Tuesday, February 27, 2018

But Wait... There's More!

Messier 35, off the left foot of Castor in the constellation Gemini, is one of my personal favorite winter sky targets for a small (4 inch refractor) scope. For an open cluster, M35 is quite massive, being comprised of somewhere between 2 and 5 hundred stars (although I cannot see anything near that number). Located at approximately 2,800 light years from our Solar System and having a diameter of something between 11 and 24 light years (it's often a matter of opinion as to exactly where an open cluster stops and neighboring stars begin), M35 has an apparent magnitude of 5.3. So it ought to be visible naked eye under a dark sky (something I myself have never had the opportunity to test). But under the moderately light polluted skies of Howard County, MD, it still manages to look spectacular through the eyepiece, and makes a great subject for astrophotography (or, so I am told). The cluster is just over 100 million years old.

Looking through a scope of moderate aperture, M35 presents a curious donut shape, with an apparently starless hole at its center (see above image). This is an illusion, due to the stars in the "hole" being slightly fainter than those surrounding them. Larger scopes (say, 12 inches) will fill this hole in nicely (see image below).

But once you've enjoyed the view of M35, don't stop there! Because right next to it is the magnitude 8.4 open cluster NGC 2158. Now, unless you've got a really big scope, the most you're going to see of this line of sight companion to M35 will be a faint smudge. So don't expect to resolve any individual stars. In my scope, it looks like a really dim globular. But it is, in fact, another open cluster, this one far more distant than the much brighter M35 - about 16,000 light years away, or well over 5 times the distance to M35. NGC 2158 contains more than a thousand stars and is well over a billion years old. So despite their apparent neighborliness, the two objects are quite different - this is no Double Cluster!

A beautiful image of NGC 2158, off to the lower right of M35

Friday, February 23, 2018

And Now for Something a Little Different...

I've been largely confined to my house for the past month with the worst cold in at least a decade, complete with sinus and ear infections and a cough that simply would not stop. That, and combined with some of the most miserable weather I can recall, I fell back on surfing the web for entertainment. Since I have been lately reliving my childhood by re-reading many of my favorite science fiction novels from years past, I naturally gravitated toward articles on that subject. Some of the more amusing sites boasted lists of "The 20 Best Science Fiction Books" or variations on that theme. I of course disagreed with them all, and decided to come up with my own list - not of the "best" books (since that is way, way too subjective), but rather of the most significant.

Now by significant, I mean a book's appearance on the scene may have changed the genre forever, either by expanding science fiction's horizons (The Skylark of Space) or by influencing the way everyone else wrote thereafter (The Past through Tomorrow). Or perhaps a particular book could be so "definitive" that all similar such works were reduced to irrelevancy (The Time Machine). On occasion, the very first stab at a new theme proved so good that all subsequent forays were measured by its stature. (Example: H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds as the archetypal "Invasion from Space" story.)

So I'm not going to pretend that this is a list of the "best" SF. It's not even a list of my favorites. But every one on the list has a valid claim to shaking the genre to its roots, and turning it in such directions that its nonexistence is unthinkable. We can't imagine what the field would be like without it. (NOTE: I have limited my selections to works written in English. Other than Jules Verne (French), practically nothing of genre-spanning influence has been written in any other language. Evgenij Zamyatin (Russian) and Stanislaw Lem (Polish) come to mind as rare exceptions.)

And don't worry. I promise will return to OBSERVATION - after I fully recover and the skies clear up!

So here's my (very idiosyncratic) list, in chronological order:

Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)

My first entry is perhaps one of the strangest on the list - a science fiction novel in which the science is not technology, but pure geometry. Here we visit a world of two dimensions, in which the inhabitants are triangles, squares, pentagons, circles, etc., described in intricate and fascinating detail. As a bonus, we're taken along on a tour of Lineland (the world of one dimension), and (my personal favorite) of Pointland, a zero dimensional world, whose sole inhabitant is utterly incapable of conceiving of anything existing other than himself.

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1895)

The first of the "archetypal" books on the list, which so thoroughly and masterfully covered the topic (of time travel) that if you were to read only only one such story, this ought to be it.

 The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells ((1897)

The second book on the list by Wells, and probably his most famous. The Martians invade the Earth (specifically, England) and humanity is defenseless... for a time. Seriously, this book has never been outdone in dealing with its theme. Once again, were you to read only one "invasion from space" story, look no further - they don't come any better than this. (In fact, I can think of only one close second - The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein.)

First Men in the Moon, by H.G. Wells ((1900)

The last book on the list by H.G. Wells, the only author to be included three times. Contains some of the most evocative and downright beautiful descriptive passages of an otherworldly landscape ever written by anyone (the only close contenders being A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum and the two space travel novels of C.S. Lewis). The novel is a near-perfect example of the use of a voyage to another world as a satirical vehicle to discuss Earthly concerns.

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)

Oh, what a wonderful book! How can you miss, with beautiful Martian princesses in need of rescuing, canals a la Percival Lowell, otherworldly civilizations and even more otherworldly beasts.  A 13 year old's dream come true. (It was for me!) This was the book (along with its many sequels) that set science fiction along the path of exotic adventure and fantastic alien worlds, intricately described. And countless pulp stories owe their existence to it.

The Skylark of Space, by Edward E. Smith (1928)

Now here is a book with whose publication, the history of science fiction is truly divided into "Before" and "After". The Skylark of Space was (along with the far less consequential Crashing Suns by Edmond Hamilton) the very first story ever to take mankind outside the solar system to the stars. And with the appearance in 1934 of its sequel, Skylark Three, the sub-genre of Super Science (later known as Space Opera) was created. Now some may argue that this was a Bad Thing, but there is no gainsaying this book's importance to the development of SF.

Last and First Men and Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon (1930, 1937)

Buckle up for this one, for these two novels, which constitute a single uninterrupted narrative, trace the history of the Universe from the first moments of creation to its ultimate extinction. In fact, in the closing pages of Star Maker, Stapledon treats the reader to something very much akin to the contemporary idea of multiverses, in which he takes us on a tour of just a few of the infinite number of other universes out there besides our own. One can say with confidence that never has a story of greater scope been put to paper. A staggering imaginative achievement never equalled.

The Lensman Series, by Edward E. Smith (1937-48)

This entry is included because The Lensman Series represents the culmination of an era, the grandest (some would say the most overdone) Space Opera of them all - an intergalactic war lasting 2 billion years, involving countless thousands of planets with their inhabitants, and interstellar armadas composed of millions of spacecraft. Battle after battle, climax after climax, each topping the last in scale and awesomeness, all leading to the ultimate, which Smith himself is reduced to characterizing as "indescribability cubed!"

After The Lensman Series, space opera would never again occupy the front seat of cutting edge science fiction. Oh, it never went away (it's still being written today), but it was ever after a niche market within a niche genre. One gets the feeling that everyone realized that Smith's magnum opus would never be topped, and no serious writer made the attempt.

The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis (1938, 1943, 1945)

From a purely literary sense, possibly the "best" entry on this list, Lewis' interplanetary novels contain what are unquestionably the finest descriptions of extraterrestrial landscapes ever written - the only such to top those by H.G. Wells in First Men in the Moon. The three novels are only loosely interconnected, and it's hard to describe their overall plot. Philosophically, they are works of pure genius. The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, imagines a universe in which the pre-Copernican ideas of the Solar System are essentially true. What would such a cosmos be like? Read the book and find out. The second, Perelandra, presents us with a hauntingly beautiful depiction of watery Venus, a world of fantastic floating islands - a second Garden of Eden. The third novel (in my opinion the best of the three) takes place entirely on the Earth. But the planets are still there, all right. Only in this case, they come to us!

The Past Through Tomorrow (Future History), by Robert A. Heinlein (1939-62)

Yet another archetypal entry. Here, Heinlein has linked his many short stories and novelettes written over the entire course of his career with a single overarching structure, a meta-narrative, which feigns them to all be part of an actual, external to his writing, Real World... in the future. It's not so much as every story leading into or emerging from the others, but rather of them all belonging to the same Secondary Reality. Many other SF writers would attempt to do likewise, but none so successfully as here.

The Robot Stories, by Isaac Asimov (1939-50)

Asimov's Robot stories, a series of sequentially-connected short stories (published in 1950 as I, Robot) plus a number of subsequent independent novels (such as the one pictured above), all dealing with a robot theme, make up one of the most beloved series in the entire genre. Although culturally dated (sometimes hilariously so), they have lost none of their ability to engage the reader at every level - as pure story, as social extrapolation, as technological prediction, and as philosophical problems. With the advent of AI, they are more timely today than when they were written!

City, by Cliffor D. Simak (1944-52)

Here we come to one of my personal all-time favorite SF "novels" (not actually a novel at all, but eight interconnected short stories). City traces the future of Mankind, his cities, his machines, his dogs, and so much else. Never, I think, have so few pages dealt with so many disparate themes: nuclear war, space travel, extraterrestrial intelligence, alien philosophy, genetic engineering, human mutation, telepathy, alternate dimensions, monsters, time travel, ecological disaster, suspended animation, virtual reality... just to name a few. Endlessly rewarding; impossible to "drain the barrel".

The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov (1942-53)

Although vox populi is not always an accurate gauge, there is something to be said for being voted (by science fiction fans) as the all-time best SF series. Foundation basically takes Gibbons' classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and sets it in the far future as the history of a decadent and decaying galactic empire, and the attempts by one Hari Seldon to minimize the inevitable suffering associated with its collapse.

(Personal note: whenever I am at the eyepiece, silently scanning the star fields of the Milky Way, this is the one SF work that inevitably comes to mind.)

Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke (1948)

A novel-length version of John Campbell's 1934 short story Twilight, Against the Fall of Night depicts an Earth hundreds of millions of years in the future, where Mankind has survived as a completely static civilization - no progress (yet no decay), no change of any sort, except for trivial details that even themselves out over the millennia, for far, far longer than anyone can remember. Even the machines have forgotten. The novel is the story of Alvin, the first human in a million years to be born with the least bit of curiosity about why things are they way they are, and with a desire to change them.

(Clarke massively re-wrote this novel 8 years later, changing its title to The City and the Stars. In the process of doing so, he managed to drain every scrap of color and sense of wonder from the original, sacrificing them on the altar of trying to remain technologically up-to-date. Ironically, all he managed to do was to doom the re-written novel to irrelevancy as rapid advances in information and other technologies quickly made Clarke's extrapolations laughably dated. Against the Fall of Night, which made no pretense at being predictive in that sense, remains the far more readable of the two versions.)

1984, by George Orwell (1949)

Orwell's dystopian masterpiece needs no introduction. Along with Brave New World (1932), it was one of the very few SF novels to be taken seriously outside the field since H.G. Wells. (The currently popular interplanetary novels of C.S. Lewis did not achieve widespread recognition until decades later.) 1984 set the standard for all subsequent dystopias.

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (1950)

Like 1984, this book achieved more recognition outside the field than within it. A series of exquisitely written short stories, Bradbury uses the exploration and colonization of Mars to explore pressing social issues of the time, such as race relations and nuclear war.

The Space Merchants, by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth (1952)

Originally published as Gravy Planet, this novel signaled a decisive shift in the emphasis in SF from technology to sociology. A story of a future in which corporations (and their advertising arms) rule the planet... with devastating effect.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1955-57)

The greatest of all post-nuclear holocaust stories, Canticle takes us through several generations living in the aftermath of atomic war, finally achieving a renewed technological civilization... only to blow themselves up once again. Miller wrote this novel largely as penance for having participated in the 1944 destruction of the 1,600 year old Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino in Italy during WWII. Unfortunately, he was never able to overcome his personal demons, and blew his brains out some years later.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Gravy Planet may have started the trend, but Starship Troopers showed us just how good SF social satire could be. By the way, if you've only seen the truly execrable movie with the same name, read the book! The book and the movie have only one thing in common - their name.

Time is the Simplest Thing, by Clifford D. Simak (1961)

And here I end, because right after this novel was published Yuri Gagarin circled the globe in Vostok One, and the Space Age began. This novel is probably the finest exploration of how actual telepathy (and various other psychic powers) would affect human civilization if they were genuinely real. Simak builds his plot along the age-old "quest theme", a la The Odyssey, The Grail Quest, Moby Dick, and The Lord of the Rings. Shepard Blaine, paranormal star explorer for the Fishhook Corporation, returns from one fateful mission "contaminated". Knowing full well that such people are not tolerated, he makes a run for it - seeking he knows not what in a place he's never been. The contrast between Blaine's effortless exploration of the distant reaches of the galaxy with his painful, mile-by-mile trek across a post-apocalyptic North America is a big reason for this novel's immense power. Blaine's is a quest in search of a quest. He begins by merely running away, but not toward anything. This is precisely what he discovers along his torturous journey.

I had a difficult time deciding between including this book or The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester. Both novels explore the likely impact of genuine telepathy on society at large. I eventually settled on Simak because his is the superior work, written on a larger canvas..

POSTSCRIPT: A fellow HAL member, after reading this, suggested that I come up with a similar list of SF short stories. At first, I thought the task impossible, there being just far too many worthy candidates. But never (well.. seldom) one to shrink from a challenge, I decided to, however inadequately, present at the least a list of my favorite (not most significant) SF stories that are shorter than book length. And just for grins, I again limited the list to 20 and excluded anything published after 1962. So here they are (once again, in chronological order):

A Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934)
Parasite Planet, by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1935)
The Lotus Eaters, by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1935)
The Mad Moon, by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1935)
The Man Who Sold the Moon, by Robert A. Heinlein (1940)
Universe, by Robert A. Heinlein (1941)
Arena, by Frederic Brown (1944)
E for Effort, by T.L. Sherred (1947)
The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke  (1951)
Garden in the Void, by Poul Anderson (1952)
Delay in Transit, by F.L. Wallace (1952)
Jupiter Five, by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
The Rose, by Charles Harness (1953)
How-2, by Clifford D. Simak (1954)
Something for Nothing, by Robert Sheckley (1954)
A Ticket to Tranai, by Robert Sheckley (1955)
Call Me Joe, by Poul Anderson (1957)
All of the Tales from the White Hart stories, by Arthur C. Clarke (1949-57)
The City of Force, by Daniel F. Galouye (1959)
The Moon Moth, by Jack Vance (1961)

And for this list, I make no apologies, as it is a list of my personal favorites. But I do happen to think that Weinbaum is one of the 5 or 6 most influential SF writers of all time. The only reason he did not make my first list is that all of his truly ground-breaking works are short stories. I know of only one novel by him (The Black Flame), and it is not worth reading (unless you're a completist).

What follows is a copy/paste from my earlier (now inactive) blog Celestial Pilgrimage, concerning space themed movies.

Inspired by a recent attempt to organize my DVD collection (a hopeless task, by the way), it struck me how few really good movies have been made through the years dealing with "space". And this despite the fact there have been probably thousands of Science Fiction films made ever since the 1902 French-made silent movie A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune). But let's face it - they are nearly all crap, or at the very best just mediocre. Here are what I think are the best of the best (in chronological order):

1. Flight to Mars (1951) - Probably the best Grade-B SF film ever. It's the very first manned space flight, and they're headed straight for Mars! The explorers encounter a dying underground civilization with plans to conquer the Earth, just as soon as they can steal the Earthmen's space ship.

2. Forbidden Planet (1956) - Lifting the script straight from Shakespeare's The Tempest was only one of many brilliant ideas the filmmakers had here. Possibly my all-time favorite SF movie, it just gets better and better with each re-viewing.

3. Der schweigende Stern (1960) - an East German film, of all things. Magnificently captures the mystery of exploring an alien world. Saw this one when it was first released in the USA in 1962 under the title First Spaceship on Venus. Loved it then, and found it hadn't lost any of its sense of wonder when decades later I bought the DVD.

4. Phantom Planet (1961) - Like First Spaceship on Venus, Wonderfully captures the mood of interplanetary space travel, or at least what (in an ideal world) it ought to be. Why, oh why, were there not more films made like this one?

5. Solaris (1972) - A Soviet-made film directed by the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky, probably in an objective sense the best movie on this list. A deeply philosophical film about the Big Questions, and the spiritual effects of space travel on human beings. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

6. Dark Star (1974) - The only comedy on my list, a stoner's vision of interstellar travel aboard a decrepit starship tasked with blowing up "unstable planets". The ending (I give no spoilers here) is absolute perfection.

7. Apollo 13 (1995) - The only non-fiction item on my list. Other than the HBO 12-part series From the Earth to the Moon, the only decent space-themed movie made thus far about actual events that isn't a documentary.

8. Gravity (2013) – Yeah, I know it’s scientifically stupid and Sandra Bullock’s character would have died multiple times over in real life, but I still LOVED it. I had to put my left brain on hold while watching it, or my head would have exploded. But hey, it’s no worse on that account than Phantom Planet!

9. The Martian (2015) – I can only hope that this (along with Gravity) is a harbinger of Things to Come – that is, space themed movies that are not science fiction, but just movies. Like movies that take place on an airplane or a train.

10. That’s it. I can’t think of a tenth film worthy of adding to this list. Perhaps Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), or First Men in the Moon (also 1964), or even the German silent film Frau im Mond (1924) - but NOT Star Wars. There are just too many problems with that movie (and doubly so with its wretched sequels) for me to ever consider it.