Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hopes fade for Mars Global Surveyor

NASA is not giving up just yet, but after 10 days of increasingly ominous silence from the 10 year old Mars orbiting space probe, it looks like curtains. Launched on November 7, 1996, the mission was intended to last two years, but like the incredible longevity of the Spirit and Opporunity rovers, the probe surprised mission controllers by lasting long past its warranty. In the process, it took a staggering 240,000 pictures of the surface, but aftern receiving a signal indicating there were problems with a solar panel, the probe fell silent. NASA had hoped to catch a glimpse of the surveyor on Monday might from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but nothing was seen. Hopes are now being pinned on an effort to instruct Mars Global Surveyor to send a single to one of the rovers below, asking it to switch on a beacon. If the beacon switches on, then this will provide a chance for mission controllers to pinpoint the location of the wayward probe.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mars Flyer gets wind tunnel test

One of the most exciting prospects for exploration of Mars is the idea of sending an automated aircraft, which could clearly cover great distances and return unprecedented detail of the surface. The newest design to enter the testing stage rejoices in the wonderful name of the Mars Advanced Technology Airplane for Deployment, Operations, and Recovery, or to shorten it to its acronym, MATADOR. Not surprisingly given that brain bender of a name, this is a military funded project; don't the military just love their acronyms? However, don't be disappointed to learn that it is apparently unarmed, unless of course they know something we don't and we're preparing to declare war on Mars. The project is run out of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a name synonymous with murky stories of crashed UFOs and stored alien bodies. Tests of the winged design were conduced recently in a vertical wind tunnel. The plane has a folded wing design, which means it would deploy with the wings folded, and then unfurl them deep in the atmosphere. There are plans to do more testing in the future, including the possibility of sending the plane aloft with a balloon. You can find more at the AFRL (there's another acronyn) web site.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Excellent new science fiction documentary debuts on BBC4

Produced as the centrepiece of a week long stream of programs celebrating the importance of British science fiction, part one of this ambitious documentary series lends the subject all the gravitas you would expect of a BBC production, delving deep into the origins of modern science fiction and specifically the vital role played by H.G. Wells in the creation of several key tropes of the genre. Contributions come from a galaxy of star names; many of them revered as royalty in science fiction circles. Brian Aldis, Arthur C Clarke and Nigel Kneale (who we tragically lost just a few weeks ago) lend weighty and authoritative opinion as representatives of the generation of writers closest to Wells, while up and coming talents like China Melville, Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford signal their own debt to a writer whose ideas are still being liberally borrowed from today.

The core focus of "From Apes To Aliens" is the vexed question of evolution; an idea that the program argues persuasively has always been a key component of British science fiction. Of course Wells himself returned to the theme several times in his novels, first in The Time Machine and again in The War Of The Worlds, though surprisingly the program makes no mention of the fact that he was tutored by T H Huxley, the greatest evolutionary proponent of the day (he was known as Darwin’s Bulldog) and surely therefore a huge and important influence.

The program makes use of archive footage and modern day interviews with writers and scientists, as well as occasional dramatic sequences. These recount key moments in Wells’ life and scenes from his books, though interestingly and quite effectively, the writer and his characters are here presented as essentially one and the same, thus Wells is seen not only writing his books, but constructing his Time Machine and exploring the underground caverns of the Morlocs. This seems a perfectly reasonable dramatic device given that Wells certainly interjected some autobiographical material into his novels. As an interesting aside, it’s not the first time this has been done, most successfully in the superb Nicholas Meyer directed movie Time After Time.

Given that this program is part of a retrospective season of British science fiction, it not unnaturally plunders the BBC archives for causal connections with Wells, and so there is no great surprise that Doctor Who is presented as an important antecedent. The insightful point is made that the time travelling doctor (as first presented to the British public by William Hartnell) was played very much as if he were a Victorian or Edwardian gentleman, and his Tardis was full of the sort of old clutter and bric-a-brac that you might find in an English home of those periods. As critic Kim Newman observes, the Time Traveller of H.G. Wells was dressed in the attire of his time, so it made sense for the Doctor to be dressed in the same way, rather than the modern uniforms of Star Trek. It is also worth remembering that the very first voyage of the Doctor was to the far past and a meeting with cavemen that evoked memories of Wells’ bestial Morlocs.

Readers of this site will be pleased to learn that The War Of The Worlds is also afforded due deference, though an error is made in crediting Wells with the inspiration for the story. It is certainly true to say that the idea for the War Of The Worlds was suggested during a walk by Wells and his brother Frank, as attested to by H.G himself in his autobiography. Along the way, they were discussing the plight of the Tasmanian natives who were then facing the genocidal attentions of colonial invaders, but Brian Stableford suggests erroneously that it was H.G. Wells who offered the observation, “suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly?” It was in fact his brother who made this hugely salient observation, though of course H.G developed the idea and made such capital of it, using his story to smash the smug assumption that the British Empire was an unassailable power in the world.

It would have been nice to see a few more references to the incredible legacy of The War Of The Worlds, such as the Orson Welles radio broadcast, and you can’t help but smile when Doctor Who is once again trotted out for comparison, with the slightly more tenuous connection offered up between Wells’ Martians and the Daleks. The program leaves direct discussion of Wells at this point to look at the equally worthy work of Olaf Stapleton and then briefly touches on American influences. There is a quaint bit of Yank bashing here from Kim Newman, who gently chides the primitive early American television science fiction shows such as Captain Video, contrasting these with the much more polished and grown up BBC series Quatermass. Of course this is not to say that Quatermass does not deserve our wholehearted praise. The series had the British viewing public glued to their sofas every week and had palpable connections with The War Of The Worlds. The third series even focused on the discovery of a long buried Martian spacecraft beneath London.

The rest of the program works through several more of the greats of British science fiction, with welcome discussion of the work of Arthur C Clarke, with Clarke himself providing much in the way of comment. Of course pride of place is given to his magnum opus 2001 A Space Odyssey, but it is nice to see his less well-known (though I think equally good) Childhood’s End acknowledged as the prototype for that archetypal science fiction vision; as giant spacecraft hover over our cities in mute testimony to their overwhelming technological superiority. It is an idea since revisited many times on television and film, most notably in the excellent mini series V and of course, Independence Day, which (though not mentioned in the program) was of course an unacknowledged remake of The War Of The Worlds.

This first episode is an excellent series opener, full of detail and respect for the genre and I think one of the few times it has been treated with anything approaching the respect it deserves. The program does however end on a sad note, with a visibly upset Clarke lamenting the failure of science to emulate the great ideas of science fiction, notably in the lost promise of the Apollo moon program. Alas, as will be covered by the second program in the series, science fiction, and British science fiction in particular, has had far more predictive success with matters of an unsettling and depressing nature.

Martians And Us, From Apes to Aliens can be seen on BBC4 on Monday 13 November 2006 9pm-10pm; rpt Wednesday 15 November midnight-1am; rpt Sunday 19 November 12.50am-1.50am (Saturday night)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Science Fiction Britannia on the BBC

Starting this coming Monday (November 13th) on BBC 4 is a fasinating new season exploring the history of British science fiction. There promises to be a wide ranging selection of programming, including original documentaries and plenty of classic BBC science fiction. Highlights for readers of this site will be two documentaries. The three part The Martians And Us is the centrepiece of the season, the first part of which will be looking at how HG Wells captured man's fascination with evolution to father a new form of fiction. HG Wells And Me is a more general look at his life and work. There is also a welcome repeat for the excellent drama HG Wells: War With The World, which adapts his own autobiography. Plenty more details and clips at the Science Fiction Britannia website.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Orson Welles going to Mars and so can you!

The Orson Welles War Of The Worlds broadcast is going to Mars aboard the Phoenix spacecraft, due for landing in May 2007. A special DVD will contain the broadcast as well as a fantastic collection of material spanning centuries of human thought about the red planet. Works by top science fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and Issac Asimov (I'm in Marsport Without Hilda) will be included on the DVD, as well as fantasy images of Mars. Not only this, but you too can have your name encoded on the disc, which may well be found by far future explorers (human, or otherwise.) It's a great idea, and the full list of material which can be found on the Planetary Society website (who are sponsoring the endeavour) reads like a veritable who’s who of science fiction, but includes some less well known material. I particularly love that H Beam Piper's superb Omnilingual is included, surely one of the best stories ever written about Mars.

I suspect Orson Welles would have been thoroughly amused to know his broadcast would one day make the trip to Mars, but what would H.G. Wells have made of the idea? I think he would have been a little bemused but rather pleased. In my opinion, it is no exaggeration to say that if not for the fascination Wells created in fictional mars-scapes, mission likes Phoenix would simply not be happening, so you can say that things have finally come full circle. That Wells' War Of The Worlds (though perplexingly, only an excerpt of the text) is to rest on Mars, is a truly inspiring thought.