The Force Will Soon Awaken

The Force Awakens poster, landscape

Are you ready to desperately want to be a Jedi again/still? Star Wars Episode VII is coming soon (December 17 in the UK) and we know little about it so far, aside from rumours and speculation. So here’s some more! I could babble on and on about it for ages, so I’ll just briefly give a couple of my theories.

I don’t really know what I think about the idea that Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are Han Solo and Princess Leia’s children. That might align too much with the no-longer-canon Expanded Universe books and be too predictable. But it might go some way to explain why A) Kylo is apparently obsessed with Darth Vader, and B) He says (or his toy does anyway) ‘That weapon is mine’ about, presumably, Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber.

I also wonder if Luke Skywalker might not be on the poster because he isn’t really in the first film or even dies fairly early on. My theory, kind of, is that Kylo was one of Luke’s students when he restarted the Jedi Order. Because Luke was never properly trained, he didn’t know how to handle a difficult student and it led to a clash – a physical clash that perhaps resulted in Kylo having to wear that mask. Luke, feeling like he failed, goes into isolation.

Kind of carrying on from that, I have another theory which I don’t think I actually believe. But I wondered if the Knights of Ren – the group that Kylo takes his name from – are either A) The Jedi Order that Luke failed, or B) Simply Force-sensitive people banding together to create their own group that is neither Light- nor Dark-side. The fact that they are supposedly hunters of Sith relics could simply be in an effort to better understand their powers. Or not.

Daisy Ridley - Rey

Rey, I think, will be the Jedi rather than Finn (John Boyega) – I think him having the lightsaber is misdirection. I also think she may already have some Jedi training. I even wonder if her ‘scavenging’ is actually a mission that Luke gave to her, and she is hunting for Jedi relics just as the Knights of Ren are hunting for Sith relics. Will that be one of the big twists/reveals? She seems to be a normal person and then suddenly uses the Force, perhaps to save Finn in that snow scene. (EDIT: The new trailer pretty much destroys this theory.)

That doesn’t cover the ‘There has been an awakening’ line. I have no theory for that. I do, however, have some theories about who some of Kylo Ren’s toy’s lines are delivered to:

‘I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.’ – Following my Luke/Kylo theory, this could be delivered to Luke when Kylo tracks him down again. This time, I think Luke will lose.

‘You know what I’ve come for.’ – This could be, as everyone assume, referring to Anakin’s lightsaber, but it might also be delivered to Luke along with the previous line.

‘Don’t fight it. You know you can’t’ and ‘Together, we will destroy the Resistence and the last Jedi’ – These could both be delivered to the terrified-looking Finn in that snowy scene from the second teaser trailer. Or the second line could just be delivered to Snoke (his boss/master, voiced by Andy Sirkis).

‘Is it true: you’re just a scavenger?’ – This is almost certainly delivered to Rey, as she is…well, a scavenger. But the way it is delivered is odd. Could it be that he has reunited with his sister and is disappointed with who and what she is?

Again, I could go on for ages with conflicting theories, but I won’t. What do you think will happen?

Kylo Ren lightsaber

Tips For Your Trip To Space

Trip To Space

I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.
Neil Armstrong on looking back at the Earth from the Moon in July 1969

So, you’re planning on becoming a space pirate. Or an intergalactic bounty hunter. Or an astronaut, maybe…if you’re boring. Maybe you’ll be an entertaining one like Chris Hadfield. But things aren’t quite like the films and books. I should know: I’m a sci-fi author, after all, who doesn’t do much research. I shouldn’t have said that…

Before you climb aboard your death-trap of a spacecraft, there are some things you need to be aware of. You should probably do some research and ask a professional to accompany you. For now, here are a handful of useful titbits:

You’re Probably Going to Die

Yep. Space hates you and wants you dead. It’s a harsh and unforgiving place, much like the internet. If you go there, you might die. I don’t have the stats, but I’m going to hazard a guess that there’s more chance of you dying than not. Nevertheless, good luck out there!

Ignoring xenophobic aliens and black holes, there are some far more mundane things out there looking to kill you:

  1. Dust! Moon dust is lethal to human lungs, and it’s so fine that it can creep into your spacesuit and so abrasive that it can wear through even Kevlar-like material (and it has done – three layers of the stuff, in fact). And that’s just the moon. Other planets with little-to-no gravity might have even more dangerous, homicidal dust.
  2. More dust! But this time in orbit around Earth. Clouds of it, travelling at phenomenal speed, are enough to rip off pieces of your spacecraft and alter your course. So what about the 5000+ tonnes of space junk littering our orbit? Also pretty dangerous, funnily enough. If a cloud of dust particles can do the aforementioned damage to your craft, what do you think the leftovers of the last space mission, travelling at 17,000 mph could do? Wait…do space toilets flush stuff into space?
  3. If your chosen professional is annoying you, rub a balloon on his suit. Static electricity in the ultimate dryness of space could short-circuit said suit and he’ll die horribly. Or she – professionals can actually be ladies these days! How the times have changed. Also look out for solar storms for similar reasons.
  4. Systems failure. Explosion. Fire. Decompression. Spacesuit failure. Manoeuvring controls failure. Your spacecraft hates you, too.

Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.
Apollo 13’s John Swigert when an oxygen tank exploded on April 13 1970

Fashion Police

So the typical Michelin Man/Stay Puft Marshmallow Man spacesuit might not look cool. You might not attract any green alien women/men whilst strutting about in it. But that suit stops you freezing. It stops you overheating and suffering heatstroke. It gives you air to breathe. It stops the sun burning your skin. It’s pressurised. It lets you drink water and even go to the toilet. It also has lights and a camera to record your microgravity exploits. You can even strap into a rocket pack, kind of like a fat Rocketeer.

If, however, you fail to heed this warning, you’ll die. Permanently! You’ll lose consciousness first, luckily for you. You won’t notice, then, when you swell up to twice your size, the sun’s UVs cook you, and the various forms of radiation mutate your DNA and give you cancer.

So leave the leather jacket at home.

No Captain Kirking!

Captain Kirk

Don’t choose an attractive co-space-farer, lest you get bad ideas. Gravity changes the way blood flows. Upon contact, you could send your attractive person sailing across the spacecraft and into the airlock. But, on the plus side, they won’t be so attractive with the sticky and disgusting sweat-film that will be covering them by the time you’ve tied yourselves together and tethered to a wall.

Also, don’t get pregnant. Especially if you’re a man. Without Earth’s gravity, a baby will not develop correctly, and that’s before the issue of radiation.

The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search the chance of success is zero.
From the paper ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’, September 1959, regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Fine Dining

(Food + drink) – gravity = problem.

But don’t let my complex scientific equations confuse you. What it means is there’s nothing keeping water in your cup. Nothing stopping particles of food, crumbs, from floating around and getting inside equipment, potentially damaging it. ‘Oh, crumbs!’, you’ll exclaim to the amusement of everyone while the electronics burst into flame. Then who’s laughing?

While the favourite pastime of throwing small items of consumable matter at each other’s mouths would be considerably easier, it poses quite the problem if you don’t want to wreck your spacecraft and get stranded in space. And die.

Assuming this is not one of your life goals, take note.

One thing to remember is that, in space, you will need more calcium and vitamin D, because your bones are WEAK LIKE LITTAL GORL. But ignore the difficulty of using the bathroom and drink plenty of water anyway, because you probably don’t want to die an agonising death by kidney-stone-induced kidney failure.

Eating in Space

You can get plenty of food freeze-dried, including ice cream. Freeze-drying was invented for space travel, after all. But not everything is edible when freeze-dried. This is where your professional can help with meal selection. Generally, it means rehydrating dehydrated food and heating it in a forced-air convection oven. Very carefully, and with special Velcro-fitted trays and the like, you can then eat the same way you would in a fancy restaurant, where people are watching you.

Water is easier, as its stored in a pouch with a straw thing.

Are You Crazy?

You will be. YOU WILL BE! Or you might be. The stress and frustration of being in a confined space for a long time, especially with someone else annoying you, can easily get to you. You may find it hard to sleep, become fatigued. The lack of gravity will be hard to get used to, may make you quite nauseous, makes simple tasks more difficult, and you might not get used to it at all.

Imbalances in your brain stuff could occur and you might have a full-blown mental breakdown and start worshipping the sun. Which is fine as long as you keep your distance. From the sun and from people.

Simple mood and anxiety issues are less simple in space, where you have few ways to relieve stress. Punch your professional.

Not to mention your insignificance. Space is quite vast, and once there, you’ll quickly realise that you are quite tiny. So tiny in comparison, that you might as well not exist. That’s not a comment on your worth, of course. But a sand grain on a beach isn’t even a good comparison.

It might be difficult to come to terms with the unending, black vastness of space. Your little mind might not be able to take it. Again, not a slight against you, really.

From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.
Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, April 8 1974

Newton’s Apples

There are a multitude of things, as mentioned earlier, that you may wish to know before setting forth on your interstellar adventure/colonisation effort/Green-Lantern-cosplay-gone-to-far, but the final one from me is Newton’s Laws of Motion.

– Newton’s First Law (law of inertia):

Superman Baseball

Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.

In other words, everything Superman has thrown into space – including that baseball Mr Reeve hit – is still going, unless it has impacted with another world somewhere, causing death and destruction, and possibly its total annihilation.

In terms relevant to you, when you take off, your thrusters must have enough power to get you off the ground, push through air resistance, and into space. Once in that vast darkness, there is no resistance. All you need the thrusters for then is to reach your optimal speed. And to stop again! That’s an integral part of not dying or getting lost in space like Gary Oldman did. And he turned into a big spider-man thing and not in a superhero way.

Make sure you don’t run out of fuel getting your fat ass off the ground, because you’ll be needing it to stop when you reach your destination.

– Newton’s Second Law:

The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

The simplified equation to go along with this is f=m*a (force = mass x acceleration).

Basically, this is how you work out what kind of energy (thrust) you need. It’s important for getting off the ground, getting into orbit and staying there, etc. Of course, the problem is that, as your fuel depletes, your mass decreases. Ask your professional for help.

– Newton’s Third Law:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The most well known. It takes two to tango. It also takes two to create a reaction. This is how you move in space. If you want to stop, you’ll want an action that will create enough of an opposite reaction to stop you. In other words, reverse thrust. This is why you need to not run out of fuel while still moving.

Some people have a hard time understanding how this works in the vacuum of space, where there is nothing for the craft to push off. It is simply that the thrusters push the exhaust gasses, created by burning fuel, in the opposite direction to where they want to go. Newton does the rest. The gasses going one way is the action, the craft going the other is the equal and opposite reaction.

This also means you have to be careful with seemingly mundane things. If your robotic sidekick runs out of batteries and you need to take out a screw to put the new ones in, you’ll need a special screwdriver so that you don’t spin instead of said screw.

Newton's Cradle Planets

So, that’s about it. You’re now less unprepared to take a giant leap for mankind. Have fun. Make us look good if you run into any aliens. Don’t forget your lessons, always ask your professional if you’re unsure, and go to the bathroom before you leave. But you’re still probably going to die.

When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.
Alan Shepard on his time on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission, February 1971

This blog was originally written for Uproar Comics.

The Big Blue Boy Scout

Superman - Truth. Justice. Hope.

The Man of Steel. Big Blue. The Man of Tomorrow. The Metropolis Marvel. Supes. The Boy Scout. The Last Son of Krypton. Smallville. Kal-El.


He was one of the first superheroes and has endured 76 years of ups and downs for the comic industry – and it only took him 73 of those to learn where his underwear is meant to go. He is the template, the blueprint, for superpowered heroes who came after. And we still love him today. He still catches our imagination and makes us feel excited, like children again.

My first experience of him was from the Christopher Reeve films. I remember getting my mum to make me a cape out of a red velvet curtain, and poking the lenses out of an old pair of Ray-Bans (sorry!). Then I’d stroll around the living room in my Clark Kent disguise, until trouble inevitably erupted in a nearby land (the dining room). Then, off would come the glasses, and I’d fly, via the sofa and chairs, to said land. Apparently, the sewing machine’s brass-looking handles were actually Kryptonite, because it was on one of these, in the process of saving lives, that I fell off a chair and sliced my finger from top to bottom. Even Superman can cry.

Age 7 was the start of my depression and it was partly due to this that, for more years than I can recall, I’d go out into the garden, stare straight up at the sky and try as hard as I could to take off. Perhaps it’s for the best that I never did, because my dad carrying me through the house while I pretended to fly taught me that flying is damn sore on the back.

But that’s about as far as my personal story with Superman goes. I didn’t grow up with comics; I grew up with Knight Rider, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee, and the Dean Cain Superman series. He was only one of my ‘heroes’, as it were – though I never really considered anyone my hero.

Superman Saved My Life

But everywhere I look, there are a lot of real people who have been brought through real tragedies and trying times by Superman. He isn’t just an inspiration and symbol of hope to those 2D citizens in comic books, he’s a very real symbol to very real people. And I think there’s something quite remarkable about that. That symbol is hope. You might be surprised, after the “It means ‘Hope’” scene in Man of Steel, that the S emblem on Superman’s suit didn’t actually mean that for a long, long time. Not until the 2000s, in fact. To me, this is a case of writers realising that Superman himself had become a symbol of hope, and so it made sense to bring the emblem’s meaning into alignment.

Even as a baby, he was sent away from a dying world as their last hope. As a baby, he embodied hope.

So Superman is the shining beacon of hope. The bright blue ideal that many other superheroes look to for inspiration and leadership. He is the icon that shows us that there is something better out there, that we can be something greater. He is a shining light in the darkness not because of his strength and his powers but because of his purity, his incorruptible moral compass. It’s probably rivalled only by that of Captain America. He is unwavering in his ethics and values, and will not stray from or betray those under any circumstances, no matter what he faces and no matter the personal cost. That is an ideal many people find inspiring and aspire to. He is an example to people in this way and relatable for us because he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. He doesn’t consider himself better than humans in any way, even while some of those humans refer to him as a god.

superman cries

What makes him so relatable is very human: loneliness. He is the last of his people (in some storylines), his birth family is dead, his Earth father dies relatively early-on, and (again, in some storylines) his Earth mother dies later on too. He embodies the sense of isolation that so many people feel. Although he has adopted humans as his people and Earth as his home, he is alone. Kal-El is neither Superman – the invulnerable, perfect hero – or Clark – the bumbling fool. These are two facades he puts on every day and so, surrounded as he is by people, he is still profoundly alone.

And Superman doesn’t just save the world from larger-than-life villains, he is there for people. For individuals. An alien who has travelled the stars, battled gargantuan monsters, and…bent steel, cares as much for individual people as he does for the world and humanity as a whole. Whenever we fall, he is there to pick us up.

So a near-perfect, incorruptible symbol he may be, but he is also relatable.

But is an alien with so much power that he could rule the world, but instead chooses to serve it, a bit boring? The struggle for acceptance and against loneliness is more of a theme rather than something directly addressed, and his choices always come across as easy for the Man of Steel. Physically, he is practically invincible.

Many people think that Superman is too perfect, too overpowered, too boring. I can kind of understand why, but even my limited knowledge of the character leads me to believe that if those people read more about him, they might appreciate him a little more.

Superman does what is right. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Sometimes his choices, though clearly right, are a struggle for him. He doesn’t fail to make those choices, but in some ways this means he sacrifices more, and more frequently, than many other heroes. No matter the cost, he will always do what is right.

Superman - remarkable dichotomy

Perhaps he is overpowered for normal battles. But there are plenty of supervillains out there to equal his strength and power. Again, it is usually his purity and the good within him that allow him to overcome. Do we hear the same amount about how overpowered Thor, the god of thunder, is? Or Green Lantern, with his ring that creates practically anything he wants? Superman gets beaten to a pulp as much as, say, Batman, does he not? So, what’s it all about? He has a weakness to Kryptonite, and magic, and a surprising amount of other things, yet Batman can defeat him even without those. A human man. Dressed as a bat. But his biggest weakness is his humanity, his compassion, that same good within him. It can so easily be exploited.

Superman is not human, but he will give his life for us (and has). You may think that it wouldn’t be easy for him to do that, but I’ve just closed an article full of comic pages detailing all the ways to kill Superman, and it’s so long I gave up before I even got halfway through.

I don’t really understand the idea that darker, tortured heroes are better. Those who give in to their weaknesses on occasion. Why is that? Because being pure good is boring? Because identifying with someone like that, giving in, is easier than striving to be something greater?

Batman isn’t too different to Superman, but he isn’t considered boring. Is that because his broken bones don’t heal as fast as Superman’s? Because he breaks lots of other people’s bones? He’s human and risks his life every time he goes out, but…so does Superman. The things that threaten the latter’s life are just, by necessity, more out-of-this-world.

The real world would be a better place with Superman. Not because of his powers, or because it would be cool to look up and see him flying overhead, but because of his purity, his morals, his ideals. And if that’s all it takes to make the world a better place, then shouldn’t we all strive to be Superman? If he, an alien, can be humanity’s greatest example, why cant we?
I think that is why Superman endures.

And now, because I don’t know how to end this article…here’s Martian Manhunter:

“Though we gather here today, bound together in sorrow and loss, we share a precious gift. We are, all of us, privileged to live a life that has been touched by Superman. The Man of Steel possessed many extraordinary gifts, and he shared them with us freely. None of these gifts were more remarkable than his ability to discern what needed to be done, and his unfailing courage in doing it, whatever the personal cost. Let us all strive to accept his gift, and pass it along, as an ongoing tribute to Kal-El of Krypton, the immigrant from the stars, who taught us all how to be heroes.” – Martian Manhunter

Thank you, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

This article was originally written for Uproar Comics.

Birth of the Superhero

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman

When hard times come our way, we begin to look once again to superheroes. When we think of children who were bullied in school, we tend to think of the kind of person who always had his nose in a comic book. While this is a stereotype, it’s one that exists for a reason. But was such bullying born from this fact, or did those bullied children escape it by turning to the pages of their comic books and find hope in the heroes they found there?

The actual origins of the superhero are perhaps arguable. It’s closely tied to the debate over what makes a superhero. What is the difference between a hero and a superhero? When do they make the leap from masked vigilante to superhero? That’s a whole other article, and really we’re talking here about how superheroes became so popular. So with that in mind, we’ll go with the assumption that a superhero is someone who has talents exceeding the norm (such as the genius intellect of Batman or Iron Man or the former’s formidable martial skill) as well as a selfless desire to help others.

So while we had, in the early 1930s, characters like The Shadow and The Phantom, the rise of the superhero really came in the late 1930s. Superman came first, in 1938, with Batman (or rather, the Bat-Man) coming soon after in 1939. To me – and many others, I think it’s fair to say – these two are pretty much the superhero templates. Superman is the blueprint for most of those heroes with superpowers, and Batman for those without.

While Batman was an amalgamation of many heroes who went before him – The Shadow, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, etc. – Superman seems to have been born not so much from a desire to compete with someone or something else but as an answer to the issues of the day.

But perhaps there’s a more personal story behind it for Superman’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel. Siegel’s father, a shop owner, was killed during an attempted robbery in 1932. That’s the year before Superman was created, though that initial Superman was actually a villain and…well, nothing like the Superman we know today. However, author Brad Meltzer believes there’s a link. Siegel’s father is killed and so his teenage son creates an invulnerable, superpowered being to fight evil and stand up for good. Siegel never once mentioned his father’s death in fifty years’ worth of interviews, but it makes sense to me.

Superman’s own origin story contains the loss of his parents. The physical destruction of his home planet could perhaps parallel the perceived obliteration of his own life, thanks to his father’s death. Perhaps. It’s a fairly romanticised view of things, but I think it holds some spark of truth.

Meltzer even found, in his research, a letter published in a paper the day after Siegel Senior’s death. It spoke of the need for vigilantes during the Depression. The letter was signed by A. L. Luther.

Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

We’ll never know for sure how much of a role the death of Siegel’s father played in Superman’s creation, because Joe Shuster (the character’s other creator, on the art side) and Siegel died in 1992 and ’96 respectively. After all, the heroic version of Superman didn’t come about until, I believe, six years after the death of Siegel’s father. So perhaps all of this is our need to see a dot-connecting story where there is none.

But what about for the general public? How did superheroes become so popular with them? How did they become such an inspiration and symbols of hope? Well, that’s probably a lot more simple.

Again, this was during the Great Depression, and Superman’s early foes weren’t of extraterrestrial or supernatural origin. There were no Doomsdays or Brainiacs (the first supervillain Superman faced wasn’t until 1939 and even Lex Luthor didn’t show until 1940). No, the first of Superman’s enemies were corrupt politicians and businessmen and common criminals such as profiteers, gangsters and those who engaged in domestic violence. He even destroyed a slum in his beginnings, in order to force the government to build better homes for the poor. Perhaps inspired by the general disillusionment with officials such as the police, Superman was originally portrayed as a vigilante, just like Batman, and was wanted by the police.

Batman started his career with wanton death and destruction, unlike the Batman we know today, but he was still a crime-fighter. He still went after ordinary criminals in the beginning. His very first enemy was Alfred Stryker, a chemical company executive who tried to have his partners murdered. After two successful murders, Batman intervened and threw Stryker into a vat of acid. Because that’s how he rolled.

So, while such characters are an obvious choice of villain, thanks to their infinite nature, the fact that all this arose during the Great Depression was surely no coincidence. In real life, there was little justice to be had for those who lost their jobs, their homes, and who starved to death.

Some colourful fools wearing tights and leaping about the pages of a comic book were, perhaps, not entirely consoling to these people, but for those not hit quite so badly, maybe seeing corruption and crime brought to light and shut down in those pages offered a little comfort.

Most of us turn to some form of escapism in times of distress, and to see similar distress being countered and defeated in your escapism feels good. It gives some kind of hope. Even though there isn’t a real Superman to swoop in and save your day, even that spark of hope can be enough to get you through.

Making them even more relatable to people is the fact that so many superheroes have tragic origin stories. Batman’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child. Superman’s entire home planet was wiped out, his own parents along with it, and he feels completely alone and isolated on Earth. These origins don’t only give the character a reason to do what he does, but such a human loss can be understood by just about anyone. In this way, even the most alien (literally) of super-beings can be relatable.

Captain America Punches Hitler

The best example of comic storylines mirroring real life is probably Hitler. Adolf Hitler. There’s no clever subtlety there. He was simply…Hitler. He appeared as an enemy of many members of the Justice League of America, as well as Marvel heroes. If this doesn’t prove my point, I’m not sure what does!

Captain Freedom (not to be confused with Captain America, to whom people sometimes give that name as a joke) was created during World War II for the sole purpose of fighting agents of the Axis. In 1942, a Superman cover depicts the Man of Steel riding an American bomb towards the ground, amid a squadron of US fighter planes.

As Marvel’s Stan Lee said, comics were fighting Hitler before the American government was.

Though blatant propaganda, these patriotic themes and front covers fueled an explosion of public interest. World War II was the beating heart of comics’ Golden Age. Some villains, such as the Red Skull, were inspired by Axis soldiers while, again, many heroes were created solely for the purpose of fighting Nazis and, later, the Japanese.

None of these is more iconic and recognisable – particularly since Marvel took to the big screen – than Captain America. The huge surge in American patriotic sentiment was the reason behind Captain America’s creation. In fact, even with America nearly a year from entering the war, the cover of Cap’s first issue has him punching Hitler in the face (remember the film?).

Hitler, naturally, banned such American animations. Except for Mickey Mouse, who was his favourite (and probably was never depicted punching him in the face).

Author Gardner Fox, who worked on comics at the time, probably put it best and most succinctly:

‘I used superheroes’ powers to accomplish what I couldn’t […] Superheroes were my wish-fulfilment figures’.

To me, this is exactly why so many turned to comic books and why their popularity soared.

At the end of the war, only the strongest of superheroes survived the resulting decline in interest. Sales plummeted and publishers were forced to close, even after cancelling title after title.

But superheroes have risen once again. And this time, they’re more mainstream than ever before. Our cinemas are packed with them, our TVs deliver them to us every week, our T-shirts display their logos in an (often unintentionally) ironic manner. Some day, they’ll fade away once more, but no doubt they’ll only resurface again. Until then, let’s hope they continue to bring us hope, inspiration, and simple entertainment.


This article was originally written for Uproar Comics.

Suspending Disbelief: The Line

This is another article I wrote for Uproar Comics.

Suspend Disbelief

When it comes to films, games, and even books, we’re often expected – and required – to suspend our disbelief concerning certain things. Giant, transforming, alien robots…okay. Scientist turns into a big green monster when he gets miffed…fine. Peter Quill floats in space for a minute and survives?! Absolutely unacceptable!

That was the complaint about Guardians of the Galaxy (a year ago now) that sparked in me the question: where is the line? And why is it there? I don’t expect to be able to answer the question, or make a coherent argument with whatever it is I’m about to write, but that’s not going to stop me from diving in.

So let’s start with that complaint. Guardians of the Galaxy: a superhero film (kind of – I’d argue about that, but it’s irrelevant) about a group of criminals coming together in a distant part of the galaxy to prevent an already-powerful blue person from using an alien artefact to wipe all life from the surface of the planet Xandar. Yep, all good so far; why there’s barely any disbelief to suspend.

The aforementioned group consists of a human kidnapped by aliens as a child, an artificially enhanced green assassin, a big red angry man who takes everything literally, a bipedal talking raccoon, and a talking tree monster. All fine. Nothing untoward there.

However – and here is where the film apparently crosses that line – what GOTG seems to have drawn the most criticism for is a scene where Gamora the green assassin finds herself floating in space. Quill, the human, gets out of his ship and puts his breathing mask on her. A minute later, they’re picked up by another ship and they’re both fine.

‘How unrealistic’, people said. Unlike the talking raccoon arguing with the talking tree.

First off, let’s look at what happened in the film versus what would happen in real life.


Guardians of the Galaxy

Gamora’s ship is destroyed, leaving her floating, unconscious, in open space just outside the atmosphere of where they’ve come from. Quill, in his leather jacket and t-shirt, gets out of his own ship and floats over to her. He takes off his mask, which allows him to breathe, and puts it on her. As he watches her, his eyes and face begin to freeze over and he loses consciousness. Shortly after, they are picked up by another ship, and as they tumble into the cargo bay – or whatever – he wakes up. Seconds later, so does Gamora.


Let’s assume that Quill was a real person, floating just outside the atmosphere of Earth, without a spacesuit. What would happen to him? That’s rhetorical; I’ll tell you:

  • Ebullism – The low pressure of a vacuum means the boiling point of Quill’s body fluids drops below his body temperature, causing the formation of gas bubbles in said fluids. His blood won’t boil, but he will swell up to twice his normal size. Which will hurt.
  • Within about 15 seconds, the lack of oxygen will cause him to lose consciousness. He’d then die a couple of minutes later. If he tried to hold his breath to extend that time, that air would expand rapidly, rupturing his lungs.
  • Although it’s a touch chilly, he wouldn’t freeze to death, because the vacuum means the transfer of heat would be so slow, the lack of oxygen would get him first.
  • The sun’s UV would burn him quite unpleasantly, then it would join other things such as gamma radiation and X-rays to damage his DNA. In turn, this would cause mutations and probably cancer.
  • He would, however, have about one or two minutes to be rescued.

Going by memory alone, I think Quill is exposed to space for between thirty seconds to a minute. After removing his mask, he did indeed lose consciousness pretty quickly. So the most unrealistic part of that scene seems to be that he didn’t swell up, he didn’t burn, and he froze over. We could argue that he only froze on the surface and that this might happen (I’m not a scienceer). How fast he would swell and burn, I don’t know; perhaps it would take longer than he was actually out there.

So that leaves the DNA mutations and cancer. But where are they?

AstronautNot here, in our solar system. Are they being exposed to the same things as they would just outside Earth’s atmosphere? In the same quantities? I don’t know. Do you? Do the complainers? Would so much time travelling in space, on different planets, etc, have changed the way his body would react to things? Someone probably knows, but it’s not me. Perhaps the NASA advisor they used for the film knows.

So these people can deal with a talking raccoon (in the same universe as a god of thunder, teleporting mutants, and gargantuan ‘celestial beings’ whose skulls are used as cities floating in space), but the fact that the rest of the film after this scene didn’t deal with the tragic loss of Peter Quill to cancer is too far over the line. Interesting.

What if it was Superman in space? Would the same people be annoyed that he survives rather than dying horrifically?

The line is different for everyone, of course. My grandmother would never watch something like Guardians of the Galaxy – or indeed Superman – because they have ‘weird aliens’. There’s plenty of things I’ve watched that made me roll my eyes, though I can’t think of any now.

Beyond the Guardians

Shadow of the Wraith, Kindle coverI’ve complai…uh…mentioned before a 3-star review I’ve had on my first book. According to the review, it lost a star due to taking ‘an unexpected turn into fantasy territory’. I won’t bother mentioning the inane nature of complaining about a science-fantasy novel having fantasy elements (oops, I just did), but this is perhaps her line. When sci-fi becomes science-fantasy, she can’t suspend her disbelief any more, perhaps. Star Wars is fine until the Force comes into play. Likewise, mine was fine until telekinesis came into play. Or, as she called it, ‘use his “special powers”’. Not that I’m bitter.

And what about within the book? If someone went into it, open to the inevitable fantastic elements of a science-fantasy novel, where might their line be then? The telekinesis, telepathy, etc, that are possessed by one of my alien races? The not strictly realistic space battles? The androids? The dragons? I suspect the last one might be a line for a lot of people. Until they open book two and discover immortal ‘gods’, angels and zombies. Technically not zombies actually. But the dragons are alien animals, not creatures of myth. Does that help? It might help person A but not person B.

What about CSI? ‘Enhance!’ ‘Enhance more!’ ‘Enhance again and zoom in on that reflection in the reflection and enhance!’ Most people can’t quite suspend their disbelief enough for that, but others can. Perhaps it depends simply on how much you know – or think you know – about the subject in question.

I hope you don’t think I’m going anywhere with this, or making any kind of point. Because…I’m not. Maybe I should. But I won’t. Don’t be annoyed – I told you at the start this wasn’t going to go anywhere! It’s simply a question that can’t be answered. Not by me, anyway.

So, what’s the line for you? What was the last thing that made you roll your eyes and groan?

E.T. And Earth 2.0

In light of the discovery of Kepler 452b in July (or at least its announcement then), I thought I would repost an article I wrote a year ago about the search for life, and the possibility of another habitable planets. It’s interesting to see how things change in the space of a year. Also it means I don’t have to write anything new.

Kepler 452b/Earth

“I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.”

This was said by NASA administrator Charles Bolden during a panel discussion on the search for other forms of life in the universe, about a year ago.

There was a claim at the time that NASA had said they would prove extraterrestrial life within twenty years, but where the twenty years part came from was associate administrator John Grunsfeld saying that scientists are closer to finding another Earth-like planet than people realise. Apparently, with the telescopes we have now, and those we’ll have in the future, we may be able to find life on other planets in as little as twenty years.

The agency has plans to launch the Transisting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. These will be used – as the former’s name suggests – to find and study new planets and determine if they are capable of harbouring life. Or if they already do!

Thanks to our existing technology, we already know of at least one potentially habitable planet. Considered a prime candidate for life, Gliese 832-c is a super-Earth. The term sounds pretty promising, but in fact a super-Earth is only defined by its mass, which is higher than Earth’s but no more than 10 Earth masses.

Gliese 832-c – a very catchy name – is about five times the size of Earth and closely orbits a red dwarf star. It’s thought to have Earth-like temperatures and is one of the closest potential habitable worlds to us, at about 16 light-years away [Edit: Kepler 452b is actually only 1,400 light-years away]. But we don’t really know much more about it. Because of its orbit, the planet could suffer from drastic seasonal shifts. It could be a gas or water planet. Its atmosphere could preclude life. We don’t know.

Gliese 832c

In fact, because it’s so massive, Gliese 832-c quite likely possesses a massive atmosphere too. If so, that may well render the planet inhospitable. Such a dense atmosphere would trap heat and make it far too hot for life – more like Venus than Earth. So while it’s potentially habitable, it probably isn’t.

But let’s put things in perspective. Go to Google Sky and start zooming in. How many stars can you count? Perhaps I’ll save you some time and tell you that there are around about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Astronomers estimate that there actually are up to 400 billion. And that’s our galaxy alone.

How many stars are there in the universe? Well, there are some galaxies out there with up to 100 trillion stars. Others are smaller than ours. There are an estimated 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Again, that’s just the part of the universe that we can see.

So if we use our galaxy as an average, and we multiply the number of stars in the Milky Way by the number of galaxies in the observable universe we get something around a septillion.

That’s 1024­­. That’s a 1 with twenty-four zeroes. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

So how many planets are there? That’s a bit tougher. The Kepler Space Telescope, between 2007 and 2013, found that there may be an average of about three planets orbiting each star in our own galaxy. So to make an unscientific estimate, that’s a potential of over a trillion planets. The lowest scientific estimation is between 100-200 billion. And that’s conservative. Others think up to 10 trillion. That might be a little on the high side.

But let’s forget that average of three and imagine for a moment that every star has one planet. That’s still a septillion planets in the observable universe alone. Or perhaps three septillion? Let’s not even touch on the theory that ours isn’t the only universe…

Consider now that in May 2014, Dan Werthimer and Seth Shostak, respectively director of and astrobiologist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, told congress that billions of the planets inside our galaxy are Earth-sized and within the ‘Goldilocks’, or habitable, zone. That is, not too close to and not too far from their sun – not too hot and not too cold. Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean those planets are habitable, simply that they are a lot more likely to support life than those not in the Goldilocks zone.

Shostak apparently also said that he believes we’ll detect alien life within twenty years.

So what do we think? What do you think? I think it’s incredibly foolish to think that, in all that space, among all those stars and all those planets, there’s no life but our own. Foolish and arrogant. What kind of life that may be, though, is another matter. Bacterial, perhaps. Sentient life like our own is a bigger leap.


Of course, what we’re talking about is life as we know it – carbon-based. It’s entirely possible that there are life forms with another chemical basis, such as silicon. When we talk about whether life is possible elsewhere, we can’t really be too sure what other kinds of life there may be. We may say that planets are inhospitable to life, but again, it’s only life as we know it. Even on Earth, we have found life in places we previously thought it wasn’t possible to survive.

I would say if we’re here, then perhaps somewhere else there are similar life forms, cutting down their own rainforests and killing each other. There is a theory that our life here was seeded from elsewhere; that Earth’s organisms and whatnot came here via an asteroid, perhaps. If this is the case, then it would make sense that those same organisms would have hitched a ride to other planets. Whether or not those planets were conducive to that life is another matter. We already know there are plenty of planets out there in their star’s Goldilocks zone, and so are potentially habitable, but the ratio of those to uninhabitable ones lowers the odds somewhat.

How life may have come to be on Earth is a fairly interesting topic in its own right, but it isn’t this one.

So we’re perhaps more confident now in the possibility of life elsewhere. But what about sentient life?

We think of intelligent life as a natural stage of evolution, but that’s not necessarily the case. Life elsewhere might be mostly bacteria and plants. Stephen Hawking posits that intelligence may very well be just one of a large number of possible outcomes of a largely random evolutionary process. He says it’s not clear that intelligence actually has any long-term survival value.

Let’s stick with Stephen Hawking. He likes the idea of there being life out there. He supported SETI, until it lost its funding. However, he seems to be of the opinion that, should we receive any radio signals from space, we should be very wary of answering back. It seems he thinks that any intelligent alien beings who have developed enough to be able to communicate with us, or indeed travel to Earth, could very well be hostile. In fact, I seem to recall him saying this last bit was more than possible: it was likely. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Stephen Hawking's aliens

I can kind of see why he would say that, as we ourselves have developed to be quite an aggressive and unpleasant species. If we were to encounter alien life less advanced than us, we would almost certainly exploit it. I don’t entirely agree with this theory, but nor do I entirely agree with the idea that a species more advanced than us must also have evolved into wise, benevolent beings. Quite probably, they’d be like us: nice and complete ass****s, all in one.

Hawking says that to meet an advanced civilisation while at our stage of development might be like the Native Americans meeting Columbus. This makes more than a little sense and does make me stop to consider how wise it is to be looking for life. But that’s just one of many possibilities.

As for whether aliens have already visited Earth, there’s interesting evidence (or ‘evidence’, perhaps), but who knows? That’s a whole other topic, too, and one more suited to conspiracy theory forums.

So, in the end, I think we’ll find life at some point. Perhaps it will be fish in the oceans of Europa, bacteria on an asteroid, or Asgardians patrolling the outer reaches of the universe. But we are not alone, and the truth is out there!