X-15 and Its Current Heirs

X-15 heading for space

The X-15 research plane was a legendary rocket aircraft when I was a kid in the 1960s: a sleek black beauty that daring silver-suited pilots steered to the edge of space.

It turns out that its accomplishments fifty years ago have become useful once again in the current development of the state-of-the-art spacecraft SpaceShipTwo and DreamChaser. BBC has published an article on these aspects of the X-15 project – link >>>

And here is a period NASA documentary on the original X-15 project — link >>>

Interplanetary Rosetta Stone

More than fifty years ago, science fiction author H Beam Piper penned Omnilingual, a novelette* about archeology and “forensic” linguistics on an alien world. I read it for the first time in an SF anthology in the late 1970s and it struck a chord deep in my heart, my being a language nerd. I would have loved to participate in that interplanetary expedition and test my wits against the enigmas of the distant past.

By chance I recently discovered a lightly edited version of the story being freely available on the Internet. It seems that the original story has entered public domain, at least in the United States (I am not sure how, because Piper died only about 50 years ago).

In Omnilingual, Piper combines the spirit of field work with the alien-ness of being elsewhere in cosmos. He expertly mixes some of the genres that I love: alternate history, legendary “Mars”, scientists in action (i.e. researching and analyzing while squabbling and practicing scholarly one-up-manship — yes, research funding disputes, college politics and “publish or perish” are all there).

You can enjoy the story here >>>

*i.e. a long short-story.

Reflections on “Between Planets”: Vietnam on Venus?

In my recent blog post about Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars I mention how I found that book in a bargain bookshop in my hometown of Gothenburg around 1980. That bookshop — long since gone and I have forgotten its name, even though I remember its interiors quite well — carried for a while a large selection of classical SF titles from a cheap British paperback publisher (the shoddy proof-reading is ample evidence for its cheapness). I bought a score or more books there during a warm summer, mostly Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein works from the 1950s. Some still remain in my bookshelves, even though I am no longer the youngster for which they were intended. The nature of quality is sometimes hard to pin down, but stories you don’t want to get rid of 30 years later ought to possess it in some regard.

An introductory digression: “The Vietnam War” — when the contemporary reader hears that phrase, she will most likely think of the American intervention in Indochina 1965-73, portrayed in movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. But this was actually the second Vietnam War. The first Vietnam War was fought 1946-54 between the French, who had ruled Indochina as colonial overlords since the late 19th century, and Viet Minh, a communist movement supported by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was as dreadful a war as the following one and France eventually failed to impose its political will on Vietnam. (Unfortunately the United States did not learn much from the French defeat and therefore repeated many of its mistakes 15-20 years later.)

Back to the main subject: One of the books I picked up at that bookshop was Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets, first published in 1951. It is a fast-paced adventure, in which teenager Don Harvey gets unwillingly embroiled in an interplanetary conflict a century or so in the future. An oppressive global Earth government, “The Federation”, has established colonial domains on parts of a habitable Venus that is covered by jungles and swamps. These settlements supply raw materials in the traditional center-periphery colonial trade patterns and their inhabitants of course hate being exploited. There are several early references to censorship, regional unrest and police-state surveillance, so the reader quickly understands that the rulers are an unpleasant lot, even though the regime is never described in detail.

Due to interplanetary political developments, Don, a former Venus resident carrying a surreptitious object of high intelligence value, leaves Earth for Mars, but ends up on Venus because of the unpredictability of war (it makes sense in context). On the way, he befriends a “pseudo-dragon” (a non-human Venusian native) thanks to his knowledge of their whistle-language and then he starts a new life in the human rebels’ capital. Many complications ensue. Great fun to read when you are a teenager.

When I re-read the book after my university graduation in the mid-1980s, I saw two historical parallels. I do not claim to know what Heinlein thought when he wrote the story, but he plays a very obvious “1776″ historical card — spotted in phrases like “taxation without representation” — in the rhetoric of the human Venusian rebels. But their revolt does not resemble the actions of the Massachusetts minutemen of 1776.

The Viet Minh used 1776 rhetoric, too, when they declared independence from France at the collapse of the Japanese occupation in 1945. They appealed with some success to the US for assistance in their anti-colonial struggle. The French government disagreed and expelled the American agents in Hanoi; its ensuing attempts to reimpose colonial rule quickly ignited a long war.

In Between Planets the human Venusians ends up fighting a jungle guerrilla war against a military expeditionary force sent from Earth to “restore order”. They adopt a Mao-style strategy, moving among the civilian population “like fish in the water” while maintaining good relations with the amphibious pseudo-dragons, who are neutral in the war because they are too alien to be a part of it. Soon the conflict becomes a Vietnam-style quagmire. The soldiers from Earth fail to understand local customs and therefore they time and time again offend the pseudo-dragons, making them more and more sympathetic to the human rebels. And it is hard for a regular army to pin down guerrillas sneaking through jungle and fog.

The war quickly turns into a series of raids, search-and-destroy missions, etc, in a fluid combat zone without front lines. It is never made clear how the rebels organize themselves politically during this phase, because all events are seen through the eyes of Don Harvey, a simple soldier and human-dragon interpreter. But the story hints at the need for a sturdy organization if the rebels are to stand up to the invaders. And the Viet Minh pulled off that stunt during relentless French pounding in the late 1940s. The pseudo-dragons play partially the same role as China, e.g. by providing safe havens for the rebels in places where the Federal army will not go for political reasons.

The story has a non-Vietnam ending, though (it was written before the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu). A poor one, too: the classical “the conjurer pulls a white rabbit out of the hat”. Heinlein makes it too easy for the Venusian rebels. But this is a story for teenagers, so there is perhaps no reason to make matters complicated. The Vietnamese faced a far trickier situation in 1955 when the humiliated French departed. And the frequent atrocities by all participants in terrestrial anti-colonial wars after 1945 — e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, Angola, Portuguese Guinea — are not even hinted at.

The technology of the story is atomretro for a 21st-century reader: interplanetary spaceships in Hohmann orbits, nuclear weapons (used a few times during the Venusian rebellion, though not against civilians), pre-transistor electronics, ray guns, almost-Wild-West-tech pioneer cities on Venus (e.g. with electricity but without cars), primitive cellphones (one appears already on page 1 to set the tone of the story). So for you and me this is an alternate history, in which humanity’s development took a different course around 1946.

Mars appears peripherally in the story, described in the traditional deserts-and-ruins manner. I would have loved to see more of that world, but Heinlein never revisited this particular timeline.

I like Between Planets because of its vivid description of a retro-futuristic adventurous solar system that ought to exist. Heinlein portrays unfamiliar societies in crisp paragraphs that evoke the sounds, tastes and smells of, for instance, a rough swamp city under the eternal cloud cover of a tropical Venus. The aliens are credible, too: tough fellows with arcane customs and a century-long history of interacting with those quarrelsome newcomers from the third planet. Humans play carefully around pseudo-dragons, because everybody know that they “own the place”.

Reflections on “The Sands of Mars”

Fictional Mars, one of my favorite subjects in science fiction, is a place that has been presented in many guises over the years. This post is going to take a look at a “realistic” version of the Red Planet.

British-Lankese author Arthur C Clarke was one of the titans of science fiction when I was young in the 1970s, together with Americans Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. As I see it, Clarke was at his best from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, a period during which he for instance wrote the famous short-stories “The Sentinel” and “The Nine Billion Names of God”. Around 1950, he wrote The Sands of Mars, a sand-in-the-spacesuit novel about one man’s exploration of Mars and of himself, a story of growth and transformation, of becoming an adult and responsible individual.

Clarke possessed a talent I have come to like more and more with advancing age, the ability to write an interesting yarn without introducing violent conflicts or bad-guy characters. The Sands of Mars is a prime example: it deals with saving lives (futuristic medicine), making deserts bloom (well, sort of), and the constructive handling an old mess (no spoiler here). The main character, a science fiction author named Martin Gibson, grows in a credible manner from being immature and egocentric to assuming great responsibility.

I found the novel in a bargain bookshop in my hometown Gothenburg in the late 1970s and it has remained in my bookshelf ever since. I have read it so many times that I can summarize it “on the run”. At the time of the purchase, the novel was about 25 years old and its description of Mars had been rendered obsolete by the detailed photo-mapping of the Red Planet by Mariner 9 in 1972. But that did not matter much, because I liked it from the start.*

Clarke sends the reader to a worn-out Mars covered by rolling deserts without exciting topology. Its carbon-dioxide atmosphere is reasonably thick and its dunes are home only to hardy plants — not a Martian in sight. One of the main themes is the interaction between the colonists and the planet, how people’s mindsets get “martianized” while they are busy making the planet more human-friendly.

Another interesting matter that Clarke deals a lot with is the significance of administration and efficient use of scarce resources. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars is an expensive and time-consuming project and, in order to succeed, it must be managed in a professional and unheroic manner. Therefore production statistics and balance sheets get as important as back-breaking labor. Scientific progress — i.e. in physics, chemistry, and xenobiology — is the underlying key to success and Clarke uses this trope to create suspense: every now and then protagonist Martin Gibson asks himself “What the heck is really going on here?”

Does the novel have any weaknesses? The gender roles are antiquated and the story fails the Bechdel test. But that’s what Europe in 1950 looked like. And it is hard to criticize Clarke here, because he does show how working women participate in the colonization of Mars even though they get almost no speaking parts in Martin Gibson’s adventures. From literary standpoint, the prose suffers from occasional Clarke-isms (quasi-philosophical expressions like “the stream of time”, not-so-funny humor, etc) that disrupt its otherwise smooth flow.

In the 1950s, the readers must have seen The Sands of Mars as a plausible description of what interplanetary colonization could be like. Today, six decades later, the story’s technology is partially outdated (e.g. Martin Gibson uses a typewriter and carbon-copies; radios have tubes instead of transistors) and partially futuristic (e.g. the well-described nuclear-powered passenger ship by which Gibson travels to Mars). But despite its age, the novel remains a piece of solid craftsmanship because it deals with an issue that always is with us: how to build a better world for our children, be it on Mars or on Earth.

*The novel also helped me in my German studies in my last year in school in 1977-78. During that spring semester we got a standard assignment: write a long essay about a journey. Being inspired by Clarke’s novel, I wrote several pages about a Gibson-style trip to Mars. For that particular teacher, the genre was a novelty and he therefore raised my final mark one step as a reward for originality and quality.

Scully’s truth is out there

When I was a boy around 1970, UFOs were a frequent subject in newspapers and magazines. Observations, abductions and speculations, most of them with little credibility. The UFO fad started just after World War Two and provided good income for many charlatans. Perhaps it was fueled by Cold War fears, what do I know, with the extraterrestials sometimes serving as “enlightened saviors” and sometimes as “vivisectionist bogeymen”.

Anyhow, now the fad is fortunately fading away, killed by the combination of space exploration and modern recording technology. When everyone has a camera in the pocket, it is hard to explain away the absence of good pictorial evidence of a UFO sighting. The skeptic agent Scully was right.

Read more in this newspaper article >>>>

The Rosvalla incident

Swedish painter Fredrik Alfredsson depicts the little-known Rosvalla UFO incident in 1961. Two J29F fighters intercept an alien spacecraft over southern Sweden. (You will view a much better version at Mr Alfredsson’s site if you click on the picture.)

The aircraft belong to the 3rd squadron of the F10 air wing in Ängelholm, a unit charged with guarding the airspace of southern-most Sweden.

The joys of travelling

Around 1970 several Tintin stories were published for the first time as proper albums in Swedish. Before that, they had only appeared in magazines. I found the albums in the school library and immediately fell in love with Objectif Lune and On a marché sur la Lune. The exciting adventures, the bulky pre-transistor technology, the mixture of drama and slapstick — what more could an 11-year’s old sf-fan ask for?

Forty years have passed and I still like the Tintin adventures a lot, particularly the thrills and joys of the protagonists’ traveling to remote places. Hergé was a stickler for technical details and I can see how he honed his skills with each album. The merchant ships in L’Étoile mystérieuse were not really up to the mark, but in Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge a few years later the depictions of sea travels had improved notably.

The passing of time has made the content turn from “contemporary” to “retro”; the heroes’ comfortable journey to the moon is a piece of lovely 1950s tech-nostalgia. (The Apollo astronauts went to the moon inside a command module the size of small car and they drove a skeletal dune buggy on the lunar surface.)

I have subconsciously picked up one or two pieces of literary tactics from Hergé and put into to use in my own stories. The protagonists travel into the unknown aboard well-rendered vehicles/craft that are distinct “localities” by themselves. When the heroes set out on a daring adventure, it is never clear what they really are going to face. Unpredictability and danger — and clever solutions to escape the hazards. (Even though I nowadays find the denouement of Le Temple du Soleil a bit too contrived.) When I wrote about Johnny’s and Linda’s first encounter in the cloudship Cassiopeia in Iskriget or Fox’s river journeys in Spiran och staven, the spirit of Hergé’s way of telling stories was present.