Archive for November, 2015

Orphu Meets Zeus

Anyone who has spent a month of Sundays digging away at Eve Online just so that they can shoot pirates at the weekend, might like this one.

Seems the US government want to open up the rights to mine asteroids. While those outside of North America may call for an international agreement – much in the same way that Antarctica is protected by a treaty of nation states – the idea of sending probes to seek mineral wealth away from the Earth is intriguing.

Numerous companies have been speculating about the logistics of what such a mining operation would entail. Back in 2013, Astronaut published an article about how the solar systemic race for resources was shaping up. Among the possible solutions Deep Space Industries’ concept of a self-replicating fleet of prospectors caused the biggest stir among Sci-Fi fans. Partially because it offers a neat solution to the expense of repeated rocket launches from Earth, but also for the similarity to Dan Simmons’ Moravecs from Ilium and Olympos (Francois Baranger’s interpretation of Orphu of Io above). Add to the evocative mix the recent hi-res imagery from NASA’s Dawn probe as it flew past Ceres – the largest of the solar system’s planetoids – and suddenly there seems to be more science to the proposals than fiction.

Personally, it’s been over a decade since I wrote my own take on what the future might hold for mining among the stars. In Dusted, the approach was to employ genetically altered humans on long tours of duty in the asteroid belt. Throwing in some extraterrestrial interest – which was inspired by this scene from Empire Strikes Back – the story also called into question whether life could evolve on a smaller landmass within a hard vacuum. A flight of fancy possibly, but the mystery behind the bright spots recorded on Ceres’ surface proves that humanity always has more to learn the further it gets from home.

As well as discovery, there’s the added bonus that this new ‘gold rush’ to the final frontier might also ensure the survival of our species. Not just by protecting our home planet from environmental depletion, but also by reducing our dinosaur-like vulnerability while we remain confined to Earth.

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With the passing of remembrance Sunday here in the UK, and welcome arrival of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime, it seems like an opportune time to have a quick, and wry, Sci-Fi rummage through the alternative histories of the Third Reich.

As advocated by Spike Milligan, the best antidote to fascism – and the insanity of war for that matter – is pastiche and comedy. Such was the motivation behind Norman Spinrad’s 1972 Nebular Award winning novel, the Iron Dream. In this we find Hitler as an immigrant to America who has become successful through writing low-brow, right-wing science fiction.

If, however, you’d prefer the serious approach then there’s Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992). In this a Nazi World War 2 victory acts as the backdrop for a party investigator uncovering the ‘hidden’ history of the Holocaust.

On a personal, and literary level, Achtung! Cthulhu offers a weird and wonderful hybrid between H.P. Lovecraft’s horror mythos and the allied and axis conflicts of WW2. A complex and fertile backdrop to write against and, with the advent of the Dark Tales compilation launching at this year’s Dragon Meet, an opportunity to play a part in this creative heritage.

Finally, we return to the ridiculous and a shift to film and game interpretations. While the former only really offers the Time Out segment from Twilight Zone the Movie, the risible Iron Sky, Hell Boy and maybe – at a stretch – Kung Fury, the latter is chock full of Hitler’s minions. Games remain the perfect medium for alternative histories involving the use of mecha instead of tanks, a plethora of Nazi zombies and, of course, Wolfenstein.

The bigger questions behind all of this, though, is whether it’s okay to use WW2 as such a creative well-spring. Hollywood continued to make war movies throughout the 1950s and hundreds of novelists have researched and written in this milieu before. Perhaps, due to the lack of appreciation of Sci-Fi, there’s an inherent fear that we may be belittling all of the atrocities, all of the loss of life. For me personally, I return to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, and realise that he made the apposite choice of turning his war memoir into a story about time travel.

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Melissa Mathison

The death of Melissa Mathison is sad news on any level. Not just for the loss of consummate writing that brought The Twilight Zone and The Indian in the Cupboard to the silver screen, but also for her inadvertent part in a battle for thousands of nerdocre souls. You see 1982 was a very conflicted year if you were into what has now become the mainstream level of geek.

On the one side, the religious right were more than happy to promote their own brand of fantasy role-player by demonising another. Gary Gygax, Dungeons and Dragons and all the other paper-based RPGs were making hay throughout the 1980s, and this irked the likes of Patricia Pulling and her followers. We wont’ dig into all of the details of just how far the controversy ranged, but it was on a comparable level to what younger readers might remember occurring with Harry Potter. Needless to say, the whole debacle boiled down to something akin to Yasser Arafat’s famous quote, “Having a war about religion is like having a fight over who’s got the best imaginary friend.” Maybe with the slight variance that suspension of disbelief is very different from, well… belief.

Saying that, the struggle back in 1982 became very apparent to those living through it. Conversations about the ‘safety of our children’ did strike a sour note throughout the role-playing community. The interesting thing within all of this, and this is where Melissa Mathison comes in, is that the conflict eventually played itself out visually.

In Steven Hillard Stern’s 1982 TV feature, Mazes and Monsters, a young Tom Hanks has a psychotic break with reality after investing too much time in the titular, fictional RPG. While an ironic role for an actor who then went on to numerous successes within the fantasy genre, it’s also indicative of the fear that emergent gaming culture was dealing with.

Enter Melissa Mathison and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial – a script she finished in just eight weeks after the initial idea came to her while hanging out with her husband, Harrison Ford, and Steven Speilberg on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously, the story of an alien visitor left behind was massively influential, but there was one scene that resonated much more strongly than ET’s call to, “phone home”.

It may have just been a fleeting aside, but a a paper-based RPG being played by teenagers on-screen had the effect of normalising something that was already innocuous. Here were a bunch of young men, eating, drinking and arguing about the attributes of an undead character. A quiet antithesis, if you will, to the full-blown condemnation of Stern’s longer effort. However, coming within the comforting surroundings of a Steven Speilberg movie, it’s presence resonated with a lot of disenfranchised proto-geeks. In Melissa’s eyes, fantasy was as good a platform as any for fun. For that especially, and all of her other wonderful words and tireless work on Tibetan freedom, she’ll be sorely missed.

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