the sunport vista:


2019 May 13th:   


Once again I have become aware of having left out a crucial something in the previous day's Diary. 

I had expressed, or tried to express, the mysterious "positive otherness" with which my thoughts of our neighbouring worlds used to glow in the days when those worlds were utterly unattainable and almost unknown.  I'd speculated on whether it was possible to recapture that feeling nowadays.

But what I had not discussed, was the cause of the decline, or the possible decline, in that sense.  Why should contact via space-probe and, in the case of the Moon, via actual human visits, change one's feelings so much? 

The superficial answer is, "Of course knowledge drives out mystery.  The more you know something, the less it can retain the romance of the undiscovered."

It's a specious answer because the "positive otherness" wasn't a matter of lack of knowledge.  In some cases it coexisted with knowledge, or what was presumed to be knowledge.

However, the Otherness is vulnerable to physical linkage.

Here's a figurative way of comprehending the issue:

Every time a probe or spaceship crosses the void, it scores psychic waggon-ruts in space.

The more frequent the space-shots, the deeper the ruts.

By now, the System is almost (you might say) tessellated with these grooves, these space-lanes... these earthing links!

Thus, space-lanes (though in themselves a romantic idea) detract from the pristine remoteness of their destinations. That's how the linkage drains some of the magic.

However, not all is lost.  Perhaps we ought to hope for an equivalent of the Wild West - call it the Wild Worlds - where the territory is in reach but not under control, nor fully mapped.

Or even if it is, even if a huge data-bank is compiled in which every square mile of the System is digitised, it will remain fortunately true that nobody will ever have time to absorb all those data.  So the "full maps" will remain, as it were, shut up in a drawer, unread; and thus the territory might as well still be counted as unknown.  "Here There Be Tygers" - their evidence buried in the data.

2019 May 12th:   


Yesterday's entry in this Diary omitted to consider one of the main reasons for disillusion about space travel, namely - what I've written about often before - the lack of habitable destinations in the Real Solar System.  I won't bother to repeat all that stuff here; it's sufficiently obvious, and indeed it's what impelled the growth of this website as a kind of antithesis to the RSS.  Another point I've made before, is that the disappointment about habitability doesn't apply to the Moon, which in most tales is accepted as airless, pristine and sterile, or near-sterile as in Earthlight.  (Admittedly an exception is the greatest lunar adventure of all, The First Men in the Moon.)

But here's something I haven't mentioned before, because it's hard to find the words:

In my young days, before Man had reached the Moon, the thought of walking on its surface, or even seeing images of its surface via remote sensing, had an almost supernatural thrill for me.  It was almost as if a lunar landscape - or any landscape in any of the other worlds and moons of the System - must be a different sort of scene, not so much because the physical conditions would vary from the terrestrial, but rather that they'd be imbued with a quality that came from the amazing, magical, almost spooky though obvious fact, that no matter how far you walked on that orb, you'd never come to an Earthly location.  

Recently the thought has come to me: is it possible to recapture that particular sense of awe at positive otherness?  The wonderful pictures taken by contemporary Mars rovers - does the thrill lurk in them?  I'm not sure.  Possibly it's not quite gone; possibly it yet quavers in and out of existence. 

Now here's a thought-experiment that brings a result to ponder: suppose we had interstellar probes, exoplanet rovers... would their images give a similar thrill?  It would be fascinating, mind-boggling, of course - but the answer is, no.  Never, either in my youth or nowadays, have I sensed that peculiar transparency-to-glorious-Otherness in the fictional landscapes of interstellar worlds.  They're great places for adventure and a more distended wonder, that comes from the vastness of the Galaxy itself.  But as planets they are more like mere blank slates for fictional invention.  They depend wholly upon the author's skill for their oomph.

In our System, by contrast, the worlds are sustained by more than that.  They are not just "blank slates".  They shimmer with a mythic personality accreted by tradition.  They are orbs of character.

Maybe, if I could walk on the Moon, I'd tread into that haunted picture.  And having said that, maybe the maybe is enough and it's not required that I actually go there, to hold the treasure in my mind.  (Which is just as well.)

From all this we can gather, that a writer who chooses an OSS setting has given himself or herself an enormous head start, analogous to, and proportionally more powerful than, the extra boost a rocket gets from being launched from the already-fast-spinning equator rather than from some slower, higher latitude.

You who, I hope, are busy scribbling your masterpieces for Vintage Worlds 2 - enjoy being let loose in our treasure-trove of planetary personalities.

2019 May 11th:   


Having enjoyed a half-tin of prunes for dessert the other day, I got thinking about C S Lewis, who is on record as having loathed prunes - this being one of only two issues on which he and I have ever disagreed.

That, in turn, got me thinking about the other big issue of contention between myself and the great man, namely, space travel. 

Most readers of this Diary will probably be familiar with the famous statement in the Cosmic Trilogy in which Lewis describes interplanetary distances as "God's quarantine regulations".  He was convinced that if we managed to travel between the worlds we'd merely export our own evils to them, and that therefore it would be best for all concerned if we were to remain confined to Earth.

I used to disagree with this absolutely, without question.  Not that I was unaware that we would spread evil; but nevertheless I believed in exploration and pioneering as a positive good in itself, indeed as essential for our psychological well-being: that's to say, mine was the Clarke view, the Philip K Dick and Heinlein view.

Recently I have lurched the other way, suspecting, as I get more and more appalled at modern culture, that there may be little point in my getting excited at space travel if it's not carried out by recognizable members of my own culture (I use this term in the broadest sense), with whom I could identify emotionally.

On the other hand there is one countervailing point: perhaps if space transportation did become practical in a big way, and the space age really literally took off, the necessary discipline of exploration might breed a new sub-species of pioneers who will necessarily hark back to a healthier age, insofar as space travellers and colonists probably will not be able to afford to wallow in yuk. (Clarke, who sadly towards the end was himself not unstained, made this point effectively in Profiles of the Future, in the chapter "Rocket to the Renaissance".)

My verdict, for what it's worth, is now balanced on a knife edge.  I may cling on to some faith in space travel - or I may decide that CSL was right after all.

In which case, the only unresolved issue remaining between us concerns the prunes.

2019 April 3rd:   


Country Doctor by William Morrison is one of the tales, lurking in my bookshelf of anthologies, which I had overlooked so far; yesterday I noticed it when looking at Where do we Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov, and, for the first time, I read it.

The story is sufficiently good, that it kept me wanting to know what would happen to the doctor who gets chivvied into acting as a vet for a creature which had been picked up on Ganymede and which was somewhat intimidatingly large:

...A transparent panel walled it off from the rest of the ship.  Through the panel Dr. Meltzer could see the thirty-foot-wide slit that marked the mouth.  Above that was a cluster of breathing pores, looking like gopher holes, and above these was a semi-circle of six great eyes, half closed and dulled as if with pain...

Somewhat reluctantly, the doctor yields to entreaties and has a go at treating the "space-cow".  He gets suited up and goes in through the mouth...  It's a bit reminiscent of Fantastic Voyage but without the need for miniaturization!

Those were the days (the 1950s) when - as I've said before and will say again - writers took it for granted that we'd get directly and messily involved with outer space, so that all the unexpected stuff out there could be encountered freshly... the raw reality of it dumped directly in one's path without first having been the subject of remote sensing probes.  Not now, though.  Nowadays we're reconnaissance-mad.  Grumble, grumble...

2019 April 1st:   


We all deplore credit-stealing: the filching of an invention without acknowledgement.  With ideas it is different: it must be an honour to find that one's efforts have been sufficiently influential that they find echoes in another's work.  But as for straight plagiarism - copying - hmm... tut-tut.

An odd thing about it - it can happen backwards!  Take the one invention by my humble self that seems to have caught on: the abbreviation OSS for Old Solar System.  I find it has been nicked before I was born - by the American government.  The USA, before getting round to establishing its CIA, created an intelligence/sabotage organization called the OSS (1942-5).

This is a clear case of tachyonic plagiarism, whereby the imitation occurs before the original.  My guess is that the boffins of that Office of Strategic Services must have dabbled in superluminal research - tachyons travel faster than light and thus go backwards in time - and thus sucked influence from the future.  Other instances have been recorded of this reversal of cause and effect, such as Jonathan Swift's reference in Gulliver's Travels (1726) to the moons of Mars (discovered in 1877).

A happy April the First to all my readers.

2019 March 27th:   


According to Wells the causes were due to environmental change:  "The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts."

On the other hand we get a different slant on the topic in The Green Suns (Les Soleils Verts), the book I mentioned in this Diary on 10 March in connection with the Moon.

(I'm going to take the liberty of altering one word in the published English translation, which nonsensically states that the Martians have "no consciousness".  Since the French "la conscience" can also mean "conscience", I'll go for that one in order to make more sense.)

 The narrator converseswith transdimensional entities which speak through a human mouthpiece named Savignac...

"Ask them if the Martians could put us out of action?"

"They say yes, but not the way we think."

"What do they mean by that?"

"They say the Martians have ten times as many resources as required to destroy the Earth, but...  The methods they'll use will be much more subtle, and for Mankind, much more terrible."


"Because the Martians have intellect but no conscience.  Because the concepts of good and evil are as remote from them as pure time is from pure space.  If Earth insists on violating the laws of the Universe, it would be better for her not to be the object of reprisals from Mars..."

"Why are they so wicked, if they're so intelligent?"

"Because they are pure organic matter.  They say that as a result of something which only occurred on Earth, evolution developed on quite different lines on either planet..."

The cause of Martian "evil" in this version lay in the far past.  If the concept had been developed by this author as far as Wells developed his, it would have been interesting to compare the two kinds of creepiness.  Wells' Martians are disturbingly akin to what humans might eventually become; Viard's Martians on the other hand are - or could have been - a disturbing hint that there might be separate kingdoms or phyla or even dimensions of morality, incompatible from the outset.

2019 March 17th:   


The idea that one area of Space could possess a particular and special characteristic seems nonsensical - space is just space, is it not? 

And yet, it must be said, orthodox physics' concept of a "field of force" seems to imply space within the bounds of such a field is different in some way from space outside it.  Let scientists and philosophers struggle over that question.  I'll turn to literature...

The Countenance (to be found in the collection Best Stories From New Worlds II, edited by Michael Moorcock) is a powerful short story penned by "by P F Woods", a nom-de-plume of the great Barrington Bayley.  Set in interstellar space, it's nevertheless one of those tales which I like to mention because of its relevance-by-implication to the Old Solar System, for it gives an idea of our own special interplanetary Sun-centred space by investigating what it is not.  Because our Sun provides a reference point, you can have sight of System space and remain unscathed, whereas if you were to look out from a view-port directly into the void between the stars, then - 

"...Once you get out there - make no mistake, there's nothing to hang on to.  You're lost.  Nowhere to go, and if there were anywhere, nowhere to start from...  Space does it...  There's too much of it out there.  It would swallow us all..."

The theme of vertiginous psychic peril appears in the final part of Stapledon's Last And First Men, to explain the failure of one crew of the Last Men in an attempt to voyage between the stars.  And there is the positively beautiful passage in Out of the Silent Planet in which, shortly before landing on Mars, C S Lewis' hero Ransom finds himself wondering whether the interstellar "void" might surpass our own local "Deep Heaven" in crowded spiritual vitality as far as the latter surpasses planetary surfaces.

So, our System is more than just matter and mind.  Our Sun, with its family of planets, moons, asteroids and comets, possesses in addition a sort of quality-gilded capital space.

2019 March 10th:   


In the fiction of Colin Wilson one comes across the bizarre view that in relatively recent (Pliocene / Pleistocene) times the Moon used to be extremely close to the Earth - and I mean really close, an order of magnitude closer than it is now.  Goodness knows why, but there is is.  Anyhow, I've now found another book which presupposes the same idea.

It is The Green Suns by "Henry Ward".  Ward was really the French writer Henri Viard (1921-89) and the original French version, Les Soleils Verts, came out in 1956 - English translation 1961.

I found it to be a bizarre but impressive tale, mostly in the spy-thriller format but without the boring jerky staccato style I sadly expect from that genre.

There isn't much about the close Moon, unfortunately; hardly more than a few CLUFFs' worth.  The nub of the plot concerns contact with a sentient universe who's sliding through ours and in the process causing some havoc with our Cold War nuclear stockpiles - I confess I didn't quite grasp why.

As for that Moon's surface:  in the days before the fall of Atlantis 53,000 years ago, our satellite's atmosphere was "extremely rich in nitrogen, which gave rise to an abundant surface vegetation".  Unfortunately, a war between Atlantis and one of its colonies results in the Moon being bombed into uninhabitability....

A tantalising book, but worth reading.

Meanwhile here's a thought: how many equally interesting works have not been translated from the French?  What are we missing?

2019 March 8th:   


This evening my SF tastes overlapped with my more official duties: I've just tutored a little 12-year-old lad whose teacher has started his class on The War of the Worlds (I gather they listened to a recording). 

My pupil told me that they've reached chapter 5 (The Heat-Ray).  I don't know if any abridgement has been going on, but anyhow I've spent most of an hour explaining meanings from the first page of the text - "scrutinizing", "transient", "complacency", "serene", "missionary", "terrestrial" (I pointed out there is no such word as "Earthian"), "disillusionment"... and also I had to define "interplanetary".

I alluded to the way the book gives mankind-the-oppressor-of-animals a taste of his own medicine... and my pupil, though not the literary type, did get that point.

2019 March 3rd:    


I've exchanged Facebook messages with Kevin P Breen of Wichita, Kansas, who has vouchsafed some tantalizing data: he has a group called Retro Rockets and is planning a collection of new OSS tales, to be called Solar Stories.

He has recommended this site to his people and I intend to reciprocate in whatever way possible, so the more I know about everything to do with KPB and Retro Rockets, the better.  Watch this space for further announcements.

2019 February 27th:    


Sorry to have to announce that I shan't be able to produce Uranian Throne Episode 11 "The Terran Heir" by 1st March.  I'm nine-tenths there, but the final bit of work to be done is not the type of task that can be squeezed into a couple of extremely busy tutoring days.  It's a shame - it'll be the first time I've missed the (self-imposed) deadline.

2019 February 5th:   


A writer has brightened my day by sending the first submission to Vintage Worlds 2

It's a 7500-word tale mostly set on Mercury - the ultra-harsh, lifeless traditional sun-synchronous Mercury of stories such as Brightside Crossing

The way the chances turned out for Vintage Worlds 1, I found a near-perfect balance of settings in the range of submissions, without having to strive for it.  I don't know whether I can be as lucky a second time, so, to help the luck along a bit, I think I'll get into the habit of announcing the settings of submissions as they come in.

This does not mean that I expect any of you who may be writing for VW2 to throw out a good story just because you suddenly read in this Diary that someone has "got there first".  For example it is entirely possible that someone else may send in a great Mercurian tale and I end up choosing both of them.  This is especially true if the rival versions of the same world are notably different; thus, I'll be much more likely to approve a second Mercury if that one is provided with native life.

My only intention in keeping you all posted about the settings of the tales as they come in, is that in those cases where choices have yet to be made, you might bear in mind which territories are still crying out for a visit.

2019 February 1st:   


Although an improvement on January 2018, January 2019 was mediocre in most respects in terms of site usage.  2,352 visitors (we're back down to the hard-core elite) making 11,052 visits (that figure is fairly respectable), and a total of 18,034 page views (not brilliant).  However, let's wait for the February surge!  I say this, because last year that's what happened - the figures leaped, whooshed upwards in the second month. 

Meanwhile, on whatever planet you may be, for tomorrow I wish you all a cozy Candlemas.

2019 January 13th:   


Pictorial evidence has come to light of a straining in the multiverse, as the OSS and RSS realities put forth pseudopodia which grope in one another's direction...

Or to put it in more normal language, the fictions of Hergé and the designs of Elon Musk are converging.

Dylan has sent me some images of Space-X's latest rockets.  As he points out, they are irresistibly retro.  Dammit, this is what moon-rockets ought to look like.  (Unfortunately, with tiresome hyperbole, Musk calls them Starships.  Why not go for the far more exciting, because more credible and tangible, honest-to-goodness Moon-Rocket?)

Anyhow, you can no doubt spot the influence if you look at Professor Tournesol's moonship in Objectif Lune (1954).  As Musk is reported to have said, "When in doubt, go with Tintin."

To quote from yesterday's Daily Telegraph article (which points out the Musk-Tintin similarity), with regard to the Space-X "Starship Hopper":

"...The science-fiction silver is more than just for show, according to Musk, as the exterior will get too hot for paint..."

I expect there are also good engineering reasons for landing on a tripod of sturdy tail fins, if the pilot or the autopilot can manage it.  All in all, the spirit of the design also reminds me of Ray Bradbury's and Eric Frank Russell's happy-go-lucky whooshing rockets.

2019 January 6th:   


For someone with a whimsical turn of mind, the latest hit-parade of Page-View Winners can spark off an urge to indulge in transcosmic pneumaseismology, which, I hardly need say, means the study of spiritual tremors vibrating between one continuum and another.

In this approach to the data, we can speculate on what the changes in ranking of long-established pages, between end of September and end of December, might betoken in the OSS dimension, given that - for example - the following surges in status occurred:

- Mars is up from 10th to 8th place;

- C S Lewis has soared from 21st to 11th place;

- Mercury and Venus have risen from meta-page to hyper-page status;

- those rising from para-page to meta-page status include Primordial Worlds, Religion, Interplanetary Knock-Out and the Moon;

- those rising from super-page to para-page status include Hollow Worlds, Far Future, Space Sargassoes, Derelicts and Clumps, Hyper-Brains, Comets, The First Men in the Moon, NOSS - How Far Can We Go? - and Plying the Spacelanes;

- those who like C S Lewis have risen 10 or more places in the chart, include: Whom Gods Destroy (up 10 places, from 169th to =159th); Clark Ashton Smith's Immortals of Mercury (up 10 places, from 127th to 117th); Callisto (up 11 places, from 85th to 74th); Intelligent Plants (up 11 places, from 108th to 97th); Eric Frank Russell (up 11 places, from 142nd to =131st); What to see on Titan (up 12 places, from 131th to 119th); Asimov on Jupiter (up 12 places, from 162nd to 150th); Rex Gordon (up 12 places, from 179th to 162nd); A Rose for Ecclesiastes (up 14 places, from 105th to 91st); Jovian Inferno (up 16 places, from 173rd to 157th); The Martian Crown Jewels (up 17 places, from 144th to 127th); Relations with the Real (up 18 places, from 107th to 89th); Time to Rest (up 18 places, from 139th to 121st); What to see on Saturn (up 19 places, from 149th to 130th); Prisoners of Saturn (up 19 places, from 167th to =148th); The Ancient Inhabited Moon (up 21 places, from 152nd to =131st); Shoals (up 23 places, from 185th to =162nd); A E van Vogt (up 24 places, from 146th to 122nd); Sentinels from Space (up 24 places, from 148th to 124th); Brightside Crossing (up 26 places, from 109th to 83rd); A Relic from the Old Space Program (up 34 places, from 193rd to =159th); and, the biggest long-jumper of all, Interplanetary Huntress (up 35 places, from 135th to 100th);

- those pages which weren't anywhere on the winners' list in September but have joined it now, including: The Winds of Vulcan; Red Planet; Thoughts on Michael Moorcock's The Lost Canal; Project Utopia; A Barsoom and NSS Mars Match-Up, The Rise; Charles L Harness; Great Red Spot; A Plea for Lost Civilizations; What to see on Neptune; James Blish; What to see on Pluto; The Inorganic Character of RSS Mars; Styx; Leda; The Really Old Solar System; Keith Laumer; Raymond Z Gallun; and The Lifeblood of Worlds.

Now, what's the pattern in all this?  Um... this is where I need to say something Delphic.  Disturbances have occurred in the etheric network.  Lines of force have converged on the Jupiter and Saturn systems, but also on Mars and Venus, and ancient Luna.  There has been a touristic rush to see what there is to see on various locales in the Outer Solar System.  The Wheel of Fortune is bearing Lewis upwards and Clark Ashton Smith somewhat downwards, though the latter is still tops among the authors.  But both are breathable-atmosphere scene-setters, and my impression is that the habitable-without-a-spacesuit OSS is winning out over the marginally-habitable-with-some-mechanical-aid OSS.  However the picture isn't completely clear on this issue.  Fog swirls in my crystal ball. 

I'd better stop gazing.  Though the extinct-woolly-elephant annoys me, nevertheless I'll say it at this juncture: the completion of Page-View Winners 2018 was a mammoth task.

But it was worth it.  I wanted to see the results myself, and besides, as readers will note, "Page-View Winners" is itself very high on the list of page-view winners... somewhat recursively. 

My guess is, you use it as a convenient entrée to the range of pages available; an alternative to exploring via the nav bar.  Anyhow, for whatever reason, an average of 4.76 users accessed PVW daily during 2018.

I hope to do the 2019 PVW all in one go, in January 2020.

2019 January 2nd:   


In the month just finished this website had 2,731 visitors, making 11,618 visits totalling 23,178 page views.  A reasonably good month. 

It's a come-down from the recent heights - the November figures being 3,574 visitors, 14,063 visits and 29,511 page views.  On the other hand if you compare the current totals with the 2,273 visitors, 5,778 visits and 12,701 page views of the previous December, you'll see that the year-on-year trend is quite satisfactory.

We just need to keep our nerve and eventually we'll dominate the Solar System.