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Sunday, 7 February 2016

Planet of Vampires

Here are two more nostalgic comics from 1975. Unlike Arrgh! #3 and Marvel Preview #1 which I wrote about recently, these aren’t something I deliberately sought out on eBay – I found them (for just a pound each) at a collectors’ fair in Shepton Mallet last Sunday. And unlike those two comics (which, on a scale of 1 to 10, rated 1 and 3 respectively) Planet of Vampires #1 and 2 turned out to be really excellent – 8 out of 10 at least.

As you can see from the masthead, they were the product of the short-lived Atlas/Seaboard company I mentioned in The Department of Fortean Events last year. This was set up as a direct competitor to Marvel (see the whole fascinating story here), and had some good things going for it (to quote Wikipedia: “Atlas/Seaboard offered some of the highest rates in the industry, plus return of artwork to artists and author rights to original character creations”). Possibly 10 or 20 years later, with the proliferation of “direct market” comic speciality shops, Atlas might have taken off… but in the newsstand-dominated world of 1975 it collapsed after a few months.

My memory from the time is that Atlas/Seaboard comics were OK but not great. That’s certainly true of the Devilina magazine I mentioned in the earlier post, and of Rich Buckler’s Demon Hunter #1 which I bought at the same time. By coincidence, just as I was buying these comics last weekend, Kid Robson’s blog was in the middle of a complete cover gallery of Atlas/Seaboard titles (Part 1  – Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7). The consensus that emerged in the comment threads was that Atlas tried too hard to copy what Marvel was doing at the time, without being original enough.

In the case of Planet of Vampires, I can’t deny that’s the impression the cover gives. At the time the first issue came out (February 1975) Marvel had several vampire-themed titles (Tomb of Dracula, Vampire Tales, Morbius the Living Vampire) as well as a Planet of the Apes magazine. But apart from the title and the covers (which are misleading, as I’ll get to in a moment) Planet of Vampires really has nothing in common with any of these. In my opinion, it’s much closer to “grown up” science fiction than any of them. If I had to liken it to a Marvel series of that period it would be Skull the Slayer (which actually dates from later in 1975) – but only in the general sense that it’s about a group of ordinary, flawed humans caught up in a “world they never made”.

The story is set in 2010, 35 years in the future from 1975. Issue #1 opens with a spaceship crew returning to Earth after spending several years in orbit around Mars. While they were away World War Three broke out, and they haven’t heard anything from Earth since. They land in New York to find the survivors divided into two factions – super-rich capitalists who were able to take refuge in a vast dome, and ordinary people who live a ragged existence outside (and seem to be more interested in gang warfare than anything else). Initially there are five astronauts (not six as it says on the cover), but almost immediately the token “middle-aged scientist with a beard” is killed off, leaving just two male-female couples (one white, one black).

After the introductory scenes, the story turns into a pretty intelligent dystopian adventure, with the astronauts persuading the gang leaders to forget their differences and team up against the common enemy – the Domies. It’s important to stress that the latter aren’t “vampires” in any literal sense. They aren’t undead, they don’t have fangs and they don’t dress up in gothic clothes. It’s true they harvest blood on an industrial scale, but they do it in laboratories, not by biting necks. The war saw the widespread use of biological weapons, to which people outside the dome developed an immunity. As a result, their blood contains antibodies which the non-immune Domies need whenever they venture outside their closed environment. The blood of the Mars astronauts, who escaped exposure to the toxins, is considered even more valuable.

If they awarded a Pulitzer Prize for dumbing down, then the cover of issue #2 would win it. It depicts a cliché comic-book vampire doing a cliché comic-book vampire thing. This bears only the most tenuous relationship to the actual scene inside the comic, which goes like this:

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Conspiracies, Ethics and Whistleblowers

There was an article on the BBC website last week entitled Maths study shows conspiracies prone to unravelling. The idea is that conspiracies involving large groups of people can be modelled as a Poisson process (like radioactive decay), in which there is a small but finite probability that, in any given interval of time, one of the individuals involved will “blow the whistle”. Cumulatively, over several decades and with thousands of people involved, the likelihood of the conspiracy remaining secret will (according to the study’s author) shrink down to almost zero. In principle the same is true of any secret shared by a group of people – for example stage magician’s tricks, movie scripts (while they’re still in production), the design of the next iPhone, soft drink recipes, etc, etc… and you hardly ever get whistleblowers in those situations. The big difference with conspiracies is that the secret is profoundly unethical – which brings me on to the novel pictured above: Invaders from Earth, by Robert Silverberg.

I’ve always been a fan of Silverberg, who strikes me as one of the most knowledgeable and deep-thinking of science fiction writers. Most of the novels I’ve read by him date from the late 60s and early 70s, but Invaders from Earth was first published in 1958, when he was just 23. I decided to get hold of a copy after I came across a review of it a few weeks ago. The British reprint I found on eBay dates from 1979, but I don’t think it differs significantly from the original. It isn’t Silverberg’s best work, but it’s an impressively mature and intelligent novel for a 23-year-old. And it’s all about conspiracies, ethics and whistleblowers.

Taking place in 2044, the story’s main protagonist is named Ted Kennedy (no connection to the politician of that name, who would have been virtually unknown in 1958). Kennedy is a middle-ranking executive in one of New York’s top PR firms. He enjoys his job, which is essentially creative – manipulating the public’s thought processes in favour of whoever happens to be the agency’s current client. At the start of the novel, the agency acquires the most prestigious client of all – the Extraterrestrial Development and Exploration Corporation. Using private capital, the Corporation has gradually risen to “become virtually a supranational state, with lands of its own, police of its own, a spacefleet of its own”. Having found Venus and Mars to be uninhabitable, the Corporation moved on to Ganymede – the largest of Jupiter’s moons – which is much more suitable for exploitation. Unfortunately, Ganymede is already occupied by wise, friendly, peace-loving natives with an ancient culture of poetry and philosophy (but not science or technology). The situation comes across (although Silverberg never says this explicitly) as an interplanetary analogue of the European conquistadors versus the Maya in the 16th century.

The only way the Corporation can get its greedy hands on Ganymede is to wipe out the natives, but it doesn’t have the military resources to do that on its own. It’s going to need the backing of a United Nations resolution – and how can it get that if the public knows the true nature of the Ganymedeans? That’s where the PR firm comes in. In a moment of inspiration, Kennedy himself hits on the line to take. They will create a completely fictitious human colony on Ganymede, complete with women and children (actually there are just a handful of middle-aged male scientists there). Over a period of five months, through a series of press releases and human interest stories, the public’s affection for the colony will gradually be built up. Then in a sudden shock move the natives will “massacre” every non-existent man, woman and child… and the stage will be set for a UN resolution.

Initially Kennedy – the archetypal company man – sees his idea as nothing but a superlative creative achievement. Improbably (but necessary to the progress of the story) his wife is his political opposite – a free-thinking liberal. Equally improbably, he tells her the whole plan, and is shocked when she tells him it’s unethical. To him, “ethics” is just a strange kind of personality disorder.

At this point in the real world, the wife would blow the whistle to the media herself, and Silverberg would be left without a story to write. Instead she simply walks out, leaving him to gradually work his way round to seeing the Ganymedeans as the good guys and the Corporation as the bad guys. By this time (about two-thirds of the way through the novel) Kennedy is on the run, and it finally comes down to the question the reader has been waiting for – will he live long enough to blow the whistle and destroy the Corporation, before the Corporation succeeds in destroying Ganymede? Not surprisingly, the last third of the book is the best bit!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Arrgh! Bigfoot

Here is another comic I tracked down on eBay after seeing a cover image on Tumblr. Like Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars this one dates from 1975, when I was buying a lot of Marvel comics. However, it’s another case of “faux nostalgia”, since it isn’t one I owned at the time (in fact I don’t recall seeing any issues of Arrgh! before).

As it turns out, the cover (by Alfredo Alcala) is by far the best thing about the comic – not just for the layout, but for the promise of an intriguing “Bigfoot-hunting” scenario. Unfortunately the cover bears very little relation to the interior story – “Beauty and the Bigfoot”, written by Don Glut and drawn by Mike Sekowsky (as you can see from the sample below, the setting and characters – and artistic style – are completely different).

The story (just 7 pages long) is a slight one, about a Bigfoot falling in love with a human female. The latter, despite already being married, quite enjoys the situation. While the set-up has distinct possibilities, the Comics Code stamp on the cover means that Bigfoot has to keep his trousers on (probably the only time you’ll ever see Bigfoot wearing trousers, in fact). The only positive thing I can say about “Beauty and the Bigfoot” is that it’s better than the other two stories in the comic (“Rat Reborn” and “The Mummy Walks” – the latter being a recycled political satire from the 1950s that wouldn’t have made much sense in 1975, let alone now).

I still think it’s a great cover, though.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Five Years

I started this blog five years ago this week, in January 2011. In that first year I averaged just over two posts per week, then from the second year onwards I’ve managed one post per week. When I started, the blog was (with one exception) the only non-fiction, non-technical writing I’d ever done. Since 2012, however, I’ve written four non-fiction books and co-written a fifth, as well as 12 short ebooks and about a hundred non-fiction articles for magazines, other websites etc. In its first year this blog got around 40,000 page-views, then about 60,000 in the second year and 90,000 in each of the third and fourth years, dropping to around 80,000 in the fifth year.

That suggests the blog has passed its peak, but the graph above paints an even more depressing picture. It shows the total all-time views per post, with the posts arranged in chronological order. Clearly the posts that are getting most of the views all came from the first 18 months! Of course there’s going to be a bias towards older posts, because they’ve been around longer, but the effect is a lot more dramatic than that. I suspect there is also a positive feedback loop involved – the more people click on a particular Google search result, the higher it appears in subsequent search listings, hence getting even more clicks.

Another trend, which I’ve suspected for some time but only just confirmed, is that there is a strong anti-correlation between the posts that I personally like best and the ones that get most clicks. In broad terms, the post topics can be divided into the following six categories:

  • “Retro-Forteana” – i.e. nostalgic posts about Fortean-related books and comics from the second half of the 20th century.
  • “Original Content” – generally plugs for my own books and other writings, plus creative efforts such as stories, drawings, videos and puzzles.
  • “Places Visited” – posts based on places I’ve visited recently, or things I’ve seen in museums (this category also includes a number of posts I did on behalf of Paul Jackson, before he started his Random Encounters blog in June 2012)
  • “Science” – offbeat aspects of real science (not pseudoscience)
  • “Historical” – oddities from the first half of the 20th century or earlier (unless they fall in the “Places Visited” category)
  • “Contemporary” – i.e. Fortean subjects of current popularity, such as Roswell, Bigfoot and Conspiracy Theories (and not much else).

As you can see from the first graph below, the posts which reflect a personal perspective (the first two categories, and to a lesser degree the third and fourth) are systematically less popular than the ones “anyone could write”. The second graph shows that, over time, I’ve tended to do progressively more of the posts I enjoy writing and fewer of the ones people seem to want to read.

In a way, this is symptomatic of something I noticed a couple of years ago. When I started writing, I carefully read various pieces of advice for new writers. One sentiment that cropped up again and again ran along the lines of “be original”, “say something new” or “find your own voice”. That sounds sensible enough – and it’s pleasantly reassuring, because it’s what most “amateur” writers instinctively want to do – but the truth is that it’s the worst possible advice. What most readers, publishers and booksellers are looking for is familiarity, not originality. If you want to be a professional writer with a large and stable audience, that’s the advice you need to follow. As for amateur writers, who are determined to be original and “speak in their own voice”, there’s only one piece of advice worth listening to: Don’t give up the day job.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

From Newton to Einstein

Devotees of Isaac Newton and/or Albert Einstein have got several new books to look forward to this year. June 2016 sees the U.S. version of Isaac Newton: Pocket Giants (the British edition of which was published last year). The companion volume on Einstein (pictured above, alongside Newton) is scheduled for March in the UK and August in America. In a different series, 30-Second Newton is due out in February, with 30-Second Einstein following a few months later (no exact date yet). Both these books are edited by Brian Clegg, with contributions from several authors including myself.

Einstein and Newton are two of the most famous scientists who ever lived. They were both theoretical physicists, who came up with new models of the physical world using mathematical equations. So did many other people, but Newton and Einstein are pretty much the only ones that non-scientists have heard of. There was a TV documentary last month about James Clerk Maxwell, which started from the premise that hardly anyone has heard of him (including people interviewed in the shadow of his statue in Edinburgh). Yet Maxwell formulated the fundamental equations of electricity and magnetism, just as Newton had done for gravity, and Einstein (an admirer of both Newton and Maxwell) was to do for space and time. Maxwell’s obscurity simply emphasizes the obvious – that most people don’t give a toss about the fundamental equations of anything.

So it’s even more extraordinary that Newton and Einstein are such household names. Einstein in particular is often used as a shorthand symbol for scientific genius. Before the 20th century, Newton fulfilled a similar role. There’s a good example of this at Montacute House, a few miles from where I live. Back in 1770 the then-owner of the mansion used a diamond stylus to scratch a Latin inscription, of his own composition, onto the library window (that may seem a pathologically bizarre thing to do, but apparently it was the fashion among the upper classes in those days). Translated into English, the inscription begins: “Happy is the man who has a sharp mind and a spiritual passion to reveal the innermost secrets of Nature, who can grasp the causes and relationships of things, who can walk in the footsteps of Newton.”

Both Newton and Einstein did other things besides science. Newton put at least as much effort into alchemical research and Biblical analysis as he did into physics, and most of his time after the age of 50 was devoted to administrative work at the Royal Mint. Einstein is almost as well known for his pronouncements on politics, pacifism and philosophy as for his scientific work. Personally I find these extracurricular activities just as fascinating as the mainstream ones. My contributions to 30-Second Newton include entries on Newton’s Theology, Biblical Science and the Royal Mint as well as subjects like Tides, Comets and the Reflecting Telescope. For 30-Second Einstein, I contributed items on Einstein’s pacifism and his letter to President Roosevelt about the atom bomb, as well as observational tests of relativity and similar topics.

I should stress that these “30-Second” books are really excellent, despite the rather glib title and unspectacular packaging (the cover of the Newton book is shown below). I’ve worked on four of them now, all edited by Brian Clegg. Besides the Newton and Einstein titles, there was 30-Second Quantum Theory, which appeared last summer, and 30-Second Physics due out next month. The contents in all cases is absolutely first rate, with none of the dumbing down you might expect from the “30-Second” title. And the copious internal illustrations are much more striking and informative than the cover. You can see some sample pages from 30-Second Physics here and from 30-Second Newton here (first click on the small grey squares to get the appropriate thumbnail, then click the thumbnail for an image large enough to read). The last of the Newton samples is my piece about Comets.

Several of the books mentioned above are available for pre-order from Amazon.com and/or Amazon UK. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the options:

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Writer’s Secret

In the comment thread after my Who Remembers Guru? post last summer, I mentioned that I wanted to try my hand at creating a similar “comic strip collage” using public domain images. A few weeks later I did a sort of trial run with the cover image for Jill Trent and the Flying Saucer Mystery, but with plenty of idle time over the Christmas break I thought I’d try something a little more ambitious.

I had a look round for a suitable idea, and came across this unpublished poem I wrote several years ago:
A world-renowned writer named Blott
Said of genres, “I’ve written the lot:
From horror and mystery
To fantastical history
And all of them have the same plot!”
Turning this into a Guru-style cartoon wasn’t as easy as I thought. There are thousands of free images on the web, but finding ones that fit (both thematically and stylistically) was harder than I’d expected. Also, the last line caused problems because it doesn’t have a natural visual interpretation. A fairly obvious idea did spring to mind, but I couldn’t use it on account of the “no porn” clause in Blogger’s terms and conditions. So I decided to go with a more abstract notion instead.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Alchemy Crossword Puzzle

Here is this year’s Christmas crossword. I tried to stick as far as possible to the theme of Alchemy for this one, although a few of the questions stray off topic. As in previous years (2013 and 2014) you will either have to print out the grid or treat it as a quiz and do it in your head. Some of the answers are quite obscure, but you should be able to find all of them on Google. I will post the answers as a comment to this post on 1 Jan 2016, so if you’re doing it after that try not to scroll down too far!


ACROSS

1. The art or science of changing one chemical element into another [13]
8. Oxford museum founded by a 17th century alchemist [9]
10. Place in Egypt where alchemists obtained galena [5]
11. ---- Pound wrote “The Alchemist: Chant for the transmutation of metals” [4]
12. “Thus is the Devil ever God’s ---” (Martin Luther) [3]
13. “The Ripley ------”, an important 15th century work of symbolic alchemy [6]
15. School of alchemy founded by Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim [11]
18. “-- above…” [2]
21. “-- below” [2]
22. Place in Somerset where John Dee reputedly found the Philosopher’s Stone [11]
26. An alchemical process of whitening [6]
28. Energy in Chinese Alchemy (Wade-Giles spelling) [3]
29. “--- Alchemica” by W.B. Yeats [4]
32. French for tin [5]
33. Contemporary of Shakespeare whose works include “The Alchemist” [3, 6]
34. The Tabula Smaragdina of Hermetic alchemy [7, 6]

DOWN

1. Greek philosopher who held that the first principle of all things is water [6]
2. Chemical reaction not requiring heat [8]
3. Michael ----, mediaeval alchemist who was reputed to have occult powers [4]
4. Mary ---- Atwood, Victorian author of “A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery” [4]
5 & 6. Seventeenth century natural philosopher who wrote extensively on the subject of alchemy [5, 6]
7. Powerful beings who are embodiments of natural forces, according to DC Comics [7]
9. The third card of the Major Arcana in Tarot [7]
13. Research establishment that pioneered Remote Viewing [3]
14. ---- Gustav Jung, author of “Psychology and Alchemy” [4]
16. “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen Buddhism [7]
17. Nix ----, alchemical name for zinc oxide [4]
19. Analysed a metallic substance [7]
20. The protagonist of “Three Hours after Marriage”, an expert on alchemy among other subjects [2, 6]
23. Co-author of “Alchemical Equipment in the Eleventh Century” [3]
24. In alchemy, to separate a component by removing the upper part [6]
25. “The ------ is an iron stone, and so attracts iron to itself” (Paracelsus) [6]
27. Alchemists are punished in the Eight Circle of Hell, according to this Italian writer [5]
30. In Kabbalah, the Sacred Marriage is represented by the union of ---- (father) and Imma (mother) [4]
31. Arnold de Villa ----, 13th century translator to whom many alchemical texts are ascribed [4]

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars

Earlier this year I came across a cover scan of Marvel Preview #1, which was clearly inspired by the “ancient aliens” concept. It came to mind again when I wrote my recent post about Space-Gods and Venusians, so I sought out a low-priced copy on eBay and bought it (or rather “won it”, in an auction in which I was the only bidder). The magazine dates from 1975 – a period when I was buying a lot of Marvel colour comics, but not many of these black and white magazines. So buying it now is a kind of “faux nostalgia” for something I might have read 40 years ago but didn’t.

Text items in comic magazines are often highly skippable, but in this case they’re arguably the best bit. The longest of them is a ten-page article by Ed Summer which is surprisingly well-informed and well-balanced. He makes it clear that “In Europe, von Daniken’s book was one of many others on the same topic”, and devotes half a page to the work of Charles Fort. He points out that von Daniken often has a cavalier attitude to facts (such as the weight of pyramid blocks) and to established scholarship (such as Thor Heyerdahl’s work on the Easter Island statues). He also raises an interesting question: What would future archaeologists think if they unearthed a buried hoard of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comics? Would they imagine they portrayed real events, or “determine that it is a symbolic code for some mystic achievement that mankind as a whole must strive for?”

As well as that main article, there are a couple of biographical pages about Erich von Daniken and – perhaps best of all – a four-page bibliography of “The Books of the Gods” … by von Daniken, Charles Fort, Robert Charroux, W. Raymond Drake, Andrew Tomas, Brinsley LePoer Trench and many others.

Coming back to the cover, which is what led me to buy the magazine in the first place – “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars” is the main, 37-page comic feature. That striking cover image is by Neal Adams, but the interior art is by Alex Nino, whose style is a little too impressionistic for my taste. The script, by Doug Moench, is also something of a struggle due to his excessive fondness for Big Words (“The cybernetic deciphering of their language into terms perceivable by us does not dictate reciprocating translation of our speech to them”).

I found the story disappointing for another reason too. For me, one of the big attractions of the Ancient Alien hypothesis (regardless of its validity) is the prevalence of exotic settings, such as the Egypt of the Pharaohs, the middle-east of Biblical times, or the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. But “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars” misses out on all that by going for a much earlier time period, in which humans dressed in animal skins co-exist with woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth cats. The result isn’t a bad story, but it’s not an especially memorable one either.

Having said that, the story does contain a couple of thought-provoking ideas. First, there’s a conflict between one of the aliens, who enjoys being treated like a god, and the rest of the crew who want to adhere to a Star Trek style “prime directive” of non-interference. That raises the interesting prospect that if our ancestors did interact with alien visitors, then maybe the ones they interacted with weren’t at the top of the ethical scale!

The story’s other provocative idea doesn’t hold water scientifically, but it’s a clever piece of post-Vietnam political satire. It turns out that von Daniken was right when he suggested that homo sapiens resulted from alien genetic engineering – but it took place on a distant planet, for the purpose of creating an army of semi-mindless soldiers to serve as cannon fodder in an interplanetary war. When the war was over, the leftover soldiers were no longer needed so they were quietly dumped on Earth.

The magazine contains a second story, just ten pages long (possibly a last-minute filler, because it doesn’t appear on the contents page). It’s called “Good Lord!”, and it’s written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Dave Cockrum. Personally I found both the script and the artwork a lot more enjoyable than the main feature. This one is set in the future, following a group of space travellers as they search alien planets for “God” … with disastrous consequences. The story is outrageously over the top, and about as dark as dark humour gets.

I can’t really talk about comic books and Ancient Aliens without at least a brief mention of Jack Kirby’s The Eternals. The series premiered in 1976, a year after “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars”. By that time, at the urbane and sophisticated age of 18, I’m afraid that Kirby’s style (both artwork and dialogue) struck me as embarrassingly old-fashioned and childish, so I never read The Eternals at the time. However, in another example of “faux-nostalgia” I bought second-hand copies of the first few issues in the 1990s. Here are the covers of the first, featuring “The Tomb of the Space Gods!” and the second, “More Fantastic than Chariots of the Gods!”

Sunday, 13 December 2015

From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Brian Clegg is a popular science writer who also runs the Popular Science book review site. When it comes to his own books he has to find someone else to review them, and I was lucky enough to be asked to do this in the case of his latest title, Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future. Brian sent me an advance copy to read some time ago, but the book has now been published and my review of it has duly appeared on his website.

I started reading science fiction in the 1970s, and many of the stories I read at that time were set in the period 1980 to 2015 – in other words, the future then but the past (or present) now. I still find such stories fascinating, because I have a clear memory of the time when they were written AND of the (usually less dramatically different) “future” as it actually unfolded. This is a subject I touched on in my recent Back to the Future post, and it came to mind again when reading Brian’s book.

One thing that can’t be said too often (Brian says it in his book and I say it in my review) is that SF writers almost never set out to “predict the future”. Writers make money by selling as many books as they can, and the way to do that is to write stories that readers are going to find exciting at the time the book comes out. “Exciting” technology in the 1960s and 70s meant things like space rockets, supersonic airliners and (in a scary way) nuclear bombs… so that’s what people wrote about, rather than “boring” technologies like computers (which were mainly used by accountants and mathematicians) and telephones (which had barely changed since the early 20th century). Today our lives are dominated by phones and computers, while people can go for months without ever thinking about nuclear war or space travel. But how many readers would have found this “future” credible or interesting 40 years ago?

Another thing that’s changed in the last 40 years is that SF used to be almost exclusively a geek subculture, with the emphasis on written works rather than movies or other media. Today the geeks are still there, but (thanks to a constant stream of blockbuster movies) the awareness of SF tropes among the general population is much higher than it was. By and large Brian’s book is aimed at this latter audience – quite rightly, since SF geeks are also likely to be science geeks, and hence know a lot of this stuff already.

Having said that, the book does get off to a rather geeky start, with a chapter about computer games and The Matrix, followed by one focusing on a comparatively obscure novel from the 1950s, The Space Merchants. After that, however, the book takes off on a whirlwind tour of themes that should be familiar to the most casual SF consumers – force fields, robots, clones, exoskeletons, ray guns, aliens, the end of the world, cheap energy, teleportation, trips to the moon, faster-than-light communications, cyborgs, cloaking devices and artificial intelligence.

In chapter after chapter, the same message comes across: Modern science can do that, but it can’t do it as impressively or effectively as it’s portrayed in science fiction. To take one example, “teleportation” – in the form of quantum teleportation – is possible under laboratory conditions, but it only works on a subatomic scale. That’s a far cry from science fictional teleportation (e.g. a Star Trek transporter), which is supposed to work on ten thousand trillion trillion atoms all at once. I discussed this in more detail last year in an article entitled Three Types of Teleportation (which points out that the word “teleportation” was coined by Charles Fort – a fact also mentioned by Brian in his book).

Generally when I’m name-dropping “famous people I used to work with” there are just two names on the list – Seth Shostak (I overlapped with him in the same department at Groningen University in 1982-83) and Nick Pope (I worked in the same office building in Whitehall between 1996 and 1998). But Ten Billion Tomorrows drew my attention to another minor celebrity I could add to the list – Kevin Warwick, who features in the chapter about cyborgs (“Since the late 1990s, Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University in England has been experimenting with a range of implants under his skin that have been described as specific attempts to turn himself into a cyborg”). I crossed paths with Kevin back in 1991-3, when he was consultant to a project on neural networks that I was working on (I had a paper on the subject published in the Aeronautical Journal – I just had a look for it online, but all I could find was this entry on a French bibliographic site).

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Few Fortean Novels by Ian Watson

UFOs and the Men in Black – Temporal anomalies and the Tunguska event – Tantric Sex and the Tibetan Book of the Dead – Alchemy and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – Space Gods and a Martian Inca… The novels that Ian Watson wrote in the 1970s and 80s certainly aren’t short of Fortean ideas. I don’t always remember to make a distinction on this blog between fictional works that are “good” (i.e. enjoyable to read) and ones that are “interesting” (i.e. thought-provoking). So I’ll say right away that Ian Watson is very much a master of the second category, without always finding his way into the first. I’ve read six of his novels in three short bursts – three in 1997, two in 2004 and one just last week. Some are definitely better than others, but here’s a quick rundown in the chronological order that I read them:

Miracle Visitors (1978) is one of the books on my Charles Fort in Fiction list. I bought my copy in 1997, from Watkins esoteric bookshop in London. They’d shelved it among the non-fiction UFO books, which is quite appropriate really. Although the story has “characters” and a “plot”, they’re primarily vehicles for the author to get his ideas across. I’m not averse to novels of this type, as long as the ideas are good ones – which they are in this case. There are countless science fiction stories about UFOs, but almost all of them are based on some variant of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). What’s unusual about Miracle Visitors is that Watson opts for a Psycho-Social Hypothesis (PSH), in which the whole UFO Phenomenon (with a capital P) is a manifestation of a higher state of consciousness. Still more unusual, he actually manages to make the PSH sound interesting – he even works the Men in Black into the Phenomenon as well as the different kinds of Close Encounter.

I was sufficiently impressed with Miracle Visitors that I went out and bought two more Watson novels. The first of these was Chekhov’s Journey (1983). This has nothing to do with Star Trek – the title character is the playwright Anton Chekhov, who really did go on a long and somewhat mysterious journey in 1890. The novel is set a century later in 1990, when a documentary film is being made about Chekhov’s journey. Since so few facts are known about it, they use a form of “past-life regression” hypnosis to fill in some of the details. This brings all sorts of wacky weirdness to light, including a connection to the Tunguska explosion (which occurred in 1908) and a spacecraft from the future which is hurtling backwards in time. Of all the Watson novels I’ve read, this is probably my favourite – certainly in terms of being exciting and enjoyable to read.

The other Watson novel I read in 1997 was Alien Embassy (1977). This is set in a strange future society based on Tibetan Buddhism, in which the space program ostensibly uses Tantric sex rituals as a mystical means of travelling to the stars. Now I may be wrong, but this strikes me as the single most brilliant idea for a science fiction novel that anyone has ever come up with. Unfortunately the execution doesn’t live up to the concept, and Watson heads off on a deeply undesirable tangent. Ignoring all the potentialities of sex, mysticism and space travel, the novel is almost exclusively about (wait for it) … politics. Aaarghh! It’s not surprising that it was another seven years before I picked up another Watson novel.

When I did, it was another really good one. The Gardens of Delight (1980) is based on the intriguing concept of a planet modelled on The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. This extraordinary triptych can be seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid, which I’ve visited a couple of times (that’s my souvenir postcard at the bottom of this post). It’s arguably the strangest, most baffling artwork of the Renaissance period, and there are innumerable theories and speculations as to its meaning. According to one school of thought, it depicts an allegory of the alchemical process… and that’s the interpretation Watson opts for here. The result is a really fascinating and original novel, which ought to be read by anyone who’s a fan of Bosch’s painting.

The other Watson book I read in 2004 was God’s World (1979). I have to be honest and say I don’t have a clear recollection of this one. The back cover blurb sounds promising enough: “Earth has been alerted by messengers of God and summoned to the planet of angels, 82 Eridani. Powered by a mysterious space drive found in the Gobi desert, a crusading space ship is launched through High Space to explore this heavenly world.” Beyond that, all I can remember is a bunch of rather dull people on a spaceship talking to each other. As with Alien Embassy, I suspect that if the reader took the blurb and wrote their own novel around it, they’d have a lot more fun.

Much the same is true of the novel I’ve just read – The Martian Inca (1977). I bought this one several years ago, but it kept slipping down the pile before I got round to reading it. As with all Watson’s novels, the basic premise is fascinating. An unmanned sample-return mission is sent to Mars, and on its return it crash-lands in a remote part of Bolivia. The soil sample contains a psychoactive substance which causes one of the villagers to have a revelatory vision (or a pseudo-revelatory one – it isn’t clear which), after which he claims to be a reincarnated Inca with special powers (again, it’s ambiguous as to whether these powers are real or self-delusion) – and promptly sets off to lead a populist revolution. At the same time, a crewed mission lands on Mars and is exposed to the same substance, with equally strange results. I imagine that’s pretty much how Watson pitched the novel to his publishers, in which case it’s not surprising that they jumped at it. Unfortunately, however, the end-product doesn’t live up to the pitch. In particular, the details of the flight to Mars and the Bolivian revolution are too sketchy for the reader to engage with, or believe in, to any great extent.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, though. There is so much trite, unchallenging, formulaic science fiction around that novels like these are a much-needed antidote to all that.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Space-Gods and Venusians

Glastonbury is one of the few towns in this part of the world that still has a healthy number of second-hand bookstores. Even better, all these shops have sizeable sections devoted to Fortean subjects. On a visit there last week I bought ten books from three different shops, including these two classic “skeptical” works from the 1970s: The Space-Gods Revealed (1976) by Ronald Story and Can You Speak Venusian? (second edition, 1977) by Patrick Moore.

As I’ve probably said before, the striking thing about Fortean books of this vintage is how much less aggressive and bad-tempered they are compared with the situation today. Believers were content to get their ideas across in a calm voice, without gratuitous ad-hominem attacks on their opponents. And the same was true of skeptical authors, as these two books show.

On the face of it, Can You Speak Venusian? isn’t a skeptical book at all. Its subtitle is “A Guide to Independent Thinkers”, and the views of these Independent Thinkers (on subjects ranging from the Flat Earth, the Hollow Earth and Atlantis to Creationism, Flying Saucers and Astrology) are presented in an objective way with hardly any explicit criticism. Instead, the author relies on the old adage “If you give someone enough rope they’ll hang themselves”. The identity of the author is a clue, too. Until his death three years ago, Patrick Moore was the presenter of the longest-running science series on British TV, The Sky at Night.

Patrick Moore was famous for being an eccentric as well as a scientist. As a result, he seems to have had considerable respect for other eccentrics, even if their views were the opposite of his own. As he puts it: “The Independent Thinker is a genuine, well-meaning person, who is not hidebound by convention, and who is always ready to strike out on a line of his own – frequently, though not always, in the face of all the evidence.”

The book’s title is a reference to the last of the Independent Thinkers described in it, one Mr Bernard Byron of Romford. He claimed to be fluent, by means of interplanetary telepathy, in not just Venusian but also Plutonian and Krugerian (the language spoken on one of the planets of Kruger 60, a red dwarf binary star). The book includes an example of written Venusian (part of Mr Byron’s translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), while a sample of the spoken language can be heard in this YouTube clip.

Mixed in with Moore’s deadpan account of crackpot theories, there’s a hint of active mischief-making. In 1957 a UFO magazine called Cosmic Voice printed a series of pseudo-academic articles which included such dubious-sounding names as R. T. Fischall (artificial), E. Ratic (erratic), Hotère (hot air) and Huizenaas (who’s an ass?). Initially the editor – George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society – was happy to print these, but he later “came to the conclusion that some of his contributors were not quite so serious or so scientific as he had been led to expect”. King’s prime suspect was Moore himself – who of course denied the whole thing (the book also refers to the Adamski-style contactee Cedric Allingham, who is widely believed to have been another of Patrick Moore’s mischievous alter egos).

Can You Speak Venusian? contains only a couple of relatively brief references to Erich von Däniken, but he’s the central target of Ronald Story’s The Space-Gods Revealed, which also dates from the mid-seventies. I’ve written about the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis several times before (see for example this article and this blog post). I don’t think it’s the “stupid idea” many people believe it to be – on the contrary, it would be stupid NOT to consider extraterrestrial visitation as a potential explanation for certain ancient legends, images or artifacts. Where the ancient alien enthusiasts go astray (and lose the sympathy of most ordinary people) is in always preferring an extraterrestrial explanation to a terrestrial one.

But on top of that, there’s another annoyance about von Däniken in particular – the way he gets all the credit for ideas (sometimes quite clever ideas) that were expressed much more carefully and precisely long before he wrote Chariots of the Gods (see numerous books by Desmond Leslie, Morris K. Jessup, Pauwels and Bergier, Robert Charroux, Brinsley LePoer Trench and W. R. Drake, to name just a few). So I was pleased to see that The Space-Gods Revealed isn’t so much a debunking of ancient aliens per se, as an exposé of von Däniken’s slapdash style. Here are a couple of good examples:

  • In support of his ancient astronaut hypothesis, von Däniken makes an astonishing claim: that “ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilization,” and that it is “without recognizable prehistory!” Is he serious? If he had looked at almost any one of the approximately twenty thousand volumes of books and periodicals that have been written on the subject, he would have realized the absurdity of such a statement.

  • The “evidence” claimed by von Däniken to represent the science and technology of the ancient gods falls far short of what might be expected from an advanced race of beings capable of interstellar space travel […] Von Däniken refers to the Baghdad batteries as if they were indeed the products of an advanced alien technology […] If they are really batteries, then they would be the most primitive form of simple cell possible.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tarzan versus Doc Savage

In my post about Jane Gallion last month, I mentioned in passing that the “pornographic” Essex House imprint published several novels by Philip José Farmer in the late sixties. By coincidence, on my visit to London a week later I saw one of these – A Feast Unknown – on sale in a second-hand shop. It was only a couple of pounds, and according to the blurb it featured a character based on my favourite pulp hero, Doc Savage, so I snapped it up. This particular copy is a mass market paperback from 1975, with no content advisory or age restriction, so I guess it’s heavily expurgated compared to the original Essex House version. Nevertheless it’s a really good novel – and quite a Fortean one too, with an unusual variation on the “Secret Rulers of the World” theme.

The book is set in the swinging sixties, when it was written. The first-person narrator is Lord Grandrith – an English aristocrat dividing his time between estates in Africa and the Lake District. He’s supposed to have been the “real-life” person on whom Edgar Rice Burroughs based the fictional character of Tarzan, who flourished circa 1912 – 1940. The name that Burroughs used was Lord Greystoke, but in A Feast Unknown Lord Greystoke is merely a near-neighbour of Grandrith’s estate in Cumbria (there is an amusing scene in which Grandrith accidentally demolishes a huge statue of Tarzan, which the locals have erected as a tourist attraction in the village of Greystoke, by crashing an Aston Martin DB4 into it). Although Grandrith is almost 80, he looks 50 years younger – and is likely to stay that way for thousands of years to come – thanks to a Faustian deal he made with a shadowy group of near-immortals called “The Nine”.

The deal involves being given regular shots of an “Elixir of Life”, in return for carrying out various tasks on behalf of the Nine when ordered to do so. At any given moment the Nine have hundreds, if not thousands, of such servants working for them – others include Grandrith’s wife Clio (presumably the inspiration behind the “Jane” of fiction). The Nine are master manipulators – not just of world history but of their servants too. At the start of the novel, Grandrith is deliberately put on a collision course with another servant of the Nine – one Doctor Caliban, the “real-life” inspiration behind Doc Savage (“A writer of pulps had somehow learned something of his strange rearing and training, his extraordinary, perhaps unique, qualities and abilities… The writer had used Caliban as the basis for a character, under another name, of course, in a series of wild science-fictional adventures, most of which were the result of his imagination.)

The oldest members of the Nine are supposed to be at least 30,000 years old, and to have given rise to various legends of pagan gods and goddesses. This may sound like a hackneyed idea, but Farmer’s version struck me as distinctly different – and very clever – in one important way. Normally these manipulative, all-powerful, long-established Illuminati-type groups are assumed to be either (a) extraterrestrials, (b) terrestrial but non-human (e.g. shape-shifting reptilians) or (c) survivors of some ancient but highly advanced civilization from Atlantis or Lemuria. All these theories take a far-fetched idea and convolve it with something even more far-fetched. Farmer’s brilliant twist is to start with that one far-fetched idea (a 30,000-year-old secret society) and combine it with the mainstream academic picture of what Homo Sapiens was like 30,000 years ago.

To palaeontologists and anthropologists, that was still the Palaeolithic era, or Old Stone Age. In spite of anything misty-eyed New Agers might want to believe, human society in those days was intensely hierarchical, patriarchal, ignorant, superstitious and brutal. In other words, pretty much the way Illuminati-believers imagine “They” would like it to be today. So put that way, Farmer’s set-up makes a lot of sense. The most shocking scene in the book (one of the most repulsive scenes I’ve ever encountered in a mass-market paperback novel) involves ritual genital mutilation and cannibalism. Yet if there were secret rites dating back to Palaeolithic times, that’s probably the kind of thing they’d be.

The narrative adheres to the time-honoured “crossover” formula, whereby the two heroes spend most of the novel fighting each other, before finally realizing they ought to team up against their common enemy (who set them up in the first place). Because it’s told from Grandrith’s point of view, that means that for most of the story the “Doc Savage” character is presented as a bad guy. His very name, Caliban, is taken from the monstrous villain in Shakespeare’s Tempest (for a comic-book version of which, see my post from two weeks ago). Nevertheless, Farmer does eventually explain how such a villainous name got attached to someone who is essentially a “Super Boy Scout”.

The shop where I bought A Feast Unknown was 30th Century Comics in Putney. My next stop was The Book and Comic Exchange in Notting Hill, where I bought a reduced-price replica edition of the first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze (pictured below). Although I’ve read more than a dozen Doc Savage books, I’d never got round to reading this one – until now! The plot revolves around a hidden city in Central America, where the inhabitants speak the all-but-dead language of the ancient Maya. Thanks to Doc’s enormous erudition, though, he’s able to converse with them in that language. Impressive as that may be, in A Feast Unknown Lord Grandrith (who has a PhD in linguistics from the university of Berlin) goes a step further – he can understand “Ursprache, the parent language of the Indo-Europeans”, as spoken by the 30,000-year old members of the Nine!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Case of the Little Green Men

I found another book to add to my Charles Fort in Fiction list. The last addition was Anthony Boucher’s 1942 murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue, and this new one is another murder mystery – The Case of the Little Green Men by Mack Reynolds. Originally published in 1951, it’s now available as an ebook – either from the UK Kindle store, where I got it, or from the US Kindle store, and probably other places as well.

Like Rocket to the Morgue, The Case of the Little Green Men is set against a backdrop of science fiction fandom – which was significantly larger and better established in 1951 than it was in 1942. Boucher’s novel included a passing mention of the third Worldcon, held in Denver in 1941 and attended by just 90 people. The latter part of The Case of the Little Green Men – including the second of its two murders – takes place at the tenth Worldcon in 1952, which was still a year in the future when the book came out (the actual 1952 Worldcon took place in Chicago and had 870 attendees). Any murder set at a sci-fi convention is bound to involve cosplay, and this one is no exception. The villain is dressed as a six-limbed purple Martian – “the godawfullest costume of the convention”.

The Case of the Little Green Men isn’t science fiction. The novel’s title comes from the fact that it starts with the first-person narrator – a private detective with a reputation for mediocrity – being hired to find evidence of extraterrestrials living among the human population. “Little Green Men” is a pejorative term used by the hero and other skeptical characters, but the actual idea is that the aliens are shape-shifters who can make themselves indistinguishable from humans. The investigation was never meant to be taken seriously – it started out as a joke item for the convention. Nevertheless, some people do seem to take it seriously… and after a while it provides our protagonist with a good excuse to stick his nose into the murder case (there’s a nice touch of realism in that, unlike most fictional private eyes, he wouldn’t dare investigate a murder openly for fear of antagonizing the police).

The reference to Charles Fort comes when one of the more serious of the UFO-believers is trying to persuade the hero that there really might be extraterrestrials on Earth:
He came back with a heavy book and handed it to me. I looked at the title: The Books of Charles Fort. “What’s this?” I asked him. “Isn't Fort the screwball that tells all about the rains of frogs and that sort of crap?”
“That's hardly a proper description of Charles Fort,” he said stiffly. “Fort has gathered material for decades in an attempt to show that modern science is too smug, too hypocritical – and too ignorant. He made a hobby, a lifetime work, of gathering evidence of phenomena that modern science has as yet been unable to explain.”
Not surprisingly the novel also includes references to quite a few SF writers, including four who are particular favourites of mine: A. E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown and Eric Frank Russell. The last-named is perhaps best known for his explicitly Fortean novel, Sinister Barrier. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m the proud owner of the original issue of Unknown magazine (March 1939) in which Sinister Barrier first appeared. I paid £25 for it – considerably more than the cover price of 20 cents. Apparently that’s always been the case! Here is another excerpt from The Case of the Little Green Men, where the protagonist is trying to blend in with the real fans in the dealers’ hall:
I picked up one of the publications and thumbed through it. It was pretty well worn, the date was 1939, the cover was gruesome, and the title of the magazine was Unknown. I asked “What’s the price on this?” reaching in my pocket for some change. I figured that I’d look more authentic wandering around the hall if I was carrying a magazine with me.
”Three dollars,” he told me.
I glared at him indignantly. “You batty? This magazine is falling apart; it’s more than ten years old.”
He took it from my hand with as little gentleness as was consistent with the magazine’s condition and glared back. “That’s the issue in which Sinister Barrier was first –.”
”All right, all right,” I cut him off. “Keep it.” I got on to the next table before he assaulted me.
All in all I really enjoyed The Case of the Little Green Men. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Mack Reynolds, although over the years I’ve read quite a few shorter works by him. When I scoured my bookshelves a couple of days ago I found eight stories by him in various anthologies and magazines. The most Fortean of these is a short-short called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, which takes the form of a conversation between two undercover aliens, from different planets, who bump into each other in a café in Morocco.

All the other Reynolds stories I’ve read are Cold War thrillers, with a strong focus on the Communist-Capitalist battle of wits, sometimes with a science fiction twist. One of them (illustrated below) even has aliens in it! It’s called “Combat”, and I read it in the February 1961 issue of Analog magazine (British edition). It’s not a great story, but it makes nostalgic reading if you hanker after the simpler world of the Cold War period. The essence of the story is that the aliens choose to land their spaceship in the middle of Moscow, which confuses the heck out of the Americans (who assumed they would land in the world’s most advanced country).

Although the story is dated in many ways, some of its sentiments are as valid as ever. Here is a striking quote from the second page of the story: “The best men our universities could turn out went into advertising, show business and sales – while the best men the Russians and Chinese could turn out were going into science and industry. The height of achievement over there is to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. Our young people call scientists eggheads, and their height of achievement is to become a TV singer or a movie star.”

After 55 years, the depressing thing isn’t that things haven’t changed – but that they have changed. What applied to the United States then applies to pretty much the whole planet now!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Department of Fortean Events

In a blog post last year I mentioned that issue #12 of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD featured a character named “Robert Rickard”, in a deliberate homage to the founding editor of Fortean Times – who was a friend of the comic’s creators, Steve Parkhouse and Barry Windsor Smith. In the comment thread, reader B. Smith (presumably not the same B. Smith) pointed out that a “Doc Rickard of the Department of Fortean Events” also appeared circa 1990 in a Judge Anderson story called Shamballa, by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson. This was reprinted in Judge Anderson: The Psi Files volume 02, which I finally got round to buying last week when I saw a reduced price copy in Forbidden Planet.

Doc Rickard is the old man seen talking to Judge Anderson in the excerpt above. She seeks his assistance after the world is hit by a sudden spate of Fortean events – including stigmatics in Rome, phantom hounds in London, a Manticore in Jakarta and a Bunyip in Australia. There are references to Doris Stokes, the Turin Shroud and the Tower of Babel, while Anderson herself witnesses a “pre-Columbian meteorite” break apart to reveal a living a toad entombed inside it. The villains of the story are called “deros” – degenerate human beings who live in underground caves and tunnels. The word “dero” is an obvious reference to the Shaver Mystery, although Shaver’s deros were huge, obese and sexually decadent, whereas the deros in the comic are more zombie-like – dressed in rags and physically emaciated.

There are several other stories in the collection besides Shamballa, including another very Fortean one called Childhood’s End. This has no connection to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name, but it does have the Face on Mars, ancient aliens and references to Zecharia Sitchin’s theory of Anunnaki and Nephilim. And the art, by Kevin Walker, portrays a much sexier-looking Judge Anderson than Arthur Ranson’s version.

Although I found the stories interesting, I can’t say I really enjoyed them. I was never a big fan of Fleetway comics – for some reason they always struck me as gloomy and political (even when they weren’t). It’s all a matter of personal taste… and as far as comics are concerned, personal taste usually boils down to what you thought was cool when you were 15 or 16. Which brings me to another purchase I made in London last week – the first issue of a black-and-white horror anthology called Devilina, from Atlas-Seaboard comics.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Atlas-Seaboard comics. They were only active for a few months during 1975, but that just happened to coincide with the peak of my interest in comics fandom – and the new company created a huge buzz at the time (the whole story of Atlas-Seaboard is a fascinating one – here’s an excellent article on the subject). Most of their output consisted of colour comics aimed at challenging Marvel (which were the ones I bought at the time) – but they also produced a few black and white titles to rival Warren magazines such as Creepy, Eerie… and Vampirella, which is where Devilina comes in.

Having finally bought it 40 years after it came out, I really enjoyed Devilina #1. It’s fairly typical of horror anthologies of that vintage, both in terms of stories and artwork. It has its share of Fortean themes, too, with a story about people being reincarnated in animal form, another about a man who becomes convinced his life is controlled by aliens, and a nice moral tale about a mermaid taking revenge on a group of sailors who gang-raped her (and then saving the man who saved her). And as shown below, there’s a neat adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest (probably his most Fortean play – see my short ebook Paranormal Shakespeare).

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A Very Odd Picture


It’s not every day you see the founder of a major world religion working in a comic book studio, so imagine my surprise when I saw this picture in the British Museum yesterday, which depicts not one but two of them doing just that. The caption reads: “Nakamura Hikaru (born 1984): Buddha and Jesus drawing manga, cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. This artwork for the front cover of a manga book depicts Buddha creating his own manga, helped by Jesus.”

I know almost nothing about manga comics, but Nakamura Hikaru is described as a “young and very popular manga artist who specialises in comedy.” Apparently Saint Oniisan is her best-selling title, with weekly sales around 30,000 (which would have been a relatively low figure back in the heyday of comics in the mid-20th century, but much higher today when fewer people read comics). As far as I can tell, the series deals with the comic adventures of Jesus and the Buddha as they attempt to pass themselves off as ordinary people in modern-day Tokyo. The caption goes on to say “The playful depiction of the founders of two world religions as youthful men on holiday in Japan has achieved cult status. The two divine beings negotiate the ups and downs of their life together in a humble flat in suburban Tokyo. The series explores dilemmas in everyday life with visual gags, puns and word play.”

The current display in the British Museum focuses on the work of three manga artists of different generations, Nakamura Hikaru being the youngest. As well as the cover image, several black and white pages from Saint Oniisan are also on display (see example below). There is also a short interview with Hikaru in which she says “I was surprised by the positive reactions to my manga. I received letters from religious specialists, university professors, Buddhist priests and Christian clergy. I have also had requests to use my manga in universities for teaching purposes.”

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Going Down… Beneath the Bermuda Triangle

I’ve just read two stories – a longish novelette and a shortish novel, both dating from the 1970s – by an author I’d barely heard of, called Jane Gallion. Previously I’d only seen her name in the context of a notoriously violent post-apocalyptic novel called Biker, which dates from 1969 and is still banned in the UK. But the two stories I did get hold of are quite different in tone, and it’s a shame they’re not better known. They’re both clever, well-written and interesting, and the longer of the two is bordering on a masterpiece.

To start with the shorter story – it’s called “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” and it was published in the June/July 1979 issue of Galaxy magazine. This was a few years after the Skull the Slayer comic series I mentioned earlier this year, and it’s just as wacky a take on the Bermuda Triangle mystery. It’s got jewel-smuggling hippies, malevolent aliens, survivors from Atlantis, underwater pyramids and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

As far as I can tell, “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” is the only story Jane Gallion ever wrote that doesn’t have any sex in it (apart from a couple of indirect references to Tantric Sex). But there is a tenuous connection to the world of erotica. The stand-in editor for that particular issue of Galaxy was “Hank Stine” – an alter-ego of Jean Marie Stine, who used the same byline on one of the avant-garde erotic novels published in the late sixties by the short-lived Essex House imprint (see my post about The Geek by Alice Louise Ramirez). Jane Gallion’s Biker was another Essex House novel – and according to an autobiographical note, she also worked as an editor there. At the same time, she seems to have been active in science fiction fandom – see this photograph of her (there were other links between Essex House and science fiction – Philip José Farmer also published several novels with them).

The novel I just read, and found so impressive, is called Going Down. In her autobiographical note (which dates from 1990), Jane Gallion says the book was written for Essex House but never published (partly because it broke two of their house rules – “no humour” and “no politics”). However, it was eventually published as an ebook in 2001, two years before the author died.

Unlike Biker (which is available as an ebook in America but not in Britain), Going Down is listed on the UK Kindle store, which is where I got it. I don’t think the listing does the book any favours – there’s no cover image or preview, the blurb is misleading and it’s classified as erotica, which it isn’t really – it’s a dystopian SF satire in which sex (or the suppression of sex) plays a significant role.

Going Down is written in the kind of avant-garde literary style that was popular in the early seventies – all in the present tense, and with no quotation marks around dialogue. In that sense, and in other ways, I found the style reminiscent of Barry Malzberg, who was one of the big name writers of the time. Thematically, on the other hand, the novel is closer to Philip K. Dick – all about a sharply stratified future society in which information is tightly controlled, and the government knows more about you than you do. The book’s structure is also reminiscent of PKD, with the point of view alternating between three different characters – one high up in government, one at the very bottom of society, and one who is a major figure in the (ultimately fruitless) rebel movement. Also, like both Dick and Malzberg, the novel has a strong undercurrent of humour, even though it’s basically a very angry book.

I mentioned science fiction portrayals of the future last week – and Going Down is one of the most prophetic I’ve come across. The society it describes is ultra-capitalist and ultra-puritanical. The government has electronic spying machines everywhere, ready to pounce at the first hint of subversive or “perverted” behaviour. Giant corporations charge people (who are always referred to as “consumers”) for absolutely everything – including having sex and going to the toilet. If you try to avoid paying for something, it’s a serious crime because it “damages the economy”. Also prescient (given recent headlines) is the utter hypocrisy of the ruling class, who impose puritanical laws on ordinary citizens while indulging in the most disgustingly obscene behaviour themselves.

Although Going Down was originally written in the early seventies, I’m not sure if it was revised for its ebook publication in 2001. If it wasn’t, then it contains one amazingly prescient reference. I can’t remember anyone back in the 1970s worrying about Genetically Modified crops, but one of the characters in the novel does. It’s in a scene between a high-ranking member of the government, named Hennering, and his boyfriend Penrod (“a slender lad of eighteen”). Hennering wishes to deep-throat a certain part of Penrod’s anatomy after said anatomical part has been thrust up a chicken’s backside:
The pullet had been organically raised. Penrod refused to have anything to do with a chicken exposed to genetically engineered or chemically adulterated food. He was afraid it might give him high blood pressure or possibly a rash. There’s a lot of that around. But Hennering made sure the bird was clean before he gave it to Penrod. Heavens to Betsy, he couldn’t have Penrod catching anything, could he?
This scene struck me as doubly prophetic – not just the reference to genetic engineering (and pathological aversion thereto), but also the way a conservative politician indulges in behaviour that’s so perverted it wouldn’t even cross a normal person’s mind. Remember this news story from a month ago?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Back to the Future

The “future” in Back to the Future Part II equates to 21 October 2015 – only 3 days in the future as I write this. People tend to focus on the way things didn’t happen the way they were supposed to (e.g. we have Facebook and touch-screen smartphones instead of flying cars and hoverboards) – but there is another aspect I find just as fascinating. What would it be like to suddenly find yourself 30 years in the future? I suspect most readers of this blog are old enough to remember 1985 pretty well, so you can ponder the question as well as I can.

You don’t even need to invoke time travel. The same thing would apply if you were stuck in a block of ice for several decades, like Captain America. When I first encountered Cap in 1968, the story was that he had been revived in 1964, after just 19 years on ice. I don’t think the culture shock in that case would have been too difficult to deal with. Planes were faster, cars were more streamlined, TVs were bigger and radios were smaller… but those were just continuations of trends that Steve Rogers would already be familiar with: evolution rather than revolution. The sociological changes of the Swinging Sixties would probably have been as confusing as the technological ones, as indicated in the panel above (originally from Captain America #122, dated February 1970, but this scan is from Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reitberger and Fuchs – the first book about comics I ever bought, way back in 1973).

It’s different now, of course. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cap was frozen not for just under 20 years but for almost 70. His “contemporaries” are not people in their 40s, but people in their 90s. He missed the entire duration of the Cold War, the era of 33 rpm records, transistor radios and VHS tapes, the Moon landings and the Space Shuttle. He not only has to get to grips with a new present – everything from cell phones and social media to hypersensitive political correctness – but a whole new past too. Personally I don’t think this would be possible in the timeframe portrayed in the movies, even for someone with the super-soldier resilience of Steve Rogers.

What started me thinking along these lines wasn’t Back to the Future or Captain America, but a first-person video game in which the player hops between four different time periods. I mentioned a year ago that I’d finally got a working version of Dark Fall: Lost Souls by Jonathan Boakes. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went on to play the two earlier Dark Fall games. The second of these, Dark Fall: Lights Out, is the time travel story. It dates from 2004, and it already has something of a retro feel. The graphics are 800x600 resolution, the user interface and gameplay are fairly basic, and it doesn’t have the depth of characterization and atmosphere you get in Jonathan’s later games. But in terms of storyline, it’s one of my favourite games – so much so that I played it through again last week.

The action starts in 1912. The playable character is a young cartographer of that period, who is sent to investigate an inexplicably abandoned lighthouse off the Cornish coast. In the role of this character, you spend a while exploring the small rocky island and the deserted lighthouse. Hidden in one of the rooms, you find a hand-drawn map showing the location of a small cave. You follow the directions to the cave – in the gloomy light of a full moon peering through cloud cover – and go inside. There isn’t much to see, so you go outside again… to find everything changed. It’s daytime, the sun is shining – and it’s 2004, the year the game first appeared.

On both occasions I’ve played the game, I found this genuinely disorientating. You’re so immersed in the world of 1912 that “the future” seems strange and confusing. The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction (albeit one that appears just as mysteriously deserted as its 1912 predecessor). Depending on which way you turn when you first exit the cave, you either come to a Discovery Centre featuring a historical display about WW2 (which is still pretty futuristic from the point of view of view of your character), or a café and public toilets. Then there are the steps up to the lighthouse, which are noticeably more health-and-safety compliant than they were in 1912. At the top, the entrance to the lighthouse has changed completely (see the picture below). What would the young cartographer from 1912 make of all this? Would he realize he had slipped into the future? After a while this becomes obvious, once he gets inside the reception area of the lighthouse and reads some of the books for sale in the gift shop. But how does he get through that glass door? Would he realize the buttons form some kind of combination lock?
If you go back down the steps a short distance, you come to a viewpoint with a touch screen display. The display is blank, though, and there is no indication the screen needs to be touched to activate it. For someone from 1912, there is no precedent for dealing with this. Technology in those days consisted of telephones, phonographs, box cameras and silent movies. Nevertheless, if you do accidentally touch the screen and bring it to life, you would probably grasp its workings pretty quickly. But before long something really unexpected happens – the computer crashes and an error message pops up (in all the 20th century fiction I’ve read about futuristic computers and thinking machines, no-one ever predicted the annoying instability of windows-based operating systems).

The error message is pretty cryptic, including the phrase “Current Entry Code / Last 2 Pin: ##64”. The modern-day player may realize this is the second half of the combination needed to get into the lighthouse, but I don’t think our man from 1912 would – not right away, anyhow. If he goes back down to the bottom of the steps, there’s a landing stage and ticket booth for incoming tourists – much more comfortably familiar to early 20th century eyes. Pinned to the wall of the booth is a handwritten note, which shows a sketch of the door buttons and the first two digits of the code. Our character would probably understand the significance of this – and maybe, if his wits were really sharp, he’d put two and two together over the cryptic error message.

So thinking like someone from 1912, it’s hard enough just to work out how to open the lighthouse door! Once you’re inside things get even more bewildering. In the gift shop and museum, you discover that you’ve gone down in history as a triple murderer. You’re not quite the only person in the lighthouse – there’s also a female paranormal investigator, but she’s gone into hiding because she thinks you’re a murderous ghost. You find portals to two other time periods, one further in the future and one in the prehistoric past. Eventually you do manage to solve the mystery of just what the heck is going on… but you solve it using a 21st century mindset, not one of 1912.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

More Oddities of the Jurassic Coast

The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT333) has just gone out to subscribers, and will be in the shops next Friday. If you turn to the back of the magazine, the regular Fortean Traveller feature consists of an article by Paul Jackson and me called “Oddities of the Jurassic Coast”, based on excerpts from our new book Weird Wessex. Due to space limitations the article only includes a few of the places on the Jurassic Coast (or the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site, to give it its less exciting official name) that are mentioned in the book. So here are a few more…

The picture at the top of this post shows Monmouth Beach in Lyme Regis. Today it’s a popular spot with holidaymakers and fossil hunters, but back in June 1685 it was the place where the Duke of Monmouth landed with his distinctly unimpressive “invasion force” of 82 men. Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Charles II, who died 4 months earlier. When the Crown passed to the unpopular James II, Monmouth decided to try to seize it by force. After recruiting a few followers in Lyme Regis he proceeded northwards, gathering more “troops” along the way – mainly young farmworkers armed with sickles and pitchforks! Monmouth’s haphazard rebellion came to a bloody end a few weeks later at the Battle of Sedgemoor (also described in Weird Wessex) – the last full-scale battle fought on English soil. After the defeat, twelve of the rebels who had been recruited in Lyme Regis were publicly executed on Monmouth Beach.

By the early 19th century the area to the west of Monmouth Beach was packed with market gardens, orchards, sheep and pig farms and hazel coppices – all perched on top of the towering Jurassic cliffs. Then in the space of a few hours on Christmas Day, 1839, the whole thing came crashing down in one of the biggest landslides in recorded history. An estimated 8 million tonnes of rock and earth collapsed into the sea, along a stretch of coast about four miles long.

All that carefully cultivated farmland was lost forever. In its place was a rocky, barren landscape the like of which had never been seen before. Within weeks, people were travelling from miles away to view the scene. The local farmers, sensing a way to cut their losses, quickly began charging visitors sixpence to enter their fields! The ultimate cause of the landslip was underground water loosening the clay on which the upper rock strata sat. Some geologists at the time realised this, but many ordinary people believed it was an earthquake – possibly even the wrath of God!

The area of the landslip, which became known as the Undercliff, was too unstable for human cultivation. Since the middle of the 19th century it has been left in the hands of nature, resulting in the closest thing to a jungle that it’s possible to find in modern-day England. The 800-acre site is now a National Nature Reserve, only accessible from two points, about five miles apart, that are joined by a long, winding footpath. It’s difficult to take photos that give a sense of the huge scale of the site, but here is a montage that attempts to give a flavour of it:
In 1859 a commission set up by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, recommended that a sprawling complex of fortifications should be built along the English coast to deal with a possible invasion from France. These are collectively known as Palmerston’s Follies, since by the time they were finished the threat of a French invasion had long since vanished. Several of Palmerston’s Follies are featured in Weird Wessex, including Brean Down Fort in Somerset and the Portsmouth sea forts in Hampshire. But one of the most impressive is to be found on the Jurassic Coast, on the Isle of Portland. It’s called the Verne Citadel, located 500 feet above sea level at the highest point of the island. This has been a strategically important site since the Romans built their own fort there. Its Victorian successor is a monumental edifice – 56 acres in area, surrounded by a deep moat and designed to house a thousand troops, with heavy artillery pointing out to sea on three sides. It was later converted into a prison.

The Verne Citadel was built from local Portland stone – the same building material used in Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. In the case of the Verne, even though the stone didn’t have far to travel, a huge amount of it was needed. The free-standing rock pillar known as Nicodemus Knob (pictured below) shows the extent of the quarrying that was required – all the surrounding stone was cut away for use in Palmerston’s fortress.
A few hundred metres from the Verne is the High Angle Battery, built in the late 19th century as an additional defence for Portland Harbour. The complex also incorporates an underground laboratory, a large bombproof shelter and a network of tunnels – the latter reportedly harbouring a number of ghosts!

This is just a small sampling of the many strange facts contained in Weird Wessex. You can get your copy (as a paperback or Kindle ebook) from Amazon UK, or at the special price of just £10 direct from CFZ Publishing.