Tuesday, 28 December 2010

My Personal Top 20 Science Fiction Songs

The end of the year is a time at which to look back and reflect on the year’s events in a sober manner. Or do something silly. Being of a sober reflective nature, I have decided to do something silly.

This list of songs is a personal collection, and no doubt other people would come up with different lists. I would be delighted to hear other people’s choices, but this list is mine.

The music is almost entirely from the period running from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. At first I thought this was a sign of my age, but on sober reflection (I said I was of a sober and reflective nature) I realised this was not just the period during which my musical tastes were formed, but the period that lasted from the Apollo Moon Landings, which boosted a sense of optimism and an interest in space and science fiction around the world, to the rise of Reaganite and Thatcherite political philosophies that downplayed the ability of the state to carry out projects on this scale, and left people less optimistic and less inclined to look to the stars.

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing, 1969.

Since it is not the purpose of this piece to dwell on the politics of the period, I won’t. But regardless of the political scene, science fiction has undergone a resurgence in recent years, largely fuelled by improvements in computer animation which have made it possible to tell stories on the big (and small) screens that would not have been possible before.

Jame's Cameron's Avatar tells the tale of a people beset by incomprehensibly powerful alien invaders intent on plundering their land. This is essentially the same story as HG Wells' War of the Worlds itself based upon Wells' observation of West African peoples unable to resist European invaders. Wells made his story palatable for Western audiences by relocating the story to London and making the invaders scarily alien. Cameron, slightly over a hundred years later, was able to make his vicitms, the naavi, as alien as he liked, but his invaders were horrifyingly familiar as western capitalists.

The best of these new science fiction stories have returned to the roots of science fiction, and used the genre as an allegory to make points that might not be possible otherwise. Films such as James Cameron’s Avatar and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 are essentially about the mistreatment of one culture by another, and are instantly recognisable as the descendants of the tales of HG Wells and Joules Verne, who used the genre to reflect the ills of European imperialism in the late nineteenth century.

Neill Blomkamp's District 9 tells the story of the inhabitants of an alien ship unlucky enough to crash land in Johannesburg, South Africa. They are soon separated form their ship and trapped in townships, while the ship itself is plundered for (technological) resources.

We can only hope that the revival of interest in science fiction will also lead to a revival of the sense of optimism that science can instil – and that songwriters join in. So, in the hope of a more optimistic future, here are my personal all time top 20 science fiction songs. Happy New Year.

20) The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Urban Spaceman, 1968.
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band originated in 1962 and are widely regarded as being Niel Innes’s creation, although he was not a member of the original line up. The band were noted for their comedy stile, but enjoyed little commercial success. The Urban Spaceman, released in the run up to the Appollo Moon Landing, was the band’s only hit single, reaching No 5 in the UK charts and winning an Ivor Novello award for songwriting.

19) Mettalica, Call of Ktulu, 1984.
Mettalica formed in 1981 and are regarded as one of the original four thrash metal bands. They were influenced by earlier heavy metal bands and used horror, fantasy and science fiction themes in their music. The track 1984 Call of Ktulu from the album Ride the Lightning is named in homage to the HP Lovecraft story Call of Cthulhu, however the track is an instrumental and has no direct connection to the tale.

18) Yes, Starship Trooper, 1971.
Yes formed in 1968, one of the founding bands of the progressive rock movement. The band originally performed cover versions of other people’s material, albeit with their own twist. In 1971 they produced The Yes Album their first LP comprised entirely of original compositions including the track Starship Trooper. The track is highly experimental and was never released as a single, at least in part because it was to long.

17) Black Sabbath, Iron Man, 1970.
Black Sabbath formed in Birmingham, UK in 1968, and were most noted for the use of occult material in their material. Iron Man, appeared on their second album Paranoid (1970) and was released as a single in 1971. The song was not originally about the Marvel Commics character of the same name, telling instead a tale of revenge by a supervillain (Black Sabbath didn’t really do heros). However the song was too good to be ignored & was recyled for the release of the 2008 movie Ironman.

16) Dionysos, Song for a Jedi, 2002.
Dionysos are a French rock band formed in 1993. The band often experiment with science fiction and fantasy ideas. This comes from the 2002 album Western sous la neige.

15) Hot Gossip, I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper, 1978.
Hot Gossip were originally a dance group, formed in 1974 they were most noted as a feature on the Kenny Everett Television Show. I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper was released in 1978, in the Science Fiction boom that followed the release of the movie Star Wars. It was their only hit, reaching No 6 in the UK singles chart.

14) The HP Lovecraft Historical Society Players, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fishmen, 2007.
The HP Lovecraft Historical Society is a fan association dedicated to the works of HP Lovecraft. Amongst other activities they occasionally sing songs based upon the works of HP Lovecraft. This particular tune is an adaptation of the HP Lovecraft short story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, set to the tune of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. To the best of my knowledge this has never been released commercially, but a video made for the song by special effects guru George Hakkor in 2009 became a YouTube hit.

13) Stephen Moore, Marvin The Metal Man, 1981.
Marvin the Paranoid Android was one of the main characters in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978), book (1979), record (1980), TV series (1981) and film (2005). Stephen Moore played Marvin in the original radio series and released two singles as Marvin, Marvin the Metal Man and Reasons to be Miserable/Marvin I Love You (double B side). Marvin the Metal Man reached No 52 in the UK chart

12) The Brownsville Station, Martian Boogie, 1977.
The Brownsville Station were a Michigan based rock band formed in 1969, they had a number of hits, but unfortunately this one never caught on.

11) Rob Stangroom, The Jedi Song, 2005.
A lot of songs have been written about the Star Wars series, but this one stands out. Stangroom wrote this when part of a student band, and apparently now has a full time job and no longer performs. This is unfortunate for music lovers. The song is available for download on MP3 ona number of sights.

10) The Firm, Star Trekkin’, 1987.
The Firm were formed by Songwriter John O’Conner and released a number of comedy songs in the 1980s. This song was described as frantic and childish, but it’s imaginative approach caught the public imagination and the song spent two weeks at No 1 in the UK and reached No 3 in Australia. The song was also popular in Europe and Japan, but failed to do well in the US.

9) Elton John, Rocket Man, 1972.
From the Album Honky Château, which was Elton John’s first US No 1, the song reached No 2 in the UK and No 6 in the US, and was apparently inspired by songwriter Bernie Taupin’s sighting of a shooting star. The song is often compared to Bowie’s Space Oddisy and clearly reflects the popularity of space themed music at the time.

8) Eben Brooks, Hey There Cthulhu, 2009.
Eben Brooks are an unsigned band, based in San Diego, California. They claim to be uninterested in fame, and to be performing for the San Diego foodbank. Whatever the story they ought to be signed by someone. The song is based upon HP Lovecraft’s 1926 short story, The Call of Cthulhu. This is not always recognised as a science fiction story - it tells the tale of a god-like alien of immense power sleeping in a sunken city beneath the Pacific Ocean. At the time of writing the theory of plate tectonics was not widely recognised (or even heard of) and the migration of species between continents, recognised from the fossil record, was explained by the ‘land bridge theory’. This took the presence of marine fossils on land as evidence that whole continents rose and sank beneath the waves. Thus Lovecraft’s tale reflects the widespread scientific understanding of his time.

7) Justin Haywood, Forever Autumn, 1978.
Taken from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, a musical adaptation of HG Wells’ (1898) novel of the same name. The song reached No5 in the single’s chart, and is not overtly science fiction in nature. The haunting melodies reflect Wells’ descriptions of refugees fleeing from an enemy they can neither fight nor understand, and reflect Wells’ experiences in West Africa.

6) David Bowie, Space Oddity, 1969.
Released in July 1969 to coincide with the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and used by the BBC in its coverage of the landing. It reached No 5 in the UK single chart, but only No 124 in the US chart. It also won a Ivor Novello Award for song writing. The song launched Bowies’ career which included a number of other science fiction related tracks, several of which also featured Major Tom.

5) Hawkwind, Spirit of the Age, 1977.
Hawkwind formed in 1969 as the first (and realistically only) space rock band – basically a rock band with a science fiction theme. Thus just about everything they ever produced would qualify, but this 1977 track is particularly notable, as the band had lost a number of original members and turned more strongly towards the science fiction genre.

4) Queen, Flash, 1980.
Flash Gordon first appeared as a comic strip in 1934, and went on to star in three film mini-series in 1936, 1938 & 1940. This track by Queen was the title music to the 1980 movie.

3) The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Science Fiction, 1973.
Originally a stage show in 1973, then a movie in 1975. The stage show was considered highly controversial at the time, as it depicted elements of gay and transgender culture that were shocking to 70s audiences. Still in limited release 35 years later, making it the longest running theatrical movie release in history.

2) Spizzenergi, Where’s Captain Kirk?, 1980.
Spizzenrgi officially formed in 1979, though the band had been slowly assembling for the previous two years, as members of the final line-up joined the band and it changed its name. Released in 1980, Where’s Captain Kirk? Was an overnight success, reaching No 1 in the first ever UK Indie chart. Sadly they were unable to repeat this and produced no other hits of note.

1) The KLF, Doctorin’ the Tardis 1988.
The KLF formed in the UK1987, apart of the Acid House movement. There music was influenced by Hip Hop and relied heavily on sampling. Doctorin’ the Tardis was released under the name The Timelords and was assembled from samples taken from the Doctor Who Theme, The Sweet’s Blockbuster and Gary Glitter’s Rock’N’Roll (Part 2). It reached No 1 in the UK single’s chart. This is probably the best tune ever to come out of a British attempt to perform Hip Hop, although it fails quite badly on the 'actually resembling Hip Hop' part of the remit. This is worth noting: British people are better at Science Fiction than Hip Hop. Any aspiring British Hip Hop artists would be well advised to bear this in mind.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

In Defence of Funding for Science.

It’s been a good week for British science. A British scientist won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and two Russian scientists, working at a British University won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

The British Scientist, Robert G. Edwards of the University of Cambridge, won his award for the development of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This has been around for a fair while now, and we’ve got a bit used to it – over four million babies have been born as a result of IVF worldwide since it was developed in the 1970s.

Of course this has not always been seen as a good thing. There are genuine and serious concerns about the world’s population, and not everybody feels that adding to the numbers of humans on the planet is a good thing. However despite one or two stories about irresponsible use of the technology, this has been a contribution to the greater control over fertility and family size enjoyed in the modern world, which taken together have greatly improved living conditions for many people, particularly in working class communities in the developed world. It could be argued that this is largely due to the voluntary use of contraception, however persuading people that the use of contraception is a good thing relies upon people knowing they are able to have children when they want to, and stand a good chance of those children surviving to adulthood, and going on to become parents themselves.

Seen in that light technologies that reassure people they will be able to have children when they want to do so (even if never used) are as important as those that enable them to choose not to have children when they don’t.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian Scientists now based at the University of Manchester, for the development of graphine. Graphine is a form of carbon made up of atoms arranged in a continuous, two-dimensional sheet, which has remarkable properties of strength and conductivity. The truly remarkable thing about this discovery was that to a large extent it involved attacking ordinary graphite with sellotape.

This is the second year running that British based scientists have won two Nobel Prizes. In 2009 Charles Kao, a Chinese born researcher shared the Physics prize for work on fibre optics he carried out at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, based at Harlow in Essex, during the 1960s, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the Medical Research Council laboratories in Cambridge shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for studies on the structure and function of the ribosome carried out in the 1990s.

In 2008 British scientists won no Nobel Prizes, but in 2007 Sir Martin Evans of Cardiff University and Oliver Smithers, a British born researcher based at the University of North Carolina shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for work on gene expression in embryonic stem cells in mice.

The Nobels are not the only prizes scientists can win for their work, and in many ways reflect the values of the time in which they were created. They reflect the belief that science is about improving the world for man. Thus there are prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry, but not, for example, ecology. However they are the best known and most widely recognised scientific awards outside the world of science, and grant their recipients a considerable amount of recognition among the wider population.

Of course science is not all about winning prizes, in fact while the recognition is nice I doubt that there is a scientist in the world does what they do with the hope of winning prizes. Many scientists do work in areas covered by the Nobel Prizes, broadly speaking medical research and developing new technologies. Other scientists work in fields that didn’t seem important when the prizes were set up but do now, such as the environmental sciences, or simply weren’t recognised, like geology.

Many of the most amazing discoveries in science serve no immediate purpose. Last week US scientists announced the first discovery of a rocky planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of another star, Gliese 581. Of course Gliese 581 is 20 light years away, so this information is unlikely to be useful to us any time in the next thousand years or so, but in terms of shear amazingness, this is (to me at least) the top discovery of the year.

It is also the role of science to tell us things we don’t want to know as well as things we do. We have come to accept that a early diagnosis and treatment of a potentially fatal or debilitating disease is a good thing, but sometimes struggle when we are advised to change our lifestyles, give up smoking, or cut down on alcohol or fatty foods. Similarly bad news about environmental issues can be hard to accept. Many people refuse to accept all evidence that human activities can alter the climate. Declining fish stocks seem equally difficult to convince everyone of.

Environmental issues are particularly problematic as there are often powerful organisations and individuals with vested interests in the status quo, and politicians can be reluctant to take these on. If I choose to drink too much it will affect my health and the wellbeing of my immediate family, but have few consequences beyond that. If the company that produces the power I need to run my home or my business behaves in an environmentally irresponsible manner then there is only so much I can do to mitigate this; I am reliant on my government to regulate the power company.

Governments also have a role to play in funding scientific research. This is not, and should not be, the sole responsibility of governments, but nevertheless their role is an important one. Both private companies and charitable bodies also invest in research, but they will only invest in locations where the infrastructure exists for this to happen.

The UK is currently prioritising cutting the national deficit above all other concerns. This is likely to include cuts in scientific research, and in the infrastructure that supports it. If we loose this infrastructure then it will be far harder for us to attract outside investment in the future, and harder to train people to carry out future research.

The Science is Vital campaign is campaigning to oppose cuts in funding, and for a long-term commitment to scientific research. To this end they have a petition and are organising a rally in London on Saturday 9th October.

There are of course a lot of areas public funding facing cuts in the near future, and many of them deserve very close scrutiny. However science is a particularly vulnerable field. About 30% of the UK’s GDP is reliant on science and technology, and potentially be lost through lack of investment. To put this in perspective the financial services industry accounts for about 14% of GDP, and we are regularly assured that this is so important that this must be supported at all costs.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Red Sea Pedestrians, Charles Darwin and the writings of HP Lovecraft.

There has been a story in the news this week about how scientists have explained how the Red Sea could have parted, allowing the Israelites to escape from Egypt (Sky News The Guardian). This is of course slightly hyped, the study refers to the Nile Delta rather than the Red Sea, and lays out how under the right set of circumstances a strong consistent wind might cause an unusually low neap tide. This is not exactly the stuff of legend, but then that doesn't really matter. The faithful can still believe that god miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea, and the rest of us don't care.

The usual objection to the story of the parting of the waves has (at least since the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs) is that the Egyptians never wrote anything about it. Devout believers tend to argue that the Egyptians suppressed the story because it was so awful, but its hard to see how that could have been possible. Ancient Egypt cannot be compared to the Soviet Union suppressing casualty reports from Afghanistan. The Pharaoh was a living god, but a god with dynastic rivals. As Pharaoh he (or occasionally she) was responsible for making sure his fellow gods continued to favour the nation. A Pharaoh who presided over an army, lead by his heir apparent, being engulfed by the waves would most likely have been quickly (and fatally) replaced. The new Pharaoh would then have been much less squeamish about recording events - albeit with a different spin to that given by the Israelites.

Should the waters of the Red Sea ever really part then close they would (assuming absence of divine intervention) cause far worse problems than the drowning of any unwise armies that strayed into the parting. The Red Sea is a baby ocean forming as Africa splits away from Arabia (and in the future probably splits in half along the great Rift Valley). It has a mid ocean ridge; a chain of volcanoes deep beneath the waves where the continental plates are tearing apart. This would not just be problematic for anybody trying to walk across. These volcanoes are normally crushed beneath the weight of up to two kilometres of water, and water permeates their rocks, held in a liquid form at hundreds of degrees centigrade by the pressure of the water above. Should the water be removed then the explosions would be pretty spectacular, as would the second set of explosions when the waters poured back over the now exposed volcanoes. The explosions of the exposed volcanoes would have thrown thousands tons of ash into the atmosphere. Both the parting and the returning of the waters would have caused millions of tons of water to evaporate. This would have caused intense climatic chaos at a local level for several years, and probably affected the global climate for decades. Needless to say nobody (anywhere) recorded such events.

Other tales of cataclysmic floods have been handed down from the ancient world. The global flood of Noah (or Gilgamesh), the drowning of Atlantis. We don't tend to take these seriously anymore, but for a long time they coloured the way we think about the world.

Charles Darwin is widely attributed with having discovered evolution. This makes a nice story, one man completely overthrowing our view of the world (and at the same time abolishing god), but it is completely untrue. Evolution had been documented long before Darwin's birth, and several theories had been put forward to explain it - most famously those of Lamark. What Darwin (and Wallace) did was to study evolution in a methodical way. and try to explain it - rather successfully as it turned out.

Darwin observed evolution in action on small islands. For example it was possible to tell which islands the tortoises of the Galapagos by their adaptations, those they are clearly closely related. Darwin's theory of natural selection can explain how tortoises reaching new islands would adapt to local conditions, but where did the new islands come from?

Early in the nineteenth century it had been realised that mountains are not static ancient objects, but active systems continuously growing upwards and being eroded by the wind and rain, but nobody had any idea why this might happen. We now attribute this to the movement of the continental plates. The Himalayas are being thrust upwards by the collision of Asia and India. The Andes arise as South America rides over the Pacific Plate. But in the nineteenth century this idea would have been considered insane. How could the continents possibly move?

Darwin was a geologist by training, and one of his discoveries was how coral atolls formed. He looked at dozens of Pacific Islands, and realised there was a pattern; they had a 'life cycle'. Volcanoes on the ocean floor grew up to the surface and formed volcanic islands. Corals colonised the shallows around these islands, forming reefs. Eventually the volcanoes sank back beneath the waves, but the coral reefs continued to grow upwards, forming ring shaped islands where the volcanoes had formerly stood. So new land could be formed by mountains rising from the seas.

The botanist Joseph Hooker, a friend of Darwin's, took things further. He set up an experiment on the remote Island of Ascension. This was a British territory, and an important supply port for the Royal Navy, but it was barren and lacked fresh water. Banks theorised that vegetation could alter climate, and planted tropical forests on Ascension. It worked, the forests thrived and brought rain to Ascension. So not only could new land form, but life could colonise it, and alter the climate to make it habitable.

As they travelled the world the naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century observed similarities between the flora and fauna of unconnected continents. Marsupials are found in Australia and South America. Large flightless birds in both, and Africa as well. So how did animals and plants cross oceans? Some seeds can cross oceans; coconut palms are found throughout the tropics and their floating seeds rapidly colonise any new land. But large flightless birds? This seemed implausible.

Almost everywhere they look, no matter how far from the sea, palaeontologists find fossils of sea creatures. The only possible explanation for this is that the lands where these fossils were laid down were once under water. It was understood that mountains grew upwards, and even emerged from beneath the sea. Therefore it was not unreasonable to assume that lands rose above and sunk beneath the waves. Thus animals did not cross oceans, they didn't have to, they crossed land bridges that subsequently sunk beneath the ocean. It all made perfect sense, and it was all completely wrong.

A fossil scallop, I picked up just outside Madrid.

Then in 1912 a German meteorologist called Alfred Wegener came up with a different theory. What if continents didn't rise and sink, what if they moved about. This was, by and large, treated with derision. Wegener wasn't a geologist, and his ideas went totally against the model of how the world worked that had been built up over the previous century. As it turned out he was right, but nobody took his ideas seriously till the nineteen thirties, and they didn't gain general acceptance till the sixties.

HP Lovecraft is now remembered as one of the greatest writers of gothic horror of the twentieth century, but he is not generally considered a science fiction writer. However Lovecraft's writings are firmly bedded in scientific theory as it stood during his lifetime. Lovecrafts stories are littered with tales of lands that rise above, and sink below the waves. The city of R'lyeh where great Cthulhu slept lay beneath the Pacific Ocean, but when the stars were right it would one day rise again. The nameless city was in the heart of 'Araby', but had once stood on a coast and traded with the world. Lovecraft had a pathological fear of the sea and everything in it so was a potent source of horror for him. Many of his creations had a distinctly fishy feel, from Cthulhu himself to the fishmen that plagued Innsmouth,

Looking back at this we see the horror in Lovecraft's tales, but miss the science. But the rise and fall of the continents was mainstream science in Lovecraft's day. To fail to appreciate Lovecraft's status as a science fiction writer simply because this theory has now been rejected would be like dismissing HG Wells because Mars turned out not to support an advanced civilisation and there are no pterosaurs in South America.