one of a number who have bought their own asteroids as retirement homes. The elderly man, Hansen, helps him to escape, and the pair fly back to Ceres to meet Starr’s old friends and mentors from the Science Academy. Starr and his diminutive Martian friend, Bigman, decide to return to the old hermit’s asteroid, despite it having disappeared from its predicted position according to Starr’s orbital calculations in the meantime. Searching for it, they find a pirate base. Starr is captured, his radio disabled, and literally catapulted into space to die and the pirates plan to attack his spaceship, left in the capable hands of Bigman. Starr and Bigman escape, travel back to Ceres, which they find has been attacked by the pirates in the meantime, and the hermit, Hansen, captured. Meanwhile Earth’s enemies, the Sirians, have taken over Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. Starr reasons that the pirates are operating in cahoots with them to conquer the solar system, and that the pirates are taking Hansen there. He heads off in hot pursuit, seeking not just to stop the pirates and their leader before they reach Ganymede, but thereby also prevent a devastating war between Earth and Sirius.

In many ways, it’s typical of the kind of SF written at the time. It’s simple fun, aimed at a juvenile and adolescent readership. Instead of using real profanity, the characters swear ‘By space’ and shout ‘Galloping Galaxies’ when surprised or shocked. It also seems typical of some SF of its time in that it’s anti-war. The same attitude is in the SF fiction written by Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the classic ‘Biggles’ books. Johns wrote a series of novels, such as Kings of Space, Now to the Stars, about a lad, Rex, and his friends, including a scientist mentor, who make contact with the civilisation behind the UFOs. These are a race of friendly, humanoid aliens from Mars and the asteroid belt, who befriend our heroes. Nevertheless, there is also an evil villain, who has to be defeated by the heroes. It’s a very long time since I read them, but one thing a I do remember very clearly is the anti-war message expressed by one the characters. The scientist and the other Earthmen are discussing war and the urge for conquest. The scientist mentions how Alexander the Great cried when he reached the borders of India, because there were no more countries left to conquer. The characters agree that such megalomaniac warriors are responsible for all the needless carnage in human history, and we’d be better off without them. This is the voice of a generation that lived through and fought two World Wars and had seen the horror of real conflict. They weren’t pacifists by any means, but they hated war. It’s been said that the people least likely to start a war are those who’ve actually fought in one. I don’t know if Asimov ever did, but he had the same attitude of many of those, who had. It’s in marked contrast with the aggressive militarism of Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the ‘chickenhawks’ in George W. Bush’s administration way back at the beginning of this century. Bush and his neocon advisers were very keen to start wars in the Middle East, despite having done everything they could to make sure they were well out of it. Bush famously dodged national service in Vietnam. As has the latest incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

But what I found interesting was the similarity of some the elements in the book with Star Trek. Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, was influenced by another SF book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the ‘Hornblower’ novels. The latter is shown very clearly in Kirk’s character. But I suspect he was also influenced by Asimov as well in details like the Vulcan Science Council, subspace radio and the energy shields protecting Star Trek’s space ships. The Science Council seems to be the chief organ of government on Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan. Which makes sense, as Vulcans are coldly logical and rational, specialising in science, maths and philosophy. But in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books, Earth’s Science Council is also a vital organ of government, exercising police powers across the Terrestrial Empire somewhat parallel to the admiralty.

Communications across space are through sub-etheric radio. This recalls the sub-etha radio in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and shows that Adams probably read Asimov as well. In Star Trek, space communications are through ‘sub-space radio’. The idea of FTL communications isn’t unique to Asimov. In Blish’s Cities in Flight novels, the spacefaring cities communicate through normal radio and the Dirac telephone. The ansible, another FTL communication device, appears in Ursula K. Le Guine’s 1970s novel, The Dispossessed. What is striking here is the similarity of terms: ‘sub-etheric’ and ‘sub-space’. These are similar names to describe a very similar concept.

Star Trek’s space ships were also protected by force fields, termed shields, from micrometeorites and the ray weapons and torpedoes of attacking aliens, like Klingons, Romulans, Orion pirates and other riff-raff. The spacecraft in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books are protected by histeresis shields. Histeresis is a scientific term to describe the lag in materials of the effects of an electromagnetic field, if I recall my ‘O’ level Physics correctly. Roddenberry seems to have taken over this concept and imported it into Trek, dropping the ‘histeresis’ bit. And from Trek it entered Star Wars and Science Fiction generally. The idea is absent in the recent SF series, The Expanse. This is set in the 23rd century, when humanity has expanded into space. The Solar System is divided into three political powers/ groups: the Earth, now a united planet under the government of the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the Belt, which is a UN protectorate. The Martians have gained their independence from Earth only after a war, while the Belt is seething with disaffection against UN/Martian control and exploitation. The political situation is thus teetering on the brink of system-wide war, breaking out into instances of active conflict. The ships don’t possess shields, so that bullets and projectiles launched by rail guns smash straight through them, and the crews have to dodge them and hope that when they are hit, it doesn’t strike anything vital. The Expanse is very much hard SF, and I suspect the absence of shields is not just the result of a desire to produce proper, scientifically plausible SF, but also a reaction to force fields, which have become something of an SF cliche.

But returning to Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ novels, it does seem to me that Roddenberry was influenced by them when creating Star Trek’s universe alongside other SF novels,  just as Adams may have been when he wrote Hitch-Hiker. Asimov’s best known for his ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ novels, which have also been highly influential. But it looks like these other books also exercised a much less obvious, though equally pervasive influence through Roddenberry’s Trek.

Documentary Tonight on the Works of SF Author Ursula Le Guin

November 17, 2019

The Beeb are tonight screening a programme ‘The Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin’ at 10.00 pm on BBC 4. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

The American feminist writer, who died in January 2018, was best known for her ground-breaking science fiction and fantasy novels such as A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Produced with Le Guin’s participation over the course of a decade, this documentary explores how she defiantly held her ground on the margin of “respectable” literature until the sheer excellence of her work forced the mainstream to embrace fantastic literature. Tyhe film features contributions from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell and Michael Chabon. (p. 65).

The additional piece a few pages earlier by Huw Fullerton on page 63 reads

It’s fair to say that Ursula K Le Guin was a one-off. While plenty of sci-fi and fantasy authors could be described as ahead of their time, there are few to whom this applies as aptly as Le Guin, who was writing piercing, feminist and race-sensitive works as far back as the 1960s and 70s with works such as The Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, elevating her storytelling beyond the literary fringe.

In this new film, luminaries including Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon pay tribute to Le Guin’s life and legacy, interweaving with unusual animation to bring her story to (appropriately) fantastical life. 

I read The Dispossessed back in the 1990s, and I can’t say I liked it. It’s about a scientist, Shevek, from a desolate world colonised by Anarchists to its twin planet of Aieio. Shevek has been working on a Faster Than Light communication device, an ansible, a concept found in other SF writers, like James Blish’s Dirac Telephone. Unable to complete it on his world, he defects to its capitalist twin, now undergoing massive worker unrest and an ecological crisis. He becomes a figurehead for the working class radicals, and helps to inspire a revolution. He gives a speech, which is praised by Earth’s woman ambassador. The planet has been left a desert thanks to capitalism’s destruction of the environment. Conditions are consequently very basic, but humanity has been taken to the stars by the Hainish after they discovered Earth. After the revolution’s success, he travels with a member of an alien race, the Hainish, an ancient race of space travelers who have established interstellar contact between themselves, Earth and Aieio and its twin, back to his home world.

Shevek’s anarchist world is a harsh environment with no animal life on its dry lands, although it certainly exists in its seas. The society is based on the ideas of Odo, a female political thinker of a century or so earlier. There is no private property, no prisons and marriage has been abolished. However, couples may live together as partners. Children are brought up in state nurseries away from their parents, who may visit them. The harsh environment and puritanical ideology means that individuality in dress is frowned on as wasteful and extravagant. Everyone basically wears the same costume, although some do make it more individual in the towns and settlements away from the Centre devoted to dyeing. There is no government, but material goods are administered by the Centre, which contains the computer complex used to administer the society.

I didn’t find Le Guin’s anarchist utopia appealing. It’s far too like the totalitarian Communist societies, and particularly Maoism in its uniforms, hostility to religion, marriage and the family. I am also not sure that feminists would like a world where the differences between men and women are so extremely minimised. While women obviously want to be free to enter masculine professions, like science, engineering, construction and so on, there’s still a desire to retain some forms of traditional femininity. This was demonstrated in a piece on the one show about three Air Cadets, who had been voted its top people, and had won a trip to America to see where the latest high performance jet fighters bought by the RAF, were being made. Two of them were young women, and the third a young Black man. It shows that the RAF are trying to recruit a more diverse membership. What I found particularly interesting was that one of these prospective fighter pilots, a woman, outside of the Cadets blogged about makeup. This seemed to me to be the RAF reassuring prospective female recruits that the could still be girly and feminine while piloting an awesome engine of death. I also remember reading an interview with the psychotherapist Suzie Orbach, the author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue in the Financial Times in the 1990s where she said she didn’t want women becoming exactly like men, or men becoming exactly like women.

Also, I found Shevek himself to be a bit of a prig. He was very sanctimonious, pronouncing on the superiority of his planet and its culture at every opportunity. Le Guin recognises that it would have problems, like hoarding, as well as the administrative elite using their authority to suppress music and literature of which they don’t approve, but looking at the problems the Communist societies experienced, it struck me that these problems would be much greater. It also struck me that there would also be a serious problem with crime and criminality, simply because of human – or in this case – humanoid nature – which could not be solved through social engineering alone.

But there is no doubt that she is one of the great SF authors with a very wide following, and I’m sure that this programme will be an excellent examination of her works.

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.