Boldly going where no chap has gone before


© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers


The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968).  Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.


As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms.  In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’  There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’


However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all.  A woman.


Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist.  In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth.  In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’


But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more.  He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman.  She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary.  But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains.  “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks.  “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.”  I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure.  Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up.  “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”


After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories.  Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.”  In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while.  It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick.  It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.


So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way.  It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club.  As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities.  Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.”  And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.


However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable.  Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development.  Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.


A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures.  By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.


And the title story is rather wonderful.  Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it.  In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth.  The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation.  As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young…  If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait…  I do not think we will have to wait for long.”


By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose.  Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.


Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion.  Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!.  (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes.  They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”)  It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other.  This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019.  For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”


Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.




The Rock



In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson.  Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock.  I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.


As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough.  However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD.  This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology.  Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence.  He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.


Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least.  He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India.  Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya.  Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains.  This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured.  His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.


As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.  The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit.  The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala.  Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.


© Victor Gollancz


Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did.  At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out.  En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.


Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex.  We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock.  Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock.  Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.


Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown.  The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light.  Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.


We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys.  At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks.  We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects.  In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.



Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left.  The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit).  These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery.  But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form.  We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures.  Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether.  But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.


You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.



After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess.  According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.”  It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.


Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace.  Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit.  This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork.  These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.


The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going.  There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT.  However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”


We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws.  After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another.  In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.


At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again.  However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness.  By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.



And after all that…  The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived.  It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply.  When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!


In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.


Predictably, the views were beautiful.  It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base.  Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.



Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop.  These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings.  Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.


When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards.  A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered.  One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her.  Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.


And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps.  Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.


So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice.  Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience.  But go early.



Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 11


A few weeks ago, I was wandering along the venerable street-side walkway on York Street in downtown Colombo, savouring its old-worldly atmosphere – old-worldly atmospheres are becoming something of a rarity in ever-changing, ever-modernising Colombo – and snapping pictures of the antiquated shop signs that hang there: Millers Ltd (Groceries, Wines, Tobaccos and Fancy Goods), Cargills Ltd (Dispensing Drugs, Toilet Requisites, Perfumery and Optical Goods) and, um, Kentucky Fried Chicken.



Then I noticed this shop frontage.  Its window was murky with reflected light.  But did I see a strange figure in there, standing just behind the glass?



I approached the window and discovered a massive ape-like creature glowering out and, indeed, glowering down at me.  A yeti.  Yes, here was an abominable snowman, not in its normal abode of the Himalayan Mountains but in a shop on York Street in central Colombo.



Well, obviously, it wasn’t a real yeti but a mock-up of one presumably made of fibreglass.  The thing had been created as an eye-catching advertising gimmick for a product called Yeti Isotonic Energy, a rehydrating sports drink that the Internet tells me has been “developed in collaboration by Austrian and Sri Lankan scientists.”  Bottles of it were on display elsewhere in the shop.


Like its North American counterpart Big Foot, the yeti is a cryptid, i.e. an animal whose evidence has not been scientifically proven.  It might exist, and some people claim it exists, but that’s all we can say.  I had an overactive imagination when I was a kid and, predictably, I loved the idea that fantastical beasties such as the yeti and Big Foot might be skulking undetected in the world’s less charted regions.


So how disappointed I was when, in 1980, British television aired a show about unexplained phenomena called Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and I excitedly tuned in one evening to an episode of it devoted to cryptid apes – only to hear its host, the science-fiction writer (and coincidently a long-term resident of Sri Lanka) Arthur C. Clarke, pour cold water over the existence of such creatures.  For instance, Clarke was unmoved by the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film footage allegedly showing Big Foot because he and Stanley Kubrick had shown in their 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that it was possible to film very realistic-looking ape scenes using human actors in make-up and hairy costumes.  At the end of the episode he opined that if that he had a hundred pounds to bet, he’d forty pounds on the yeti existing, ten pounds on Big Foot existing and “keep the other fifty pounds for myself.”


While the yeti and Big Foot are by far the most famous examples, there have been reports of cryptid apes, anthropoids and Neanderthal-like beings all over the world.  These include the Skunk Ape of the Florida Everglades; the Almas of central Asia; the Australian Yowie; the Chinese Yeren; and the Japanese Hibagon, said to live around Mount Hiba near Hiroshima.  Even Scotland has one, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui (Am Fear Liath Mòr in Gaelic), a huge, hairy creature that’s supposed to stalk and loom up terrifyingly in the mist behind lone hikers and climbers on Scotland’s second-highest peak, Ben Macdui in the Cairngorm Mountains.  Nice though the idea of ape creatures hiding out in the Cairngorms is, I’m inclined to attribute the sightings of the Big Grey Man to the sun / cloud-generated optical effect known as the Brocken Spectre.  (Yes, I’m now a total, killjoy sceptic about such things.  Blame Arthur C. Clarke.)


My curiosity piqued, I did some research to find out if Sri Lanka can claim to have any cryptid apes of its own.  And it can, apparently.  The Nittaewo were said to be a species of bipedal, tailless primates dwelling in the nation’s forests, with talon-like fingers and a strange language that resembled the twittering of birds.  According to the traditions of the Vedda people – who are believed to be Sri Lanka’s oldest human inhabitants – the Vedda fought against and finally destroyed the Nittaewo in the 18th century.  All the same, there have been alleged sightings of the Nittaewo since then, indeed, as late as 1984.


Still, if you go down to the Sri Lankan woods today and hear strange rustlings and twittering sounds coming through the undergrowth towards you, you needn’t be too alarmed.  The Nittaewo were said to be three feet tall at most, so if they did exist they would probably have resembled Hobbits – and not their giant-sized Himalayan cousin in the shop window on York Street.



Koneswaram Temple at Trincomalee



Dedicated to the great Hindu deity Shiva, Koneswaram Temple is perched above cliffs at the end of a peninsula at Trincomalee, a popular tourist town on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast.  The modern-day temple also marks the site of a notorious incident of plunder, vandalism and murder by 17th-century European imperialists.


In 1622, on April 14th – Tamil New Year’s Day – Portuguese soldiers sneaked into the temple grounds while most of its priests were busy with a religious procession outside.  They looted it, slaughtered any priests and temple staff they could find and finally, somehow, managed to topple most of the temple over the cliff-edge and into the sea.  What survived of the original complex was destroyed two years later, with the Portuguese using its stones for the construction of Fort Frederick, a military fort further along the peninsula that now serves as a garrison for a regiment of the Sri Lankan Army.  According to Koneswaram Temple’s Wikipedia entry, its treatment at the hands of the Portuguese is regarded as ‘the biggest loot’ of a temple in Asia.


Later, under British rule, Hindu pilgrims were allowed to visit and worship at the place of the old temple, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the British had departed and Sri Lanka become independent, that moves were made to restore it.  In fact, not all the old temple’s artefacts had been stolen by the Portuguese.  Some had been spirited away by priests, buried to ensure their safety and forgotten about – and in 1950 the local council accidently dug up statues of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh whilst excavating a well a half-kilometre away.  Also, in 1956, a trove of items from the fallen temple, including columns with flower carvings and stone elephant-heads, was discovered by scuba divers exploring the seabed off the peninsula.   One of these divers was the filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilson.  Another was the celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, no less, who would eventually become a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.


In the same waters, in 1962, Wilson located and recovered a yet-more important relic from the temple – a Swayambhu Lingam, a round stone obelisk that according to legend hadn’t been fashioned by human hands but had formed naturally on the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet and later had been transported to Sri Lanka by the fabled demon / god Emperor Ravana.  Wilson claimed that the Lingam provided inspiration for the obelisks in Clarke’s most famous work, the screenplay and tie-in novel he wrote in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  However, Clarke – who’d penned an account of their 1956 discoveries in a non-fiction book called The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) – denied this.


In 1963, nearly three-and-a-half centuries after the destruction of the original, a restored Koneswaram Temple was unveiled – not on the same physical scale as its medieval predecessor, but hopefully, thanks to its commanding view of the Indian Ocean and to it having some of the same artefacts on display inside, imbued with a similar spiritual atmosphere.



As you walk up the incline towards the temple, you’re greeted by a huge blue statue of Shiva hunkered comfortably by the entrance, gesturing with four arms and four door-sized hands.  In the temple-building beyond that, you aren’t allowed to take photographs – a shame since much of its décor is very photographable.  I particularly liked a statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kavana, depicting him as a nine-headed deity with multiple arms fanning out behind him – so many arms that he resembles a mutant octopus.  Two of those arms play a sitar-like stringed instrument with a tenth head planted at one end and an additional hand planted at the other.  I did find a picture of the statue on the temple’s Wikipedia entry, so I will sneakily borrow and reproduce that.


© Gane Kumaraswamy / From


The temple is also worth visiting for its geographical position.  Especially picturesque is a nearby knob of grey-brown rock jutting over the ocean waves, a path and flights of steps looped around it.  The path’s seaward edge is lined with blue railings and gold-patterned pillars with dainty lanterns on top.  Along its inner edge, the rock-face contains cavities with more, gaudily-coloured Hindu deities.  Trees grow on the rock above and below the path and steps, their branches reaching down and reaching up, dappling the walkway with sunlight and shade.



A word of warning, though.  You have to remove your shoes before entering the temple area and bringing a pair of socks to pad around in is essential.  That’s because after the sun rises, the temple’s paving stones warm up and are soon too hot for bare feet to tread on.  The morning that my partner and I visited there, my partner forgot to bring socks with her.  So, as a solution, I went in alone for about 20 minutes and left her standing outside in the shade of a tree.  Then I came out, lent her my socks and took her place under the tree while she went in and explored.


My vigil under that tree wasn’t boring.  Other visitors would arrive, sans socks, and I amused myself watching them hop barefoot from baking paving stone to baking paving stone like manic versions of Michael Jackson at the end of the Billie Jean video.



I blame Neil Armstrong (…and Gerry Anderson… and Arthur C. Clarke)


August saw the death of Neil Armstrong, the first-ever human being to set foot on an alien world.  All right, it was only the moon, which is hardly in the same league as Krypton, Tatooine or the fancy three-dimensional planet in Avatar, but for a wee species that only evolved out of the Homo genus about 200,000 years ago, that first step of his in 1969 was still pretty impressive.


Armstrong’s passing got me thinking about an uncomfortable question.  How come the future has turned out to be so rubbish?


Even I am a little too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf 43 years ago, but I can just about recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure of what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a tiny black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which only picked up one channel, the BBC.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Irish Free State, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some dangerous-looking twiddling.)  All I could make out on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a fuzzy dark-grey background.  However, my Dad assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took his word for it.


It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap that was almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  The cause of this were two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered – a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the top of the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight.  Until then, I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill our sideboard.


I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement – if they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some quaint words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which inevitably had my classmates at primary school tearing the piss out of me.


One feature of these encyclopaedias that really rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  It’s hard to believe today, now that one of the two main American political parties is infested with right-wing religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was built in six days flat a few thousand years ago (, but there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools in converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up – even those assertions in the encyclopaedias that, with the benefit of hindsight, were a bit over-optimistic.


For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed a bit suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin can left littering a lunar crater.


Anyway, I assumed this was what I could expect by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.


My expectations were buoyed further when in the mid-1970s my parents finally got round to buying a new TV set that got three channels, the BBC, RTE and ITV – Independent Television.  Although ITV had (and still has) a reputation for cheap and lowbrow programming in comparison with that made by the BBC, it did broadcast at the time various action / adventure series made by a subsidiary called ITC entertainment, run by the cigar-smoking Jewish-Ukrainian impresario Lord Lew Grade.  Aimed at international markets and at the American market in particular, ITC’s shows commanded higher-than-average budgets and looked quite glossy by the standards of 1960s and 1970s British TV.  They included The Prisoner, The Persuaders, Department S and a host of science-fiction shows made by the remarkable Gerry Anderson.  These I was suddenly able to watch for the first time.


Gerry Anderson, of course, is best-known today for his ‘Supermarionation’ sci-fi series, which were populated by puppets and featured special effects that, for the time, looked impressively cinematic: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90…  Not to mention the surprisingly grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, each episode of which began with the rumbling, terrifying Voice of the Mysterons transmitting from Mars and threatening to wreak havoc somewhere on earth (  But it was seeing repeats of Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi show, UFO, made in 1970 and starring Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Peter Gordeno, Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum) and Gabrielle Drake (Nick Drake’s sister), that convinced me that the future was going to be absolutely brilliant.


For UFO, Anderson’s production team envisioned the shape of things to come through a prism of gaudy late-1960s design and fashion, with a smidgeon too of then-fashionable psychedelia.  It didn’t just feature spaceships and moonbases, but also sleek super-cars, talking computers with hallucinogenic panels of flashing lights, giant submarines with detachable nose-modules that turned into aircraft when they reached the ocean surface, guys in groovy-looking suits that didn’t have lapels, and a lot of sexy ladies wearing silver miniskirts and sporting purple hairdos.  (Here’s UFO’s famous title sequence, by the way:  So, I thought, I’d be living on a moonbase, watching spaceships streak past towards Mars, and Gabrielle Drake would be shimmying around me looking fetching in silver and purple.  The future seemed better than ever.


Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that little futuristic stuff was happening any more.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, not much occurred after the Skylab project – yes, there was the space shuttle, but that didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit.  Meanwhile, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars but, alas, found nothing interesting.  There were no aliens, Martian canals or three-legged war machines shooting out death-rays – just some boring geological formations that had once been river valleys.  And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.


I still held out hope, though.  In the mobile library that came to our village every week, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic late-1960s sci-fi movie he’d co-written with director Stanley Kubrick.  It was reassuring to read Clarke’s sober, matter-of-fact account of a journey from the earth to the moon and then on to Saturn.  (In Kubrick’s film, the final destination was changed to Jupiter because the job of convincingly depicting Saturn’s rings was too much for his special effects team.)  By then I was well-versed in astronomy and space travel and the book seemed to reinforce everything I knew already about the subjects.  It also made the idea that humanity would be out exploring more of space in the early 21st century seem feasible and, indeed, logical.


When I finally saw 2001 the movie, however, it was the early 1980s and even I had to concede that it’d become a bit of a museum piece.  In some ways it possessed an admirable, almost documentary-like realism – for instance, I was impressed by the fact that, unlike the spaceships in every other sci-fi movie I’d seen, Kubrick’s spaceships didn’t make any noise (because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space) – but it struck me as a historical artefact nonetheless because it was clearly rooted in a past time and in past conceptions of what lay ahead.  It offered a late-1960s view of the future, one that just wasn’t plausible any longer in 1981 or 1982.


(By then, the Mad Max movies had started to do the rounds and, after the oil shortages of the 1970s, they presented an unfortunately more credible vision of what the 21st century might be like.  It was also telling that a couple of years earlier, in 1978, Lord Grade’s ITC Entertainment, which had once stimulated my space-age fantasies with the Gerry Anderson shows, had produced the movie Capricorn One – a cynical sci-fi thriller about a NASA expedition to Mars that is actually a hoax, with the supposed landing on the Martian surface being filmed in a TV studio in the American desert.)


And now in 2012 I find myself inhabiting a world far removed from the visions that Neil Armstrong, Gerry Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke inspired in me during my childhood.  An international space station has been in low earth orbit for the past dozen years ( but, still, little else is happening on the manned space-travel front – I doubt very much if people will get to Mars in my lifetime and I’m beginning to wonder if they will get there at all, ever.  Okay, I spend my working days squinting into the screen and poking at the keyboard of a computer, but it doesn’t seem like a proper computer.  After all, when a proper computer developed a fault, it would surely – like HAL in 2001 – start singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…’  Mine just mutely informs me that it has encountered a problem and is going to shut down.


In fact, the only thing that anyone back then got right about the future was the scenario in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet.  For many years, up until recently, we did cower as the Voice of the Mysterons, at regular intervals, threatened to wreak havoc in our lives – though to be fair, it wasn’t the Voice of the Mysterons broadcasting from Mars, but the Voice of Osama Bin Laden broadcasting via smuggled-out video cassettes from a compound in Pakistan.  (I often wonder if the ten-year-old Osama watched that show on television in late-1960s Riyadh and borrowed a few ideas from it.)


Armstrong departed from this world – again, and this time for good – on August 25th.  Clarke died back in 2008 (whereas poor old Kubrick didn’t even live to see 2001).  And Gerry Anderson, I was saddened to read recently, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (


And that’s ironic in a way, for I sometimes feel I am suffering from a reverse form of Alzheimer’s – not one that erases my memories of the past through neuro-degeneration, but one that erases my fanciful memories of the future through on-going exposure to dull, disillusioning reality.