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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dragon Slayers

I didn’t specifically set out to take pictures of dragon slayers last Wednesday, but by the end of the day I realized I had five of them. Together with another four photos I already had, I decided that was enough for a blog post!

There are plenty of dragon-slaying legends, many of them symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. In this sense the ultimate dragon-slayer must be St Michael – the Biblical archangel who defeats “the great dragon, the primeval Serpent, known as the devil or Satan” (Revelation 12:9). Three versions of this story are depicted above. The one in the middle is a picture I took in the Louvre in Paris two years ago, which featured previously in my post Monsters, Mystery and a Monkey. It’s an early work by Raphael, dating from around 1504.

The other two pictures I took in the National Gallery in London last week. The one on the left is by another Italian painter, Piero della Francesca, and dates from 1469. It’s less dramatic than Raphael’s version, and the dragon looks... well, unimpressive to say the least. The picture on the right was painted the previous year, 1468, by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo. His dragon is the weirdest-looking of the three – the caption describes it as “a monstrous creature, part-reptile, part-bat”.

The other saintly dragon slayer that everyone has heard of is St George (who is the patron saint of England, despite having no historical or legendary connection with the country). The story of George and the Dragon is essentially a Christianized version of the archetypal dragon-slaying legend (cf. my earlier post on Dragons and Dinosaurs), in which a community regularly appeases their local dragon by feeding it young female virgins. Then they suddenly realize the next in line is the King’s daughter, so it’s time to find themselves a dragon-slayer.

Here are three pictorial versions of St George and the Dragon, all by Italian artists:
The one at top left is by Raphael again – it’s a companion piece to his picture of St Michael and hangs next to it in the Louvre. To its right is a later version (circa 1555) by Tintoretto, which I saw in the National Gallery last week. Interestingly this reverses Raphael’s perspective – it has the fleeing princess in the foreground while St George, on horseback, fights the dragon in the background. I think Tintoretto’s version is much more dramatic – a kind of High Renaissance version of a “damsel in distress” pulp magazine cover!

The third picture is also in the National Gallery. It’s by Uccello, dating from around 1470, and has a more cartoony look than the other pictures. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the strange (and rather Fortean-looking) atmospheric phenomenon looming in the background behind St George.

A less well known dragon-slaying legend is that of Apollo and Python. The latter was a giant serpent-like dragon in Greek mythology (after which the snake genus was named), which according to legend was slain by the god Apollo. I have to admit I’d never heard of this legend until I saw Turner’s painting of it in the Tate Gallery last week (I’ve been rude about Turner in the past, but he’s started to grow on me since I saw the film Mr Turner).

At first sight Turner’s “dragon” looks very snake-like, although if you look closely there is a huge claw-like hand visible. Basically it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s going on, which is a generic problem I have with most of Turner’s work (he painted two other “horror” pictures, one of Death on a Pale Horse and one of Sea Monsters, which are even more confusing).

Finally, here are a couple of mediaeval dragon-slayers from Somerset. The one on the left can be seen on the wall of the church in Stoke-sub-Hamdon, and was featured previously in my post on Dragon Symbolism. As I said in that post, it may be intended to represent St Michael, due to its proximity to a hill called St Michael’s Hill.

I saw the dragon-slayer on the right a few weeks ago in Wells Cathedral, on the wall of the staircase leading to the Chapter House. I don’t think he’s meant to be anyone famous – I’ve seen him described variously as a “peasant”, a “priest” or a “pilgrim”. With his right hand he’s holding one of the pillars which support the roof, while casually using his left hand to slay a small dragon with his walking stick!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

More Fortean Fiction from CFZ Books

Pictured above are three recent releases from the CFZ Publishing Group’s “Fortean Fiction” imprint. Although only one of the books has my name on the cover, I had a small hand in the other two as well. The one on the right is Hyakumonogatari by Richard Freeman – a really excellent collection of 25 Japanese-themed horror stories, which is a kind of a fictional spin-off of his Great Yokai Encyclopaedia. The newest book, shown in the middle, is an equally excellent collection of short stories by Kate Kelly called The Scribbling Sea Serpent.

I worked for the same employer as Kate Kelly for almost 20 years, although mostly at different sites so we never really crossed paths. It was only after I went back there a couple of years ago as a part-time contractor that I discovered she is also an aspiring writer. Her first book, a young adult novel called Red Rock, was published in 2013. It’s marketed as “cli-fi” (a new sub-genre of science fiction dealing with climate change), but with a distinctly Fortean twist – the melting icecap reveals evidence of an ancient high-tech civilization that may or may not have known the secret of limitless free energy.

As I mentioned before (in The World’s Weirdest Publishing Group), it was only after CFZ brought out my own short story collection, The Museum of the Future, that I realized how short-staffed they were. I offered to help out in various ways, and one of the first jobs Jon Downes pushed my way was the reissue of Hyakumonogatari. This was originally published in 2012, but had since been re-edited.

My task here was pretty straightforward – simply insert the newly edited text into the existing page template. But for a couple of reasons I ended up redoing the page layouts completely. Partly this was in response to constructive feedback on The Museum of the Future from Brian Clegg, but also because I just didn’t get on with Jon’s choice of software – I found it easier to start from scratch with a program I was more familiar with!

When I told Kate about my work on Hyakumonogatari, she wondered if Jon would also be interested in publishing a collection of her own stories. To cut a long story short he was, and The Scribbling Sea Serpent is the result. The title comes from Kate’s blog, and the book contains a mixture of previously published stories and brand new ones – 22 in total. In terms of genre the stories are a mix of science fiction and weird fiction – all written in a reassuringly traditional style that wouldn’t have been out of place in Weird Tales or Astounding Science Fiction 60 years ago... but often with a modern twist to the subject matter (Kate has a peculiar enthusiasm for global ecological disasters). The book lives up to the “Fortean Fiction” label, too, with ancient mysteries lurking in the rural English landscape, interdimensional portals opened up by shamanic rituals, archaeologists digging up alien artifacts, restless ghosts... and, as the title suggests, sea monsters!

Because it was a new book and not a reissue, I had more to do on The Scribbling Sea Serpent than on Hyakumonogatari. As well as editing the stories for publication and fitting them into the page template, I also had to design the front and back covers (with assistance from Kate and Jon... not to mention public domain clip-art). It was a lot more work than I’d expected – I always thought producing books was easy, but I’ll know better in future! Fortunately it’s a really first-rate book, so I’m happy to have been involved with it (the same is true of Hyakumonogatari).

At this point you’re probably thinking “No matter how good The Scribbling Sea Serpent is, if Andrew May had a hand in it there’s bound to be at least a minor cock-up.” I’m not sure I completely follow your reasoning, but as it happens you’re right. There’s a small error that crept in at the very final stage of production, which is fairly obvious once it’s pointed out to you. On the other hand, I don’t believe anyone will spot the error unless it’s pointed out to them. To prove me wrong you’ll have to buy the book! Here are the links:
(Kindle versions will be available in a few weeks).

Sunday, 14 June 2015

An Astounding Prediction

Astounding Science Fiction started life as a pulp magazine, but by the latter half of the 1940s it had moved upmarket. It was printed on thinner, better quality paper in a smaller paperback-style format. The covers, as you can see from the examples above, were considerably less garish than pulp magazines of the period such as Planet Stories. Astounding’s writers tended to be more thoughtful and sophisticated than their pulp counterparts, too – and so were its readers, to judge from some of the letters printed in the magazine. Perhaps the most famous of these appeared in the November 1948 issue (the one with The Players of Null-A on the cover). I’ve written about it before, in Science Fiction Prophecy – but that was 12 years ago now, and it’s bang on topic for this blog, so I thought I’d mention it again.

The letter in question was written by Richard A. Hoen of the University Club in Buffalo, New York. When I wrote the first piece I knew nothing at all about him, but according to an obituary that appeared in 2010, he was a 20-year old student when he wrote his famous letter. At first sight it was nothing special – just his personal ratings and a few other comments on the stories that featured in a particular issue of the magazine. A lot of “letters to the editor” took that format. The extraordinary thing in Hoen’s case was that the issue he was critiquing was the one dated November 1949 – exactly 12 months after the issue his letter appeared in!

Spookily enough, when November 1949 duly came around, that month’s Astounding bore an uncanny resemblance to Hoen’s description of it. But that wasn’t because of any great precognitive powers – or the possession of a time machine – on Hoen’s part. If that had been the case, then the match between his description and actuality would have been perfect, or nearly so – but in fact there are several major discrepancies. Basically the match is as close as the magazine’s editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., could make it!

Or maybe Hoen “saw” some slightly alternative version of the future. Maybe that was what Campbell was thinking when he printed Hoen’s letter in 1948. His comment at that time was: “Hm-m-m – he must be off on another time-track. ‘Fraid it’s not THIS November ‘49.” But by the time November 1949 came around, Campbell was pretty close to being able to put the issue together the way Hoen had described it. His editorial in that issue, “Science Fiction Prophecy”, makes the point that certain types of prophecy, once they’ve been made, have a tendency to be self-fulfilling: “Generally, a desirable, practically attainable idea, suggested in prophecy, has a chance of forcing itself into reality by its very existence. Like, for example, this particular issue of Astounding Science Fiction.”

So what aspects of his prediction did Hoen “get right”? Quite a few, as it turns out. All three short stories listed by Hoen are there in the actual magazine: “Final Command” by A. E. van Vogt, “Over the Top” by Lester del Rey and “Finished” by L. Sprague de Camp. So is the novelette, “What Dead Men Tell” by Theodore Sturgeon.

Hoen mentions two non-fiction articles, by R. S. Richardson and Willy Ley. There’s nothing in the actual magazine by Willy Ley, but there is an article by R. S. Richardson – although on a different subject from the one mentioned by Hoen.

Hoen scored another near-miss in one of the magazine’s two serialized stories – “Gulf” (part 1 of 2) by Robert A. Heinlein. Hoen doesn’t say the story is serialized, and he gives the author’s byline as Anson MacDonald – although he also refers to him as R. A. Mac H., so it’s clear he meant the story to be written by Heinlein (“Anson MacDonald” was a pseudonym Heinlein used earlier in his career).

Hoen describes the November 1949 cover as being the work of Hubert Rogers, which it is. As you can see from the photograph above, the cover story is “...And Now You Don’t” by Isaac Asimov. This again is a serial, the first of three parts, which was subsequently published in book form as the final two-thirds of Second Foundation (the first third, “Now You See It...” appeared in the January 1948 issue, seen in the bottom left of the photograph).

But Hoen doesn’t mention Asimov at all in his letter. In his version of the magazine, the cover story is “We Hail” by Don A. Stuart – a pseudonym that Campbell himself used on a number of stories back in the 1930s. You might imagine this would be the easiest part of the prophecy for Campbell to make come true, yet he didn’t. Maybe, as a full-time editor, he just didn’t have the time or inclination to write a story himself!

The actual cover story, by Asimov, contains an interesting bit of “prophecy” itself. On the penultimate page of this instalment, one of the characters exclaims “What the black holes of Space are you d...doing aboard this ship?” There’s nothing odd about that, you might think, because black holes are among the most outlandish and exotic things to be found in outer space. But the use of the term “black hole” in this context only dates from the 1960s! Anyone encountering the phrase in the book version of Second Foundation may imagine it’s a later editorial change, but as you can see from the picture below it was there in the original 1949 magazine!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Fortean Episode of Columbo

There are two types of 1970s nostalgia: the kind you remember if you were around at the time, and the kind everyone remembers – even people who weren’t born yet. Most of the “TV heroes” featured in the one-shot magazine pictured above (undated, but I would guess 1974 or 1975) fall in the first category, but Columbo is a perfect example of the second. Originally just one of a rotating series of Mystery Movie titles (together with Banacek, The Snoop Sisters, Macmillan & Wife and several others), Columbo episodes continued to be reshown, year after year, long after the others were forgotten. Today in the UK, Columbo reruns can be seen regularly on both ITV and Channel 5.

The original Mystery Movie series ran from 1971 to 1978, but Columbo was sufficiently popular that it was brought back for several more seasons starting in 1989 (the original series aired in the USA on the NBC network and in the UK on ITV; the revival was shown on ABC in America and on Sky in Britain). The first episode of the new series, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine”, is described at IMDb as follows: “An egocentric psychic murders his old mentor, a magician charged to expose him as fraud, by beheading him while he’s rehearsing his guillotine trick.” That sounds interesting enough, and it’s pretty much how I remembered the episode from having seen it a quarter of a century ago (soon after I acquired a cable TV connection). But having watched a rerun on Channel 5 a few weeks ago, the episode is actually much less clichéd – and far more Fortean – than that brief synopsis suggests.

[Just to state the obvious before going any further, nothing I say here is going to constitute a plot spoiler. As with virtually all Columbo episodes, this one takes the form of an inverted mystery, in which the audience learns the identity of the murderer, and his motive and method, right at the outset. The spoiler would be to say how Columbo disentangles the evidence, and I’m not going to do that.]

The first thing that struck me as Fortean – or at any rate something that’s going to make more sense to someone interested in Forteana, rather than the clichéd expectations of a casual viewer – is that the “psychic” in the story works for a government-funded institute for psychic research, rather than performing his feats in front of a public audience. For me, this is a potentially much more interesting – and realistic – setting. What’s also realistic is that the institute’s director, Paula Hall, is pulled in two opposing directions. On the one hand, she wants to carry out a serious scientific investigation of extra-sensory perception, which (as in the real world) involves looking for small statistical glitches in long, laborious experiments. On the other hand, she needs to keep those government funds coming in – and that requires the kind of impressive, unambiguous results that can only be achieved by cheating.

Her star psychic, Elliott Blake, may or may not have a genuine paranormal talent – but there’s no doubt he’s a highly skilled trickster. The two of them have worked out routines to fool the government observers, but even in private they keep up the pretence that Elliott really does have an underlying extrasensory talent – although it’s one that can’t be relied on to perform to order. In the case of Elliott, this attitude is probably out-and-out charlatanism; in the case of Paula it may be more along the lines of wishful thinking. I thought this was a clever touch, because it reflects a common phenomenon in the Fortean world – some people seem to think it’s OK to falsify evidence as long as it supports something they sincerely believe in (I could stray off the subject here and start talking about Bigfoot bodies and alien autopsy videos, but I won’t).

A relevant quote from the IMDb article (spoken by Elliott Blake): “Our Mr. Harrow is not impressed by statistics. This man is in the market for miracles. I have the power to astonish him, you, and the entire world, Paula, but I am not a dancing dog in a carnival!” Mr Harrow is a shadowy government agent, interested in ESP because of its potential use in espionage: he wants “a demonstration that you can telepathically and precisely intercept the thoughts and actions of an enemy”. This again is a touch of realism; in 1989 the Cold War was still in full swing. Keeping a step ahead of the enemy – by whatever means possible – was the government’s Number One priority.

The opening scene of the episode shows an experiment with Zener cards (circle, cross, wavy lines, square, star) of the kind that really were used in laboratory ESP experiments. When Columbo first sees them they are simply referred to as “ESP cards”, but later he uses the technical term “Zener card”. Perhaps the dumbing-down editor (I assume all TV shows have such a thing) crossed out “Zener” in one part of the script and missed it in another!

Another clear Fortean reference is the “Randi” poster hanging on the wall of the victim’s workshop. The Amazing Randi, of course, is a professional magician who has a sideline in exposing fake psychics. The same description fits the aforementioned victim – Max Dyson, or “Max the Magnificent”. He has two jobs – one is debunking frauds on behalf of the government and other clients, and the other is making magic props such as the guillotine Elliott Blake uses to kill him. But contrary to what you might expect (and what I’d remembered from 25 years ago), Elliott doesn’t kill Max because he was on the point of exposing him as a trickster. The story is a lot cleverer than that... you really ought to check it out next time you see “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” in the TV schedules.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Project Greenglow

 There’s another book review by myself in the latest issue of Fortean Times magazine (FT 328, pictured above). This time the subject is Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control by Ronald Evans. I also reviewed the same book, from the perspective of a different audience, for Brian Cleggs’s Popular Science website. I gave the book a rating of 8 out of 10 for Fortean Times and (after a bit of negotiation with Brian) three stars for Popular Science, which translates as “Good solid book, well worth reading if you are interested in the topic”.

Having reviewed the book twice, I’ll just refer you to those reviews rather than reviewing it again here. Instead, I thought I’d say a few words about my own peripheral involvement in Project Greenglow (which, if you’ve read one or both of my book reviews, you will know was a long-running “blue skies” research initiative led by Ron Evans when he worked for BAE Systems).

Until a month ago, I’d never seen my name mentioned in a book (apart from ones I wrote or contributed to myself). Now it’s happened twice in quick succession! The first was in the introductory note to David Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World, which I wrote about last week (I’m one of a long list of people that David thanks “for their input both past and present”). And then I’m mentioned twice in the Greenglow book – first in the introduction, where Ron says I provided “additional backing for the Greenglow venture” (which is true, albeit only in the form of encouragement from the sidelines, rather than active participation) and again in the acknowledgements at the end, where I’m listed as one of half a dozen people who read and commented on an earlier draft of the book.

In May 1996, around the time Project Greenglow got underway, I was seconded to the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall for three years as a scientific adviser (this was the high point of my career – it’s been downhill ever since then). This put me pretty close to the centre of things. If I crossed the corridor to my boss’s office and looked out of the window, I could see the gates of Downing Street (John Major was still Prime Minister when I arrived, replaced by Tony Blair a year later). For some even more impressive name-dropping, a couple of floors higher up the building, almost immediately over my own office, was none other than Nick Pope himself! As I said in a previous post, “by that time Nick had moved on from his stint on the UFO desk, but he had already become a major celebrity within UK ufology”.

As I also mentioned in that earlier post, my own job was concerned with advanced air vehicle research. Like Nick Pope, I was what they called a “desk officer” – which in my case meant monitoring a large number of other people’s research projects without actually (ahem) doing any real work myself. The most futuristic of the projects in my remit was a collaborative effort with BAE Systems (or British Aerospace, as it was called in those days), and that’s how I met Ron Evans. But as “futuristic” as this project was, it still used well-established textbook physics. That wasn’t the case with another of Ron’s interests, Project Greenglow, which deliberately set out to discover brand new physics in the realm of gravity control. Greenglow was purely a BAE initiative (I mean it was funded and directed by them, and carried out in various university departments around the UK), so I didn’t have any active involvement in it myself. However, I made no secret of my interest in the subject, and Ron was good enough to treat me as a kind of honorary member of the Greenglow team.

As I said in the Fortean Times review:
One of the biggest events in the field of “gravity control” during the Greenglow years was the announcement by the Russian scientist Evgeny Podkletnov of a possible gravity shielding effect caused by rotating superconductors. This made mainstream headlines when the news first broke in 1996, and an attempt to duplicate Podkletnov’s experiment was one of the main strands of Project Greenglow itself.
I was lucky enough to see the latter at first hand, when Ron invited a couple of colleagues and myself to visit the Greenglow experiment at Sheffield University in May 1998. This is certainly the closest thing to “weird science” I’ve ever seen in a university laboratory! Unfortunately the experiment failed to reproduced Podkletnov’s gravity-defying results – although it was done on a shoestring budget, so it wasn’t able to reproduce the original experiment exactly (for example the superconducting disc used in Sheffield was much smaller).

One of the things Ron was very good at was networking, and he put me in touch with a lot of fascinating characters, including several people involved in NASA’s “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics” program – which was similar in its objectives to Project Greenglow, if higher profile. At one point I got a call on my office phone from the American science fiction author – and science speculator – Robert L. Forward (who sadly died a few years later). Definitely the closest thing to a cold call from a celebrity I’ve ever received!

After I moved back to my old job following the temporary posting to MOD, Ron continued to keep me in touch with the Greenglow “network”. I talked about one of the weirder experiences to come out of this a few years ago in Stranger than Fiction. After Ron’s retirement in 2005, he sent me an early draft of his book to look through. It’s taken a long time, but I’m glad to see he finally got it published.

The book may be a little on the technical side for some people, but it ought to be essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in the subject of “breakthrough physics”. To get your copy, just click on the appropriate link below!

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from (paperback)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from (Kindle)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from Amazon UK (paperback)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from Amazon UK (Kindle)

Sunday, 24 May 2015

How UFOs Conquered the World

 As you can see from the photograph, the latest addition to my collection of UFO books is How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke. Despite having a picture of a child on the cover, it’s one of the most grown-up books on the subject I’ve ever come across. My review of it appeared on Brian Clegg’s Popular Science site last weekend. At that time I hadn’t read any other reviews of the book, so I was pleased to see on David’s own blog the next day that both the Sunday Times and Magonia described it in very similar terms to myself.

The clever thing about this book is that it’s not about UFOs per se, but about how people think and talk about UFOs, and the way this has become inextricably interwoven with popular culture over the last 70 years. As David Clarke demonstrates, this is a subject that can be analysed methodically, intelligently and – most important of all – constructively. That’s what I was getting at when I described the book as “grown up”. It’s a refreshing antidote to the childish to-ing and fro-ing between uncritical speculation on the one hand and destructive debunking on the other.

The book’s subtitle is “The History of a Modern Myth”. This uses myth, not in its colloquial sense of “popular misconception”, but its original sense of “pre-scientific world-view”. As the author says: “To qualify as a myth a story does not have to be true or false, but it must express a conviction held tenaciously by its adherents. It is a defining characteristic of myths that, like the extraterrestrial hypothesis, they are immune to scientific scrutiny.”

I don’t want to repeat large chunks of what I said in the review, but I will quote one bit which highlights just how “immune to scientific scrutiny” modern ufology has become:
The X-Files went on to provide one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive dissonance arsenal, by popularising the idea that ‘They’ (the government, NASA et al) are actively concealing the truth about UFOs. This hypothesis – which Clarke points out is unfalsifiable – allows any awkward counter-evidence to be dismissed as ‘disinformation’.
One striking thing occurred to me while I was reading the book which I didn’t have space to mention in the review. As far as the extraterrestrial hypothesis is concerned, there is simply too much evidence for it, not too little. I’m not referring to evidence that would convince a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal (neither of which has ever been convinced, of course), but evidence of the type commonly cited by UFO believers. There are too many UFO sightings (750 in the UK alone the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released). There are too many Roswell-style “crashed saucer” incidents (more than 200, according to one website). And too many people claim to have been abducted by aliens (2.5 million British citizens, extrapolating from a survey carried out in 2014). Those figures are simply too big to make sense in the context of extraterrestrial visitation. On the other hand, they make perfect sense in the context of a social and/or psychological phenomenon.

Of course, some UFO reports may still be “true” (i.e. real extraterrestrial spacecraft) even if the majority are not. But the extraterrestrial hypothesis remains nothing more than speculation. On the other hand, it's an indisputable fact that there is a fascinating psychosocial phenomenon at play, independent of the truth or otherwise of the ETH. That’s what I meant when I said David Clarke’s book is constructive, not destructive.

You can read my full review here. I gave the book four stars, which in the context of the Popular Science site where it was posted means “Excellent book that any popular science fan would want to read”. From a Fortean perspective, however, the rating would be a resounding five stars – definitely as good as they come. You can get your copy by clicking on the following links:

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Fake News and Lazy Journalism

Earlier this year I wrote about the huge upsurge in Fake News Stories circulating on social media. The Snopes website is very good at identifying and debunking these stories, and a few days ago they had an interesting article on Fake News Sites to Avoid Sharing (from which the above graphic is taken). The first paragraph emphasizes the cynical financial motive behind most of these “fake news” stories:
The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks [...] and a number of frequent offenders regularly fabricate salacious and attention-grabbing tales simply to drive traffic (and revenue) to their site.
There’s another factor at play though, besides deliberate fake news sites. That’s lazy journalism by mainstream media, who often repeat a far-fetched claim without attempting to check up on its background and credibility. There was a good example of this last week (admittedly a slow news week here in the UK, what with the General Election) when several tabloids chose to run the “Roswell Slides” story at face value:
  • “REVEALED: Images of Roswell ALIEN found in wreckage of crashed UFO almost 70 years ago” (Daily Express, 6 May 2015)
  • “Is this evidence of alien life? New Roswell photos prove ‘beyond any doubt’ that ET exists, claim UFO specialists” (Daily Mail, 7 May 2015)
In fact the images in question look less like a dead alien in a government laboratory than a child mummy in a public museum (which is what they almost certainly do show). But if the papers had said that, they wouldn’t have sold as many copies.

The latest issue of Animals & Men magazine (issue 53, May 2015) contains a letter from me on another example of lazy journalism with a Fortean flavour. You can read the whole issue online for free (my letter is on pp. 70-71), but here is the gist of what I said:
[...] The mainstream media appear to judge the newsworthiness of Fortean-type stories not by their credibility but by their outrageousness. A case in point was the “Whitstable giant crab” you mentioned on page 25 of Issue 52. This started out as a whimsical piece of artwork in issue 301 of Fortean Times (May 2013), which was a special tribute issue to the actor Peter Cushing on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Whitstable was Cushing’s adopted home, and the magazine included a lighthearted feature on “Weird Whitstable”. The article was the work of artist Quinton Winter, and the idea that a giant crab can be seen on Google Earth images of Whitstable was just one of his inventions. Sadly, however, it seems that people these days simply aren’t wired up to understand irony. In October 2014, it was reported as a genuine news story in the Sunday Express, soon followed by several other tabloids including the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Within days, the story of “Crabzilla”, as it became known, had gone viral on social media around the world! (Source: Fortean Times issue 321, December 2014, page 2).

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Lusitania Conspiracy

From a quick glance at the cover of my book Conspiracy History (a close-up of which is shown above) you might think it includes a section about the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. Actually it doesn’t – although it might have done, since there is no shortage of conspiracy theories associated with that event. But the ship shown on the cover is not the Titanic but her lesser known rival RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat a hundred years ago this month, on 7 May 1915.

I wrote about the basic facts of the case in an online article What Happened to the British Ocean Liner Lusitania? last year. But for the conspiracy angle, here is what I said in the book:
The RMS Lusitania was launched by Cunard in 1907. At 32,000 tons she was one of the largest passenger ships of the time, becoming a regular on the lucrative transatlantic route between Liverpool and New York. By April 1915, some nine months after the outbreak of the First World War, the Lusitania had completed no fewer than 200 Atlantic crossings.

Britain was one of the countries fighting the war. British ships like the Lusitania were prey to German U-boats, particularly in the waters around the British Isles which Germany had declared to be a War Zone. The United States remained neutral in the war, but was happy to supply Britain with arms and ammunition – transported across the Atlantic on whatever ships had space in their holds.

When the Lusitania arrived in New York on 24 April at the end of her 201st transatlantic crossing, she was duly loaded up with shells, machine gun ammo and other explosives in addition to almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Of the passengers, 139 were U.S. citizens – many more Americans had been deterred from travelling by a notice the German embassy had placed in newspapers warning that the ship was a legitimate target for their submarines.

On the last day of the return trip – 7 May 1915 – when the Lusitania was less than a day away from docking in Liverpool, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the coast of Ireland. The huge liner sank almost immediately, with the death of more than a thousand people – including 128 of the 139 Americans on board. In light of the German warnings, this tragic outcome seems all but inevitable.

Why did the British allow the Lusitania to sail, without an armed escort, through the very waters the Germans had declared to be a War Zone? There are only two possible answers – either the government was grossly incompetent, or they knew exactly what they were doing. Most conspiracy theorists would put their money on the second of these. Britain didn’t like the fact that America was remaining neutral in the war – they wanted to see Americans fighting alongside them against the Germans. An atrocity like the sinking of a civilian liner was just the sort of thing that could swing American public opinion in their favour. Shortly before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill – who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty – had written to another minister that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Translating from the deliberately obscure phraseology of the professional politician, this boils down to “the sooner an innocent ship gets sunk, the sooner the Americans will join us in the trenches”.

As it turned out, the ruse – if it was a ruse – was not immediately successful. Instead of joining the war, the Americans secured a promise from the German government that an incident such as the sinking of the Lusitania wouldn’t happen again. It was only when the Germans withdrew this promise, early in 1917, that the United States finally decided it was time to go to war.
That’s just one of the 69 historical conspiracies discussed in the book. At the last count, there were still several billion people in the world who haven’t bought their copy yet, so you might be able to snap one up if you hurry:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Camelot, maybe

Hill-forts are among the most impressive pre-Roman structures to be found in Britain. They are particularly common in southern England, as Paul Jackson described in his blog post A Handful of Hill Forts. Despite the name, hill-forts weren’t really military structures so much as small, self-contained towns that were defended by artificially built ramparts. An example can be seen in the photograph above, which shows Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Cadbury Castle was built during the Iron Age, around 500 BC, and was continuously occupied until it was overrun by the Romans in the first century AD, in what seems to have been a particularly brutal and violent event. According to the Somerset County Council website, there is “clear evidence of destruction by fire and the massacre of a group of inhabitants”. However, after the departure of the Romans, the South Cadbury site was reoccupied and redeveloped in the early Middle Ages.

In 1533, a man named John Leland was given a commission by King Henry VIII “to make a search after England’s Antiquities”. This assignment took him to all corners of the country, including the Somerset village of South Cadbury, where he wrote “At the very south end of the church of South Cadbury standeth Camelot, sometime a famous town or castle” and that “The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard say that Arthur much restored to Camelot.

In other words, Leland was saying that Cadbury Castle was nothing less than King Arthur’s Camelot!

Now King Arthur is one of the most frustrating figures in British history. Almost everyone has heard of him, but there is no firm consensus on what century he lived in, what kingdom he ruled over, or even if he existed in the real world at all. As I said last year in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur:
Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
According to this view, it’s not that unreasonable to suggest that Cadbury Castle might have been associated with King Arthur – possibly even one of his main courts. It was occupied at the right time, and it’s in the right place. I made this point in my book Bloody British History: Somerset:
Cadbury Castle is one of the best natural defences on what would have been the eastern border of Dumnonia. Although the hillfort had existed for more than a thousand years in Arthur’s time, its modern name dates from precisely that period. Cadbury means ‘Cado’s Fort’... and Cado was king of Dumnonia around the time Arthur was born. Archaeologically, too, the evidence points to the site being an important military installation of the period. It was refortified in the fifth century with massive stone walls, and in the middle of the hilltop a timber-framed Great Hall was built – a splendid palace fit for a King!
These days, the only structure on the top of Cadbury Castle is a stone plinth dated “2000 AD” (see picture below). The plaque on top of this shows the directions and distances to a number of other places in southwest England. I struggled at first to discern a common theme to these, eventually deciding that they're all places dear to the hearts of hippies and New Agers! There are nine places in all, as follows:
  • Two other “Arthurian” sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury
  • Two other hill-forts, Ham Hill and Maiden Castle
  • Another Iron Age site, Hengistbury Head, which was a busy seaport and trading centre
  • Two megalithic sites, Stonehenge and Avebury
  • Lamyatt Beacon, the site of a Romano-Celtic temple
  • Alfred’s Tower, an 18th century folly commemorating Alfred the Great

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Isaac Newton and me

The studious-looking geek in the above photo is me, at the age of 21 in 1979, posing in front of a portrait of Isaac Newton. The picture was taken in Trinity College, Cambridge, at the top of I staircase where I had a room during my third year at university. I staircase is about 200 feet along the east front of Great Court from E staircase, where Newton himself lived for many years (although I staircase, which is a 20th century utilitarian monstrosity, wasn’t there in his time).

Along with Einstein, Newton was one of the scientific heroes of my teenage years. I read a biography of him in 1973 (as I’ve mentioned before, I kept a list of all the books I read) and visited his birthplace in Lincolnshire a year or two after that. So I was pleased to end up at Newton’s college, Trinity, even though I had no say in the matter. The school I went to (a comprehensive in the West Midlands, before you ask) had a tradition of trying to get its best science student into that particular college each year. All I needed to do was get three grade As at A-level (I got four, just to be on the safe side).

After I graduated (the day that photo was taken – I didn’t always dress like that) I went to Manchester University to do a PhD on the computer simulation of galaxy dynamics. That may sound very modern and state-of-the-art, but the only science involved was 100% Newtonian. In three years I never had to use a single equation that isn’t present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica that Newton wrote in 1687. So I owe Newton my doctorate, too!

Just over a year ago the History Press (which published my first book, Bloody British History: Somerset) started a new series of short biographies called Pocket Giants. I was intrigued by this idea (as I’ve said before, I like short books) so I contacted the series editor, Tony Morris, to see if there was anything I could do for him. After batting a few ideas around, we eventually zeroed in – perhaps not surprisingly – on Isaac Newton. Tony was as enthusiastic about the project as I was, and with his encouragement and constructive input the proposal was accepted by the History Press, the contract signed and the book written in the space of a few months last year.

Despite being a lifelong fan of Newton, I still learned a lot about him while I was researching and writing the book. Perhaps the oddest thing about him – which is more widely known today than it was in the 1970s – is that he spent less time on the scientific work for which he’s remembered than on pursuing non-scientific interests like alchemy, Hermeticism, theology and ancient history. There’s a common tendency to view the scientific and non-scientific (or even anti-scientific, by modern standards) activities as separate and non-overlapping. Scientists see the non-scientific work as an irrelevance and embarrassment that ought to be ignored and forgotten, while mystics and New Agers see the scientific work as the irrelevance – a kind of smoke-screen of acceptability designed to hide Newton’s real achievements.

I came to the conclusion that both these views miss the point. Everything Newton did stemmed from the same world-view – the idea that the universe was designed, by God, according to a simple code that could be rediscovered if it was searched for carefully enough. Newton looked for the code in the Bible and other ancient writings, and in the work of alchemists and Hermeticists. But he also looked for mathematical relationships that applied to the material world – something that seemed just as mystical and improbable to his contemporaries. But Newton’s “applied mathematics” worked – and worked so well that it’s become synonymous with mainstream science. Both scientists and New Agers have forgotten, or can’t see, what a profoundly mystical notion it is.

This was the point I tried to make in a blog post I wrote last week for the History Press. My original title was “Isaac Newton and the Key to the Universe”, which I thought was quite clever, but they wanted to tie it in with the series so they changed it to Why was Isaac Newton such a giant? (It was meant as a rhetorical question, but one clever lady on Twitter replied “Because he stood on the shoulders of giants”).

Needless to say, all these ideas are explored in more detail in the book itself, together with lots of other fascinating facts about Newton (such as how he perpetrated a UFO hoax as a teenager, predicted the end of the world and became “17th-Century London’s Dirty Harry”). You can order your copy from any good bookseller or from Amazon.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Cerne Giant

The Cerne Giant is one of the best known features of the Dorset landscape. In fact it’s such a familiar image that it’s easy to forget just how bizarre and unique it is. As I pointed out 18 months ago in my post about Phallic Symbols (mostly small ones), “gigantic erections are something you almost never see in mainstream European art”. Although they went to the trouble of inventing a word, ithyphallic, to refer to the artistic depiction of a sexually aroused male, it’s usually limited to ancient cultures and/or other continents. In this part of the world, ithyphallic images disappeared almost completely with the departure of the Romans in the fifth century. Nudity of any kind never really returned to British art, even during the Renaissance period when it was quite common in the rest of Europe (albeit with tiny little dicks).

Also from around 18 months ago is Paul Jackson’s “Armchair Tour of Britain’s Hill Figures”, the first part covering White Horses and the second everything else. In the latter category, there is only one other human figure besides the Cerne Giant – the Long Man of Wilmington. There’s a similarity between the two, in that both are simplistically drawn outline figures, but also an obvious difference – the Long Man of Wilmington hasn’t got his dick out.

A fact about hill figures that isn’t always appreciated is that they require constant maintenance – decade after decade, century after century. Paul gave a first-hand account of what needs to be done in his post Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse last year. The first step is weeding and trimming to prevent the outline from becoming overgrown, followed by re-liming (in the case of Paul’s White Horse, using over a ton of powdered lime) to restore the figure’s whiteness. Without this sort of attention, generation after generation, a hill figure would eventually be lost to sight and forgotten.

This brings us to the most contentious question about the Cerne Giant: How old is it? Only one of the figures in Paul’s survey – the Uffington White Horse – has been accurately dated to prehistoric times, with most of the others being a few centuries old at most (the Broad Town White Horse, for example, was created in the 19th century).

The oldest surviving records of the Cerne Giant date from the second half of the 17th century. As a result, many skeptical websites (Wikipedia among them) assume it must have originated around that time. One theory is that it’s a caricature of Oliver Cromwell – England’s puritanical leader following the Civil War of the 1640s. This makes sense up to a point. The obscene image would certainly have offended Cromwell and his followers (who took the Biblical injunction against graven images very seriously), and it’s placed in clear view of what would have been a busy road between Dorchester and Sherborne. But on closer inspection the theory is ludicrous.

It’s all very well for people in the 21st century to sit at their computer screens and say “maybe it was a 17th century political cartoon”... but does it look like a 17th century political cartoon? As I said at the start, nude figures – let alone rampant erections – were conspicuously absent from British representational art in those days. It’s true that the people who opposed the Puritans (and came back to power with the Restoration of Charles II) sometimes went to the opposite extreme – a notorious example being the satirical entertainment Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (which includes some great character names like Fuckadilla and Clytoris)... but that was only in discrete private circles, not on public display for everyone to see!

Also, why depict Cromwell bald-headed and whiskerless, when he wasn’t? Why depict him holding a club and not a pistol or musket? Real caricatures of Cromwell are quite different in style, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to his identity. Here is one of him dressed as a king and here he is consorting with the devil. Even crudely drawn cartoons of that period are quite different in style from the Cerne Giant, as you can see from this example or this one. All the adult male figures are shown with long hair and beards, and dressed in the fashion of the times.

The theory that the Cerne Giant is a 17th century caricature seems to be an internet-era thing. I looked in various history books, guidebooks etc that I’ve got (mostly dating from the 20th century) and couldn’t find a single mention of it. Out of 11 books I consulted, one says that nothing is known about the giant’s history, seven suggest it’s a depiction of Hercules from the Romano-British period, and three that it represents a pre-Roman deity.

The association with Hercules is based on similarities of iconography. The ancient Greek hero, who was also popular with the Romans, was often depicted holding a club in one hand and a lion skin in the other – and archaeological evidence does indeed suggest that the Cerne Giant might once have held a lion skin (or something similar) which has since been erased. But Hercules isn’t usually ithyphallic. I said earlier that the Romans often depicted enormous erections, but that was almost always in the context of one specific deity, Priapus. Hercules, on the other hand, usually had a tiny little one (see the second picture in my earlier blog post for a particularly amusing example).

Personally I think it’s more likely that the Cerne Giant originated in pre-Roman times. The artistic style looks pre-Roman, for one thing, and the Uffington White Horse proves that chalk hill figures were not unknown in Iron Age Britain. Maybe it was subsequently adapted by the Romans into a depiction of Hercules, which would explain how it survived into the fifth or sixth century AD. But what happened then?

The full name of the village where the giant is located is Cerne Abbas – the “Abbas” suffix indicating that the village was attached to a mediaeval Christian abbey. At a time when anything pagan was automatically assumed to be the work of the devil, it’s difficult to believe the monks did any proactive maintenance work on the giant (and may even have deliberately tried to obliterate it). So perhaps it was lost to sight and forgotten until the 17th century, when it was rediscovered and restored – hence the misconception that it was actually created at that time.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Madame Xanadu

Madame Xanadu #1 (pictured above left) dates from 1981, but I bought my copy much more recently than that. I can’t remember exactly when or where, but it was probably about 10 or 12 years ago. I don’t often buy DC comics, so it was obviously an impulse buy – probably on account of the Tarot cards on the cover, which is a subject I’ve always found fascinating. Quite apart from the Tarot connection, though, it’s a really good story. I was reminded of it last week when I saw a Madame Xanadu trade paperback (pictured above right) in a local shop. It was reduced to £4.99 so I bought that too. The story isn’t quite as perfect as the first one, but it’s still great fun.

The character of Madame Xanadu first appeared in a comic called Doorway to Nightmare in 1978, but the story in Madame Xanadu #1 is pretty self-contained. The setting is Greenwich Village, the same as the early Dr Strange stories (see Master of the Mystic Arts). But there’s little indication at this stage that Madame Xanadu has the same kind of supernatural powers as Dr Strange – the character is basically just a Tarot card reader (albeit one with genuine psychic powers and a rather mysterious background). The story includes a detailed Tarot reading as an integral part of the plot, and there’s a text article on the inside front cover about the history and use of the Tarot.

The story itself isn’t really about Madame Xanadu though, but one of her clients. It’s a variation on my favourite occult cliché – bored teenager starts to dabble in witchcraft for a giggle... gets drawn into a big grown-up world of sex and drugs... ends up summoning timeless demons who don’t give a toss whether she lives or dies. Then enter Madame Xanadu, and cue the happy ending!

The trade paperback, Madame Xanadu: Broken House of Cards, is one of a series collecting issues from a later incarnation of the Madame Xanadu title – the ones in this volume date from 2010. By this time, Madame Xanadu has been retconned as a powerful supernatural being from Arthurian mythology. Personally I feel this is a backward step, because it makes the character harder to believe in and relate to (for me, anyway), and it reduces the title’s Unique Selling Point – the use of Tarot cards – to little more than a cover story to hide the protagonist’s secret identity, instead of her primary talent. But that’s just my opinion – other people may disagree.

Having said that, it’s really a very enjoyable story. It’s set in the late 1950s, which gives it a nice retro feel (even in the 1981 comic, it was implied that Madame Xanadu had occupied the same Greenwich Village premises for several decades without appearing to get any older). There are a number of threads to the story, including one about a cult of devil-worshippers called the Church of the Midnight Dawn. As in the earlier story, the people involved are portrayed as predominantly middle-class and driven by boredom (as you can see in the sample panels below). I imagine that’s true of real-world Satanists, too... although in the real world they probably end up having a promiscuous orgy instead of conjuring up demons from hell. But you can’t have an orgy in a comic book, so you get the demons instead – which is much better!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Natural Law Party

There’s an interesting article in the current issue of Fortean Times called “Westminster Weirdos”, all about the nuttier fringes of British politics. The main focus is on the parties contesting next month’s General Election, but there’s a brief mention of a very nutty fringe party that fielded a number of candidates way back in the General Election of 1992: the Natural Law Party.

All the policies of the Natural Law Party centred around the practice of Transcendental Meditation (that’s a special kind of meditation devised by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best known as the Beatles’ guru in the 1960s). When they first appeared on the British political scene in 1992, I happened to be particularly interested in wacky New Age beliefs, reading lots of books on the subject and attending lectures at the Theosophical Society and Buddhist Society and places like that. So I was fascinated by the Natural Law Party, and I’ve kept their campaign leaflet (pictured above) ever since. According to Wikipedia, William Stevens of the Natural Law Party got 92 votes in the 1992 General Election. I think one of those was mine, although at this distance in time I can’t be certain!

As you can see from the back cover of the manifesto, Transcendental Meditation would be good for the economy (by making people more creative), good for education (by increasing intelligence), good for defence (by creating an “invincible national consciousness”) and good for law & order (by eliminating the cause of crime, i.e. “the inability of the population to think and act spontaneously in accord with natural law”). You may say that’s all a load of unworkable idealistic nonsense, which of course it is – but no more unworkable than the idealistic nonsense purveyed by the mainstream political parties! There’s a difference, too – the mainstream parties have an annoying habit of talking down to the electorate, as if we’re all a bunch of ignorant yokels. That certainly wasn’t the case with the Natural Law party, as you can see from this interior page from the leaflet:
“Time to Bring the Light of Science into Politics”. That sentiment appealed to me, since I was working as a scientist at the time. But for most people it would have had the opposite effect – an instant turn-off! Especially as the science in question was fundamental physics, which is one of the most abstract, mathematically complex disciplines of all. Just zoom in on the left-hand side of the page and look at all those symbols and equations! Admittedly they’ve been annotated with user-friendly words like “FREEDOM”, “SIMPLICITY” and “OMNIPOTENCE”, but they’re still pretty daunting for the non-mathematician.

The thing that is depicted, as it says at the bottom, is “the Lagrangian of the superstring”. Now, how many people know what to do with a Lagrangian? I used to know, but I’ve forgotten – and I expect that most people who studied physics at degree level will say the same thing. To everyone else, it’s just so much mumbo-jumbo... which I guess is why only 92 Battersea residents voted for them!

It’s not mumbo-jumbo, though – it’s real science (the equation, I mean – not the bits about omnipotence and freedom). The image below shows, on the left, a zoomed-in view of the bottom line from the Natural Law manifesto. On the right is a closely similar equation from the book Why Does E = mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. They describe it as “one of the most wonderful equations in physics”, and go on to say: “It really is possible to get a flavour of what is going on just by talking about the symbols without knowing any mathematics at all.” Sadly, however, they don’t say anything about “IMMORTALITY” or “INVINCIBILITY”.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Skull the Slayer

Skull the Slayer was a short-lived series from Marvel Comics that ran for just 8 issues, cover-dated August 1975 to November 1976. That was a time when I was buying at least half a dozen Marvel titles a month, but not this one – in fact I don’t even remember being aware of its existence. It’s a fascinating concept, though, combining two of the most popular Fortean themes of the seventies – the Bermuda Triangle and Ancient Aliens.

I bought the six comics pictured above at the London Super Comic Convention earlier this month. I mentioned the two Silver Age bargains I picked up, for just £2 each, in my post about Jack Kirby’s Universe. These Bronze Age oddities came from the same stall and were a mere £1 each – unbagged, but all in excellent, scarcely handled condition. They didn’t have issues 1 or 4, but I got the rest of the series. The final issue, #8 in the bottom right-hand corner, even has a cover by Jack Kirby. That’s one of the two covers that still work well at thumbnail size – the other being #6 in the bottom left corner, which is by far my favourite of the six covers (I’ll come back to it at the end of the post).

Whatever image the title “Skull the Slayer” conjures up in your mind, the actuality is a lot wackier than that. Having flown through a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, the four protagonists find themselves transported into the distant past, where ancient aliens have built a huge tower-like construct that pulls in creatures from all different stages of Earth’s history (meaning you can have dinosaurs and cavemen in the same story, for example, which is always a good thing). It isn’t clear why the aliens did this (not to me, anyway), but by the time the action takes place there’s only one of them left, living in this tower and watching robot versions of King Arthur’s knights fight endless battles with the sorceress Morgan-le-Fay. This occurs about half-way through the series, and marks the high-point of the daftness curve – the earlier and later issues are a lot better.

There are a couple of references to the historic Bermuda Triangle. In issue 3, as the protagonists approach the Time Tower, they come across the skeletal remains of dozens of airmen and sailors who presumably vanished inside the triangle at various times in history. Then in the final two issues they encounter a U.S. Navy pilot, Captain Victor Cochran, who was sent out to search for Flight 19 in 1945 (the original flight of five torpedo-bombers which started the Bermuda Triangle mystery – see my post about The Mystery of Flight 19). After passing through the time vortex, Cochran was found by a tribe of Inca warriors who have worshipped him as a God ever since.

The four main characters are an interesting mix of 70s stereotypes: an ex-soldier, an egghead scientist, an outspoken feminist and a long-haired teenager. “Skull the Slayer” is the nickname of Jim Scully, a Vietnam vet who spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He may have been a nice guy once, but the war left him resentful and untrusting – the perfect seventies anti-hero. He’s constantly squabbling with the war-hating, establishment-hating scientist, Dr Corey. The latter’s assistant, Ann, is one of those feminists of the blonde-haired, large-breasted, scantily-clad, grenade-throwing variety that particularly appeals to adolescent male comic book readers (and probably never existed in reality).

The least interesting character is Jeff, the teenage boy. Presumably he was meant to be a surrogate for the reader, but he hardly does or says anything, and has no discernable personality. I can’t help feeling the writers should have gone a step further and made him a real comic book geek, saying things like “Whoa, cool, dude” every time a T. Rex or barbarian warrior makes an appearance! As for the bearded, middle-aged, mega-brained scientist – I’d hoped he would be someone I could relate to myself, but the guy is a total jerk. At the end of #3, for example, he leaves his colleagues facing almost certain death in the Time Tower so he can run off and explore some its more fascinating technology (OK, that probably is what I’d do, come to think of it).

Coming back to that great cover in the bottom-left of my photo (which is by Conan artist John Buscema) – the creature Scully is grappling with is meant to be an ichthyosaur, a ferocious marine reptile of the Jurassic period. Now it just so happens that I may have had an encounter with one of these creatures myself earlier this month. I spent a day fossil-hunting at Lyme Regis with Paul Jackson and his wife Melanie, and among other finds Paul picked up the object shown in the photo below (it’s sitting on the cover of a pocket-sized booklet, so you can see how tiny it is). I’m not sure, but I think this might be a tail-end vertebra from a baby ichthyosaur – which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds, because such things are quite often found as pebbles on that particular stretch of beach.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Three difficult things that are easier than Mars One

Mars One, the reality TV initiative aimed at setting up a Martian colony twelve years from now, has been in the news again. Much of this recent publicity has been extremely negative, with scathing criticisms from various members of the scientific and aerospace establishments. For a project that needs a strong public image to secure investment, this kind of negativity is extremely damaging. In fact it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the project ends up collapsing, its supporters will no doubt blame the negativity of the skeptics, while the skeptics themselves will gleefully say “I told you so”.

Personally I never like being negative about other people’s bright ideas, but in the case of Mars One it’s hard not to be. The flaw lies not so much in their proposed solution, as in the problem they’ve chosen to solve. Getting humans to Mars is still beyond the capabilities of much more experienced organizations, such as NASA, Roscosmos and ESA, who have had far longer to think about it (the illustration above is from a study NASA did in 1964, over 50 years ago).

Rather than rehashing all the arguments for and against, I thought it would be fun to list three things that have never been done, but any one of which would still be a lot easier than setting up a human colony on Mars. Each of my three projects involves solving just a small subset of the problems facing Mars One, instead of having to solve all those problems simultaneously (and others as well).
  1. Set up a human colony on the floor of the ocean. This is just as inhospitable to human life as the surface of Mars, so you need to address all the same problems of a safe, self-contained living environment. But the destination is a lot closer, so it’s easier to get material down there. We also know for a fact that there’s enough water, oxygen and food nutrients to sustain the colonists indefinitely (with suitable processing) – something that has to be taken on faith in the case of Mars One. The deep-sea environment is more interesting than Mars, too, teeming with unfamiliar life-forms that would make much better TV than the virtually dead world of Mars. Finally, a trip to the ocean floor doesn’t have to be a one-way one, so the colonists wouldn’t be doomed to die if and when the TV show was cancelled.
  2. Establish a permanent base on the Moon. Technologically, this is easy – it’s basically the same as building the ISS, but a quarter of a million miles away instead of in low earth orbit. A quarter of a million miles may sound a long way, but the journey is more than a thousand times shorter than the Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars. On top of that, there are several opportunities to launch lunar missions every month, whereas Mars missions are limited to brief launch windows every two years. Even more importantly, the low lunar surface gravity means that getting people back to Earth is nothing like as difficult as it is from Mars. So rather than having to set up a permanent colony, you can rotate crews the same way they do with the ISS. In terms of reality TV this is great news, because it means you could run monthly competitions where the prize is a trip to the Moon. Lots of people willingly pay large sums of money each week to play the lottery, and I’ll bet many of them would do the same for a chance to visit the Moon (and appear on TV into the bargain).
  3. Send low-budget robot probes to Mars with a better than 95% success rate. That’s the kind of reliability that would be needed for crewed missions, but it’s only ever been achieved for top-of-the-range spacecraft like the Curiosity Rover – not the sort of budget hardware that a private venture like Mars One will have to use. As a general rule, Mars missions have a depressing tendency to fail – the overall success rate is just 47%. Unlike the previous two items, I’m not suggesting this one would make a good reality TV show. Quite the opposite, in fact – it’s all about rocket science, which is virtually guaranteed to have viewers switching to another channel. But that’s an important point in itself. While there’s plenty of human interest involved in setting up a Martian colony, there’s a lot of boring science and engineering too – and it’s the science and engineering that’s going to end up eating up all the money. It would be a lot smarter, in my opinion, to pick something like the ocean floor or lunar project, which offers the same level of human interest with far fewer technical challenges.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Jack Kirby's Universe

I went to the London Super Comic Convention yesterday, where the high point for me was the Jack Kirby panel in the afternoon. This was hosted by Russell Payne of the online Jack Kirby Museum (on the left in the picture above), and included two of British comicdom’s best known figures: Dave Gibbons, co-creator of Watchmen, and TV personality Jonathan Ross. Sitting between them is a younger American creator named Tim Seeley. Having been a Kirby fan since the 1960s, I found the panel a fascinating mix of nostalgia and insight (a lot of the latter coming from Jonathan Ross – which may surprise people who only know him from TV, but he really is very knowledgeable and eloquent when he gets onto the subject of comics).

Not everyone has heard of Jack Kirby, but everyone has heard of the comic-book characters he helped to create. The Wikipedia category Characters created by Jack Kirby has no fewer than 308 entries, including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Loki, the Hulk, the X-Men, Ant-Man, the Red Skull, Peggy Carter and Groot. Some of his creations had a distinctly Fortean flavour, as pointed out by a Forum writer in Fortean Times a few years ago (FT277, July 2011): “Kirby’s science fiction series The Eternals (originally entitled The Return of the Gods) was inspired by Erich von Däniken’s cosmic conspiracy tome Chariots of the Gods.” And one of my own very first blog posts was about Kirby’s “Face on Mars” story from 1958.

Sooner or later any discussion of Kirby’s creations is going to zoom in on one highly emotive issue: he didn’t own any of them. This is particularly tragic in Kirby’s case, because he created so many characters who are central to modern popular culture – but the same is true of any comic creator of his generation. It was the way the industry worked in those days: an artist was paid a flat fee to create heroes and villains, which then became the property of the company they worked for (Marvel, in the case of all the characters I’ve mentioned so far). That’s completely different from the way prose literature works, where the author retains ownership of any characters they create.

But there’s a flip side to this, which had never occurred to me until Jonathan Ross pointed it out yesterday. I’m going to have to be careful how I say this, because it may come across as a defence of corporatism, which it absolutely isn’t. Of course Jack should have retained ownership of all his creations, and of course Marvel should have paid him a royalty every time they reused one of his characters in a subsequent comic book (or more recently, in a blockbuster movie). That way Jack would have been a richer and happier man in his old age, and justice would have been done.

But if that had been the case, history would have unfolded differently. If Marvel had to pay royalties every time they used Captain America, or Thor, or the Hulk, they wouldn’t have used them anything like as much as they have done. The amazing way that Jack Kirby’s creations have been continuously recycled and reinvented for new generations would almost certainly never have happened. You can’t just point at Groot, for example, in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and say “Kirby’s family should be getting royalties for that” – because if that was the legal situation, it probably wouldn’t have been Groot in the movie but a newly created character.

If you name a Marvel superhero, there’s a good chance Jack Kirby had a hand in the creative process. But that’s not the case with Marvel’s chief rival, DC comics. It’s true that Kirby did create plenty of characters for DC – a whole sub-universe known as the Fourth World – but they’re not the well known ones. Everyone has heard of Superman and Batman, but only comic-book geeks have heard of Darkseid and Orion. The convention yesterday was overflowing with cosplay Poison Ivys and Harley Quinns, but there wasn’t a single Big Barda in sight (much to my disappointment).

Jonathan Ross offered the view that Star Wars is basically a plagiaristic rip-off of Kirby’s Fourth World saga. I’ve come across this theory before, and I’m not convinced by it. There are parallels, of course, but it may be more a case of “great minds think alike”. As Tim Seeley pointed out, it’s known that George Lucas consciously based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – and it’s likely that Kirby was unconsciously digging into the same source material.

Out in the main hall, I studiously avoided all the expensive dealers and focused my attention on the bargain bins. I managed to find the two Kirby-era Marvel comics pictured below for the incredibly low price of £2 each. The one on the left, Strange Tales #128, is in fairly battered condition, although it’s complete and unmarked. The cover is by Jack Kirby, and it also has one of the Ditko Dr Strange stories I wrote about a few months ago (it even includes the original of the Dr Strange pinup, my version of which featured at the bottom of that post). The other £2 comic is Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos #45 (with art by John Severin, although the character – an early incarnation of Nick Fury, later of S.H.I.E.L.D. – is yet another Kirby creation). It’s in just about as perfect condition as you can get for a 1967 comic.