Sunday, 24 May 2020

Events

I'm very glad indeed that Boris Johnson made a recovery from Covid-19, because I still hold out some hope that the fucker will be held accountable.

As you were.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Bat tales

Here in Wales, lockdown continues - our devolved government has, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland, taken a more cautious approach than Westminster to relaxing the restrictions, and I think wisely so.

Through all this, I've been fortunate to be in a position of self-employment where my day-to-day routine hasn't been greatly affected by Covid-19. My daily routine remains about the same. I'm not at my most productive, and I'm conscious of that, but I'm getting things done slowly but surely. Where things have changed is that the lockdown has eroded the familiar landmarks which define the week, and which to a degree set my tempo for working. It must be said that this is an exceedingly minor inconvenience set against financial worries, issues of mental health, domestic strains and so on which many have experienced, and continue to do so. I am very lucky to be a writer, even luckier to be able to spend lockdown surrounded by countryside.

Have there been positives to the lockdown period? Judging by the newspaper articles I read, many people have reported a growing sense of re-engagement with the natural world; hardly surprising given that for once we can start to hear birds and mammals ahove the perpetual drone of cars and aeroplanes. The night skies have often been clear, too: coincidence or not that that I saw the Milky Way very clearly a few weeks ago, something hardly ever possible from our house before? Some of us will have probably read more books, or finished more jigsaws, than we might ordinarily have. For my wife and I, there's been a surprising twist, partly occasioned by lockdown, but it's a story that actually began a few weeks earlier.

We found a bat:



It had got into our house (we presumed) when some windows were left open for airing, and then ended up confined. How long it had been there before we found it was uncertain, but whatever the case the bat was weak and underweight. Following handling guidelines from the Bat Conservation Trust, the little chap was caught (not difficult since he was all but immobile) and safeguarded for transport. After making contact with the nearest suitable rescue facility, the Gower Bird Hospital near Swansea, we made what would turn out to be our last trip out of town.

I can't praise the staff at the Gower Bird Hospital highly enough. They took in the bat and carried out an immediate assessment, identifying him as a male soprano pipistrelle weighing just a bit over 3 grams. The plan then was to give him a chance to recover some weight and strength, and then - ideally - bring him back to our area for release. That all changed with the lockdown, though, and after some consideration (and given that there was a well-established population of pipistrelles near the hospital) the decision was taken to release him there, where he was expected to integrate well with the locals. It took quite a few weeks for him to be strong enough to fly.

I suppose I'd always had a distant admiration for bats, without knowing much more than that there were several species in the UK, and that some of these populations were endangered - much the same story for anyone with an interest in any particular class of wildlife. Given the chance, I'll happily go out around twilight and watch a bat or two, but until lately it had never really been with anything other than a passing interest.

 A second bat-related event then followed a short way into the lockdown - call it the tipping point, if you will. At around 3pm on a warm, breezy day we spied a bat circling endlessly over and around a stretch of wooded road that is normally busy, but had now become pleasingly free of traffic. I'd certainly never seen a bat in the middle of the afternoon, anywhere in the world, and this one was not just active but spectacularly easy to observe, with coloration and shape being very prominent against the blue skies. All this chimed with reports I'd read in the paper about wildlife beginning to recolonise urban and semi-urban spaces in the wake of the lockdown, and adopting unusual (to us) behaviour patterns. I wonder if there was more to it than that, though. Some trees had recently been felled by Network Rail so perhaps the bat's usual habitat had been disturbed. Or perhaps, the bat was just happy to be able to loop around and around a bit of shady territory that must be a good insect trap and which is normally too hectic for good hunting?

Whatever the case, this second bat encounter started pushing me toward more active observation of the bats in our area, so my wife and I began to get into the habit of sitting outside around dusk and observing the activity - if there was any. It turns out that bats don't come out and play like clockwork - who knew? Well, bat people probably. In the meantime there was still much to enjoy such as regular close encounters with a tawny owl, who has developed a fondness for our chimney.



To take my bat interest up a notch, though, I decided to invest in a bat detector. I'd been aware of such devices but not how they functioned or what the possibilities were. After doing some research, we settled on a superheterodyne detector - basically the entry-level type of detector and the easiest to use for a complete beginner.

Following a link on the Bat Conservation Trust's website, I purchased my detector from Wildcare:

https://www.wildcare.co.uk/bat-conservation-trust.html

This is what you get:



The package includes the detector, which is a simple but well constructed and intuitive device, an instruction leaflet, some batteries, and a very handy laminated guide to bat identification, including vocalisations and frequency ranges. Wildcare make a donation to the trust with each detector purchase. My package arrived very promptly and with luck we were able to detect bats the first time we tried it. Had we gone out a few nights later, it would have been a different story, as the colder, windier weather seemed to deter activity quite sharply.

Now it helped that we already knew we likely had a population of soprano pipistrelles near us, because I'm still no good at bat identification other than very crude estimates of size. This type of detector requires the user to dial in a frequency based on the expected bat species, which you then search around until you pick up clicks and squelches, helpfully shifted into the human auditory range. But it's possible that you could miss some bats completely if you're searching a long way from their preferred band. There are more sophisticated types of detector that get around this, but the superheterodyne type gives you the immediate gratification of bat noises, and for me that's more than enough to be getting on with. The joy of locking onto a bat and beginning to experience its sound world is not to be underestimated: it's like taking out earplugs and hearing birdsong for the first time. This goes on all around us and we're mostly oblivious to it.

I found myself a little interested in the history behind the science of bat echolocation, which in turn took me to Wikipedia (where else) and the story of Robert Galambos, who was also an early pioneer in auditory brainstem and cochlear implants:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Galambos

I have now joined the Bat Conservation Trust and look forward to finding where this new interest will lead. Bats have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, so let's hear it for these fascinating creatures.

https://www.bats.org.uk/












Wednesday, 6 May 2020

A Super Lockdown Supermarionation Superconversation in 5...4...3


Over the course of a couple of weeks, I chatted with my old friend and occasional collaborator Stephen Baxter about our mutual affection for the TV series and films of Gerry Anderson. If you haven't the slightest interest in puppets, toys, comics, and 1960s children's entertainment, there probably isn't very much point reading on. If, however, you share our enthusiasm, or are at least sympathetic to it, you may find something to enjoy in the following. My very grateful thanks to Steve for taking part.





AR: It was Gerry Anderson’s birthday a couple of days ago (he’d have been 91) so given that we’ve both watched Thunderbird Six recently -and have a shared enthusiasm for his shows – I thought it would be fun to talk about the film, as well as the puppet series more generally. Perhaps we could start by covering our introductions to the worlds of GA? I know you go back at least as far as Stingray, the series which preceded Thunderbirds – was that the first exposure to Supermarionation for you, or are we looking at the even earlier shows like Fireball XL-5, Supercar and so on? Any really early memories of the shows or even the merchandise surrounding them?

SB: As it happens I was born on the day Anderson’s first show was first broadcast,  The Adventures of Twizzle. An omen! But the first show I remember properly was Fireball, which was launched when I was nearly 5. Supercar was around but as repeats, I  guess.  Fireball was the one. It wasn’t the stories that struck me I think as much as the background world. The fantastic huge ship, and it looked huge thanks to good effects work, luxurious inside – Professor Matic  lived on it,  and how I envied him! And this was no fantasy, we were given one-century-ahead dates, 2062 and so on. Authentic SF, and I was lost forever.



Merchandise, yeah, we can discuss the comics, but I did have a couple of annuals,  and a Steve Zodiac string puppet – and a fab XL5 that you could shoot up into the air and let it parachute back to Earth. All gone now,  though I bought back the annuals a few years ago – but couldn’t afford the toys!

AR: Thunderbirds is the earliest Anderson show I remember seeing on TV, but then only one or two episodes. As you and I will remember, TV scheduling was much more regional in the sixties and seventies than it is today, and I spent my early years in Cornwall, where they never seemed to show Thunderbirds. We got Joe 90, and later UFO, but none of the other Supermarionation shows. I do remember seeing an episode of Thunderbirds at my grandmothers in Wales, when we were visiting – I think the one with Monte Carlo (“The Man from MI5”) – but the vast majority of the episodes I never saw until much later in the 70s. By then I’d only really seen the films. Thunderbirds Are Go was aired on TV somewhere around the mid-70s (I thought it was great!) and then Thunderbird Six was shown over one Christmas when I’m guessing I’d have been around ten. Prior to that, all I really knew about Thunderbirds was what I’d gleaned from the merchandise. I had an illustrated, hardcover book – not an annual, but a single self-contained story. All the characters were drawn to normal proportions so it was a bit of a shock when I saw the puppets! They were much weirder looking than the Joe 90 characters. I’m not sure if I ever had any of the Thunderbirds-specific Dinky toys: TB2 (and 4) and FAB1 although I did have the UFO (and later Space:1999) models. As for the earlier shows, I only knew about them from pictures in annuals and so on, although Stingray was later shown in re-runs and I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it greatly if it had been on when I was younger. I think that was one of the first British TV series to be filmed in colour.

Some Thunderbirds craft drawn by Al. Why is there more than one Mole? No idea.


SB: It’s interesting how a few years difference in age makes such a difference to how we apprehend stuff. Reminds me of my discovery of the Beatles. I was 12 when they broke up, so I’d known the singles, but didn’t hear the albums until my teens,  when they had already split. It’s  different knowing this was from the past,  there will be no more.  I think some would say Thunderbirds was Anderson’s peak, with the fabulous visual invention, a heartwarming premise – a family dedicated to helping people, in a utopian future! – and  before Anderson,  whose real ambition was to direct live action, lost his way in trying to achieve realism in the puppets. When all he achieved was to make them stiff and eerie. Paul McAuley once said Anderson was an idiot savant who didn’t know what he was best at. The other theory about which show is the ‘best’ is that it’s the one that aired when you were about seven! So did you see Joe 90 live?

Joe 90's Jet Car, presented to Al during his visit to Japan in 2012.


AR: No, probably not until a year or two after its original run. But it felt live enough at the time. I had the Dinky version of the jetcar, which I thought was fantastic. Decades later, when I attended Halcon in Japan, the convention very kindly presented me with a small model of the same vehicle, knowing my affection for it. I agree with you that GA wasn’t playing to his strengths as he tried to make the move into live-action, first with the stiffer puppets, then actual actors, but again it does go back to that thing of whichever show you first saw. Incidentally I was a little put off by the puppets to begin with, something to do with the way their mouths worked, but before long I was won round by the model work, which (in all GA’s shows) was so far ahead of anything else on TV at the time. Joe 90 has the best title music, in my view. The guitar on that is played by Vic Flick, who did the Bond theme! Real secret agent credibility. It was a staple of the Northern Soul clubs, too. I never saw, or had any recollection of, The Secret Service. GA was going off in some weird directions at the end of the sixties. Do you remember Stripey The Magic Mini, from the Candy & Andy photostrip in TV21?

You’re right about the sense of it all already belonging in the past, though. The peak of Thunderbirds mania was long past by the time I became aware of the series, but there were still toys, annuals and books to be found, as well as older boys who’d seen it all at the time. I think on balance I’d have to agree that Thunderbirds is the best series, overall. The utopianism of the set-up, the family structure, and bringing in Lady Penelope and Parker as significant characters – and the music!

SB: It was all very different then, even if you were watching the first run shows. I mean you saw it once, no catchup , no DVD, no recording. .. of course the series would be repeated later and I  think cumulatively you got to know the episodes that way. But not at the time! So the comics, books etc were v important to support the shows, even at the time. In Anderson’s glory days the key comic  was the wonderful TV 21 and a year later the equally lush Lady Penelope. You had full colour photogravure production, artists hired from the Eagle, and stories and features that knitted the whole thing into a consistent 100 years ahead future. In the first year especially you had editor Alan Fennell  (also a script writer for Anderson ) deliberately creating crossovers between the shows. So Lady Penelope goes to a Paris previously devastated by Stingray sea monsters. And Steve Zodiac, handling an alien assassination, gets help from Penelope and Troy Tempest. The conceit was it was a newspaper from the future, dated accordingly.

I was hooked age 7 and remain so.

In fact though, the shows themselves were dated 100 years ahead, they were somewhat different futures, and they tended to get more conservative. .. so XL5 was interstellar,  but Zero X was the first mission to Mars. The more creative fans have tried to fit it all together. .. so maybe XL5 used a Zero X drive to reach interstellar wormholes,  or some such...

A typical issue of TV21.


Candy and Andy was actually in a comic called Candy, aimed at littler kids, in the peak years when it seemed Anderson could do not wrong!  Didn’t last, and nor did the peak years...

The horror that was Candy & Andy


AR: The fact that the shows were only on once, and you couldn’t be sure of seeing them again, made them very intense viewing experiences! I tried to memorise or draw the vehicles as the episodes were playing, so that I could make them in Lego afterwards. I did a drawing of Skyship right after seeing Thunderbird Six, which I still have somewhere. Which might ease us into a discussion of the films in general, and that one in particular. The films were both huge flops, of course, for reasons that now seem obvious, but if you’re a committed fan there’s still much to enjoy in them. TB6 is clearly a better film than Thunderbirds Are Go, but for my money it’s not quite as exciting – nothing can beat the Zero-X, which goes wrong not once but twice! My favorite GA vehicle, by the way, and the one I still most covet. And Barry Gray’s Zero-X march is sublime, quite wonderfully stirring and exciting. But Thunderbirds Are Go has this problem that once the Mars mission is on its way, there’s nothing for International Rescue to do until it comes back, so you get weird but charming filler like the Cliff Richard dream sequence. At least with TB6 the sense of peril is there most of the time. One thing I didn’t realise until now was that they’d more or less shot all the Captain Scarlet episodes before they did TB6. Can you imagine the marketing? Come and see the sequel to a film you didn’t watch, based on a series that’s already been cancelled! Now wonder they stayed away in droves.

Al's first attempt at drawing the Zero-X, done from memory after watching Thunderbirds Are Go.


SB: we should talk more about  the Anderson era model making, SFX,  and their legacy. But my own theory about the films is that they weren’t adult friendly enough. My parents  didn’t want to sit through 90 minutes of puppets, there was nothing in it to appeal to them! Compare the Jungle Book, out about the same time,  which my mother did take us to see at the Wavertree Cinerama. Great music, good humour, and in jokes for the grown ups, such as the Beatles vultures. (And we kids loved it.)  And in 68 my dad took us to see 2001, which baffled the 10 year old me, I think, let alone my younger siblings! ( But we all responded to the music. And it did stick in my head; I do remember thinking,  a decade later, that the opening scene of Star Wars was the most impressive movie moment I had seen since 2001...) So my parents weren’t averse to kids’ movies or sf,  it was those darn puppets. And probably if they had gone once,  never again...

AR: I think the films were pitched at an audience that didn’t exist: too unengaging for adults, not gripping enough for kids. I think I may have seen the Jungle Book in the cinema as well! I didn’t see 2001 until the mid-seventies, but it was in the cinema, back out again for a theatrical release as tended to happen in those days (and I’m sure it had never been on television at that point). I was pretty baffled as well. I’d read the book, and a fair bit of Clarke short fiction by that point, but tonally the film was nothing like my expectations. I think because the ships and props had a Gerry Anderson sort of look to them, I was expecting something more in keeping with Space:1999 or UFO, lots of explosions and lasers, but of course the film couldn’t be further from that, and it left me cold and bewildered. I’ve a different view of it now, of course. You’re right about the legacy of the model work and SFX; there was nothing else to touch it, and for the most part it all still looks good now. You can see why Derek Meddings was brought onto the James Bond films, after showing what he could do on the small screen. I recently watched the first series of Space:1999 on remastered DVDs and the effects work is still impressive, as are the props and sets, all of which look solid and believable. I used to wonder why the BBC’s effects work was so inferior, not realising that there were such things as budgets and time schedules, and the model makers and technicians were probably just as talented, but just had a lot less to work with. But going back to the puppets thing … yes, all a bit much to ask for really! You can understand why GA felt he needed to get away from them, even though it all came full circle back to puppets in the end. 

Essential reading for the GA completist.

Always keep the receipt.


When I’m watching Thunderbirds now, though, I’m struck by things I never noticed as a kid, just clever little touches in the puppetwork, little glances and reactions that are so well done and a real testament to the skill of the puppeteers. Have you seen the short film that Jamie Anderson’s done for the new Firestorm series he wants to make, based on a concept of Gerry’s? It’s very well done. The puppets are wire-operated from underneath, and they can make them run! The look of them is much closer to Stingray or Thunderbirds than the later marionettes, but at the same time the whole thing looks modern and futuristic. I hope it becomes a full series. Sign me up!

Skyship One from Thunderbird Six


SB:Seconded, your remarks about the brilliant model work. Writing this in the middle of the lockdown, and yes we are comfort watching old Bonds, where as you say you have Meddings working on Live and Let Die, and also later Steve Begg on the Daniel Craig movies – he worked with Anderson later,  on Terrahawks onwards I think. So Anderson’s legacy in that regard spanned decades. And some of the models were magnificent weren’t they? As you noted, the Thunderbirds movies were both predicated on the wrecking of magnificent new craft,  Zero X and the Skyship. The latter featuring in a worse movie, but what a design. They just went crazy with it, the fabulous interiors – the Games Room, a lounge with huge playing cards covering the walls, etc. And latterly I appreciated the engineering consistency  (give or take the odd anti gravity engine!) You can get rough visual scales of the machines by comparisons with FAB 1, etc., and they do make sense, and are consistent with stuff given in the annuals, etc. You got a sense of the great mass of the machines by the slowness with which TB2, say, cautiously landed – or the long launch sequence of Fireball XL5. It took a lot of push to move that mass down that ramp! That’s one trick the makers of the new Thunderbirds Are Go have missed I think, the craft flit about like paper planes....

A second go at the Zero-X - this time after borrowing a friend's TV21 annual.


AR: One thing I like in the new series is the turbulence around TB1 as it goes supersonic! But there’s always going to be a sense of mass and solidity with the older approach. Skyship’s quite a weird concept, isn’t it? It’s introduced as an airship, in that nightmarish scene where we see into the mouths of all the executives laughing at Brains, but then it turns out to use anti-gravity for lift, instead of hydrogen or helium. If the antigravity devices make its weigh less than that of the air it displaces, does it still count as an airship, but just with an unusual lifting medium? Quite an interesting bit of design thinking, anyway. And you’re right – the interiors are beautifully conceived. Just a pity it ends up impaling itself on a radio antenna right over a missile base! One thing I thought was very well done were the twilight shots of Skyship, with that dusky light playing over it – gorgeously staged and evoking the romantic image of the airship very nicely. The whole thing’s done with such love and affection it’s a pity the film doesn’t quite come off as a whole. As a child I was very disappointed in the fact that it didn’t end up introducing a new Thunderbird craft, as the title implies. Sorry, but a puny little Tiger Moth’s just not going to cut it. Not that I’ve anything against Tiger Moths … and doesn’t that end sequence, with Penelope, Parker etc on the plane, go on for absolutely ages? It’s well filmed, integrating live action, radio control and model work, but it doesn’t half overstay its welcome. And poor old Parker ends up being the butt of the joke at the end, again. Incidentally, when I was in school, a boy told me that one of his relatives had worked on Thunderbirds and the reason they stopped making it was because Parker had “seized up”. I believed that for years.

SB: at this point I ought to fess up to my Anderson fandom.  This goes back to browsing in a library and serendipitously finding a book on vintage British TV. ... with a  chapter on Anderson,  and a couple of TV21 cover images. This was about 2000 I think, and pow, with those covers I  was right back  to 1965. Imagery always very evocative,  isn’t it? I soon found out that the only way to see those comics again was collecting.... the British Library holds the Eagle, for instance,  but not TV21 despite the huge numbers it sold . And Fanderson, the main fan group, had no copies either. So, dealers and eBay!  You know how it is, I became a micro dealer myself as I ended up selling swaps.... went on a posh auction site to get number one, with free gift. .. got them all in the end, plus some related stuff,  specials,  annuals etc. Hadn’t seen this stuff since I  had to chuck out my childhood copies decades earlier. Nowadays there are good quality reprint collections you can buy, but you have to have the whole experience, the peripheral strips (including a glorious Daleks strip) and ‘news’ features from 2065. And from that I got quite heavily involved in Fanderson...l contributed features, some original fiction... and I got to meet Gerry himself once. Am proud to be a Friend of Fanderson,  free subscription! I see myself as a sf fan generally (as well as a pro),  but this is where I have focused my fannish energies, I guess. And a reflection of its importance for me generally. My single proudest moment: when Anderson himself asked me, through Fanderson, for data on TV21 sales! Second proudest, having letters published in TV21 back in the day...

AR: Fantastic stuff, Steve. TV21 must have been around in my childhood but I don’t have any clear memories of reading a copy, which is rather a shame. I might follow you into the rabbit hole of ebay! I can relate to what you say about fandom and fannish activity. I’ve never really felt myself to be an SF “fan” in the traditional sense; my relationship with SF in its written forms is far too complicated and conflicted for that. But I’m unreservedly a fan of Anderson, the good and the bad! It’s just that primal joy of seeing the Century 21 logo/animation and knowing the next half hour or so was going to be good, as well as all sorts of coveting of Dinky toys, annuals, etc. That’s why I can still watch stuff that’s not all that brilliant on many levels, like Space:1999, and still get some bizarre enjoyment out of it. 

A Space:1999 scene done by Al.probably after seeing the episode "Earthbound", which aired in December 1975.

I never met Gerry, but if I had, I’d just want to express an enormous gratitude for adding a dab of colour and futuristic excitement to my childhood. I suppose, having watched all of the shows that particularly interest me, and some of them many times, what I return to is the music (I’m sure that Barry Gray will be remembered as one of the great popular composers) and a desire to own versions of the models. Particular highlights: going into Dan Evans, a long-gone department store in Barry and seeing a promotional poster for Dinky’s model of the Eagle, advertised a good year before the series aired. And then following the build-up to Space: 1999 in the pages of Speed & Power, and then – my crowning glory – winning a space quiz in S&P for which the prize was a Dinky Eagle – and I’ve still got it! 


Al's two Eagles: a 45 year old Dinky version, and a 24 inch half-scale studio model. He still owns the Dinky version he won in the competition, but it's the white-bodied freighter version, in a box somewhere.

But I always wanted a bigger one. Airfix bought out a kit for an Eagle in 1976 and I made that (along with the Hawk, which only appeared in one episode) but the one I had to have was a half-scale replica (24 inches instead of 48) of the studio model, which I finished last year. The day Gerry died, I started an Angel Interceptor by way of a personal tribute and this year I completed a Fireflash. As mentioned, the one I really hanker after is the Zero-X. As far as I can tell there have been five different models since the 1960s. There’s a battery powered toy, two injection-moulded kits (one small and quite readily available, and the other large and very, very rare), a die-cast model and a large but expensive resin kit which will set you back about 400 pounds before you’ve even built it. Not a bad showing for a model from a flop film! Perhaps there’ll be a new lease of life now that the Zero-X has made a return of sorts in the new series.

Fireflash - elevate port wing!

SB: Ooh, lots of interesting threads in there. Including fandom ... what it means to be a fan, what it is you do with the material – as opposed to, as you say, the way you in your case approached the written material. But, models! I don’t think I ever  had a self assembly Anderson model, Airfix style... a couple were pop together plastic moulds, a big TB2 and TB1.  I did do some modelling but mostly ‘mundane’ stuff, a couple of cars. .. some ace space kits including an Apollo LM and a Saturn V! But, truth be told, I  was never very practical and never did that stuff very well. I did make a Meccano Cloudbase! My own design. Later as an adult I bought myself some great stuff,  including a fine desk top XL5... and the 1990s Dinky toys: two for the nephews and one for me.... I do remember how hard it was to find TB2 then, until we found a stack in a motorway service station.... Later I met the Fanderson true fen, including those who made quite fantastic recreations of the craft, characters, even striking scene. As a kid I drew rather than modelled I think, and that was a way to appreciate the beauty of,  say, Stingray. ..  And before you ask, yep I bought the toys from Thunderbirds Are Go, the recent reboot. All for research purposes of course....

AR: Strictly research, yes. I do like the new designs from the reboot, they’re close enough to the originals to look respectful, but with modern touches that give them a bit of contemporary plausibility. One thing I like – and I admit I haven’t watched all the series yet – is that they’ve found a lot more for TB3 to do, and in that one instance I think the new design is superior to the old. The designs of the craft have worn well, I think, because Gerry had that background in the RAF and knew when something looked right. Did you know that Trapped in the Sky was inspired by a memory he had of seeing a Mosquito trying to land with undercarriage damage? Really though it’s amazing how contemporary  most of those sixties designs still look. I suppose that says more about the lack of development in aviation and aerospace in the fifty-odd years since the various series, although there’s no doubt that the designers and model makers knew how to make something look both believable and exciting. 

Angel Interceptor from Captain Scarlet - still the only GA craft to have an Ash song named after it.


Do you have a favorite scene involving one of the Thunderbird craft? For me it’s the bit when TB2 gets shot down! The bit when the captain fires the missiles, and then gets the call from HQ that the unidentified craft is a “Thunderbird machine of the International Rescue organisation” – gets me every time! And the crash sequence is very well done. And then we learn a bit about how the Thunderbirds are made and repaired, using components from many different aircraft manufacturers, so that no one company will realise who they’re supplying. Great episode! (Rushes off to check which episode that was.)

SB: I think I  will offer an off beam answer to that, but looking back to fan writing. ... The Dr Who tie in novel The Indestructible Man (Simon Messingham,  BBC, 2004) is a kind of mash up of Who with the Anderverse, with names changed or parodied... the ‘Mysteron’ war is recently over,  with much public  resentment about the secrecy. The Doctor is arrested because they think his regeneration is Mysteronisation! Versions of Black and Scarlet,  unable to die, battle on like charismatic zombies.  And with high tech out of fashion , one of the ‘Sharon’ brothers  (geddit ) landed TB2 in a rainforest and is acting as a doctor to the locals. It’s that image of TB2, the last pod open beneath it, the whole wreathed in vines and battered by rain, but still fulfilling its mission.. .

So not fan writing (as I have committed myself) but a sort of respectful exploration. Not so respectful were the Anderson references in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a series of disastrous spacecraft each named for the way its predecessor was destroyed.  So Pancake XL4 was destroyed in  a fireball. ...!

AR: Ah, with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (that made me laugh, by the way!) we’re veering dangerously close to another of my youthful obsessions, which is the art of Kevin O’Neill. And that in turn makes of think of another Thunderbirds pastiche, the comic strip Ro-Busters, which originated In Starlord in 1978 and then passed to 2000AD. Instead of International Rescue and Jeff Tracy, it’s a rescue organisation operated by robots, and run by “Mr 10 Per Cent”, because only a tenth of him is still humanoid. The initial format was very similar, though: there’d be a high-tech disaster of the week, with the robots (all with different designs and capabilities) swooping in for the rescue. It worked because the robots were given memorable designs and personalities and the whole thing was fantastically well drawn. Their main vehicle was a very Gerry Anderson-like craft and the whole thing was set 100 years in the future. Going back a little further, I remember the strip SOS International which ran in Speed & Power for a while, which I remember rather enjoying at the time. It was less fanciful than Thunderbirds, set near enough to the present day, but the format was broadly similar. It’s hardly surprising there’s still mileage in the concept. I notice, incidentally, that among all the discussions about the series, the Supermationation films, the newer animation and the various homages, we’ve tactfully avoided saying anything at all about the 2004 movie. What a let down! I’ve mostly blanked it from memory, but I wonder if it’s still as terrible as it seemed at the time. Talk about not grasping the point of the franchise.

SB: Yes, we ought to talk about TBAG, and that 2004 movie... in which commander Riker,  having crashed the Enterprise, crashes International Rescue! You’re right I think, they looked for a Hollywood story within the overall premise, and missed the point of the franchise.  And clearly it didn’t have legs,  no sequels. I remember Anderson saying he hated it. But, looking for good points. ... we saw it in the cinema with families and kids, and it held their attention. The adults too, enough in jokes etc to hold the attention. I  thought the craft were well enough done, and the sight of TB2 coming to the rescue brought a lump to the throat. Maybe it was a necessary step towards the decent modernisation that is TBAG.  And... it had a corking closing track by Busted, cue lots of little kids jumping up and down singing Thunderbirds Are Go! Imprinted for life,  like their older siblings in the 1990s.

AR: Fair enough! Good call on the Busted song, by the way. I’d missed that. I just had a look at the Youtube comments under the video and it’s full of people expressing immense fondness and nostalgia for a film and soundtrack they experienced all the way back in 2004! So you might be onto something there.



By and large (moving onto the new animations) I think TBAG is a very successful updating, and I guess it must be going well or they wouldn’t keep making it. I found the scheduling very odd, it was difficult to keep track of, almost as if they were trying to bury it, and at some point I realised I’d missed most of season two so didn’t bother pursuing it. But I got some DVDs of it for Christmas so now I’m catching up again. I like the fundamentally forward-looking and optimistic tone of the series, very much in keeping with GA’s vision, and the set designs and machines all look good. I can’t easily tell what’s model work and what’s CGI, which I think shows how well it’s all integrated. The storylines are fast moving and necessarily simple, but there’s still an intelligence behind it. It’s probably closer in pace to the original conception of Thunderbirds, before Lew Grade insisted that GA make the episodes longer.

SB: Yep, I would endorse all you say about TBAG. They clearly stuck to the basic premise.  Even though there were plenty of climate-crisis type settings as the boys dealt with accidents in waste reclamation sites and the like, basically their version of the 2060s was, just like the 1960s precursor,  hopeful, a world at peace more or less, a positive place.  Give or take the Hood and other master criminals!  A future you would want to live in, and a hopeful vision for the present day 7 year olds, as the Anderson future was for us back in the 1960s. Making a pleasant changed from too common  dystopian visions.  As you say the modelling and CGI worked very well, the craft were true to the originals – but I did like the upgraded TB5, a very modern hub of smartness. And also plenty of nods and winks for we oldsters, lots of refs to the originals – the Tracy boys watching Stingray on TV! The scheduling always seemed odd but I think it spanned 5 years of broadcasts, in chunks. Sadly however I  don’t think it ever had the resonance of the 1960s original. But I do remember a parent of 5 year olds,  about the time of the 2004 movie, saying that kids came out of Star Wars whacking each other with light sabres,  while after Thunderbirds they came out saving people. Maybe you can’t have a better legacy than that!

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

This week in Hard SF





From Dragon's Egg, published in 1980.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Two things

Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe have been doing 10 minute podcast interviews with various writers as an extension to their weekly Coode Street features. Jonathan and I chatted last week, mentioning a few books in passing, and the results are here:

http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/wp/2020/04/18/episode-390-ten-minutes-with-alastair-reynolds/

Be sure to check out the other podcasts, and my thanks to Jonathan and Gary for taking the time to give us these chats.

As mentioned in the previous post, I've also done a streamed discussion with my friends from ESA/Space Rocks, Mark McCaughrean and Alex Milas, and the excellent Pippa Goldschmidt. You can view the results (and other Space Rocks uplinks) here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnGPFIotcy6_GxiPravuk7w

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Space Rocks Uplink


A thing happening tomorrow evening (5.30pm BST, 6.30pm CEST) with Pippa and me, as a Space Rocks initiative during Covid 19.

Subscribe here.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Far Future in science fiction


Here's an unpublished essay on the far future, which was written as a chapter for an academic text on modern SF. The chapter was written at short notice after the original author (identity not known to me) was unable to deliver their contribution.

I was asked to concentrate my discussion on more recent works of SF, with an emphasis on post-2000 material. I was also invited to discuss my own works in this context, which I did. In their comments, the editors asked that I spend less time discussing Gene Wolfe, but I was then told not to rush to make any alteration as the book's production was likely to be delayed. In the end the book was never to appear, so after a few years (especially as no payment or contract ever eventuated) I've deemed it safe to offer this chapter in its submitted form, in the hope that it's of some interest.


If science fiction’s endlessly renewing well of nightmares is the day after tomorrow, then the deep, distant future may be the last refuge of its boldest and brightest dreams. No matter how desperate the stakes, no matter how dark the narrative, the mere existence of something resembling a human viewpoint is itself an act of optimism, however veiled. When all the signs point to calamity, and it becomes impossible to think about the near term in anything but dystopian or post-apocalyptic terms, the far future offers narrative and imaginative freedom – scope for the writer, and at least a glimmer of hope for the reader. For that reason each new generation of science fiction writers has found something of value in the form, without it ever becoming the dominant mode of the genre.

No two readers of SF will agree on what constitutes the near future, so there’s precious little chance of arriving at a common definition of the far end of things. Clearly there is some interposed hinterland of medium-term SF somewhere between the two forms, but where ought the upper threshold be set? A few hundred years seems too soon; a thousand might be nearer the mark. Ideally, perhaps, we expect stories of the far future to be set at least millennia from now, perhaps many tens of millennia, or even millions of years. This suggests to me that one loose definition might be any work of SF set further from the present than the current historical record extends into the past – with some useful leeway, of course. A secondary factor, common to many far future works, is that there is no clear line of continuity between the present and the imagined setting: either there has been too much history to annotate, or there are lacunae in the known record. Often, the exact date of the narrative is purposefully unclear.




Sometimes the dates are explicit, though. The author of this chapter can state with great certainty when he was first exposed to the notion of the far future, and it was through the work of HG Wells. Not the novel of The Time Machine, though, but the George Pal film, with its exuberant depiction of time travel eight hundred thousand years from the present. The opposed cultures of the Eloi and the Morlocks, surrounded by the vast ruins of prior ages, would exert a considerable hold on the author’s imagination. Similarly, Wells’ vision of the future as one of decay, stagnation and cultural loss – a bleak waypoint on the slide into the entropic heat death of the entire universe – would serve as the default template for much of the speculation that followed, from William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories and the Urth sequence of Gene Wolfe. Even Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, although ultimately breaking loose of the entropic tramlines, commences in similarly bleak, desolate terms, with its opening conception of Diaspar, last city on Earth, hemmed by a world-englobing desert.

If the far future is a recurring staple of literary SF, it is remarkable how infrequently it is a setting in the visual media. Star Wars may feel estranged from our own era by a vast gulf of time, but we are told explicitly that the action takes place in the past. Star Trek, for all its forays into Earth’s history, rarely had anything to say about events significantly further into the future. Other than the aforementioned Time Machine, filmed twice, and various efforts to translate Frank Herbert’s Dune into visual terms, cinema has not been much interested in distant times. Perhaps the concern is that audiences need a familiar proxy, easier to achieve when the setting is close to the present. Guardians of the Galaxy may look and feel like a golden age space opera, but the action is near the present and the main character is a contemporary human with a handy liking for antiquated pop-rock.

Modern science fiction cinema rarely ventures more than a few decades into the future, and even when it does the setting is purposefully set-dressed so as not to be too estranging. Characters might pilot starships or drive flying cars, but they will also wear jeans and leather jackets and affect a taste for contemporary rock music. Known brand names will proliferate, and reassuring anachronisms abound. The future is really just the present, but with more stuff in it. Attempts to visualise more remote times, such as the far future strands in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, adapted from the David Mitchell novel, have not generally been met with unanimous critical or commercial success, although the efforts should be applauded. It would be a brave director, though, who trusted her audience to embrace a story set a million or more years in the future.

The one glorious and continuing exception to this aversion is Doctor Who, which – throughout its history – has been very much at ease with distant times, from the terraformed Pluto of the Sunmakers, to the richly visualised human-robot society of The Robots of Death. Even an adventure with a period setting, like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, may make casual reference to remote future events. This has remained a welcome feature of the revived series: in only the second episode of “New Who” we were taken to a space platform to witness the end of the Earth. Yet there has been a cautious and deliberate shift in the presentation of the future between the two eras of Who. Now the producers seem keen to de-estrange the future, to dress it up in commonplace props and contemporary costumes, as if nervous of upsetting their viewers’ sensibilities. Thousands of years from now business executives still favour suits and ties; soldiers wear berets and camouflage fatigues; tight t-shirts and baggy combat trousers remain in fashion.

No matter how big the budget, then, there are always going to be themes that prose science fiction approaches more commitedly, more challengingly, than the genre’s visual forms. And while written science fiction might depend on the reader’s own mind’s eye to supply the effects treatment – with varying degrees of success - it remains capable of lighting up areas of the brain that other media rarely stimulate. If it were otherwise, writers would surely have abandoned the form by now, knowing that nothing they set down on paper could ever match the visual spectacle of the latest blockbuster.
And yet, they haven’t. Quite the opposite, as we shall see. A slew of exciting new writers have been particularly attracted to the thematic potential of the far future, and the well does not seem likely to run dry any time soon. Their work points to a sustained process of reinvigoration, opening up narrative spaces for the generation of writers yet to emerge, and perhaps beyond.

Before we touch on these newcomers, though, we need to say a word or two about the science fiction writer who did more than any other to shape science fiction’s shared fever dream of the deep future, especially as it stood in the final decades of the twentieth century. That writer, of course, is Gene Wolfe – arguably one of the most significant figures to enter the field in the nineteen seventies. Wolfe had planted a flag in the far future with The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1975), but it was the Urth sequence that truly cemented his reputation, beginning with the Shadow of the Torturer (1980), continuing across the four books of the The Book of the New Sun, and then developed further in other linked series.

Wolfe’s work is interesting in numerous respects, but few texts have achieved such a deeply felt evocation of immense futurity as the The Book of the New Sun. Exactly how far in the future we are is never made entirely clear (in Wolfe things seldom are), but some sense of that span of time is conveyed in the final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), when the narrator Severian is compelled to make a perilous descent down a great cliff, the revealed strata of which turn out to be the compressed remnants of numerous earlier human cultures, all of which postdate our own. Wolfe’s creation is full of such resonant images, none more beautiful than Urth’s green-faced Moon, blanketed with forests so long ago that no one remembers it otherwise.

It is generally held to be science fiction, but on the surface many of the trappings appear to be those of standard-issue epic fantasy. Almost everything that appears to be fantastical, though, can be rationalised as the product of some forgotten or misunderstood technology. In this sense Wolfe makes literal Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.” In this case we can make the distinction – most of the time.
Echoes of Wolfe’s work permeate a number of later novels and series with far future settings. One of the first of these was David Zindell’s sublime Neverness (1988), which mapped Wolfe’s careful diction and sepulchral atmosphere onto a rich space operatic canvas, in which pure mathematics is the governing logic of hyperspace navigation. More novels in the same setting followed, and then Zindell shifted into epic fantasy.

Published on the cusp of the century was Paul J McAuley’s Confluence trilogy (1997-1999), set millions of years from now – a human expedition to and from the Andromeda galaxy is one of the incidental plot points – and located on the titular structure, a giant artificial platform shaped like a ruler and populated by colourful human and posthuman cultures, and in which motifs from the past and future jostle and clash in jangling, scintillating disharmony. As with Wolfe, McAuley’s language is dense, allusive and elusive, placing a large burden of attention upon the reader, but with significant rewards for those prepared to invest the effort. It paints a future saturated in the traditions of the past, as in this passage from Shrine of Stars (1999):

“Pandaras thought sleepily of the armoury where he had once worked for one of his uncles, of the cauldrons where metals were smelted. One of his tasks had been to skim dross from the surface of the molten metal using a long-handled wooden paddle. The paddle had been carved from a single piece of teak and was badly charred; you had to dip it in a wooden pail of water before each sweep, or else it would catch fire. It seemed to him now that this work had been the reverse of what happened in the world, where the good refined themselves out of existence, leaving only the dross behind.”

The Confluence novels were subjected to a degree of revision before being republished as a single volume in 2015.

A Wolfean tone – or at the very least a Vancean one, that primary inspiration to Wolfe himself – haunts some of the work of the extremely versatile Liz Williams, most notably in Winterstrike (2008), which splits its action between a matriarchal society on a post-terraforming Mars and a vividly realised drowned Earth, some unguessable span of time from now. Winterstrike is itself a distant sequel to the far future Banner of Souls (2004). Williams’ imagination conjures a ghost-operated technology dancing just on the edge of magic, but rendered with total conviction.

Less obviously indebted to Wolfe is Robert Reed, one of the great under-appreciated writers of the last couple of decades. Reed has struck an astonishing well of inspiration in the thematic possibilities of the remote future. Central to his output is a continuing sequence of stories set in and around the “Great Ship”, an enormous – no, really enormous – cosmic vessel, circuiting its way around the Galaxy at slower-than-light-speeds and populated by a vast cargo of different species, only a few of which have obvious ties to humanity. The Great Ship stories are too numerous to mention, but an excellent starting point might be the novella Marrow, later expanded into a novel. Reed’s stories may feature strange aliens and weirdly embodied posthumans, but he is careful to give them recognisable – even endearing - foibles, meaning that we quickly relate to them as characters, no matter how many limbs or sensory organs they have. Tonally similar, although unrelated, is the far future of the novel Sister Alice, in which advanced posthumans grapple with engineering projects on a daunting galactic scale. As with the Great Ship sequence, one of Reed’s signature motifs is to deploy immensities of time and space in an entirely offhand manner, as if it were perfectly unremarkable to skip across aeons or megaparsecs – as indeed it would be, from the viewpoint of these lofty, almost godlike protagonists. In “The Sarcophagus”, a recent and characteristic short story, a single “event” – the inevitable collision between a marooned, drifting space explorer and the unstoppable Great Ship – plays out across centuries, even though it will only ever be a tiny footnote in the Great Ship’s history.

The far future has always been of particular fascination to me, and I have returned to it time and again in my own fiction. The blame, as with so much else, can be set squarely at the doors of Clarke and Asimov: the former for The City and the Stars, and the latter for The End of Eternity, with its conceptualisation as time as a kind of plunging municipal elevator shaft, with each door leading into a different era. Clarke’s opening evocation of Diaspar sent a powerful shiver through this adolescent reader, conveying a visceral sense of deep futurity, of millions of years passing like lazy afternoons.

I toyed with the far future in the latter sections of my sixth novel, Pushing Ice, but it was only with House of Suns, my eighth, that I really embraced the setting. It was my attempt to emulate the cosmic vistas of Stapledon, Clarke and Wolfe, but with a nod to the modern, post-cyberpunk sensibilities of Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Robert Reed and others. My novel dealt with the starfaring clones of a single human woman, tasked with exploring the galaxy in great slower-than-light circuits, before reconvening for a bachanalian sharing of memories. Although countless galactic empires had risen and fallen since the first circuit, the protagonists remained psychologically bound to a much earlier era, and were as much goggle-eyed tourists as I hoped the reader would be.

For my most recent book, Revenger, I pushed even further into the future for a narrative set about ten million years after the dismantling of the solar system into a cloud of artificial micro-worlds. My fragile human society, though, clinging to existence amid the haunted, dangerous relics from prior eras, was purposefully modelled on a familiar period from our own past: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the literary models were Moby Dick and Treasure Island.
I am clearly not the only writer fixated by the far future as a potent setting.

Significantly, perhaps, three of the most noteworthy debut novels of the last half decade all had far future settings. Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011) introduced a remote human colony dominated by a technology based on genetic manipulation of insects. It was the first of a “bugpunk” trilogy featuring the tough, war-weary protagonist Nyx, a mercenary caught in the squalid machinations of planetary power-politics, and told with staggering assurance. Although some of the novel’s events seem difficult to rationalise as anything but the intrusion of fantasy into a science fictional setting (even allowing for Clarke’s dictum), it remains a powerful and lacerating read. Hurley’s next series was a fantasy trilogy, but a return to space operatic science fiction is promised.

Few writers have made as much of a splash with their debut novel as Ann Leckie did with Ancillary Justice (2013), a book which went on to be nominated for – and to win – many of the top awards in the field. From the outset, Ancillary Justice (the first of a trilogy) pitched the reader into a sweepingly realised far future of a settled galaxy under rigid military rule. The humanoid protagonist is the one surviving sentient component of a military starship, the Justice of Toren, and the plot delves back a thousand years into the prior actions of the vessel. No detectable trace remains of our own era, and social and political mores have undergone considerable evolution. Indeed, one of the significant features of the novel – and one that drew much commentary at the time of publication – was the almost total obliteration of overt gender signifiers from this future, with female pronouns being applied nearly universally to all characters, regardless of biology.

Most recently, Yoon Ha Lee’s striking debut novel Ninefox Gambit (2016) takes place in a galaxy under the subjugation of an empire built around strict adherence to “calendrical” rules, a system of thought so pervasive that any deviation from it is viewed as an attack on the fabric of reality itself – which indeed it may be.

The novel takes in an interstellar war fought using extremely disturbing forms of future weaponry, with little or no explanation as to how these devices operate. As with the Hurley, some of these imaginative flourishes seem difficult to rationalise under any system of physics, but one of the strengths of the book is its abject refusal to explain or justify. Like Leckie’s debut before it, Ninefox Gambit places a commendable burden on the reader to accept and assimilate the terms of a highly unfamiliar setting, with little in the way of explanation or backstory to link our present to the imagined future. This is science fiction without the explanatory voiceover, science fiction without the opening scroll – and it’s all the more effective for it, even if you must press on through the first couple of chapters with a giddy confidence that things will begin to make a kind of sense. Fortunately they do. Kameron Hurley,Yoon Ha Lee and Ann Leckie look set to be significant voices in the decade to come, and we await their next moves with interest.

The alert reader will have noted that all three of these novels concern themselves with planetary or interstellar war of some species. This is not to their detriment – each is fresh and distinct from the others, each has important points to make – but it would be a shame if war were the only fit topic for the future, no matter how intelligently handled. Perhaps we can take some encouragement from the ever fecund imagination of Greg Egan, who – in novels like Diaspora (1997), Schild’s Ladder (2001) and Incandescence (2008) has shown that a starfaring human civilisation will have more than enough to worry about in the future besides internecine warfare. In Schild’s Ladder, for instance, the central crisis is a runaway physics event, a bubble of altered spacetime rupturing into the universe. The details of the interstellar society confronted by this emergency are carefully thought-through, with Egan having little truck with the outmoded furniture of classical space opera or hard SF. In fact his novels stumble into the far future almost accidentally, by virtue of their staunch refusal to admit of any mode of travel faster than the speed of light, and only then under strictures of punishing plausibility. At times he reads as if he his the only writer thinking really, really seriously about the future.

Clearly there is no risk of writers abandoning the far future as a mode, especially given the enthusiasm with which it has been adopted by some of the newest entrants into the field. For these voices, the far future is the optimum setting to explore significant questions about identity, human nature and destiny, without being quagmired by the need to explicate how we get from here and there. Equally, they may be in it for the fun as well. The far future is still the mode of SF least embarrassed by the field’s pulp background. One of the strengths of the form, in fact, is that it permits a joyous celebration of exactly this gaudy, lurid heritage, while in no way being hamstrung by it. While his Kefahuchi Tract novels are set a little too close to the present to fit comfortably within the remit of this essay – the space operatic sections are a mere four hundred years down the line - few writers have made better use of the modern SF writer’s star-spangled paintbox than M John Harrison, his trashy, battered, neon-lit vistas reminding us – as in this excerpt from Nova Swing (2006) - that the far future is as much about texture and feel than strict adherence to calendars:

“Most of the quarantine ships were huge; pocked and used-looking; alive with the dim crawling lights of old beacons and particle dogs. Typically you found old pipeliners that had worked the Carling line, obsolete Alcubiere warps the size of planetesimals even with their relativity drivers torn off; anything with a thick strong hull, especially if it was easy to reinforce further. Other things they had in common: they were mined, with high-yield, top-shelf assets from the EMC catalogue; and their hatches were welded tight. No one was sure what kind of atmosphere they now contained, if any. Inside, whatever their age or origin or state of outer preservation, they had only two qualities: pitch dark or light too bright to bear. Hundreds of them, as far as you could see, rolling around forever in gluey braided orbits, drifting together and then apart. Once in six months, complex resonance effects put them on collision courses. Alarms went off. An engine fired for a millisecond or two in the dark.”

No one sees things quite like Harrison.

The truth is, though, that many fiction readers do not in general wish to consider stories set in anything but the present or the historically familiar past. Science fiction only exists because there is a narrow subset of that audience willing to engage in narratives set beyond the present day. But even then, there is an understandable desire that the future not be too unfamiliar or lacking in relatable details.

Because it purposefully eschews the familiarity of near and medium term settings, the far future story will never be more than a minor theme within the larger genre – an acquired taste within an acquired taste. Nonetheless the far future will remain a potent setting for science fiction for as long as the form exists – into, we hope, the far future itself.