Posts Tagged ‘Yuri Gagarin’

Anton Petrov Shows Paintings of a Space Future that Never Came

October 19, 2019

And now for something a bit more cheerful. Anton Petrov is the Russian presenter of the YouTube show, ‘What Da Math’, about space and astronomy. The video below is the second part of his tribute to the Russian cosmonaut, Alexey Leonov, who passed away on October 11th, 2019. Leonov was the first man to make a spacewalk, but as his previous video also showed, he was also an artist. He worked with another artist, Andrei Sokolov, on the illustrations for a number of popular science books. Petrov’s earlier video showed some of them. This is a longer look at those paintings, which Petrov dedicates to those who dedicate their lives to inspiring humanity.

The paintings shown are truly beautiful. Yes, there are landscapes of the dull grey moons and the metal  of rockets and space stations against the black of space. But it’s also a universe of rich, deep colour – vibrant reds, yellows, blues and greens – the light of alien suns on the unearthly landscapes of distant worlds. They’re depictions of a future that never arrived, done when it seemed that Russia would win the space race and Communism would lead humanity to a more prosperous, technological future of international proletarian brotherhood. Progressive humanity would at last realise its destiny and conquer space, moving outward to space stations, the moon and then the rest of the Solar system and the stars beyond. It never happened. Communism collapsed, and the Soviets lost the space race. They had a record of spectacular firsts – first satellite, first man in space, first space walk, a series of successful probes to the planets and a solid record of prolonged life and research in orbit in the Salyut space stations. But they were beaten to the Moon by the Americans. The massive N1 rockets that would have taken them there kept blowing up until the programme was finally cancelled. Instead of sending a man, the Russians had to send instead an automated rover, the Lunakhod. In itself, this is no mean achievement, but it couldn’t match that of Armstrong, Aldrin and their successors. But these paintings look forward to that failed future.

However, it’s possible that something like the future they envisaged may yet come to be. Not created solely by the Russians, of course, but by all the other countries that are now entering space. Nations like India and China, as well as America, Britain and France, Germany and Switzerland with their designs for space shuttles. And if the Space Age really is going to arrive at last, it’s been a very long time coming. It’s fifty years since Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon, and some of us would humanity to return for good. The Space Race always was somewhat artificial in that it was driven by largely political reasons, as both the Soviets and Americans tried to show which of their systems was superior by outperforming the other. But if the head of the Russian space programme, Sergei Korolyov had not died, but had lived to guide the design and construction of the N1, I think the situation might have been very different today. The N1 might have become a success, and the Russians just might have sent their own people to the Moon. They may not have beaten the Americans, but they would have come a very close second. And if that had happened, I don’t doubt that we’d have had a permanent base on the Moon. Just to make sure that the Soviets didn’t have all the place to themselves.

According to Petrov, the paintings themselves were taken from old postcards which are very difficult to get hold of. This is a pity, as these are paintings that would, I am sure, find an audience among western as well as Russian space fans and enthusiasts. There is a market for books and albums of SF and Fantasy art. Waterstones even has on its SF, Fantasy and Horror shelves collections of 100 postcards of Science Fiction book covers. Some of the published histories of SF, like John Clute’s Science Fiction: An Illustrated History – use illustrations from the novels, pulps and other magazines. There is thus space available, if I may use that phrase, for a similar volume of Russian and eastern European space art. Tarkovsky’s great Science Fiction films, Solaris and Stalker, are considered to be two of the classics of SF cinema. Similarly the Czech SF film, Ikarus IE was shown a couple of years ago at a British cinema. So why not a showcase of Russian and eastern European space art?

Petrov in his tribute was pessimistic about public interest in science, quoting a Russian film director, Kushantsev, who believed that there was no demand for popular science. In his opinion, people had regressed to the level of animals, wanting only to eat and sleep. I think this is too pessimistic. I can’t comment on Russia, but there certainly is a great interest in space and astronomy in Britain and America, as shown by the numerous series Brian Cox has churned out for the Beeb. Since the fall of Communism, western countries have filmed at Star City, the Russian centre of their space programme covering astronauts training for their missions to the International Space Station. Wannabe space tourists were offered the opportunity to train there themselves a few years ago, for the modest fee of £7,000. Russia is the country not just of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, but also Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the deaf school teacher who investigated the problems of space travel and living in space in the 19th century. I therefore feel sure that there is an opening for a series on space fact, perhaps something like the British Sky At Night, on television presented from Russia, but perhaps with an international team.

In the meantime, however, we can admire these paintings. And I hope Anton Petrov, and other YouTube broadcasters on space and astronomy, like John Michael Godier and Isaac Arthur, will continue to educate and inspire new generations of humanity on their channels. 

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

June 7, 2018

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.

Three Soviet Anti-War Posters

October 21, 2017

I found these three posters in the art book, The Soviet Political Poster 1917-1987 and was struck by their continued relevance to events today. The book is a collection of Soviet political posters from the Bolshevik coup of 1917 to the time the book was published in the mid-1980s, taken from the Lenin library. In many ways it’s an art-historical chronicle of the great events that shaped the Soviet Union, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, collectivisation and industrialisation, the Nazi invasion, nuclear tensions of the Cold War, Gagarin’s epoch-making spaceflight and then on to the years of stagnation under Brezhnev.

Two of the posters below were part of a number produced to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which the Russians called the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Their message against war is simple and eternal, using the images of a woman and child in one, and a small child in the other, to get the message across.

The Russian behind the little girl reads simply ‘Don’t Need War’.

The slogan in this poster says ‘Not For Wars’.

This last poster is less anti-war, than anti-nuclear testing. Nevertheless, it was painted in 1958 during the Cold War, when the West and the Communist bloc faced each other amid an intense atmosphere of distrust and hostility, and it seemed that nuclear Armageddon could come at any moment. This is the background to the formation of groups in the West like CND. The Russian is a simple cry of ‘No!’

I realise that there’s an element of hypocrisy in these posters, as the Soviet Union was a military superpower, which used its armed forces to dominate its satellites in eastern Europe, and was intent on developing its own nuclear arsenal.

But I wanted to put these images up because of their powerful message now, when our political leaders seem to be intent on driving us towards another useless, dangerous Cold War with Russia, and Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the madman in charge of North Korea, have been threatening each other with their nuclear and conventional weapons over in the Pacific.

In the case of Kim Jong-In, he’s simply the latest scion of a family of brutal ‘Stalinist’ dictators, who hang on to power through terror and mass arrest. In the case of Trump and the western politicians, the new Cold War is another attempt to isolate and weaken Russia on the geopolitical stage, provide a reason for giving more massive government contracts to the arms manufacturers, and in the case of Killary and the corporatist Democrats, divert attention away from their own very corrupt dealings with Putin’s Russia abroad, and Wall Street and big business at home.

America’s wars in the Middle East are killing hundreds of thousands, and have displaced many millions more. They have reduced secular Arab nations to ruins, and created legions of Islamist militants and sectarian death squads, who kill, maim, butcher and enslave in their turn. And now Trump seems intent on forcing some kind of confrontation with Iran.

And so we still need to hear these posters’ vital message, whatever we think of Russia’s Communist past.

During the Cold War of the 1980s, Sting sang ‘Do the Russians love their children too?’ The answer from these posters is clearly ‘Yes’. Just as the Arabs and Iranians do.

No more imperialism.

No more war.