the sunport vista:


The Samuel Pepys of the OSS...

2024 February 7th:


The growth of legends is an unplanned evolution, springing from the confluence and overlap of ideas, and it's fascinating to catch it in its early stages.  One of the reasons I am a post-Columbian American history buff is that one can watch a documented rise of a culture's character from the outset, its mystery materialising in the clear light of day (pre-Columbian has a different allure altogether, more like early British history, its origins fading back into the mists of time).

The growth of literary Old Solar System worlds is another instance of traditions' growths via creation-by-overlaps.  I've gone on about this sort of thing often enough, in the pages of this site and in the introductions to the Vintage Worlds anthologies.

Just now I'd like to mention a third instance: something created by the conjunction of fictional dates. 

It has become obvious, as I come across more and more references to add to the Fictional Dates page, that for some reason certain year-numbers have acquired (shall we say) a more dramatic ring-tone than others.  Not the obvious "round-number" ones either: just have a look at the page, scroll to the year 1967 and you'll see what I mean. 

No fewer than four authors are cited with their own fictional "take" on 1967.  Three of them - Burroughs, Cooper and Cummings - refer to it as a notable war year.  Clarke has it as a milestone in space exploration.

As one might expect, such coincidence becomes rarer the further ahead one looks along the infinite timeline.  It becomes more a matter of spotting the clumps or clusters that appear in specific decades rather than single years.  For instance you could maybe have a look at the 2050s and the 2170s.  And please let me know of any discoveries of your own, that would do well on the timeline!

Come to think of it, the 2020s are pretty rich...

john carter movie

2024 January 29th:


My wife Mary bought me the DVD for my 70th birthday, which was on 20th January, and we got round to settling down to watch it last Saturday, the 28th.  I have to say...

Stid:  Stop before you opine: I'm more interested to know how she got on with it.

Zendexor:  She quit part way through.  Apologetically, she excused herself on the ground that she found it "rather weird".  I dare say she's not used to Martians.

Stid:  Whereas you must have been in your element...

Zendexor:  Well, no: actually I found it weird too, but for a different reason: namely, that I could only comprehend about a tenth of the dialogue.  Why actors slur their lines like that, I cannot imagine.  I don't suppose they're drunk, so what is it? 

Stid:  Perhaps what it is, is that you're exaggerating.

Zendexor: If I am it's only because I ought also to allow for how the sound track drowns out some of the words.  But the slurring is the main problem.  It's certainly not that I am incapable of understanding an American drawl.  Admittedly, the best English - in fact, quasi-comphrehensible - is achieved by the Therns, who, being villains, naturally sound more British than anyone else in the movie.  Yet never have I had had any trouble with understanding (for example) Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper or John Wayne.  But this guy playing John Carter... most of his utterances might as well have been in Etruscan as far as I'm concerned. 

Stid:  I know what it is, Zendexor: you're going deaf.

Zendexor:  Really?  I had the same problem two decades ago with Gladiator, in which I couldn't decipher Russel Crowe's mumblings; and I certainly wasn't "deaf" then. 

Stid:  All right, then, that's enough of the bad news.  Any good news?

Zendexor:  Yes: it was fun to watch in order to see what Disney made of Barsoomian architecture and decor.  The flyers looked good too, though they were more suitable for Bradbury's ornate Mars than for the functional navies of ERB's red men.  Another plus is that Dejah Thoris was more impressive than she is in the books!  What else....  hmm, the banths.  To me they looked more like the great white apes ought to look, than the Barsoomian lions they're meant to be; but anyhow, good Barsoomian critters of whatever species.  I rather liked Woola too.  Even John Carter himself, though too scruffy and moody to be my idea of the Virginia gentleman in Burroughs' books, seemed likeable enough.

Stid:  Is that the end of your struggle to find something positive to say?

Zendexor:  No, there's more: I'm going to end with a BIG plus.  Something Disney managed which Burroughs left undone.  I refer to the whole mysterious business of how Carter travelled between the worlds.  Burroughs simply copped out, though he got away with it (and no one else would have!).  The film does better; in fact, does it beautifully.  Mystery remains, but (if I may put it this way) we're given something for the imagination to get its teeth into.

Stid:  Are you ever going to see it again, do you think?

Zendexor:  Yes - willingly - provided that I can see it with subtitles!

2024 January 27th:


Most of the time, I suppose, the idea we OSS fans have about the science in science fiction goes something like this: 

Whereas in our Old Solar System sub-genre of sf the science is merely an underpinning mood, the science in "hard" sf is a more disciplined and stricter restraint on what is permissible...  Most of the time, anyway.  But -

It sometimes appears that, running between this pair of attitudes, there can be a kind of cross-link, whereby the imagination's desires spill over to play a strong part even in the hard stuff. 

Let's consider a couple of episodes in the works of Arthur C Clarke.

The first is from The Sands of Mars, chapter 13.  By this stage in the novel a fortunate accident has resulted in the discovery of a species of Martian fauna, contradicting the previous belief that only flora existed on the Red Planet.  One of the Martian creatures, dubbed Squeak, has developed an affection for the story's human protagonist and has accompanied the expedition back to base:

The scientists had prepared quite a reception for Squeak, the zoologists in particular being busily at work explaining away their early explanations for the absence of animal life on Mars.

I'm especially fond of that sentence.  It's a nice touch of gentle Clarkeian irony and makes it seem that he considers scientific explanations to be mere rubber-stamp authorizations of whatever fait accompli Nature presents us with.   

One may go further - beyond what Clarke himself would have allowed - and views explanations not only as mere authorizations but as mere humble excuses, necessary window-dressing for the intellect, similar to the perfunctory nods accorded to science in OSS "soft" sf.

We thus arrive at the view that causation itself is less important than results.  Wonders are what existence demands, and must be provided.  Teleology rules! 

The other excerpt is from Childhood's End, chapter 18, in which a child has dreams which are visions of reality from far worlds.

It was a world that could never know the meaning of night or day, of years or seasons.  Six coloured suns shared its sky, so that there came only a change of light, never darkness.  Through the clash and tug of conflicting gravitational fields, the planet travelled along the loops and curves of its inconceivably complex orbit, never retracing the same path.  Every moment was unique: the configuration which the six suns now held in the heavens would not repeat itself this side of eternity.

And even here there was life.  Though the planet might be scorched by the central fires in one age, and frozen in the outer reaches in another, it was yet the home of intelligence.  The great, many-faceted crystals stood grouped in intricate geometrical patterns, motionless in the eras of cold, growing slowly along the veins of mineral when the world was warm again.  No matter if it took a thousand years for them to complete a thought.  The universe was still young, and Time stretched endlessly before them -

I discussed non-breathing life in my previous Diary entry, but here the theme is presented not by the lovably lax Edmond Hamilton but by the formidably proper Clarke!

Well, he might have said, why not?  Who's to say mineral life of that sort isn't possible, given the vastness of Time and Space and the surprises Nature can have in store?  Why should hard-sf not allow for these intelligent crystals?

Yet here's a comment I can't resist making: the thinking minerals are portrayed as being way outside our Galaxy, and I do wonder whether Clarke would have stretched his science so far, if the distance hadn't been far as well.  Can you imagine him writing about similar crystals on, say, the moons of Uranus or at the poles of Mercury?  I must say I can't.

It's like a hard-science fictioneer, when indulging in a bit of naughtiness, must do so well out of range of the OSS...  an evasion which, when you think about it, isn't so very scientific after all.

2024 January 23rd:   


The Three Planeteers (Startling Stories, January 1940), which I learned about from Guess The World contributor Lone Wolf (see Attacked in a fungus forest on Saturn), is a tale I'm reading bit by bit, rather than devouring at one go.  This goes to prove that I wouldn't class it among Edmond Hamilton's unputdownable yarns. 

However, it has turned out to be an unusually rich source of material.  I've quarried the text for the Guess The World, CLUFFs and Fictional Dates pages and I have good reason to hope that the plot will develop into providing yet more for GTW.  Quite good going for a single novella.

And its latest yield - GTW scene number 362 - has given me something to reflect upon here.  The "space-dogs" (see Lungless creatures evolved on airless Ceres) are great examples of one way in which the OSS can make the smaller worlds of the System more plot-friendly.

The other way is more lavish, more defiantly unrealistic: the provision of soil, water and a breathable atmosphere to tiny asteroids and moons which in actual fact can only be barren lumps.  This insouciant attitude to scene-setting has given us many a delightful read, such as Leigh Brackett's The Lake of the Gone-Forever, John Wyndham's Exiles on Asperus, Ray Bradbury's Perchance to Dream and Eric Frank Russell's The Saga of Pelican West.

(Or in a variant version the atmosphere might be too thin to be breathable by humans but yet substantial enough to support some life, which is what I seem to remember is the situation in Clark Ashton Smith's Master of the Asteroid.)

But the "lungless space-dogs" idea gives us a powerful alternative, an extra shove at the frontier of opportunity.  Airless evolution can people the coldest, darkest worlds, where even the stoutest OSS fan might baulk at the suspension of disbelief required to give them air and water and respiratory life. 

Another advantage is that it can spread native life to that world which we all think of as airless in both fact and fiction: namely, our own Moon.  (See Keyhole by Murray Leinster - discussed in Lunar surface creatures.)

One last point: is the idea of airless evolution all that unrealistic?  Life depends on - is a sort of re-arrangement of - energy, and energy in one form or another pervades the universe.  Think of cosmic rays; and then think of all the other things we haven't thought of and don't know about... and then you may conclude that the space-dogs aren't so far-fetched after all.

2024 January 17th:


This little entry is a continuation of one I wrote almost seven years ago, focused upon Saturn, under the title IT JUST MIGHT BE.

In it I referred to the conversation in Footfall on the subject of whether an alien spaceship which had come from the direction of Saturn could possibly originate there.  The consensus was "no" to the possibility of a Saturnian civilization, but not an absolutely sure "no".  What fascinated me about that passage in the novel, was that although we may be used to thinking in certain boundaries, when something unexpected actually happens we are faced with the fact that we can't regard those constraints as absolute. 

"Saturn," Aylesworth said.  "Saturnians?"

"I doubt it," Ed Gillespie said.  "Saturn just doesn't get enough sunlight energy for a complex organism to evolve there.  Much less a civilization."

"Sure about that?" the President asked.

"No, sir."

I felt like cheering when I read that "No, sir".  Though in the novel itself the doubt is swiftly forgotten, the point as far as I'm concerned is memorable and vital: no matter how strongly a hard-science buff may protest that at Saturn's distance from the Sun a planet can't have the energy budget to afford a biosphere, you really cannot be sure: and lo and behold, a few years after Footfall was written we were all treated to a real-life surprise on how much energy a yet further world can possess.

I well remember the news of Voyager's Neptune encounter (I was at an Open University summer school at the time): I remember the official amazement at the pictures of Neptune's dramatically turbulent atmosphere.  Whereas Uranus three years earlier had shown as bland, Neptune - almost twice as far - was full of vim! 

I'd be willing to bet that the basic energy for life is available anywhere in the Solar System.  Perhaps the further out you go, the slower life is, but that's all right.


Of course, scientific realism isn't the point anyway, as far as most of the literature discussed on this site is concerned.  The essential mood-music or drama-prop which Science provides is all we OSS fans need. 

Still, it's nice for us when Nature seems to stretch a point in our direction...

2024 January 11th:

Note addendum to the entry on January 5th.

Zendexor-mars-globefumbling for Amazonis Planitia

5th January 2024:


More about the current efforts at inclusivity:

The more I browse in Heinlein's wonderful Red Planet the more I see it as a gold-mine of references to Lowell's Mars, all ready to be included in the Gazetteer if only I can do so while keeping to the rules (see previous Diary entry).

That's to say I need to link the features on Lowell's canal-covered maps with locations on the 1962 standard map.  Of course you might argue that the non-existence of the Lowellian features may present a problem.  However, although they don't exist, their locations - their latitude and longitude - do.  All that needs to be done, then, is to note the lat. and long. of the canals, oases, etc.

I spent some hours online trying to do this from the maps available.  The trouble is, though evocative in general impression, they're hard to read on screen.  But then at last I found the solution to the problem - an invaluable site called Lost Names of Classical Mars, which gives all the areographical references I need, nicely set out in a table. 

For instance Strymon Canal, mentioned by Heinlein, is listed succinctly as follows:

Name: Strymon    Feature type: Canalis    Latitude: 27    East Longitude: 156
            Origin: Ancient spelling of the Struma, a river in Greece    Usage: 1905 Lowell.

Having noted the areographical co-ordinates I got out my Mars globe and found that Strymon would, if it existed, be bang in the midst of Amazonis Planitia.  That nails it!

[Note added 11 Jan:  During the past few days I've been developing a distrust of the accuracy of my 1970s Mars globe; it looks good, with a level of detail gleaned from Mariner if not from Viking, but the names of the features sometimes don't match at all with the co-ordinates given by more modern online sources.  For instance Amazonis Planitia is, according to Wikipedia, centred upon 25 North, 196 East.  196 is too far from 156 to satisfy me, and the discrepancy induces a helpless confusion...]


2024 January 4th:   


To avoid misunderstanding, I'll remind readers that the "haunted worlds" Gazetteer is so called because the idea of it is to link non-fictional places with the auras they have acquired from their additional life in story.

The purpose is thus to coat the flat objectivity of a map with a shimmer of the subjective: typically, therefore, an entry in the Gazetteer is the name of a real place followed by reference to it in fiction (or, in the case of a few places on the Moon, outdated speculation which might as well now count as fiction: see for example Eratosthenes).

What is ruled out is the completely imaginary: that is, I shan't include instances where the location as well as the reference is fictional.  If total fictionality were included, the page would lose its point, which is the twinning of reality and dream.

Bearing all this in mind, you can see why, up till now, I have restricted the coverage to Earth and Moon.  Those are the two worlds which have long been mapped (or half-mapped in the case of the Moon, whose far side was not seen until the Space Age) to a level of detail which isn't available for anywhere else.

Right from the start, I thought about including Mars, but the references available are relatively few, and don't seem to have been very widely used by sf writers.  However - why not include those which are to be found?  It's time to go for it.  So far as I am aware, the best pre-Space-Age maps of Mars have remained an agreed source for amateur astronomers who, while monitoring the Red Planet to record dust storms, refer to surface features by the names which Schiaparelli and Antoniadi provided, a practice which indicates that the features concerned are real enough (and many of the names have been retained or adapted by the International Astronomical Union for Space-Age mapping).

More borderline is the notion that I might include references to named surface features observed - or rather imagined - by Percival Lowell.  (Off-hand I can only think of one - in Heinlein's novel Red Planet.)  You might well argue that to include them would be to indulge in that "total fictionality" which I renounced a couple of paragraphs ago.

Still, I might include them.  The justification would be: that although Lowell never succeeded thoroughly in convincing his fellow astronomers, his maps did to a considerable degree enter the public domain of belief.  Thus when Heinlein referred to the canal Strymon, it wasn't an invention of his.

It's a grey area.  Not a make-or-break issue in any case - for the Martian references are bound to be relatively few.

One thing's fairly certain: I won't be extending this sort of Gazetteer's coverage to yet more worlds.  Venusian clouds are un-mappable, and I've never met any fictional reference to Antoniadi's 1930s map of Mercury...  which is a pity since the names he chose are pretty good.  Cyllene!  Caduceata!  Solitudo Criophori!