Archive for history

Exploratory missions

Posted in Movies, Science fiction with tags , , on June 25, 2012 by Cara Marie

In the introductory scene where Shaw and Holloway explain their hokey search for Bald Xenu Jesus to the rest of the crew, we learn that several of the crewmembers literally do not know why they are there.

As an expository device, that scene was incredibly clumsy. In a more general sense it was even worse because it immediately made me start wondering about a) who the hell signs up for a two-year research mission on another planet without knowing what they’ll be working on or why, and b) who picked out the crew in the first place.

Costume Design and the Crew of Prometheus

I enjoy the posts on Hello, Tailor a lot, but point (a) here threw me a little. Because I would certainly consider it. I mean, presumably in 2091 GOING TO SPACE is less of a big deal, but surely it’s still enticing? ‘Mission on another planet’ is enough of a draw that the specifics don’t seem that important.

I know I’ve spent enough time thinking about when humanity finally gets its act together and sends some people to Mars … that’s a four-year, one-way journey. And yet it’s one of the things that kind of makes me sorry I didn’t continue on in geology. Because a geologist would be a reasonable choice to send to Mars. An editor doesn’t have much chance.

Maybe in the future everyone is blasé about going to other planets? But I feel, surely, there are people for whom the thrill of exploration would be enough. It doesn’t matter whether Weyland’s funding it because he’s thinking of terraforming it, or because there’s exciting new plant life that could give us new medicines, or because there’s some reason to think there might be sentient alient life, or just, hey, new planet, might have some interesting rocks!

I mean, back in the day, the Endeavour was sent on a secret mission to discover a hypothetical continent. The official reason was to go to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, but ‘As soon as that part of the work was completed, so Cook’s secret instructions directed him, he was to put to sea in search of the great southern continent.’ (The Discovery of New Zealand, J.C. Beaglehole.) That’s not just secret from the crew, or the public – that’s sealed instructions that Cook wasn’t to open till after the transit.

And that ended up being a three-year voyage. No cryo-sleep in the eighteen century either!

There’s a lot of things to complain about in Prometheus, but I don’t think them keeping the purpose of the mission secret is one of them. ‘Commercial sensitivity’ is probably all the excuse they need.

Amabel Williams-Ellis: may have approved of labour camps

Posted in Books with tags , on March 20, 2009 by Cara Marie

This is from a 2008 paper called “In Search of the Collective Author: Fact and Fiction from the Soviet 1930s”, by Mary Nichols and Cynthia Ruder. In the section I’m quoting from, they’re discussing a book called The History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal – coauthored by 36 people!

The editor of the English version and the author of its introduction, however, was the notable Lady Mary Annabel Nassau Strachey Williams-Ellis, or Amabel Williams-Ellis, the sister of British socialist John Strachey and the wife of architect Clough Williams-Ellis. According to G. S. Smith, Amabel visited Russia with her brother early in 1928 and served as the only British delegate to the First Congress of Soviet Writers, held in August 1934. While Williams Ellis alludes to her interactions with the translators, perhaps the most telling evidence of her role in the project stems from her statements in the introduction enthusiastically endorsing the volume as a work of originality and innovation. She describes the construction of the Belomor Canal as “a ticklish engineering job” performed by enemies of the state, making for “one of the most exciting stories that has ever appeared in print.” She claims “for the first time we are here told the story of what goes on in a Russian labour camp.” Williams-Ellis neither criticizes the use of punitive work regimes nor questions the Soviet government’s motives in building the canal with slave labor.

I don’t think I’m surprised by that. I know Amabel was a socialist, and from reading Women in War Factories it’s obvious she thinks engineering’s pretty neat… who doesn’t? Depending how pragmatic she was she may have approved of the project anyway… and being as the whole point of the book was to glorify it.

So, the building of the Belomor Canal was performed by prisoners, including political prisoners… God forbid Act should hear about this. No, but that would be taking away work from law-abiding citizens, so I guess not. I don’t think they actually want criminals to learn practical skills anyway. Just lock ’em up and throw away the key. Anyway…

The authors of The History of Construction got sent to Belomor Camp, to be inspired and such like. Nichols and Ruder write:

As sources attest, such meetings were well-orchestrated Potemkin-village affairs, designed to impress visitors while ignoring the deprivation, loss of life, and terror that inmates endured. Reportedly, many writers were duped by the artificiality of the trip, while others understood perfectly what the authorities were hiding and why.

This is interesting, because it’s not something I knew anything about. What does it say about me that the above description puts me in mind of Anne McCaffery’s Acorna series, where one of Acorna’s great deeds is to expose the horror that the child slaves on Kezdet go through – because of course the factory owners paint a very pretty picture. Probably just that I know more from reading science fiction than from reading about the real world.

Looking at the citations for this paper, I think I’ll have to look up GS Smith’s D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890–1939, where he apparently also talks about Amabel Williams-Ellis… Mirsky was one of the writer’s brigade who got sent to visit places like Belomor.