“Sunshine” — Ed Wood, Eat Your Heart Out

In all fairness, I was prepared to hate “Sunshine” by reviews that praised its “stunning” imagery but nothing else. Mainstream reviewers generally don’t know what to make of science fiction and when confronted by an incomprehensible mess like this movie they assume they’ve witnessed something deep and meaningful that was way over their heads, so they play it safe by praising the imagery. I approached “Sunshine” with extremely low expectations but was bitterly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, my family and I enjoyed watching it, once we got into “Mystery Science Theater 3000” mode. Viewed that way, “Sunshine” is in a class by itself. There are rare films like”Gattaca” in which good acting, writing and direction serve a plot driven by an intriguing SF premise. There are lightweight romps like “Star Wars” in which the heroes ride spaceships instead of horses. There are occasional clever transpositions of classical drama into SF, such as “Forbidden Planet,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” There are  epics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” that break the rules and still mostly succeed. “Sunshine” fits in none of these categories. Although it wants to be “2001,” it is more akin to “Plan Nine from Outer Space” — the “Citizen Kane” of bad science fiction films. It is so bad that it is almost worth watching just for the fun of mocking it.

No plot spoilers follow here — because there is no plot to spoil. In any case, we’ve seen it all before. The only original plot device in “Sunshine” is a minor one (although it is unintentionally hilarious).

In some vague future the sun’s pilot light has gone out and the giant spacecraft Icarus Two is dispatched to drop a bomb to reignite it. Icarus One, we learn, went missing some years before. There are, I think, eight crew members on Icarus Two: Unstable Asian Guy, Sensible Asian Guy, Asian Chick, White Chick, Suntanned Dude, Sensible White Guy, and Soulful Bug Eyes, the purported hero. Wait! That’s only seven. I’m sure there was another guy. Oh well. It doesn’t matter. Nobody will miss him.

While passing Mercury they pick up a distress signal that comes from — surprise — Icarus One. Although the fate of the world depends on their mission and whenever this happens on Star Trek it means trouble, they decide to change course to investigate. Using a supercomputer, Unstable Asian Guy — their crack navigator — makes a mistake in his arithmetic that somehow sets fire to the greenhouse that produces their oxygen. They extinguish the fire by flooding the greenhouse with — brace yourself — oxygen. Honest. Bleeding the air off into space or filling the greenhouse with nitrogen doesn’t occur to these hand-picked, fate-of-the-human-race-rides-on-their-shoulders geniuses. The resulting flash fire forces them to choose who must be sacrificed to ensure that enough O2 remains to complete the mission. Pathos and heart-rending decisions loom, but fate lends a hand and characters start dying randomly from various misadventures, sparing them the need for any development.

Meanwhile, I think, they rendezvous with Icarus One and board it. Although the derelict is filled with several tons of dandruff its greenhouse is still going strong and there is much rejoicing on Icarus Two, but — surprise — a monster lurks aboard Icarus One. He has really bad sunburn and asthma — probably from the dandruff. We named him Crispy Critter. Crispy is the lone survivor from Icarus One and he has theological issues with the whole relighting the sun business, so he kills a couple of guys and sneaks aboard Icarus II, where he kills everyone else except Bug Eyes. Lots of things happen and there are bright colors and spectacular special effects and loud noises. Eventually, Bug Eyes drops the bomb on the sun and goes to Heaven or burns up or something, and the world is saved.

David Letterman used to have a spot titled “Limited Perspective,” in which a specialist would review a movie from his own narrow point of view: thus a dentist might evaluate the actors’ teeth or a doctor would enumerate the injuries likely to result during a fight scene. As a stunning imagery specialist, I found “Sunshine” underwhelming. The incessant lens flares and solarized frames mean nothing. They are intended to create the illusion that something deep and profound is happening, but, in reality, nothing is. The huge spaceship turns and tumbles murkily and incomprehensibly in needlessly tight closeups, so we never get a sense of its scale or any feeling that it is a vessel carrying people. The spaceship interiors consist mostly of long shiny corridors, which might be a welcome change from the standard smoky, claustrophobic, spacecraft interiors that “Alien” made de rigueur, if anything interesting ever happened in them, but nothing does. There is no reason to care about any of the characters and, indeed, we are delighted as they die off, because they are so astoundingly stupid and boring and every demise brings us closer to the end of this tedious and pointless ordeal.

With a good script, the premise could have been made to work. The device of an urgent space mission threatened by insufficient consumables engendered sweaty-palm suspense in Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations.” Instead of exploiting the drama inherent in the situation, however, “Sunshine’s” director throws it away by dragging a monster in by the ears. Even if we cared about it, the oxygen shortage becomes meaningless when there is a monster on the loose.

Bad money drives out good, and bad cinematic SF makes it harder to produce movies based on the good story ideas that remain untapped in literary SF. “The Cold Equations” could be produced with a minimal budget and a cast of two working on one set, and it would have infinitely more drama and pathos than a thousand big budget cow flops like “Sunshine.”

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Space Art : How to Draw and Paint Planets, Moons, and Landscapes of Alien Worlds

cover of space art book
Michael Carroll; Watson-Guptil; 144 pages, color illustrations, paperback, $24.95, ISBN 9780823048762

Reviewed by Don Dixon

I learned to paint from the wonderful Walter Foster art book series, which featured titles such as “How to Paint Landscapes,” “How to Draw and Paint Seascapes,” etc. Every niche of hobbyist painting was covered, from sunsets to still lifes. Typically, each subject would be explored through a series of illustrations showing the development of a painting from simple charcoal sketch, to rough color, to the finished work. Popular masters of the 50’s and 60’s such as Robert Wood and Violet Parkhurst let us look over their shoulders, sharing their “secrets” with struggling beginners. How I wish Michael Carroll’s Space Art had existed back then!

Space Art is not a primer on painting, although a beginner can pick up valuable techniques unlikely to be covered in more traditional “how to” books. While there is a good, brief discussion of media and tools, and an excellent presentation on color, the book assumes a basic knowledge of how to mix and work acrylics. What the beginning painter might find particularly useful, however, is Carroll’s discussion, throughout the book, on how to “see” — how to observe and depict the interplay of light and objects and atmosphere.

Any basic art book will contain a diagram showing how to render and shade the cube, cone, and sphere, but Space Art links this exercise to nature in a way that traditional art books generally do not. For example, most landscape artists rarely paint the moon correctly, either depicting it as a featureless white disk or a weird, banana-shaped crescent. This is, I think, because they haven’t made the conceptual leap that allows them to see the moon as a sphere, subject to the same rules of lighting as is an orange in a fruit bowl. They don’t see the illuminated part of the moon as its “day” side, and the dark part as its “night.” They haven’t realized that the dividing line between day and night — the terminator, to use astronomical parlance — is an arc of an ellipse: the shape of a great circle seen in perspective. After reading Space Art and attempting its exercises, beginning painters will have a deeper understanding of light and shadow that will make them better artists in any genre of painting.

Space Art takes the reader through fourteen exercises, ranging from the the almost mundane — “Earth seen from the Moon” — to the science-fictional landscapes of extrasolar worlds with binary suns. Brief essays by established space artists punctuate the exercises. These essays touch only lightly on technique, but delve more deeply into how space artists interpret the raw data of science and apply this knowledge to imaginatively portray a subject in a way that transcends a mere photograph. The sample illustrations by these guest artists range stylistically from plein air sketches to digital photographic realism. Carroll wisely restricts his exercises to techniques available to the beginner. Although he may sometimes use the airbrush or computer in his commercial work, subtle gradients in the exercises are created using fan brushes and sponges.

Space Art is not only a useful book, but a beautiful one, well printed and rich with color. A reader is likely to learn a bit of astronomy and geology along the way, and Carroll’s impish sense of humor comes through in the text, maintaining the friendly tone of a teacher who loves his work. Again, I wish a time traveler had brought this book to me forty years ago. Highly recommended for beginning — and developing — artists, in any genre.

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My Two UFOs

picatinny_ufo_smallPart of the fun of being an astronomical artist is that you get asked engaging questions. A surprising percentage of people are eager to buttonhole anyone who might have some inside info on things celestial. Often, folks want to follow-up on a news story, like the man who read about an impending collision between two galaxies and was curious how it had turned out. Some people just want reassurance that the moon landing wasn’t faked. Nearly everyone is fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This sometimes leads to a discussion about UFOs, which makes me squirm a little, because, doggone it, I’ve seen ‘em. Two, in fact. But I don’t really “believe” in them. It’s a subject that causes some personal cognitive dissonance.

My creepiest UFO sighting occurred in 1969. In those halcyon days I often loaded a homebuilt telescope into my mom’s Falcon and drove into the Mojave desert in search of clear, dark skies. I would invariably get the car stuck in a sandpit on some abandoned road and spend hours extricating it. Eventually, in a suitably god-forsaken place, I’d set up the ‘scope, toss my sleeping bag on the ground, heedlessly bed down with the scorpions and sidewinders, and gaze at the heavens. On one occasion I was adopted by a pack of coyotes, but that’s another story.

On the night in question, I was setting up the telescope an hour after sunset. The clear sky would allow a nice view of Saturn when it rose in the wee hours. I had just finished aligning the polar axis of the telescope when something caught my eye: in the southeast, just above a ridge of hills near the horizon, was a perfectly straight, luminous line. It was about half the apparent size of a full moon, absolutely horizontal, and moving slowly west. It was clearly too thin and too straight to be anything natural. Cue X Files theme.

There was a weird scintillation to the object and, in my mind’s eye, I could see the sequentially rippling running lights on the edge of a saucer cruising over the desert, its hull cooling from the plunge into earth’s atmosphere as its pilots searched for a suitable landing spot after their journey of who knew how many light years. That line from War of the Worlds about “minds vast, cool, and unsympathetic” came to mind and I could feel goosebumps sprouting. I half-expected green death rays to blast me where I stood.

Then I noticed that the object seemed to be slightly larger. It was headed my way! Mingled terror and awe. First contact. Take us to your leader, who, God help us, happened to be Nixon. I also noticed a creamy glow developing in the east, but I knew what that was: the moon, getting ready to rise. Then I noticed something else: I had a telescope! Homer Simpson wasn’t even a twinkle in Matt Groening’s eye, but this was an early “Doh!” moment. I deftly aimed the instrument toward the object, peered through the finder telescope, and was even more mystified.

The scintillation was real. There was indeed a line of lights flashing on and off, but they were not turning on sequentially. Nor were they spaced with the geometric precision one would expect. Each light was, however, flashing with a regular pulse, and the period seemed to be pretty consistent for all the lights: about three flashes a second. I centered the spacecraft (now firmly convinced that’s what it was) in the finder’s field of view and looked at it through the 60 power eyepiece of the main telescope.

The strange green sheen of the hull betrayed the alien nature of the craft. Auroral curtains shimmering at the base of the ship hinted at the power of its advanced magnetic drive. They had come. The world was about to change forever.

Well, maybe not. What I actually saw was even stranger until my brain made the right connections. I was indeed looking at alien life forms: geese, on their way to some avian resort. The underside of their wings was reflecting the light of the moon, which was still hidden by hills at my location. Distance and perspective had blended the flock into a single line. Eventually the geese got close enough that I could see their characteristic “v” formation and hear their faint, evocative honks.

Without a telescope it would have been impossible to determine the nature of this UFO, which makes me think that most of the twenty-percent as-yet unexplained UFO sightings by sane, sober, honest people could have become explicable given a bit of optical aid or a different point of view. Under the right conditions even the most prosaic things can look extraordinary: Venus; weather balloons; swamp gas — all the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me official explanations. If investigators at Project Bluebook had suggested that I had seen a flock of geese I’d be looking over my shoulder for black helicopters even today. No way that was a flock of geese! But the telescope revealed that it was.

Item Number 2 in my UFO casebook isn’t quite so easy to explain. The desert encounter occurred when I was 18, arguably well above the age of reason (which I actually didn’t reach until 35, like most of my generation, but that, too, is another story). At least I was old enough and knew enough to eventually figure out what I was seeing. My first UFO sighting, however, happened when I was a mere lad of seven, and I thought nothing of it at the time.

The sighting lasted maybe three seconds. I was sitting directly behind the driver of our school bus as it cruised through a New Jersey forest ablaze with the colors of autumn. I was looking out the window, studiously ignoring Sharon Blake, the cute little red-haired girl across the aisle. The sky was blue and early morning sun dappled the treetops. Just ahead of the bus there was a flash of light. It was the sun gleaming off a shiny metallic disk flying over the road from right to left at maybe a thirty degree angle. I watched it for a couple of seconds until it went behind the trees. I thought it was kind of cool. Some new type of airplane, maybe, but no big deal.

I’m blessed — sometimes plagued — by the ability to retain vivid images. I remember looking out through the bars of a crib and can recall the shiny varnish that coated the top of a bannister at my grandmother’s house, viewed from the perspective of a babe in arms. This is not a particularly useful talent, but it allows me to recall details about that flying saucer that suggest the sighting was not a synthetic memory based on a dream or a misapprehended conventional aircraft such as a helicopter.

The UFO was lustrous silver and perfectly circular, sufficiently oblate that it looked basically flat, but there might have been a slight convex bulge to the bottom. As it glided across the road, a dazzling sub-solar glint slid along its edge, properly obeying the laws of optics. The most amazing thing about it was that its silvery underside reflected the orange and red treetops. I was able to see the trees as if in a mirror. This brief, bird’s-eye view is what enchanted my seven-year-old mind and it is the primary detail that convinces me I saw a real, physical object that morning.

If I were filling out a UFO report I would guess the thing was about 50 feet in diameter and 200 feet up. If it were much higher or bigger the tree reflections wouldn’t have been so distinct. It was likely moving at about the same speed as the bus, maybe 30-40 miles per hour. Given the location of the sun glint and the time of day, the bus was headed west and the UFO was traveling southwest. That should be enough to pin down the location of the saucer nest, don’t you think?

Did I see an alien spacecraft? Probably not. The least-bad explanation is that it was a test device from the nearby Picatinny Arsenal, covered with the same kind of aluminized Mylar envelope used on the Echo satellite two years later. This observation happened in 1958, post Sputnik, at the dawn of the Space Age, when America was frantically trying to catch up with the Russians. We could hear test firings of the Redstone rocket every few days, so they were doing bleeding-edge work at Picatinny. Perhaps it was an exotic balloon, like the one that supposedly went down at Roswell. Aeronautical engineers were trying all sorts of weird designs then. I’ve seen footage of a wacky flying saucer-like test craft from that time, but I don’t think it ever got more than a few feet off the ground; the computers required to stabilize such a thing weren’t around yet. The object I saw flew very gracefully.

Anybody know what it might have been?

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Quest for a New Earth

If our civilization survives for another decade or two, we may get our first glimpse of a planet remarkably like Earth. The red dwarf star Gliese 581 is about 20.5 light years away, practically next door. Last year, two planets were discovered orbiting it. Both are giant worlds like Jupiter, detected by the subtle wobble they produced in their “sun” as they tug it slightly to and fro with their gravitational fields. Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of a third planet, dubbed GL 581 c. Two things about it are intriguing: Its mass is only about 5 times greater than Earth’s (as opposed to Jupiter’s 300 times greater heft), making it one of the smallest extrasolar planets yet detected. If it is made of rocky material like earth, it would be only about 75 percent larger than our world. The second interesting thing is its orbit, which places it squarely in its parent star’s “Goldilocks Zone,” where it is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain liquid water. This is the first planet we’ve found that could conceivably look something like Earth, with white swirling clouds and vast oceans.

We should be reluctant to draw a graph using two data points, however, and all we know about this world is its mass and orbit. Be cautioned that all that follows is speculation. Gliese 581 shines with only 1.3 percent of the Sun’s luminosity, so a planet would have to orbit 14 times closer than Earth orbits the Sun in order to receive the same amount of heat. GL 581 c does this, in fact, giving it a “year” that is only 13 earth-days long. In such a close orbit Gliese 851c has probably become tidally locked, so that its rotation period matches its orbital period. This means that the same hemisphere would always be turned toward its star. Our own moon does this, so that we see only one side of it.

Such a situation could make for an interesting climate. Any ocean in the subsolar region of GL 581 c might simmer under a perpetual hood of steam. If the atmosphere is dense enough, convection might carry heat away to the dark side, possibly preventing it from freezing in its eternal night. The most habitable place might be the “Twilight Zone” near the boundary between night and day. Any creatures living in this temperate band would see their sun as a bloated orange orb — a dozen times larger than our sun looks to us — poised always on the horizon. Plants, questing for light, would tumble over themselves, trying to grow ever-sunward. I imagined a situation like this back in 1980, and have updated my painting of this “Marching Forest” to suit the GL 581 c scenario.

So far, no telescope has been able to photograph a planet orbiting another star, but with any luck, sophisticated satellites planned for the next decade may obtain spectrographic data that could tell us something about the compositions of the atmospheres of these distant worlds. GL 581 c is close enough that, should its atmosphere contain oxygen — almost certainly proof of life because it is so unlikely to remain unbound for long — we would have the first evidence that earthlike worlds abound.

Whether that realisation does anything to improve behavior on this planet is anyone’s guess. A sense that there is still wonder and mystery in the universe might kindle hope in those parts of the world where there currently doesn’t seem to be much, this side of Paradise.

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Dramatic Evidence For Global Warming

Many concerned climatologists have pointed to the retreat of glaciers over the past several decades as evidence that Earth’s climate is indeed growing warmer. The animated image at left, created by Malin Space Systems, shows a region of the south polar cap photographed on the same date during three consecutive years. The shrinkage is obvious.

What is not obvious is that this is not Earth, but Mars as photographed by the Mars Global Surveyor, which has been observing the Red Planet in exquisite detail since 1999. The ice is frozen carbon dioxide, which is very cold stuff, but it is apparently getting warmer for some reason.

If this region of Mars is indeed warming up, what could be the cause? Increased solar activity? We don’t know, but the concentration in Greenland ice cores of Beryllium 10, created by cosmic rays in lower abundance when solar activity increases, suggests that the sun has indeed been running hotter for the past 60 years. While the observed warming of earth may be due in some degree to the greenhouse gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere, the fact that something similar is happening on another planet should give us pause. We clearly don’t have all the answers.

ADDENDUM, December 10, 2005. Since this was posted, a number of environmental websites have published articles dismissing evidence of Martian global warming as irrelevant. The writers commonly use a rather tautological argument — that we’ve not been able to take data with sufficient resolution for a long enough period to establish that this is anything more than a minor fluctuation in Mars’s climate, and that we have only evidence of recent warming on Mars. Obviously, since we have been able to make these observations only since 1999, we cannot say anything at all about the recentness of the warming. We have only recent data, for heaven’s sake! But climate-change experts are only too happy to cite a mere 50 years of direct measurements to prove that solar flux is invariable — as if it might not take centuries for a planet to respond to a slight variation in solar output.

I really don’t have a huge axe to grind. Do I think that many so-called environmentalists are misanthropic Marxists and pagans? Yep. Do I think that Greenpeace and the Green Party have a tad more than their fair share of hysterical ignoramuses? You bet. Do I think that scientists are not necessarily wise and noble seekers of truth, but are in fact ordinarily self-interested human beings who are perfectly willing to embrace fads in their quest for funding and tenure? Yeah, I’m afraid so. The scientific method has amply demonstrated its efficacy, but as far as the “scientific community” goes, I’ve worked with some of the smartest scientists on the planet, and have found that most of them are, of necessity, so specialized that that they end up knowing a great deal about very little — and many do not hesitate to shovel manure to fill the lacunae.

Nevertheless, I’m rather fond of this planet and I want it to remain beautiful for my kids. To help make that possible, I contribute royalties to the Nature Conservancy, an organization that employs an incredibly radical strategy to preserve wilderness areas: it buys them. The Conservancy seems to do a good job and has, so far, eschewed the Chicken Little approach that has discredited much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalists were happy to promote Venus as an example of greenhouse warming run amok. Why dismiss data from Mars that does not fit a political agenda? If we are to be responsible stewards of our world, should we not welcome any information that may further understanding of these very complex processes?

ADDENDUM; August 14, 2007. In reviewing this I came upon a report from last April that attributes Martian warming to excessive dust in the atmosphere. The  mechanism sounds plausible. Of course, if earth’s atmosphere were found to be unusually dusty, it would be instantly attributed to man-made global warming. You can’t lose when you play this game.

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