Month: January 2019

Ten of the Best. #3: Hunting Squamp

If I re-read The Fourteenth Voyage today, I’m invariably humming along to Planet Claire by The B-52’s as I go: it seems a carbon copy of Enteropia, the planet upon which Ijon Tichy goes for a vacation after getting his rocket repaired, a third of the way through Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries.

Planet Claire has pink air
All the trees are red
No one ever dies there
No one has a head

Sing The B-52’s in my head.

ENTEROPIA, 6th planet of a double (red and blue) star in the Calf constellation.

Reads Tichy from the Hitchhiker’s Guide-like Cosmic Encyclopaedia he has borrowed from his old mucker, Prof. Tarantoga.

8 continents, 2 oceans, 167 active volcanoes, 1 torg (see TORG).  A 20-hr. day, warm climate, conditions for life favourable except during the whackers (see WHACKER).

Having arrived, Tichy decides to go hunting for squamp, one of the local big game, for which he is kitted out with relish seasoned with pepper and chives, a time bomb and a plentiful supply of laxative.  The idea is to coat oneself in the first, lurk in a likely spot until swallowed whole by said squamp, at which point one sets the second and uses the third to escape out the back, before the second goes off.

There’s nothing terribly subtle here, of course, and there are many other more refined Lemian inventions I could have put in my list; the science of Eruntics – teaching English to bacteria, or the Matrix-like horrors of the world of Doctor Diagoras, to name but two but Tichy out squamp hunting left my seventeen-year-old self tickled pink and opened my eyes just that little bit wider as to just how far SF could go.  It was one of the many things that I thanked the man himself for, when I visited his grave in Krakow’s Salwator cemetery, back in 2010.

 

 

 

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Ten of the Best. #2: Dr. Doug Jackson

UFO, the early 1970’s TV show that marked Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s first foray into live-action drama, is iconic for a whole slew of reasons: the once-heard-never-forgotten sound of the UFO itself, the Moonbase crews’ purple wigs (but why only the women?), and the perfectly realised design of the SHADO (= Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) badge, to name but three.  For me though, the most stunning thing that the show pulled off was the casting of Polish actor Vladek Sheybal in the recurring role of Dr. Doug Jackson.

By the time UFO started filming, Sheybal had been a fixture in British living rooms for a number of years, with a regular gig in the Ken Russell productions of the time, and appearing as a villain in almost every spy franchise going (including The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions and Bond, where he played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love).

The character of Doug Jackson evolved from Sheybal’s turn as Dr. Beauville in the earlier Gerry & Sylvia Anderson movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun – aka Doppelgänger – (1969).  In UFO, the evidently versatile Jackson is first introduced adversarially as the International Astrophysical Commission’s chief prosecutor (!) during the Court Martial of SHADO’s Paul Foster, and only gradually is he subsumed into the ranks of SHADO itself.

Channelling the standard Sheybal villain – a thin-faced, goggle-eyed Slav, with a voice as insidious as snake venom, in that accent – Doug Jackson was seldom seen, or so it seemed, unless dressed for the operating theatre, one hand clutching a primed syringe with a drop of some mind-altering drug beading on the tip of its needle. He was the scariest good (?) guy ever.

Of course the payoff in spades was the character’s never-spoken-of backstory: just how did this creepy foreigner end up with the name Doug Jackson?  Perhaps if UFO had gone on for longer than two seasons more would have been revealed.  In a 1992 interview, given not long before his death, Sheybal comments as follows:-

Well, I got the (script of the) first episode, I learned my lines and I went to the studio where Sylvia Anderson – with the big eyelashes and a very beautiful hairdo – was there, and I met all these friends afterwards from UFO for the very time, including Gabrielle Drake. You remember Gabrielle Drake? She was my pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – I once was teaching acting there and she was my pupil, and I was very surprised when she was there in the studio.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn’t know who this Dr Jackson was and Sylvia Anderson, after we had finished – or maybe it was while we were filming? – she said, “Would you be at all interested if we feed a script in with Dr Jackson, because we like very much the way that you are doing it.” And then I asked her, “Who is this Dr Jackson?”. “We don’t know,” she said. And that is what happened, so from time to time when they wanted to write in Dr Jackson they would ask my agent if I would be free for, let’s say, next week for ten days to come to the studio to play Dr Jackson.

And then I started forming my opinion about the character, and I came to the conclusion that he’s got lots of colours and whatever, and I think that I developed it while I was playing it. 

For me, the Doug Jackson character is an absolute masterstroke and perhaps all the better for forever remaining an enigma.  From time to time a reboot of UFO is mooted.  If they ever do it, then Sheybal-lookalike Riz Ahmed would get my vote for the part.

Ten of the Best. #1: Temporal

I normally eschew making lists, but at a certain point, having read so many appallingly bad ones by other people/publications that just don’t contain the right things, one starts to get worn down.  The worst trend of all is encapsulated in those increasingly frequent ‘best’ or ‘all time’ lists that contain loads of stuff you’ve never heard of, written in the last five years and, if you’re lucky, a couple of token entries from the last century.

So, like anything really important in life, if you want it done properly, you have to do it yourself.  Here, in no particular order, over the next few weeks, I’ll post a personal list of ten of the most brilliantly bonkers things that SF has thrown at me over the years.

#1: Temporal

For a brief period in the late 1970’s it seemed as though Trevor Hoyle might be the British SF writer to smash the all-powerful transatlantic hegemony in English-speaking SF of the time.  This was on foot of his magnificent Q. Series (Seeking the Mythical Future (1977), The Gods Look Down (1977), Through the Eye of Time (1978)), the trilogy that bestowed ‘myth-technologist’ Queghan upon the SF world, and furnished Hoyle with his catch phrase The Cup Might Smash…  …And Then Fall.

For me though, Hoyle’s most memorable foray into quantum phenomena comes in Vail (1984) a near-future post-apocalyptic satire set in the UK.  Just get this:-

The boy or youth sighed wearily.  ‘Where have you been living? Never heard of Heisenberg?’

‘A new Bavarian lager?’

‘Cause can precede effect and effect can precede cause at one and the same time. What you do later affects what you do now – it’s all the same.’

‘Not in my world,’ I said, shifting feet.

‘Sure. Remember what Max Born said: “I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy.”‘

Two in one day. First a terrorist loonie and now a mad quantum mechanic. Which of us was going off our rocker, the world or me? ‘Suppose I say I’m not going to do the favour, – will you still give me the Temporal?’

‘That all depends on whether you do the favour or not.’

‘But you won’t know till later.’

‘That’s when I’ll decide.’

‘How can you decide later whether or not to give me the Temporal now?’

‘Simple. I won’t have given it to you if you don’t do the favour and I will have given it to you if you have.’

‘You call that simple?’

‘It is to me, squire.’

‘All right.’ I’d made up my mind. ‘Give me the Temporal and I’ll do you the favour, how’s that? Happy?’

‘I thought you’d say that,’ he said, handing me the foil strip.

Temporal is one of SF’s finest conceits – time and space bending quantum mechanical effects in convenient pill form – that later enable our hero Vail to escape an untimely death at the hands of a Watford Gap motorcycle gang.

 

Remembering the ‘Eiffel Tower in Space.’

Recent weeks have seen renewed discussion in the technical press concerning the proposals of Russian  startup StartRocket to put billboards into Earth orbit.  This is hardly a new idea; none of the previous proposals have come close to fruition, and that the commentary has once again been overwhelmingly negative is no great surprise.

There must have been numerous examples of this sort of display in Science Fiction over the years, but the one that springs most immediately to my mind is that of Demon Prince Lens Larque getting the last laugh, when the moon of the planet Methlen is posthumously rearranged by a series of planned explosions into a sculpture of his leering physiognomy, as occurs at the denouément of Jack Vance’s The Face (1979).

The first serious real world proposals to put something permanently visible into orbit were made in the summer of 1986 by the Eiffel Tower company, with the launch of their ‘Eiffel Tower in Space’ competition – an initiative to celebrate the tower’s 100th anniversary in 1989.  I remember this quite vividly, as I was a member of the team that put together the entry submitted by the company I was working for at the time.  Our entry, La Tour Eiffel de L’Espace, a rather unimaginative copy of the original, but in orbit, was shortlisted, but didn’t win.  The best of the bunch (a proposal from Southampton University in the UK, which didn’t win either) was clearly the ‘space chronometer,’ a kind of orbiting set of hands, which, through ingenious design would enable anyone who could see it to tell the time at their location.

By this point however, the competition was in serious trouble from objectors.  Astronomers led the way, pointing out that the light pollution from such structures could restrict viewing of the night sky.  Earthbound objectors focussed on the unwanted intrusion, pointing out that like as not the first practical implementation, if such things were allowed to go ahead, would be an orbiting Coke bottle.

And this is where the debate remains today – nothing has really changed.  I note that StartRocket’s idea puts forward the use of a constellation of microsatellites, each one of which would function as a pixel in a display, thus enabling different messages or designs to be displayed over a period of time (or indeed for the whole array to be switched off).  As much as I would be amused to see a laughing Putin image in geostationary orbit over Washington DC, I don’t think StartRocket’s innovations do enough to change the arguments against orbital billboards.

The most positive present day application of this kind of technology is to have orbital mirrors that can be repositioned to divert sunlight to disaster areas (eg; when earthquakes or tsunamis have occurred) at night-time to make the jobs of rescue workers easier.  In the future, if the Earth suddenly became more vulnerable to strikes from wandering asteroids or meteors for some reason, they perhaps an orbital warning system for incoming objects might also be a good use for the technology.

Stark Enigmas

The best SF short story I read in 2018 was Chike Deluna’s Stark!!! 

Picture this: an implacable spider god, the Lady Genevieve Desdemona, lounges in the bowl of a communications dish, idly watching a cat-burglar go about his business on a neighbouring skyscraper. She sees the thief successfully break into an apartment before, once inside, triggering an impossibly fiendish booby trap, a melange of pendulums, pulleys and automatons called the “Stark Enigma,” that will surely kill him…

It’s a great set-up, and the means by which the thief thereafter cheats death is satisfyingly memorable.

The path by which I reached this point, lounging in front of the fire at home, reading an e-copy of Deluna’s Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, is almost as fascinating.

Many on the Irish SF scene know that from time to time,  I assist the Michaels Scott and Carroll in curating the Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror Writers Pinterest board.  The qualification for inclusion is simple: writers either Irish born or resident in Ireland.  Even so, George Chyke Udenkwo (b. 1967, Newry) is one of the more enigmatic entries, the author of one work, Golgotha Falls: Genesis (2008).

The first thing you notice about Golgotha Falls: Genesis, when you start googling around, is how consistently good the star ratings are.  They hit percentages uncommon even for the big boys and unheard of for most bargain basement self-published doorwedges.  My curiosity was officially piqued.  Coming to the book cold, my first instinct was to expect a little Hiberno-Nigerian Afrofuturism but Golgotha Falls (the titular city) is rather a classic science fantasy setting: an ultra far future megalopolis, ruled by gods, yet with the sort of near future noir vibe more associated with Blade Runner.  The overarching theme of the interlinked stories is the interactions between the human denizens of Golgotha Falls and the implacable spider god Lady Genevieve Desdemona…

As the Lady Genevieve D. does over Golgotha Falls, so Udenkwo leaves clues about himself at various locations over the Internet, in particular a nice little biography here.  From these traces one can glean both that he was dissatisfied with the production quality of the  initial release of Golgotha Falls: Genesis and that he was writing further volumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and another ephemeral website and horror and fantasy author Chike Deluna is offering, inter-alia, several volumes of the adventures of Lady Genevieve Desdemona, the first of which is Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, the content of which, including the short story Stark!!!, corresponds to approximately the first half of the material in Golgotha Falls: Genesis.   The other volumes comprise MotW: The White Book, MotW: The Red Book and MotW: The Blue Book.

Fast forward again to 2018 and Chike Deluna, now based in India, appears to have cracked this self-publishing lark and is offering six or seven excellent looking horror and fantasy novels (but not, so far as I could tell, the Mistress of the Web series) for sale from a shiny new website.  Fair play indeed.  I must add The Cosmic Foot Masseur to my reading list.

Now I can’t say for certain that George Udenkwo and Chike Deluna are the same person.  For all I know, the latter discovered the decomposing remains of the former in an alley somewhere, clutching a portmanteau stuffed with thousands of manuscript pages of the adventures of the aforementioned Lady Genevieve D.  But whatever the truth of it, I did have fun unravelling the thread.  And reader, do yourselves a big favour in 2019 and track down a copy of Golgotha Falls: Genesis or the Mistress of the Web ebooks and get stuck into some of the finest science fantasy out there.