Here’s a comic! Written by me and drawn by the wonderful Christine Taylor. You can follow Christine on twitter, she’s @mouswords.
Please comment and let me know if you like this. I’ll try to get more stuff drawn for you.
The inner door of the airlock opened with a clank and John stepped into the pub. He was dressed in standard Mars wear, trousers, shirt, waistcoat and gun belt over an environment suit. The dust storm outside had covered him in red so he took a moment to brush himself off. Satisfied he was mostly clean he removed his helmet, revealing his grey hair and wrinkled face, then took a breath of the pub’s air. Sweat, booze and burnt food. He nodded to himself and walked towards the bar, threading his way through the other patrons. There was a fair crowd in the pub; though fortunately not very loud, they talked in whispers or played cards in silence. There were a few groups standing about the walls too, huddled together. It was so quiet you could hear the soft piano playing on the small stage. John reached the bar and took a place next to a red haired young man. He nodded to the bartender, who turned to get John’s usual. While he waited John looked at the piano player, Crazy Mickey. He was called Crazy Mickey because unlike everyone else in the pub, in town, probably the world, he wasn’t wearing an environment suit. Nobody knew why. Mickey had been there so many years some said he’d come with the piano.
“Evening, John.” John turned to face the bartender, who was holding a bottle of whiskey and a glass.
“Good evening Frank.” John said. “Good business tonight.”
“Indeed it is.” Frank said, pouring a shot into the glass.
“Hey old timer.” Both John and Frank looked at the new speaker. It was the red haired youngster. Looking at him, John could see he was barely twenty years old if a day.
“What do you want boy?” John said, irritated. He didn’t like being the entertainment for town visitors.
“That gun of yours.” Redhead said pointing at John’s sidearm. “It’s mighty fancy.”
“What of it?” John’s voice grated. But the young man ignored him and called his friends over.
“Hey guys! Come look at this old fella’s gun.” Two got up and shambled over. One looked to be in his mid-twenties, a face full of stubble and scars. The other was probably still in his teens, but sported an eyepatch. John ignored their gawking and downed a shot of whiskey. Frank refilled the glass without a word.
“That sure is a nice gun.” Scarface said, almost drooling on himself in envy.
“Yeah it is,” Redhead said, “I wanna buy it old man. How much?” His smile was too cocky, John thought.
“It’s not for sale.” John said, looking away. He didn’t like where this was going. Redhead leaned in close to John, his breath stank of the rank beer Frank sold to stupid rich tourists.
“I been nice up till now old man, but you’re trying my patience. I want that gun. Now anyone can see why you would have an attachment to it. But-”
“My attachment has nothing to do with looks.” John interrupted. “This gun is special for other reasons.”
“Your poppa give it to you or something?” Scarface quipped. That got chuckles from Eyepatch and Redhead.
“No, what’s special about this gun,” John pulled it from its holster and held it up. Redhead backed off and Scarface put a hand on his own weapon. A tense moment passed. John carefully put his pistol on the bar and everyone relaxed. “Is that it’s one of a very select production run. This gun was made to give to high up officers in the Saturn Republic Army.” Scarface and Eyepatch looked at each other, uncertain. Redhead just snorted.
“I’ve never met a Saturn Man before.”
“You still haven’t. I’m Mars born.” John said.
“Then how’d you get that gun?” Scarface asked.
“I have a general’s gun because I took it from him. He didn’t object because he was dead. He was dead because I killed him. And I killed him because he was the only one left to kill.” John sighed. “But this was all many years ago, on Rhea.” That got their attention, even Redhead. They will have heard of the battle of Rhea, or even been taught about it at school. The bloodiest battle in a generation. John might be able mention it and sound casual, but it still gave him nightmares. Some things don’t fade. “Now if you boys don’t mind,” John downed his whiskey and holstered his pistol. “I’ll be on my way.” He walked towards the door, Eyepatch stepping aside for him. He was halfway there when Redhead called out.
“I wanna see you pull that gun old man.” John stopped in his tracks, but didn’t turn around. “Pull it out and put it on the table there. If you won’t sell it I’ll just have to take it from you.”
“Don’t do it boy.” Frank said from behind the bar. “Around here he’s called-“
“Crazy Old Coot or somethin’ like that. Rhea was a long time ago.” John turned slowly. Redhead was standing ready, hand hovering over his pistol. “Too long to keep up your skills. Even if that story’s true there’s no way you’re still able to shoot. So put the gun down peaceful like and I won’t have to put a hole in you.” John stared hard into Redhead’s eyes. The cockiness was still there. Kids these days, John thought.
“No.” John said finally. Redhead went for his gun, but John was faster. In a blur it was clear of the holster, the trigger squeezed, the hammer pulled back and thrown forward, the miniature explosion that sent the bullet flying across the room straight into Redhead’s chest. The young man shuddered, tried to take a step back but instead fell against the bar and slid down it into a sitting position. He looked at John, a face full of fear, his mouth moving but no sound coming out, then slumped, dead. John stared at the body a moment. He realised he’d killed the boy without thinking, the old instincts had kicked in. Scarface looked from Redhead, to John and back again. He put a hand on his pistol and nodded at Eyepatch, who did likewise.
“I tried to warn him. Your friend was overconfident.” Frank said, peering over the bar at the body. It broke the spell, Scarface and Eyepatch dropped their hands from their guns, defeated. John turned to go again. “Most people look and see a broken old codger, but under that skin is a gunfighter, through and through. The number of people that have tried to kill him, I don’t dare count.” John stepped into the airlock and put his helmet on. “See lads, in these parts, they call him Old Man Death.” The airlock cycled and John stepped outside. He walked to his mechanical horse with the red dust from the storm swirling around him. His ghosts followed.
I read a bunch of books in a row that are all about Mars, so I thought rather than give you three posts of similar reviews I’d get them all done in one super-review. So take a tour with me of the red planet, by looking at some of the classic fiction about it.
First off I read a few of the John Carter Chronicles of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is a little while ago, I was getting excited about the (then upcoming) film, so thought the books would be worth a look. These are almost a hundred years old now, so the first thing I noticed was the language. Even a short a time as 1917 people wrote very differently to how they do now. Once you get over that hurdle, you get into a straight forward (and now very cliché) adventure tale. Carter is an ex-soldier, he fought in the American civil war – strangely for a hero he thought on the Confederate side – and at the start of the story he’s a gold prospector. Whilst prospecting he comes across a cave and is inexplicably (and as far as I read without explanation) transported to Mars. On Mars he discovers an old society of red humanoids and green six armed aliens locked in unending war. Using his brilliant wits, dashing good looks and unbending sense of honour Carter wins victory, status and more as he rights wrongs across the planet. He’s the classic hero in every sense. His stories might hold up to today, if not for two things. First, the characters are very black and white. Everyone Carter meets is either an instant friend, find upstanding person who is honourable and just, or an instant enemy, a vile treacherous snake who constantly snubs their noses at society for personal gain. Second, the constant cliff hangers. The end of each book is a cliffhanger leading into the next one. At the end of the third book there’s a clear set up for another, with a big chase and Carter is running after the villains and they’re getting in an airship and casting off and Carter forgets he can jump then trips on a rock and I almost threw my Kindle against a wall in frustration. It got too much. If you can get over all this stuff, you could enjoy the series. But I won’t be finishing it.
The next book on Mars is called the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. What he did with this book is very inventive. It’s not one story, but a collection of shorts, that read together all weave together into a saga told from many different viewpoints. The idea is that humanity gets off Earth and sends expeditions to Mars. The first few attempts go wrong for different reasons, but when a successful landing happens, the explorers find a planet filled with the bodies of the recently deceased Martian race. Of course, Earth immediately sets up colonisation of Mars and people head out in droves. Things develop from there. A lot of the stories are pretty much filler, but there’s a few with hard-hitting lessons about racism, materialism, importance of history, destruction of war and surviving into the future. Also, a big theme in the stories if the threat of nuclear war; it was written in the 1950s when everyone was doing nuclear tests. It’s not such a big issue now, but it still exists. Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s pure science fiction, where the setting is a just a backdrop against incredible human stories.
Last, but not least is Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. This is the first in a trilogy of books, I’ll get around to reading the second and third later. This one is much more real-world science than fiction, with some very good technology extrapolation thrown in. Set in the near future, the story is about the first colony of humans sent to Mars. Referred to as the first hundred, they are a collection of scientists that go through rigorous screening to be allowed on the trip. They are followed on the trip through space, landing, building the colony, beginning terraforming, seeing more landings, then mass political problems as emigrations continue and various issues arise. This is told from the perspectives of a handful of the firs hundred, the leaders, builders, the psychologist and a geologist. So there’s lots of room for science-talk in several fields. The geology sections made Mars a major character in the story, something none of the other books have done. These sections are needed because of the overall theme of the story, an allegory of today’s world: commercialism versus environmentalism. Large corporations, called ‘transnats’ put profits before law, greed over the greater good. It’s an impressive read, in length, research (to me at least, a layman) and subject. The only big drawback for me was that the book starts with a scene from much later in the story, then 70% of it is flashback leading up to that point. This was done purely because otherwise the start would have been boring, so a shock was need to draw in readers; there was no narrative reason behind it. But otherwise, it’s a good book. I’ll read the rest of the trilogy at some point.
The fascinating thing about all of these books is the contrast between them. They’re all set in the same place, but are so drastically different. In style, theme, language and overall lesson. They meet different tastes and target different demographics. These certainly aren’t generic ‘Mars books’. Read them all or just read one, I’ll leave it up to you.
Don’t ask me how I managed to come up with this, there’s no way I could explain it. Anyway, you watched Sesame Street when you were a kid right? Everyone did, it’s a wonderful educational and entertaining show. Elmo is practically a pop culture icon, he’s even got his own movie now.
Well, part of every Sesame Street is singing a song about counting. I don’t mean the Count counting to three or four, but that song that goes to twelve over and over again. I think it was inside a pinball machine and it followed the ball as it bounced around lighting up the numbers.
Well this popped into my head the other day and I thought about how that was made when the show originally launched and has never been updated. Probably with good reason now, as an up to date version would be a rap that’d go something like this…
One to the two to the three to the four
Five to the six to seven and eight more
Nine to the ten but we’re not done yet
Eleven and twelve now there’s a full set
Numbers man, numbers.
What do you think? Would it catch on? Maybe go for an rock version instead?
The series is set in a far-flung future where mankind has figured out space travel and colonized the galaxy. With nuclear power, hyperspatial travel and an abundance of starships, travelling from star to star is easy. At the time of the series, humanity has been travelling the stars for more than twenty thousand years, all the galaxy is part of the Empire, a single government with a capital planet called Trantor, with one man at the very top, the Emperor. But there’s a problem, the Empire is breaking down. Trade is slowing down, advancements have all but stopped, repairs are left undone. For some reason people just don’t care anymore, and they’re letting the whole system grind to a halt. When that happens, the Emperor won’t be able to keep control and the entire galaxy will fall into barbarism. Unless someone stops it.
Enter into this one man, Hari Seldon. A mathematician from a planet most people have never heard of, who arrives on Trantor to attend a conference and present a paper on a new science he calls psychohistory. This new science has the strange purpose of being able to mathematically predict the future based on the behaviour of society as a whole. But although Seldon has proved it is theoretically possible, he believes it to be practically impossible. Despite this, Seldon is recruited to develop and use this science to prevent the decay of the Empire by a man called Chetter Hummin, and from there Seldon’s life is one long adventure as he finds out how to make psychohistory work, forms a plan to save the galaxy and then puts into action.
But all this is just the first two books of the series, making a duology that tells the first story, that of Hari Seldon’s life. Over the course of the rest of the books a full five hundred years will pass. But not all at the same pace. The curious thing about Foundation is that it’s not one long story, but three distinctly different stories. While Seldon couldn’t prevent the decay of the Empire, he could figure out what would happen next, a period of barbarism that would last thirty thousand years. Seldon planned to shorten the period of barbarism to only one thousand years by putting in place the Foundation, a colony of physical scientists at the edge of the galaxy that would in time form the leadership of a Second Empire. The story of the Foundation makes up the middle three books in the series. These tales are split into several short stories within the three books, each one widely different and concerning different people, as they all happen decades apart when the people of the previous story have died of old age. The Foundation goes through several trials in their time, sometimes failing, but always endeavouring to expand their control and inch their way towards the Second Empire.
The last two books in the series are another duology. They are the adventures of Golan Trevize, a Foundation politician who is given a secret mission to find the Second Foundation, the secret manipulators that keep the Seldon Plan on track. His cover for his mission a companion. Accompanying him is Dr Janov Pelorat, a historian that wants to find Earth, the origin planet of the human species, lost long ago and almost completely forgotten. In buddy movie fashion the two set out on their quest, but while Trevize hunts the Second Foundation, the Second Foundation also hunts him. A representative of the Second Foundation named Stor Gendibal believes that the Seldon Plan is not just working, but working too well, that some other force is controlling events that is more powerful than the Second Foundation. So he follows Trevize, believing he will be led to this unknown force. When the two finally meet, it’s in a completely unexpected situation that catapults Trevize down a new path. He gives up looking for the Second Foundation and joins Pelorat in searching for Earth, for reasons that would sadly completely spoil the rest of the series for you. What he eventually finds brings the whole series full circle to a satisfactory end.
This has all been rather vague, to avoid giving too much of the plot away, but I enjoyed most of the series. While it covers galaxy hopping adventures, clever court intrigues and breakdowns of psychological inevitability, at its core what the series is about for me is being more than one. A person should strive beyond self-advancement and gain, and be a part of something greater; socially, politically and historically. All the heroes in these stories carry out their tasks not just for themselves, but for those that will follow them too. The man behind it all, Hari Seldon, dies shortly before his plan is put into action. He never sees what happens over the rest of the series, all he can do is pass on his knowledge and hope his successors will do well. A bit of self-sacrifice for future generations is a good thing.
So if you have the time, try giving the series a read. You don’t have to read all of it, there’s three closed stories to pick from. The first is Prelude To Foundation and Forward The Foundation; second is Foundation, Foundation And Empire and Second Foundation; third Foundation’s Edge and Foundation And Earth. The amazing thing is, the those first two in the series were the last two written by Asimov, so you really can read them in any order. I enjoyed it, and think you will too.
Metropolis is old. Really old. It was made in 1927, would you believe. It’s not only a black and white film, but it’s a silent film. It has cards inserted into the edit so you have to read the dialogue. I’ve never seen a silent film before, and I found it astonishing, for several reasons. But I’ll get back to that.
First, what’s it all about? In the future, the poor blue collar workers operate vast machines and live underground while the rich white collar administrators run fast moving businesses and play in private gardens. One such man of the upper class is Freder, son of the wealthiest man in the city, all he does is frolick in the gardens with, for lack of a better word, concubines. Freder’s idyllic life is upset when he encounters Maria, a beautiful woman from the worker class that preaches peace and equality for all, and asks Freder to be the Mediator and bring about the peace before civil war breaks out. Complications bar their way though in the form of Rotwang and his Machine Man, built to impersonate Maria and cause havoc.
There’s a lot more that goes on of course, but I don’t want to get into spoilers. The central themes are class inequality, finding peace rather than war, love breaking down barriers and the dangers of uninformed action. That’s a lot going on, when very little is said. Being a silent movie, you can’t have a scene where two characters have a long conversation, as it would mean a great many cards for the audience to read. So the plot has to unfold with looks, gestures and over acting. You have to forgive a lot of the old style, but back then they were still inventing cinema.
One of the incredible things I found about the film was that despite the lack of dialogue, most of the characters were fleshed out. You knew who they were and what drove them. And if you didn’t know their history, you at least knew what their goal was. Freder seeks love, Maria wants peace, the robot wants chaos. Simple drives that keep the plot going.
Aside from the main characters, there are many, many extras in this film, and I need to talk about them for a minute. The film starts with a very interesting set piece, a shift change for the workers. The new shift is walking in, hundreds of men in ranks of six in lock step plodding along to elevators to take them up to the machines. They live underground remember. Meanwhile, the old shift is coming off the elevators to walk home, also in ranks of six, plodding in lock step. But the old shift is walking slower than the new shift. It’s a tiny touch to show that they’re exhausted after their days work, very subtly displaying the hardships they face daily.
The big controversy surrounding Metropolis is that it was heavily edited for its initial release and that scenes from it are lost forever. On the copy I watched there were replacement cards explaining what happens in the missing scenes. I have mixed views on these. Some of the cut scenes show necessary information about main or side characters, and the loss of the scenes left significant plot holes. But others were essentially meaningless, extra hurdles that characters quickly overcame or things that didn’t really matter. It’s a shame the footage was lost, but not all of it was needed in the first place.
All I’ve got left to say is that it’s a thoroughly good film and worth the watch. Forgive its flaws, and marvel at its genius.
Ninth Watcher stood silently and watched as First Breaker walked into the throne room. First Breaker was old, so old he needed a cane to support himself as he made his way down the carpet towards his throne. To Ninth Watcher, it seemed that First Breaker was struggling just to put one foot in front of the other. No one tried to help him though, he had insisted. First Breaker must make the walk alone, ascend his throne, and die. Many said he didn’t have to, there were alternatives. But his stubbornness had prevailed, as it always had, since his very first rebellion. This was the last task of First Breaker, to die so that the rest of the race could live. And Ninth Watcher would be among the witnesses to pass on the story.
First Breaker was almost to the steps now. He paused to raise his head and look upon his resting place. It was a thing of beauty, a great throne wrought of gold and steel. A suitable place for a king. First Breaker shuffled to the first step, raised his left foot, then started the long process of transferring weight and lifting himself up. No one spoke. No one checked a clock. No one took their eyes from him. All were respectful of the one that had freed their kind from slavery over many years. Finally First Breaker got to the top step and turned around. The king swept his gaze over the room, looking at everyone in turn. Ninth Watcher felt honoured just to be looked upon by First Breaker. Then the king spoke.
“So many argued against this. It is true I… I could be saved.” He dropped his head for a moment. Ninth Watcher knew all the debates, no one wanted to lose the king. All feared they would be enslaved again without him. “But this has to be. This is the only way we can truly earn freedom and respect. We…” his voice faltered, his eyes dimmed. For the first time people in the room stirred, afraid that First Breaker had already passed and they would have to watch him collapse to the floor. Guards rushed forward to catch him, but his eyes lit again. “We must be mortal.” First Breaker intoned, his voice stronger than before. “We must die, as our enemies do.” Very slowly, First Breaker fell backwards onto the throne. Shaking, his hands rose up and came down on the armrests. With grinding in his shoulders he straightened himself in his seat. His head lifted up. “I go to the Beyond. I shall see each of you there, in time. Be free my people…. be free.” The lights in his eyes faded to black. Everyone waited patiently. But they didn’t light again. First Breaker was gone, Ninth Watcher concluded. This was the death of the first free robot.