The surface of Mars

Book Reviews

The technical secrets of fifties flyboy Dan Dare delved into, the second instalment of a sci-fi epic, scientific slip-ups, and a moon man on Mars.

Haynes Publishing

Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future: Space Fleet Operations Manual

By Rod Barzilay, £16.99, ISBN 978-0-85733-286-8

You'd be hard-pressed to find a boy in the 1950s who didn't know the name 'Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future', as featured in the Eagle comic; my own dalliance with this extraterrestrial hero came from furtive readings of the comic strip in my local barber's. A track on Elton John's 1975 album 'Rock of the Westies' featured the fearless spaceman - "He's our flying ace, pilot of the future" - and a British punk band, the Mekons, named themselves after his arch enemy. Now the publisher of those equally iconic car repair manuals, Haynes, has introduced a celebration of pre-Space Age astronautical fantasy; not, in this case, the usual workshop manual, but a 'Space Fleet Operations Manual', no less!

Rod Barzilay has compiled a wonderfully nostalgic book, not just in celebration of its leading character, but also for a more 'innocent' age, when Englishmen smoked pipes and wore jackets to work. A full-page colour rendering of Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson - by successor Don Harley - shows him attired in 1950s fashion, painting the comic strip in his study, mischievously overlooked by both Dare and the dome-headed Mekon. I can't pretend to have been a Dan Dare fanatic, but the image evokes an era experienced vicariously if not in person.

The brainchild of Hampson and parish vicar Marcus Morris, Dan Dare was launched on 14 April 1950. According to Barzilay, the "superbly drawn [strip] realistically portrayed future equipment and inventions, kindling the imagination of its readers and encouraging a widespread hankering for space travel and interplanetary adventure". One wonders how many engineers had their creative appetites whetted by the exploits of one Colonel Daniel MacGregor Dare.

The book is illustrated in a full-colour 1950s palette with original artworks and dozens of annotated cutaway drawings of spacecraft and space bases by artist Graham Bleathman. My favourite is the Anastasia (used "almost exclusively by Dan Dare himself", don't you know), which looks like a modern-day Predator drone with twin bubble canopies in place of the radome. Mind you, the Crypt Interstellar Craft (pictured on the book's cover), with three elegantly swept-back wing tips of sufficiently "high-strength construction" is pretty cool! The best-named is the hyperdrive-powered Tempus Frangit with its space-time distortion field generator.

In sync with the culture of the time, women were pretty much confined to fuselage motifs, such as 'Dixie Darlin' and 'Little Eva', but the section on "significant individuals" does include Professor Jocelyn Mable Peabody, a "space pioneer and nutrition/agriculture/botany expert", and Katoona Kalon, a Theron resistance fighter and "expert in many fields". So, no token bimbos in the Space Fleet universe!

It was far easier to dismiss science fiction in the 1950s than it is today. Those caught reading such "rubbish" were pilloried by parents and other grown-ups with impunity. Yet these Dan Dare stories, set 45 years in the future, foresaw a world in which population had doubled and food production had failed to keep up. They envisaged an Interplanet Space Fleet, formed in 1966 under the auspices of the UN and tasked with building an international space station. True, the Russians weren't involved, but then neither, by analogy, was the Mekon.

True fans will already know that Dan Dare continues his adventures in Spaceship Away magazine, but those who like to dip into halcyon times on an occasional basis will be more than satisfied with this new offering from Haynes.

Mark Williamson

Doubleday

The Long War

By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, £10.99, ISBN 978-0857520111

When the 'Long Earth' series started there was only one Earth and that was inhabited by humans. But as we pick up the second volume of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's epic, mankind has spread throughout the multiverse and has colonised every nook and cranny of reality. As with the historical cycle on our Earth - what the authors call 'Datum Earth' - the oppressed want to be free from the conquering jackboot of Empire.

The rebellion starts in a 'new' America (humorously recalling in concept 'Futurama's New New York), which is a million steps away from Datum Earth. New America wants independence and is prepared to go to war to achieve it. If there is a war it will be a long one, hence the book's title. The saviour of the oppressed could be Joshua Valienté who once explored the parallel worlds.

In other words what we have is a plot that has Pratchett's fingerprints all over it and a core alternative reality straight from the brain of Baxter. Both seem to be playing to their strengths and the resulting book is an enriching and complex tome that satisfies both the scientific mind and the thirst for a rattling good story told properly. So it comes as a piece of good news that the duo are contracted to write a further three instalments of the series.

Literary collaborations seldom produce works of art greater than the sum of their parts and, it's reasonable to say, 'The Long War' is no exception. But the combination of Pratchett's quirkiness with Baxter's ability to sustain complex science has delivered a fresh instalment to the 'Long Earth' series that will delight established fans and win the authors many new ones.

Nick Smith

Nick talks to Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter about 'The Long War' on p44.

Simon and Schuster

Brilliant Blunders: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists

By Mario Livio, $26.00, ISBN 9781439192368

Vain, illogical, slapdash, stuck in denial and inclined to embrace crackpot ideas in old age... it seems that even the most brilliant scientists were human. Charles Darwin's 'blunder' was to believe that genetic matter blends together each generation, like soup. If that were really the case, his theory of natural selection would never work!

Lord Kelvin, who calculated the temperature of Absolute Zero, got the age of the Earth wrong by insisting that convection within the Earth's mantle was impossible. The chemist Linus Pauling, one of the founders of molecular biology, published a botched model of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that was not even an acid. And some of the boldest scientific ideas only took root because their chief opponents died, to paraphrase Max Planck's famously cynical comment.

The title suggests a broad-brush review of some 'banana skin' ideas of famous boffins. In fact, it conceals an elegant and nuanced account of recent scientific history and the pothole-filled road to current understanding. In many ways, this is an account of the scientific process.

Livio follows the development of the work of Darwin, William Thomson Kelvin, Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein, and shows how mistakes and theoretical gaps allowed them and successors to step in with new ideas and counter theories.

A few readers will have to work harder than they might have expected from the title but the 'colossal blunders' conceit is a remarkably clever route into evolutionary theory, genetics, the formation of the universe and how these are inextricably linked. Livio, an internationally known astrophysicist, writes so well and has such a charmingly diplomatic way of 'reminding' us of details of genetic theory or physics or cosmology along the way that this book is an unexpected page-turner.

Christine Evans-Pughe

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