I have just re-read Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) and totally enjoyed it…

from my original blog on 1/12/19:

TheAndromedaStrain I first became aware of Michael Crichton’s story “The Andromeda Strain” through the 1971 film starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen and Kate Reid. Having seen the film, I wanted to read the book, and was not disappopinted with it! I’ve just read it again about thirty years later – it was still as engaging as I remembered.

The story revolves around the recovery of a crashed satellite from ‘Project Scoop’. Scoop was designed to recover novel (bio warfare?) organisms from low-Earth orbit. When the Scoop VII satellite suffers a malfunction it has to be brought back prematurely. The military track it to a small, isolated town in Arizona called Piedmont. They find that everyone there is dead except for an old man and baby. The team they send in to recover the satellite are quickly killed as well – Scoop VII has brought a nasty organism back to Earth and the ‘Wildfire Team’ are activated.

Wildfire’s job is to examine the satellite in a secure bio-lab facility, classify how the deadly organism functions, and then find a cure for it. The facility reminded me of an underground Titan missile base. Once the team have travelled down to Level V, being increasingly decontaminated as they descend, they are essentially cut off from the surface with only computers and machines linking them to the outside world. Wildfire is clinical, clean, cold and dispassionate. The opinions of the computer programs come faster than the humans could form them and are unchallenged. The message is clear: technology can fix anything if the smartest people are using it.

Wildfire has been fitted with the ultimate fail-safe of a nuclear bomb that will automatically vaporise the facility if the computers detect that the bio-containment seals have failed. Only one unmarried man is given the key that could deactivate that bomb: if the alarm sounds he will have three minutes to decide whether he should stop it.

“The Andromeda Strain” is definitely a product of its time, blending Cold War secrecy and militarism with all the technological capability that America’s military-industrial complex could develop in the 1960s. Both the book and 1971 film feel claustrophobic and dispassionate; the survival of the team, the general population of the USA and even the world, will be determined by the unsmiling efforts of science. The scientists are compartmentalised both by their specialisms and their security ratings. They are progressively isolated as they descend through layers of decontamination, most of the Wildfire’s infrastructure is automated and communication is electronic, impersonal.

Using a vast array of computer-driven tests, the team eventually discover the Andromeda organism. Andromeda seems to be able to directly convert energy into matter without the need for digestion or respiration. It has a crystal structure and grows without DNA, RNA or any amino acids. It has also evolved into a form that can destroy (digest?) plastic-rubber. Although not lethal in that form, it escapes from confinement and the nuclear fail-safe is activated. The team realise that if the bomb detonates the energy released will probably result in Andromeda taking over the Earth – the story ends with them trying to avert that crisis. which I am not going to spoil here!

I really enjoyed re-reading The Andromeda Strain. It is a bit slow and by today’s standards the technology is over-explained… we’re all used to the ideas of computers and electron microscopes now. Some of the technology like the use of tele-printers has dated the book, but this took nothing away from the story.

Whilst I have enjoyed both the original book and 1971 film, unfortunately I must add that I did not like the 2008 mini-series – it felt much too slow and ponderous, which is saying something for this story!

Alien 3 – The Unproduced Screenplay…

From my earlier blog on 23/11/19:

I thought I had missed getting a first edition copy of this but found one by chance in a local bookstore today – fantastic!

I like the filmed version of Alien 3 – it felt rather British, which appealed to me. I also enjoyed reading Gibson’s script and now I’m looking forward to tucking into this comic-book version… hope it lives up to expectations!

Picking this up reminded me of the fun I had watching Alien and Aliens back-to-back at the cinema in 2014 – my blog post from that wonderful night out (‘Halloween Horror’) is below…

“Halloween Horror!!

from my original blog on 23/11/19 (originally posted 1/11/14):

I saw two of my favourite sci-fi genre films back-to-back at Vue on 31st October 2014: Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN” followed by James Cameron’s “ALIENS”… WOW, what an experience!!

I first saw ALIEN on VHS video in about 1985, some six years after the original cinema release – of all the films I have seen, it made the most lasting and influential impression on me as a lover and writer of science fiction. AlienPoster

I remember being:

* captivated by the harshly industrial Nostromo/platform sets,

* awed by the balletic orbital manouvering in the landing sequence (beautifully enriched by Jerry Goldsmith’s music),

* totally drawn into an alien world as the crew walked towards the derelict, and…

* increasingly terrified as the film accelerated with tense horror after that infamous ‘chest-burster’ scene.

Few films have managed to combine so many wonderful elements: innovative scriptwriting, world-class acting, a haunting score, game-changing realism in set design, and a genuinely unique vision of horror (Giger’s monsters – apparently when Dan O’Bannon first showed Giger’s paintings to Gordon Carroll, the producer recoiled saying ‘This man is sick’).

One quote I really like is the foreshadowing of Brett’s death:
Parker: If they find what they’re lookin’ for out there, that mean we get full shares?

Ripley: Don’t worry, Parker, yeah. You’ll get whatever’s coming to you.

Brett: Look, I’m not gonna do any more work, until we get this straightened out.

Ripley: Brett, you’re guaranteed by law to get a share.

And wow, did he get a share!

When James Cameron’s ALIENS came along in 1986 I was old enough to see it in the cinema. AliensPoster I remember enjoying the film as more of a sci-fi adventure yarn than a horror movie – after ALIEN that was a surprise.

The biggest shock was that The Alien was no longer invulnerable: as long as you had enough firepower you could survive contact with Ash’s “perfect organism… [whose] … structural perfection is matched only by its hostility”. Cameron had obviously taken the franchise on a completely new direction.

Whereas Scott’s ALIEN is full of memorable settings and relentless tensions, Cameron’s ALIENS runs on a full tank of memorable dialogue and one-liners. Some of my favourite quotes from the second film include:

On the Sulaco, shortly after the marines have woken from hypersleep:

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?

Vasquez: No. Have you?

and also… with the marines preparing for the drop:

Ripley: I feel like kind of a fifth wheel around here, is there anything I can do?

Apone: I dunno, is there anything you can do?

and of course… in the APC after the marines barely escape from the Aliens’ surprise attack:

Vasquez: Okay. We have several canisters of CM-20. I say we go back in there and nerve gas the whole fuckin’ nest.

Hicks: It’s worth the try, but we don’t know if that’s gonna affect them.

Hudson: Let’s just bug out and call it even, man! What are we even talking about this for?

Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

Hudson: Fuckin’ A!

The second movie was fun and memorable, and spawned some computer games I have enjoyed playing, but its lasting impact was very much less for me (I actually prefer David Fincher’s ALIEN 3 to ALIENS).

I’d always wondered what the Big Screen experience of ALIEN was like. I’d heard and read the legendary tales of people vomitting in the cinemas when it was released and I felt intimidated to try it for myself. I’m so glad I got brave enough to try it (with some friends for back-up) – it was AWESOME and the experience will stay with me forever!!

I have just finished reading “Gravity” (1999) by Tess Gerritsen – I’m so pleased that I did, it is one of the very best science fiction novels I have ever read!

from my original blog on 8/10/19:

Gravity~Gerritsen However, it’s a miracle that I ever picked this wonderful book up. What were Harper thinking when they published it in this cover? That image speaks to no genre, certainly not sci fi (in my opinion).

Even today HarperCollins still seem to be misplacing this book. Amazon lists it against Medical Thrillers and Medical Fiction (where it ranks very highly), but casual SF browsers will never find it.

The taglines of “Sunday Times Bestseller” (yawn) and “A better writer than Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell” seemed overly egotistical and I expected to be disappointed – wrong! This is writing of the first order.

I nearly passed it by in the book shop. However, I was always intrigued by gravity when I was studying physics, and that was just enough to get me to read the blurb… which contained lots of things that I love in SF ‘… study living creatures in space… space travel… space station… infects the astronauts… NASA… contagion…’ – what’s not to like in that list?

Gerritsen masterfully tells an interwoven medical and space exploration story. The medical science is believable. The descriptions of space technology and procedures feel accurate. I was turning the pages fast in order to see what happened next. Despite many deaths, the story ends on a somewhat upbeat note that I appreciated.

The central premise of the book is that an ancient organism dug up from the Galapagos Rift becomes ‘contaminated’ with frog genes before being shipped to the ISS as a private experiment. On board the ISS it acquires mouse and human genes. The resulting organism then infects the crew of both the station and astronauts visiting in the space shuttle with a ‘disease’ that digests them from the inside out. The closing chapters contain a powerfully told cover up and betrayal, followed a State versus The People narrative. Will the astronauts survive and return to Earth? – you’ll have to read the book to find out.

The only moment I squirmed over was the fictional destruction of Discovery and her crew. Accidents happen in space, which is a minor theme in this book, but I couldn’t help but feel that this plot line came too soon after the loss of Challenger in 1986. Sometimes even thirteen years isn’t long enough.

I recently visited the RAF Museum near Watford, London…

from my original blog on 14/9/19:
RAF Museum~080919~Hangar2 The RAF Museum near Watford, London, is an understated gem. Entrance is free (parking cost £5) but the range of aircraft on display is extraordinary!

I found out about the museum when looking up places to visit to learn more about the UK’s Cold War history. This site is not a dedicated Cold War Museum (the The National Cold War Exhibition at Cosford will be my go-to destination for that) but has a number of aircraft from that era on display. This museum has a great display of aircraft from WWI through to the current day. The exhibits are very well maintained and presented, and I was blown away by several of them!

Rather than talk about the full range of exhibits, I’d like to share some pictures from my visit and then encourage you to go and see them for yourself – you won’t regret it!

RAF Museum~080919~WW2
RAF Museum~080919~Victor RAF Museum~080919~Blackbuck RAF Museum~080919~Jets


I recently visited the Royal Observatory at Greenwich…

from my original blog on 1/9/19:
Greenwich~28inch
I last came here over 20 years ago and enjoyed a night-time tour with the opportunity to look through the great 28″ refractor. Even today, this telescope it still one of the largest refractors in the world. However, its location near London makes for rather poor seeing through light-polluted skies and its role for scientific use has been greatly surpassed by modern reflectors (in their various forms).

This ‘scope was completed in 1893 and remained in service until 1960. Its principal task settled on measuring double star systems.

Measurement of the orbits of binary stars allows their masses to be determined via Newton’s Law of Gravitation- the only way that we can directly measure the masses of stars. Not bad for a 70 year old instrument and Newton’s results from 1687 (first publication year of his ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ – “the Principia”).

Greenwich~28inch~1

Greenwich~28inch~2 Greenwich~28inch~3

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I’ve just re-read James Herbet’s 1975 novel ‘The Fog’…

from my original blog on 20/8/19:
TheFog~Spear
35 years ago I would have been about 16 years old when I first read this story. I’d wanted to read it again for some time, it had stuck in my mind as something worth re-visiting. Unfortunately I found that, for me, the story has not stood up well to the test of time.

The novel has a reliance on third-person narration that I found irritating after a while. The story felt slow as a result, and I found myself skipping long sections in order to find the next piece of ‘action’.

More critically perhaps for a horror genre writer, the ‘horror’ in this story seemed to have been confused with occasional horrific events combined with rather adolescent perceptions of sex. That style may have appealed to a 16 year old male in circa 1983, but it does not appeal today. Modern writing has progressed to be more immediate, fast-paced and driven by action. In genre fiction we’ve rather moved away from the slower style used in ‘The Fog’, and I think our stories are better for it.

Having picked up a 3-novel edition, I decided to try ‘The Spear’ as well. I’m afraid I only read the first twenty or so pages before getting so bored that I simply closed the book.

I hate to give poor reviews of books, but unfortunately for me these 2 neither lived up to nostalgia or modern expectations.

I had a real “boy’s own” moment while on holiday and sat in the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber!

from my original blog on 7/7/19:
This summer I achieved the dream of sitting inside the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber… and wow, what an experience!

Let’s be clear, the Vulcan’s initial purpose was to deliver the Blue Danube fission bomb (yield 10-12 kt, similar to the Hiroshima bomb) against targets in the Soviet Union. The Vulcan is a solid, tangible expression of Cold War readiness for nuclear annihilation.

It was designed in response to Air Ministry Specification B.35/46 from 1947, which called for a nuclear-capable aircraft with an exceptional range for flight from British and allied airfields, able to operate out of the reach of enemy air defences. Initially this meant being able to carry the 10,000lb Blue Danube device at high altitude (circa 50,000 feet) for 2,800 km.

Blue Danube quickly became obsolete with the development of fusion bombs, and Vulcans were later armed with Blue Steel stand-off missiles, carrying 1.1 Mt warheads. Blue Steel itself was fairly obsolete with improvements in Soviet SAM technology. The British intention had been to replace Blue Steel with the American Skybolt missile, but that system was cancelled by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

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In the short term Blue Steel was retained during the “Skybolt Crisis” until the main nuclear deterrent role was taken up by Royal Navy Polaris submarines. The Vulcan’s nuclear deterrent tactics evolved into a new low-level mission profile, flying high during ‘clear transit’, dropping low on approach to the target before popping up to deploy a WE.177B parachute-retarded bomb.

There is a comment in Wikipedia that “… since the aircraft had been designed for high-altitude flight, at low altitudes it could not exceed 350 knots [400 mph]…”, and quotes RAF Air Vice Marshal Ron Dick, a former Vulcan pilot, to have said that “… it is [thus] questionable whether it could have been effective flying at low level in a war against … the Soviet Union…” – HOWEVER, during my cockpit tour at Solway Aviation Museum, my guide was sharing stories about actual flying of the Vulcan and asked us what it would have felt like to be piloting this huge aircraft, at a height of fifty feet, at 600 miles per hour?… it seems that the actual operational practice may have been different to the ‘rule book’!

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This all sounds very clinical and straight forward, but the Cold War realities were quite different…

A megaton-sized bomb is of the order of 80 times more powerful than the bomb detonated over Hiroshima.

Close to the centre of the blast, temperatures will reach circa 300,000 degrees Celcius, reducing most victims’ bodies to a handful of basic minerals. Within 4 miles of the blast, the sudden change in air pressure will produce winds of around 160 mph, exerting 180 tonnes of force on the walls of all two-storey buildings. This over-pressure will cause most buildings to collapse. Third degree burns will occur for people up to 5 miles from the blast site. These burns are likely to be fatal unless the victims receive immediate treatment. First degree burns will occur up to 7 miles away. On a clear day, people up to 13 miles from the blast will experience flash blindness.

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Vulcan crews lived together, trained together, holidayed together – they were very close units. When on duty they would sleep in caravans close to their aircraft, ready to fly at any time of the day or night. In the UK we could expect at most a ‘4 minute warning’ of incoming Soviet ICBMs, and our Vulcans would need to be airborne before those warheads arrived. The aircraft were kept armed and ready to go, with just a single button needed to light all 4 engines and get them into the air. Apparently the average reaction time was just 2 minutes, with the record being 90 seconds – it took me around thirty seconds to climb the ladder, let alone everything else that would have been needed to get off the ground!

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With the scale of devastation expected from just 1 weapon (and the RAF airfield I live near was targetted by the Soviets with between 2-4 warheads), the Vulcan crews knew that their families, home towns and country, would have been destroyed in the event of a real “nuclear exchange”. In that case their advice was to find somewhere warm to live after they had dropped their bomb, since there would be nothing to come home to… a sobering thought… who among us could live with that hanging over them?

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This realisation of what the Cold War truly meant comes to life when you are sat inside one of the machines that was at the heart of nuclear deterrence. That is why it is so important to keep artefacts like XJ823 on display to the public. When you have touched it, seen the wear on the instruments, and smelt that particular used, oily smell, while someone who ‘was there’ tells you what it really meant… then you are ready to judge the rhetoric and sabre-rattling of politicians today.