the sunport vista:

november 2016

Thought for the day...

2016 November 30th:  Rounding off this month's Diary, some comments on the recent discussion in Dylan's Inorganic Character of RSS Mars.

In particular, with reference to the idea that if there is Martian life, it might be in danger from terrestrial interference:

The classic "Worn Out Mars" of The Sands of Mars provides an entrancingly optimistic take on this question.  What I love about it is that, although not naive, the book is suffused with a positive, optimistic glow which is somehow compatible with its realism.  I'm not sure how to describe the way Clarke pulls off this trick.  Suffice it to say that the reader - or this reader, at any rate - trusts his colonists to protect the long-term interests of his Martians.

The colony numbers a few thousand, in two bases, Port Schiaparelli in the Trivium Charontis, and the second, larger base at Port Lowell in (if I remember correctly) Margaritifer Sinus.  Both are scientific bases; it's a scientific colony, but also a permanent one that therefore includes families with children.  A pleasantly idealistic frontier of humanity, without the dismal sloganeering and agitprop which we've unfortunately come to expect from "idealistic" societies on Earth.  The colonists aren't there to exploit Mars or get rich; they're out to prove that one can live on another world.  They are out to build.

Clarke knows it may go wrong later on, but we feel that the signs are good.

He memorably describes the moment during an amateur variety show when his protagonist, visiting author Martin Gibson, decides to throw in his lot with Mars:

The proceedings ended with community singing, a form of entertainment which Gibson did not normally go out of his way to seek - rather the reverse, in fact.  But he found it more enjoyable than he had expected, and as he joined in the last choruses a sudden wave of emotion swept over him, causing his voice to peter out into nothingess.  For a moment he sat, the only silent man in all that crowd, wondering what had happened to him.

The faces around provided the answer.  Here were men and women united in a single task, driving towards a common goal, each knowing that their work was vital to the community.  They had a sense of fulfilment which very few could know on Earth, where all the frontiers had long ago been reached.  It was a sense heightened and made more personal by the fact that Port Lowell was still so small that everyone knew everyone else.

Of course, it was too good to last.  As the colony grew, the spirit of these pioneering days would fade.  Everything would become too big and too well organized: the development of the planet, would be just another job of work.  But for the present it was a wonderful sensation, which a man would be lucky indeed to experience even once in his lifetime...

What a wonderful dream.  Could we have something like that, without going to Mars?

Well, actually, we do have a frontier on Earth.  A time frontier.  Each day is new... and that's something to think about.  We're all colonists, in that sense; colonizing the future.


2016 November 29th:  Still on the subject of Solar System life:  suppose there aren't any alien microbes, and the apparent lack of higher organic life turns out to be real everywhere, what kind of alien life could that leave us with?

Three possibilities, I'd say:

(1) Spiritual life - invisible spirits, eldila etc.  (Though actually the eldila in Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy do have bodies of a sort - just with a different vibration rate, according to the explanation given by the sorn in Out of the Silent Planet.  But whatever the eldila are, they are hardly 'organic' in the chemical sense in which we use that word.)  Other energy-beings include the parasitical globes in Russell's Sinister Barrier, the Martian "fire balloons" in the Bradbury story of that name, and the other, less ethical glowing globular Martians in Hugh Walters' Destination Mars.  Then there are the electrical forms of life in Sturgeon's Killdozer! and David Stringer's macabre High Eight.

(2) Life that is inorganic but material.  Crystalline, maybe.  Or flame beings like the solarians in Olaf Stapledon's The Flames and in Hamilton's Sunfire! - but this is edging towards the category of energy-beings in my class (1); more definitely material is the fire-dweller in John Rackham's The Last Salamander.  And then there are the subterranean creatures of the Earth's mantle in Arthur C Clarke's The Fires Within.  Perhaps "inorganic" is not the right word; they are organic in a different way.  But certainly not carbon-and-water-based.

(3) Planetary gestalts.  I know of no OSS extraterrestrial examples - there is the "klatha planetary entity" in James H Schmitz' interstellar adventure The Witches of Karres - but there is the Terrestrial Intelligence in Susan Cooper's Mandrake (1964).  This novel contains some spine-tingling moments when it becomes apparent that a socially atavistic communitarian movement taking over the country is actually controlled by the sentient planet itself.  I need to do a page on that book sometime.

2016 November 28th:  I'd like to comment on the article I read in last Friday's paper: "Nasa 'found life on Mars without realising'".

Daily Telegraph, 25 November 2016

Calling them "stromatolite rock layers on Mars" is, of course, begging the question.  The subheading put it more accurately: "Pictures taken in 2007 reveal structures that, on Earth, are made with the help of micro-organisms".

Now, let's suppose that these Martian rock-formations really have been caused by ancient microscopic Martian life.  I am intrigued by the double-think this causes in me.

I am both fascinated and saddened!

Fascinated and awed by the thought that here, finally, is proof of extraterrestrial life, with all that that implies for life in the Universe.

Saddened - or, at any rate, wryly despondent - that this is what all our hopes of Solar System life have come down to; that this is the best the New Solar System can do: ancient microbes.

Of course, we can always hope for ammonia-based critters swimming around in the atmospheres of the giant planets... or subsurface aquatic creatures on Europa or Enceladus... but if even Mars can't do better than its current performance, my outlook is far from sanguine for the other System worlds.

All the more important, then, that we build up and cherish the literary OSS...

An afterthought to the above: Asimov in Nemesis explores the theme that micro-organisms might, collectively, be intelligent.  This could point to an intriguing reconciliation between life's prospects in the old and in the new Solar System!

2016 November 27th:  Before the current year comes to an end it might be thought-provoking to consider that 2016 is the 75th anniversary of a special year in the history of magazine sf: 1941.  That was an outstandingly successful year for Golden Age Astounding

To quote from Alva Rogers' A Requiem for Astounding:

1941 was the year that set the standards against which all the following years of the Golden Age were measured.  Never again would Astounding run such a high concentration of classical or memorable stories in one twelve-month period...

Rogers then goes on to list the serials, novelettes and short stories which bear out his point.

Out of the tales he mentions, which titles could we say pertain to the Old Solar System?  I would say the two main ones are Heinlein's Logic of Empire and Russell's Jay Score.  The first is mainly set on Venus, and the second is plying the spacelanes.  Of course there are fragments and snippets and glancing references in other tales, for instance the intriguing hint about Jovians in Heinlein's We Also Walk Dogs.  But by and large this culmination year of the Golden Age was not primarily about the OSS, it seems.

By that time, perhaps, the OSS as a venue was already separating out, to some extent, from the forefront of mainstream sf; that is to say, the old Weinbaum style wonders were beginning to be a kind of backwater...

That doesn't mean that the rich OSS tales such as those by Hamilton and Brackett were any the less valuable; only that their prestige was declining.  Many great novels remained to be written in the OSS field; see Red Planet, for instance.  But that decline in prestige - or maybe in concentration - was in sight.

Of course, this website aims to do its bit in reversing the decline...

Enough time has passed since the vogue of the classic OSS, for us to appreciate its self-justifying meaning and significance, so that the charge of lack of realism has lost its force - it is real in its own terms, and that is what matters.  It's easier to see than now, than it was back in 1941.

2016 November 26th:  Readers will note that the "Recent Articles and Updates" section has moved left onto the navigation bar.  This is to make room at the bottom of each page for Facebook stuff.  I haven't achieved the onsite Facebook connection yet, as far as depicting the postings is concerned; I am relying for Facebook guidance upon an author friend and his wife who was trained as a computer programmer; they wish to remain nameless here, but any success I achieve in setting up social media whatsits/thingummies/gubbinses will be due to them.  My own level of comprehension is roughly that of Fred Flintstone.  I'm not even sure, whenever I mention the topic, that I'm making any sense at all, and when I try to ask questions I often see an expression of unspeakable frustration spread over the faces of my nearest and dearest, as though what I have said is evidence of irredeemable denseness, which I dare say it is.

However, the Facebook page "Solar System Heritage" does now exist and I invite everyone to like it (I think it's safe for me to say that much).  From what I hear, the good thing about Facebook is that sharing benefits everyone - assuming the shared material is any good to start with.

And now on a different topic:

I had an idea for an anthology.  How about a collection of stories each of which contains a scene depicted in one of Frank R Paul's illustrations?  It could be called "The Paul Narratives".  Those wonderful pictures deserve to be embodied in tales. 

I think it may have happened once or twice before, that an sf story was written around a picture - maybe it was done by Theodore Sturgeon, but I'm not sure.  Anyhow, it would be fascinating to apply the idea to Paul's marvellous paintings.

We could then learn, for example, what those bumblebee-men in Titan's city Orro were talking about...

2016 November 25th:  One of the non-fiction though sf-related books on my shelves is a volume of The John W Campbell Letters.

Browsing in it recently, I noted how scarce are references to Solar System worlds.  Surprisingly scarce. When one thinks of Campbell one thinks of him overlapping with SF's Golden Age, and the Golden Age brings with it the OSS, and yet here we find hardly a reference in the man's letters, from that point of view.  It seems that, by the time he became an editor, he had left his Penton and Blake style period well and truly behind.

However, in a letter dated 20 September 1955 addressed to one "Mr Webb", I did find a lengthy reflection on the topic of Martian life.

Campbell begins by throwing doubt on the prospect of intelligent Martians at any period, past or present.  In fact (this I found very interesting) his estimate of the chances of water on ancient Mars are actually far more pessimistic than the conclusions of our own day. 

The proposal of intelligent inhabitants who developed before Mars dried up has, of course, been made many times...  My conclusion is that if Mars is dry, it's been that way for about 4,000,000,000 years.

Now life on Earth took something like 2,000,000,000 years to get beyond the single-celled stage...

...So, not much chance that comparable Martian evolution could have progressed fast enough before it dried up.

However, the outlook isn't so gloomy after all.  For it turns out that Campbell is actually not dismissing the possibility of advanced Martian life - only of our kind of liquid-based life.

I prefer to believe that life evolved methods of living quite freely and happily in the Martian environment...  I have a strong hunch that some astonishingly active animals could evolve on Mars - ones that stored oxidative material in their bodies, and could put on bursts of great speed and energy thereby, and used a relatively small lung system at peak efficiency all day long...

...By racing along at the rate of 10 miles a day, a creature could move back and forth, staying in the summer season zone of Mars.  Or, if he were willing to take life easy, he could hibernate till the vegetables came back around him.

I wouldn't write off as impossible living forms fully adapted to Mars conditions.  They might have a blood stream that could be used for a good grade of high-proof brandy... but so what.

It occurs to me that Campbell would have approved - and perhaps did approve - of Larry Niven's water-free Martians in Eye of an Octopus  (though that story was published in Galaxy, not in Analog).

2016 November 24th:  Oops, missed out on the Diary yesterday.  What excuse can I make?  Human imperfection.  An android, or maybe a Martian, would have done better.

Stream of conscious bears me from the last entry - about Patrick Moore's Mars adventures - to writing today about another Patrick Moore book, this time non-fiction.  And it's not about Mars but about our own world - its physical and biological history.  A children's introduction.

It's one of the favourite books of my childhood: True Book About the Earth (1956). 

It's where I learned the names of the geological periods, which for me acquired characters and almost (you might say) personalities, from the engaging way they are related and described.

Moore has an inimitably picturesque, anthropomorphic way of putting things:

...Amphibians have never conquered the lands, because they have never shaken off old habits such as laying their eggs in the water, and are thus bound to stay near the coasts...

Well, what fuddy-duddies those amphibians are, failing to shake off their old habits.

On the subject of the mountain-building epoch known as the Caledonian Revolution, at the Silurian-Devonian boundary:

...Like all geological happenings, the Caledonian Revolution was a gradual affair.  It is wrong to picture it as a time when a mountain was thrust up suddenly, so that an area which was low-lying one day had become the crest of a peak by the following morning!

Just as well he told us.

Do any of you readers wish to share memories of a favourite science text from way back, redolent of childhood discovery? 

2016 November 22nd:  For those readers athirst for more Martian adventures of the semi-realistic WOM variety, with a Mars that has some sparse allowance of native life but no humanly breathable atmosphere, and human colonists living in domes, I recommend giving some thought to Patrick Moore's series of five children's books featuring Maurice Gray. 

Patrick Moore - who died on 9 December 2012, aged 89 - was a household name in Britain, known to just about everybody in this country, the most popular of astronomers and a great and beloved TV personality, sorely missed.  How much his sf is known, I'm not sure.  I suspect most people nowadays don't know he wrote any.

His Mars series comprises: Mission to Mars (1955), The Domes of Mars (1956), The Voices of Mars (1957), Peril on Mars (1958) and Raiders of Mars (1959). 

There is some inconsistency, in that the level of Martian life seems more advanced in the first than in the subsequent volumes.  By and large, though, the tone is satisfyingly consistent.

It's one crisis after another, keeping the story going, but the crises are usually plausible.  One exception is the plot of Peril on Mars, which relies on a frankly unbelievable notion of speeded-up "evolution gone mad".

Sometimes I'm in the mood for these books, and sometimes I am not.  When I am in the mood, they do more than transport me to Mars.  They naturally provide an escape into a past world in which people (both good and bad) are un-weird, speak non-bizarre English and allow me to take a little holiday from having to make allowances and mental adjustments...

In the last book, we are introduced to the remains of a geologically ancient Martian civilization, which apparently destroyed itself.  Those remains are discovered at a time of war on Earth - a nice ironic touch.

But you may want me to tell you know more; in particular: how well written are the books?  How well do they evoke Mars?

The tales don't contain purple passages, but one does get the feel of Mars as a world: that worn-out mountain-less Mars of low hills and dust and sparse vegetation which we instinctively recognize as an authentic OSS scene.

...The greenish vegetation thinned out, and presently they entered the desert of Aeria, where there were no dark patches to break the monotonous ochre of the landscape.  At last the sun set, and as it dipped below the horizon a wave of darkness seemed to rush across Mars.  There was almost no twilight, and within ten minutes the light had faded altogether, relieved only by the tiny, dim disk of Deimos.  Maurice switched on the powerful lights, and the beams stabbed into the darkness, probing ahead almost as far as the eye could reach...

2016 November 21st:  After a couple of days' intermission, back we go to The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900, because I want to explore life on Saturn.

Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829), illustrious President of the Royal Society, in his posthumously published Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher, wrote a dreamy narrative of Saturnians swimming in their world's atmosphere:

...they had systems of locomotion similar to those of the morse or sea-horse, but I saw with great surprise that they moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes which they used as wings...

Davy is informed that these Saturnians are superior to Earthlings and possess modes of perception which are denied to men. 

Next we come to the lectures of one Dionysius Lardner (1792-1859), whose obituary appeared in 1840, long before his death; apparently he had not died, merely left England, taking with him another man's wife.  Be that as it may, in his Popular Lectures on Science and Art (1846), he advances our knowledge of Saturnians by informing us that their eyes are of large aperture, to make up for the planet receiving far less sunlight than Earth does.

I like to play a fun game with these tantalizing scraps, imagining that they are probings, whisperings or callings from a truer, more real though unfortunately suppressed dimension in which the OSS is saying, "hey, listen to me...  I'm trying to break out..."

2016 November 20th:  I find myself hankering after the Competition which I used to manage on this site.  It was fun to do, and it was popular as far as I can judge from the number of hits, but I wasn't getting the results I needed: people weren't answering the questions in sufficient numbers - in fact, as I recall, no one except Dylan Jeninga answered any of the questions.

So why don't I just make the questions easier?

Because, knowing me, I probably would pitch the level too far the other way, and make the whole thing banal - it's hard to strike a happy medium.

But hey, I've just had a brainwave.  Why not institute a competition to frame the terms for a competition?

Right!  Henceforth I shall be open to suggestions for the right sort of competition.  It could be on any lines you like (so long as it's in accordance with the spirit of the site): for instance -

- guess the text (like the previous one) but being given the author and just having to guess the particular title of the work

- restrict the guess-the-text to opening paragraphs of stories

- creative competitions: e.g. write the first paragraphs of a story set on a particular world; I would probably have to leave the users to judge these competitions by votes expressed in Your Views

- guess the number of page views for each planet on any one day, or guess the results of the Interplanetary Knock-Out (competing this way sounds vaguely analogous Britain's "football pools", but I don't have money to offer as a prize - I can only offer status in the form of appointments to OSS archonates)

- re-open the competition in exactly the same style as before and hope for the best, despite the lack of mass response so far

- other ideas, originating in the fertile minds of my readers.

The author of the winning idea will be appointed Archon of any world of his/her choice that is not already under the rule of Dylan (i.e. any except the Moon, Pellucidar, Mars and Venus).

2016 November 19th:  Today I shall take a break from delving into the "extraterrestrial life debate", and instead I shall mention one of the most powerful sf tales I have ever read - one which deals with a futuristic transport system on that strange planet, Earth.

The idea of slipping "in between" the atoms of "normal" space has been explored a few times; it partakes either of extra-dimensionality or of a different "vibration mode" in this dimension - both effectively other-dimensional.  The ultimate spookily awesome and gripping treatment of the theme, in my view, is Colin Kapp's Lambda 1 (1962), which I possess in the anthology of that name, edited by John Carnell.

The Tau Corporation sends its passenger ships on straight lines from point to point, passing ghost-like through the body of the Earth in "Tau space", in their four "modes of oscillation", Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta.  All well and good, but as the Corporation official Paul Porter explains to the psychologist, Eric Brevis:

"...Tau, like every other technology, gathers its own collection of superstitions.  One of them is that there's yet another mode of Tau-spin which is possible.  If it exists it's so damn complex that the computers can't handle it.  Nobody can prove it exists, yet everyone who handles Tau generators believes that it does happen sometimes.  I've seen it myself at dead of night on the withdrawal generator at Pasadena.  I had it on the scopes as clear as Sunday, but before I could bring in the cameras it had decayed to a standard Delta mode.  It never showed up on the tracker charts or on the computer, but..."

"But what?"

"I know it's damn silly, but the ship I was monitoring came in with a dead man aboard."

"Go on," said Brevis.

"The tech boys call this mystery mode Omega - the end.  There's a legend that one day a Tau vessel is going to actually arrive at a terminal in the Omega mode, and when they do finally succeed in getting it out of Tau there'll be nothing but madmen and corpses aboard.  Like I said, it's a superstition, but every time you get an emergency call in the small hours you can't help wondering... if this is it."

And of course, in this brilliant novella, the dread moment does arrive. 

The passengers on the Mu Elektron are stuck in Omega mode and cannot phase back to normal.  And they have to be rescued - they cannot be left to their fate because eventually its generators will fail and it will phase back, disastrously misplaced inside solid matter, destroying half a continent.  Their captain refuses to move the ship to a safe location:

"...While we're on your grid, Mister, you're going to sweat blood but you're going to keep on looking because you haven't got time to do otherwise.  On the grid we stand a chance - once out in a safe-destruction area it's no skin off your nose if we do go to hell..."

Porter and Brevis go into hell after them.  They have one remote chance of pulling off a rescue: using the old experimental vessel which had first entered Tau space, and which is now a museum piece.

Precisely because it is primitive, unshielded, and unstable, the Lambda 1 stands a chance of slipping into the Omega mode.

They try it - and enter a universe, or a "mode", in which, thanks to Brevis' intuitions, they undergo  encounters and sights which no previous human mind has sanely endured.

This is vintage sf in the best sense.  A tale to inspire awe.

2016 November 18th:  Possible creatures observed on the sun! - at least in the view of the astronomer John Herschel, son of the discoverer of Uranus.

From The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900, p.221:

...Around 1860, James Nasmyth, a respected astronomer with one of the best telescopes of the period, reported that he had observed the surface of the sun to be covered with numerous objects shaped like willow leaves.  These were intensely luminous objects of immense size and in constant motion.  In his 1861 lecture, [John] Herschel not only accepts this observation... but goes beyond it to argue for the solidity of the willow leaves and... adds the remarkable claim that "we cannot refuse to regard them as organisms of some peculiar and amazing kind; and though it would be too daring to speak of such organization as partaking of the nature of life, yet we do know that vital action is competent to develop both heat, and light, and electricity..."

This, to me, has a modern ring.  John Herschel seems to be allowing for the possibility of what a modern sf writer might interpret as energy-beings, flame-beings, or neutronium beings on the Sun - though Herschel probably shared his father's view of the Sun as a solid globe.

The theme prompts me again to say, that the OSS and the NSS are most likely to overlap in two areas: one at the very centre of the Solar System, and the other at its outermost fringe.  For these are the two great unexplored realms: the interior of the Sun and the transplutonian depths of space.

2016 November 17th:  Justifications for a belief in native life on the Moon include an interesting idea I found discussed in The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, chapter 8, "New Approaches to an Ancient Question".

The idea is to do with the Moon's gravitational centre being supposedly offset from its geometrical centre.

This "fact" distorts the gravity-contours of the Moon and means that, in consequence, an absence of air and water on its visible hemisphere need not preclude the presence of those substances on the hidden side.

The idea was developed by Peter Andreas Hansen,

...whom Simon Newcomb praised as "the greatest master of celestial mechanics since Laplace"...  Hansen published a paper in 1856 arguing that a certain feature of the moon's motion previously unaccounted for could be explained by assuming that the moon's centre of figure is located about thirty-five miles farther from us than its centre of mass.  Such an asymmetric distribution of the moon's mass would cause any atmosphere or fluids on the moon to retreat to its remote side..."

That makes lunar life possible; it was then open to others to argue that it was not only possible but probable.  In 1869 a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society named John Watson gave two lectures on the topic, arguing that the visible lunar surface shows evidence of sea beds, and hence water, and that lunar volcanoes prove the earlier presence of an atmosphere; and it must have all gone somewhere.  Watson "staked his reputation as a chemist and physicist" that they must have moved to the Moon's far side.

Wow, what an idea.  If we could only forget the reality we know, or maybe ignore it by some Gibsonesque reasoning of the sort we find in Valeddom, the reward might be some marvellous lunar Farside as hinted at in C S Lewis' That Hideous Strength.

Readers who are interested in linking fact with fiction might also note that the theme of a gravitationally asymmetric Moon has a  minor but unmistakable echo in the "mascons" discovered by the Lunar Orbiter probes of the 1960s.  The "mascons" (mass-concentrations) caused some concern for a while, I believe, in case they might cause deviations in the flight-paths of Apollo spacecraft.

2016 November 16th:  Apologies for not producing a Diary entry yesterday.  I am away from home for a couple of days, and hence without access to my sf library.  However, there are plenty of books where I'm staying.  Browing in one of them I found an unexpectedly good evocation of the wetly fecund version OSS Venus. 

It's by an author who was immensely popular with the reading public and highly regarded by critics.  And yet the volume from which I am quoting was probably his least successful book.  It's not highly regarded at all.

However, there are some good things in it.  This bit reminds me of the Bradbury version, of the fecund Venus, though with mist rather than rain:

...The prospect there was an average Venusian day.  The sky was simply a luminous white mist.  Visibility was that within a layer of thin cloud, changing range quite rapidly as the mist drove along in a twenty-mile-an-hour wind.  Most of the time one could see the sparse, high reeds that began forty yards away from the dome.  They were slightly bent, and rippled in the wind like stiff hairs.  Now and then the mist cleared enough for some minutes to reveal the tall, astonishingly flexible trees that someone had named feather-tops, swinging back and forth in great arcs, two hundred yards away.  The ground itself, both near and further, was covered with a matting of pale succulent tendrils, the Venusian equivalent of grass.  Even at its clearest, it was not a view to inspire.  Almost a monochrome study; shadowless, with only here and there a fleshy stalk showing a faint flush of pink, or a slight tinting of green to break the monotony of pallor.  And over all, and all the time, there was the mist condensing; drops of water running down the etiolated stems, showers of them torn from the plants by sudden gusts of wind, endless rivulets of them trickling down the window-panes...

The above passage is from John Wyndham's The Outward Urge (1959).

2016 November 14th:  More early nineteenth-century speculation:  this time from one Franz von Gruithuisen (1774-1852) who had interesting things to say about life on the Moon and Venus.

He goes into detail in 1824 in his Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings.

From observation of tints on the lunar surface he deduces, for instance, that lunar flora extend to 55 degrees south and 65 degrees north and (I really love this) that lunar animals roam "from 50 degrees northern latitude up to 37 or possibly 47 southern latitude".

He also observed a star-shaped structure which he labels a temple...

In the 1830s he wrote about Venus and its "ashen light" which had been reported by J T Mayer in 1759 and by K L Harding in 1806.  The phenomenon, says Gruithuisen, can best be attributed to

...general festivals of fire given by the Venusians, which are so much more easily arranged, because on Venus the tree growth must be far more luxuriant than in the virgin forest of Brazil...  festivals may be celebrated either to correspond to changes in government or to religious periods.  The period from Mayer's to Harding's observation is 76 Venus years or 47 Earth years.  If the period is religious we cannot comprehend a cause for this number of years.  If however it corresponds to the time when another Alexander or Napoleon comes to supreme power on Venus, then it becomes somewhat easier to understand.  If we take the ordinary life span of a Venusian to be 130 Venus years... then the reign of an absolute monarch may easily last 76 years...

Thinking about what people used to think, and about how little we used to know, certainly does help to bring back the old sense of utter immensity and mystery of the Solar System.

2016 November 13th:  One of the mightiest non-fiction tomes on my shelves is the 680-page The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell, by Michael J Crowe (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

It's a mine of information concerning ideas about life in the Solar System.  Actually it goes a bit beyond 1900, with the Mars-canal controversy.

On page 196 it introduces us to a certain Rev. Thomas Dick (1774-1857), a Scottish clergyman who had a marvellous habit of assuming that the population density of the varies Solar System bodies must be the same as that of England (why he chose England and not his native Scotland, I don't know) - in other words, 290 persons per square mile, that being the figure at that time.

He thus was able to draw up a population table for the Solar System. 

Mercury: population 8,960,000,000.  (I guess they weren't all crowded into the Twilight Belt - there wouldn't have been room.  So most of them must have learned to cope with extreme heat or cold.)

Venus: 53,500,000,000.

Mars: 15,500,000,000.

Vesta:  64,000,000...

I won't go on - you get the idea. I'll just mention that Jupiter's population is truly impressive, as one would expect - to whit, 6,967,520,000,000.  But, surprisingly, the total population of the Jovian satellites (26,673,000,000) is far surpassed by that of the Saturnian satellites (55,417,824,000) and even by Uranus' satellites (47,500,992,000).

Thomas Dick did not specify what all these persons were like; but one supposes they were roughly the same physical size as we, since the figures assume that the ratio of persons to land area is the same as that for England.

2016 November 12th:  The latest stream of consciousness bears me from the recent theme of Mars... Red Planet... redness in general... red light... dim stars or not-quite-stars... Nemesis!

An unexpectedly good late book by Asimov.  As a rule I don't go much for Asimov's late works - I believe he had a long gap between The Naked Sun and The Gods Themselves, and in the latter period he had become prolix and his former lean effective style was gone. 

Well, he's prolix in Nemesis, and yet after a while - by my second reading - it grew on me.  It's because of the planet, Erythro, which circles the Sun's dim red companion "brown dwarf", Nemesis, at the outermost limit of the Solar System.  And because of the marvellous heroine, the girl Marlene.

A unique sense of spiritual emptiness-that-is-not-emptiness, a haunting empty fullness which in the end is scientifically explained, pervades the character of Erythro, bathed in the red light of its sub-star.  (This emptiness-is-full theme reminds me of a critic's comment on the blurb of Man of the World.  It's one tonal point the two books have in common, though in subject matter they could not be more different.)

The attraction of Erythro runs counter to the power-play of the book: the plot turns around the wish to live in artificial space-colonies versus the wish to live on a world.  Only the heroine sticks up successfully for life on a world.

Marlene was happy.  She felt as if she were wrapped in gentle arms, protected, shielded.  She could see the reddish light of Nemesis and feel the wind against her cheeks.  She could watch the clouds obscure part or all of Nemesis' large globe, now and then, so that the light would dim and turn grayish.

But she could see as easily in the gray as in the red, and she could see in shades and tints that made fascinating patterns.  And though the wind grew cooler when Nemesis' light was hidden, it never chilled her.  It was as though Erythro were somehow enhancing her sight, somehow warming the air around her body when necessary, somehow caring for her in every way...

Nemesis is an adventure set as far away from the Sun as you can possibly get while still remaining in the Solar System.  It's a kind of boundary marker in OSS literature - OSS and NSS both, so distant is its scene, out in the uncharted realm where there is no contradiction between old scientific beliefs and now ones.

2016 November 11th:  Continuing along the byways and "B" roads of Mars-literature: here's another excerpt, and I invite you to consider whether or not it is quite good:

...Carefully he shoved the stone back into position, leaving no trace of his disappearance from the room.  The corridor in which he found himself was so low that he was forced to crawl on hands and knees.  The low corridor had the stench of age, as if it had been unused for a long time.

Gradually the tunnel sloped more and more downward.  Many little side-passages branched off from the main tunnel.  There was no light, no noise.  Only a faint, pungent odor beginning to fill the air.

Now it was growing lighter.  The earthman realized that he must be in the subterranean caverns of the palace...

This comes from a tale which I have never much liked, and which, besides, is widely held to be "non-canonical":  John Carter and the Giant of Mars, which appeared in the January 1941 issue of Amazing Stories, under the name Edgar Rice Burroughs but arousing doubts as to its authenticity.

According to Richard A Lupoff, the tale was originally a children's story written by ERB's son John Coleman Burroughs in collaboration with his father, for the Whitman "Big little book" series; then it was "revised upwards" for adult readership by ERB himself, who added about 5000 words to it and submitted it to Amazing as his own.

The question is, is it any good?  I thought not, but as I browsed in it today, some fragments caught my eye.  It would be surprising if none did, I suppose.  Maybe we must admit that the story as a whole is sub-standard, or at least stylistically unfitting for the rest of the series, but some of the imagery may be worth remembering.  And if we play a pretend-it-is-history game, we could regard John Carter and the Giant of Mars as an intriguing though unreliable source, much like some of Herodotus...!

2016 November 10th:  There's been a lot recently on this site about the fascination of Mars.  It jogged my memory just now of what one might call the exception to all that, a kind of negative "anti-Mars", a sad and rather puzzlingly negative verdict by a great SF author.

Extending his hand, Norm Schein said heartily, "Hi there, Mayerson; I'm the official greeter from our hovel.  Welcome - ugh - to Mars."

"I'm Fran Schein," his wife said, also shaking hands with Barney Meyerson.  "We have a very orderly, stable hovel here; I don't think you'll find it too dreadful."  She added, half to herself, "Just dreadful enough."  She smiled, but Mayerson did not smile back; he looked grim, tired, and depressed, as most new colonists did on arrival to a life which they knew was difficult and essentially meaningless...

This, as I expect a large proportion of you will know, comes from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick.  Now, what I wonder is, what possessed Dick to be so negative about Mars?  Dust, rock, and above all boredom drive the colonists to seek refuge in virtual reality (this was the novel that invented it).  They show no interest in the planet at all.  Yet as a person Dick was a supporter of space exploration.  It meant to him a great symbol of freedom.  He said words to that effect at the time of the moon landing; and in another of his novels, Time Out of Joint, he is very much on the side of the space-pioneers on the Moon - another desolate world, even more so than Mars. 

I suppose Mars was just a plot-device to Dick.  He wanted to write about cut-off, exiled people, and "Mars" as a prop was ready to hand.  Also, the place had to be portrayed negatively, else the colonists would not have retreated into those virtual-reality lives which interested Dick as a concept.

Still, it's sad to have an emotional anti-Mars in an sf book.

2016 November 9th:  Two completely different reflections for today's Diary.

First, inspired by the election, I would like to mention how innumerably many times I have read and enjoyed Heinlein's Double Star, a kind of space-age equivalent of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda.  Whereas in Hope's imaginary state of Ruritania, it is the heir to the throne who has been abducted, making it necessary for a friendly double to impersonate him at the coronation so as to save his throne, in Double Star it is a Solar System Government party leader who has been abducted, making it necessary for a friendly double to impersonate him in a politically vital ceremony of being adopted into a Martian "nest".  It's a rollicking read, huge fun and yet with a pleasing message of inter-species harmony.  We again read about those superbly enigmatic Martians which we met in Red Planet, though in Double Star they are mostly off-stage.

Second, on a completely different topic - the far future of Earth - it suddenly occurred to me by chance that I have not yet mentioned the unique non-fictional speculations and illustrations in those zoologies-of-the-future, After Man and The Future is Wild, the first by Dougal Dixon, the second by Dougal Dixon and John Adams.

Both books include maps which guess at the geography of Earth millions of years ahead.  Both describe and illustrate the supposed fauna of future eras, and give convincing reasons for the picture they give of future evolution.

After Man concentrates on the "posthomic" future 50 million years ahead.  The Future is Wild gives us three scenarios: 5 million, 100 million and 200 million years ahead.

To give one example of the fascinating speculation in these books: 200 million years ahead, birds have been replaced by the descendants of fish - now called "flish".

...In the gloom of the tangled branches and trailing curtains of the lichen trees, bright little jewels flit about.  They are as brightly coloured as butterflies, but they dart like wrens and hum like humming birds.  These creatures are neither insects nor birds.  They are forest flish...

The song of the flish... is more like the shrill grating of a grasshopper than the fluid notes of a bird.  It is produced by stroking together the teeth on what remains of the gill arches in the throat.  The chirruping sound is amplified by a membrane where the gills used to be.  Parts of the gills have also evolved to become ears...

2016 November 8th:  Commenting on Dylan's most recent posting, I mentioned the Long Now Clock, and now I have googled it to remind myself of the organization behind it - which is called the Long Now Foundation.  I seriously suspect it may have been inspired by Heinlein's fictional "Long Range Foundation".

Changing the subject to the Short Now, I am pleased to report a sudden surge in interest in this site.  Visitor numbers had declined in late October and early this month, to an average in the early sixties per day, but yesterday we had an all-time record day's total of 110 individual visitors, and the day before that it was 90.  (And on Saturday there was a record total of page-views: 551 pages looked at by that day's 65 visitors; previous record, 448, back in September.)  What's going on?  Refugees from election fever?  Or a close brush with another dimension, the OSS reality impinging its thought-waves on ours?  Perhaps attracted by all our recent discussion of alternative history's old space program?  Who knows.

I, for one, am naturally rather stuffed with alternative thoughts at the moment, considering my current reading matter - a diet of Martinez' The Enceladus Crisis and Gibson's Man of the World.  The latter contains an amusing put-down of the so-called "inevitabilities" of history.  Gibson does it by making us look back from a different "inevitability", towards our own, seeing ours as it were from outside.

It happens during a plane trip on the foreshadowed-Earth (if it is that, and not our actual Earth) as the hero, Midax Rale, flying north,

...began idly to list factors which might have made for the rise of civilization in the pine-forests of Cenland.  The bracing northern air.  The plentiful supply of game.  The long winter nights, during which the inhabitants were driven to use the dark time to reflect, plan, organize...  while the lazier folk in easier lands were still lounging around being prehistoric.

Bosh!  Deterministic twaddle.  History, thought Midax, is a lottery.  If you could run the experience again you'd get a different result.  Each new rattle of the dice-cup would thus bring a new "only possible birthplace" of civilization.  He smiled cynically.  All right, in this epoch, it was the pine-forested north that did the trick.  So what?  Next time it might be the flat dry lands between the Two Rivers in Edduthploa.  He could just imagine historians then saying it had to happen there, that it was inevitable because the inhabitants were forced to co-operate to dig vital irrigation channels and so to invent the State...

2016 November 7th:  The renewed interest in Mars, of which Dylan has reminded me, along with John Greer's remarks about space in popular culture in the 1960s, prompt me to modify my usual thinking about the age of remote-sensing space probes having spoiled the old magic of the Space Age.

My usual grumble is two-fold: one, the probes disproved the "facts" of the Old Solar System; two, they ruined the chances of surprise in human exploration of the New Solar System.  No one now will ever discover Iapetus' great equatorial mountain range; we can see the images before we ever go there; it's like a Christmas gift that has already been unwrapped long before the festive season... 

Grumble Number One must still stand, but Number Two seems not to be as deadly as I'd assumed.  If people still want to explore Mars, despite just about every square inch of it having been imaged from orbit, then remote sensing hasn't killed the fascination of  pioneering.  But why hasn't it?  How has the sense of discovery survived?

Well, it occurs to me that we might draw an analogy with the American West.  The sense of adventure in the Wild West was not dependent on exploring an unknown land.  The land was generally known in a sketchy fashion - but much of it was untamed.  When Greeley said "Go West, young man" he didn't mean go and discover the West - he meant, go and discover the possibilities of the West.  Not quite the same thing; but analogous, perhaps, to a wonderful sprawl of space adventure which may yet lie in store for us.

2016 November 6th:  Having defined the "implicizer" yesterday, I now wish to reflect on where I might like best to use it.

Immediately, two main uses come to mind.

One, to flesh out the various CLUFFs with which OSS literature is so tantalizingly sprinkled.  Those "spiral beings of Pluto" mentioned by Nat Schachner in Slaves of Mercury; those "half sentient bubbles of the Saturnian core" mentioned by William Tenn in The Deserter; the Martian "diagram of Power" mentioned by James Blish in Bridge; and so on, and so on.  A multitude of hints waiting to be followed up.

Two, to complete unfinished works.  One of my favourite of these opportunities would be to produce the sequels to Skeleton Men of Jupiter and thus bring Burroughs' Jovian adventure into full being - doubtless in a four-part volume of the same structure as Llana of Gathol, Escape on Venus and Savage Pellucidar.  Another favourite would be to complete the OSS tales which Clark Ashton Smith left unfinished - notably his two efforts at the asteroid progenitor planet, Ascharia and The Master of Destruction.

While thinking about these two uses, a third - an even more extravagantly ambitious one - has popped into my mind.  With a really top-grade implicizer one might instruct the thing to write works which were not known to have been suggested at all by the writers in question.  Edgar Rice Burroughs never appears to have even sketched out an adventure on Mercury, but his fifty-or-so other books might just provide the basis for an implicized account of one.  C S Lewis apparently did once have a conversation with someone about a fictional trip to Mercury - I wish I had the reference; I am writing this from old memory - but did not record the details; it would be up to the implicizer to build something from this.  A harder task than with ERB.

And here's a fourth idea.  Forget the whole thing!  Abandon idle speculation about implicizers and re-writes.  Accept that dead authors are gone, lost to us, and we must simply be glad for what we have, and resolve to cherish and support the living authors who give us good things, and advise them to eat healthy diets and keep scribbling into their nineties and thus maximise their output while they're alive, because when they're gone, they're gone.

2016 November 5th:  You won't have heard of a gadget called an "implicizer", because I just conceived of it today, and it may not be invented till about 3,000,000 A.D., but it sure will be a boon to us readers when it does come out.

The likeable Venerian giant lizard "Sir Isaac" in Heinlein's Between Planets is one of the innumerable brief encounters of OSS literature, which is chock full of such tantalizing byways and scenes which whet our appetites for more.  Suppose we are seized with the urge to find out more about "Sir Isaac" and his civilization.  The book doesn't tell us much, and the author is no longer with us so we can't pester him for information, so there's nothing we can do about it now, except invent details ourselves, and we're not always in the mood for that - and besides, it can feel like work.  But, if we possess an implicizer, we have another way forward:

We open Between Planets, then pick up the implicizer by the handle and stroke its sensor against the paragraphs of the "Sir Isaac" episode.  Since Heinlein is a prolific author, the gadget has a lot to work on - the entire works of Heinlein, plus all known biographical detail, interviews etc, are of course all stored in the implicizer's memory.  Now we ask it to give us more on the civilization of the Venerian lizards.

It - using its super dooper implicizing gubbinses - analyzes all the implications of Heinlein's existing oeuvre and the statistical probabilities of certain ideas being extensible in certain directions, and comes up with the optimum estimate of how the author might have developed the theme of Sir Isaac's culture if he had chosen to do so.

After all, even nowadays there is a discipline known as textual criticism, so who knows where it might lead in the vastness of the future?

You could have various settings on the implicizer.  One setting could use Heinlein's own recorded words only.  Another could use Heinlein's recorded words plus the recorded words of all those writers about whom Heinlein had spoken most favourably.  This would be fair enough, as authors are after all always being influenced by other authors.  The larger setting might permit reference to other authors' ideas but not to their literary style.  This stylistic restriction would of course be most essential if one were using the implicizer on authors with an extremely individual, unique style, such as Clark Ashton Smith, Eric Frank Russell or Clifford Simak.

2016 November 4th:  Back to thinking about the old space program:  One way of restoring one's sense of the greatness of our Solar System - if it ever gets to feel a trifle jaded, diminished by telemetry and all the familiarity of remote sensing - is to read old tales about the first voyage to the Moon.  In this regard I strongly recommend that fine novel for children, Operation Columbus, by Hugh Walters.

Actually there is telecommunication in Operation Columbus - both the Soviet and the Western moon-craft keep in touch by radio with their respective controllers back on Earth.  This is natural for a book published in 1960.

But there is also a strong sense of pioneering.  A sense of voyaging into the unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that both rival moonships carry just one man each.  I wonder if it might really have happened that way, instead of the three-man expedition that made the trip in reality (all right, only two men actually landed, but the capsule accommodated three).

One consequence of the one-man design is the increased sense of isolation.  The Soviet training programme is vividly described - the candidates are all locked up in capsules and told to press a button when they can't stand it any more.  The winner - the one who holds out longest - will get picked.

...Now the confinement was becoming almost unendurable.  He must press that button, for he could go on no longer.  No, no.  He dare not.  If he did, perhaps he would be the first to give in.  The horror of this possibility shook him, and for a time he was no longer tempted to make the fateful move.  Then the sense of imprisonment descended on him again with redoubled force.  He stretched out his hand to within an inch of the button, but with a cry of agony he forced himself to desist...

2016 November 3rdHere is a fine sentence from page 62 of Burroughs' A Princess of Mars:

During the ages of hardships and incessant warring between their own various races, as well as with the green men, and before they had fitted themselves to the changed conditions, much of the high civilization and many of the arts of the fair-haired Martians had become lost; but the red race of today has reached a point where it feels that it has made up in new discoveries and in a more practical civilization with all that lies irretrievably buried with the ancient Barsoomians, beneath the countless intervening ages.

What got me on to this was my recent thinking about the Young Old Solar System, and about the distant past of OSS worlds including Mars, and then, following on from that, the theme of a long-lost Golden Age. 

The Burroughs passage quoted above is very unusual.  It - and the ten-volume series of adventures of which it forms a part - leaves me with the strong impression that the Golden Age of Barsoom is not lost - rather, it consists of now, Barsoom's modern age, the age of John Carter's semi-official "reign" as Warlord of Mars.

Although there are quite a few elegiac nostalgic passages concerning the ancient Barsoomians, especially their deserted cities, yet nothing can equal the vibrancy and colour of modern life on that world, epitomised by that modern invention, the Barsoomian one-man flyer, on which any adventurer can zoom off into new realms of glory and discovery.

To stress the point once again: I believe this is quite a unique case of a Golden Age being viewed full-on, and explored full-on, rather than being used as a haunting past from which the present is depicted as having declined. 

The Barsoomians are a cheerful lot.  The "thin air of dying Mars" is a physical factor only; it has not depressed their psychology one bit.

How different from Corin of Shandakor:

Those raging, suffering eyes met mine.  There was hatred in them, and scorn, and shame.  "What breed of human are you?"

"I am an Earthman."

He said the name over as though he had heard it before and way trying to remember.  "Earthman.  Then it is as the winds have said, blowing across the desert - that Mars is dead and men from other worlds defile her dust."

Leigh Brackett, The Last Days of Shandakor

2016 November 2nd:  Looking at the page views for the first day of November I find the most popular (apart from the home page of course) was the Old Space Program, and this has got me thinking about the great nostalgic yearning which must exist among readers, for the near-future which is now past, which did not happen as it should have done.

Well, how can authors make something constructive out of this missed opportunity?  One way is to ignore it, and to write as though what should have happened actually did happen.  S M Stirling has taken that route.  Of course there are two issues here: the space program itself, and what it finds out there.  Stirling is traditional OSS in both senses.  However, let's just look at the first sense for the moment - the old-style commitment to a proper space program, no matter what kind of Solar System the destination turns out to be.

This old-style commitment means that we are really talking about an old-style Earth; an OSS Earth.  An Earth civilization in which politicians and public continued to value space exploration sufficiently, that they were willing to dip into their pockets and finance it, so as to start colonizing the Moon and reach Mars before the end of the twentieth century.

Since this did not actually happen, here's a suggestion for plots of stories: we could explore exciting reasons why it did not happen.

Secret alien intervention to stop uppity humans from bursting out into space!

Actually this - if I remember correctly - is the plot of Charles Eric Maine's 1959 thriller Countdown, though I can't remember whether the interventionists are aliens or future humans.  Please don't let the vagueness of my memory mislead you into doubting the worth of that novel; it's a very good read, a riveting tale.

Someone could write an updated version of this paranoid idea, perhaps with a scene where aliens are influencing Nixon as he cancels the remainder of the Apollo program (ie Apollo missions 18, 19 and 20 - one of which would have explored the crater Tycho!).

Then there's Obama's cancellation of the more recent Constellation program which would have (if all went well) given us a moon-base by 2020 or so.  Why did he do it?  Wasn't fiscal stimulus - i.e. spending to avoid a depression - on the agenda right then?  And if you have to splurge, isn't it best to do it on the forefront of technology which will help lift everything else?  Ah, but those aliens weren't having it...

Come to think of it, it's not just the US.  The British Government cancelled Blue Streak in 1960... us poor Brits don't have as big a tax base as the US government, of course, but still we had enough to go in for the Channel Tunnel and Concorde and so on; far better to have gone ahead with a Dan Dare scenario...  as we no doubt would have done, if it weren't for those meddling alien forces... (here I swivel my eyes in a paroxysm of paranoia...)

2016 November 1st:  Too whacked for any profound thoughts after having completed the Herculean task of the end-of-month stats and updating the Page View Winners.  So instead I shall merely make some playful observations, as if the stats from this site were some sort of emanation from a real alternate-universe OSS.

For instance, in the top-hits-parade showing views for the year so far, Earth has been overtaken by Saturn this month.  Well, somewhere that may mean... what?  In the Concert of Powers, the ringed planet has scored some diplomatic victory... perhaps won a mandate to govern Asteroids Chiron and Hidalgo; who knows?

The top author-page is now that of Clark Ashton Smith, a remarkable tribute to his all-too-small output of unforgettable stories.  The other three in the top 41 are:
C S Lewis, Stanley Weinbaum and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Well, I confess to some surprise.  All four authors named above are superb, but I should have thought that Leigh Brackett would be up in the top 41 (actually, she's almost there; her page comes 43rd, at 297 views).

It seems to me like a good idea to have the list of top-pages-of-the-year to stop not at some arbitrary number but at the point where the average number of views per day gets down to 1.  By the end of October, 304 days into the year, that average means 304 page views in those 304 days, and that indeed is the exact number of views for the 41st page on the list, namely, Asteroid Progenitor Planet.  Ah, what message could that be sending us, from the alternate universe?  The moderate, moderating Progenitor, a calming influence on the System...  during a long golden age... before it blows up, after which things are never the same.  As I have said elsewhere, the Progenitor is the Atlantis of the Old Solar System.

>>  October 2016