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.
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'!
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.
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!
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?
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.
There are gaps in my sci-fi reading from about '83-'85, when I was finishing sixth form studies and starting work, through 2002, when I finished my distance-learning BSc. I'm still making my way through that back-list and have just been BLOWN AWAY by William Gibson's "Neuromancer" from 1984.
I'd read some other Gibson before, but for some reason had never taken the time to look at his most famous novel - now I have, and it is AWESOME!
'Neuromancer' is clearly one of those rare genre-defining works that creates a whole new realm of possibilities in fiction. It presents a beautiful collage of drugs, technology, society, crime, privilege and 'gritty' reality that screams MASTERPIECE from its opening words:
"... The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel..."
The setting of the BAMA, 'the Sprawl' - the 'Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, is exciting, dangerous and totally believable... a flawless creation.
The lead character, 'Case', is a very human, suffering protagonist, with the rare ability to surf cyberspace as a console cowboy, '... a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl...' - want to know where The Matrix came from? Read 'Neuromancer', it is the true parent of the CyberPunk genre!
I'm now ready to start writing the 2nd novel in my 'Lissa Blackwood' Conspiracy-Thriller series. The overall plot has been fully defined and now works within the 7-Step Story Structure.
Over the past month I have really enjoyed defining the 5 increasingly significant attacks that Lissa Blackwood will have to deal with. The final attack was great fun to work on, and it draws together several themes around terrorism and nukes that I have always been interested in.
I'm now at that happy stage of starting to paint my story on a well-prepared canvas, and I'm really looking forward to enjoying both the pre-defined set-piece plot elements and all the diversions that will arise... bring it on!
The overall plot is now ready for the 2nd novel in my 'Lissa Blackwood' Conspiracy-Thriller series.
Today I'm filling out the details for 5 significant events, and then the writing can begin - can't wait!
Written in 1897, 'Dracula' is both a progressive piece of fiction as well as 'a book of its time'.
When I was around 10 years old I was given a copy as part of a set of classics as a Christmas present. I'm not surprised that I gave up on my first attempt with it. The style of writing is somewhat laborious. There are overly long sections where the characters are trying to work out what is happening or what to do, interspersed with repetitive motifs around the need for the men to protect the women, and all wrapped up in lagging dialogue. I am sure that many people have managed to read the book as children, but it is clearly not intended for such a young audience.
I found the character of Professor Van Helsing particularly annoying. Dr Seward tells us that he comes from Amsterdam and "... knows as much about obscure diseases as anyone in the world." He is brought into the novel as 'the expert' that the other characters look up to. However, he obviously does not know what is happening to Lucy and Mina at first. He frequently disappears to Amsterdam (why there?) to learn things or gather supplies. The Van Helsing in Stoker's novel is not the dynamic 'vampire slayer' of 2004 Hollywood fame. He is old and frequently given to making long-winded, eloquent soliloquies. How many of his acquaintances would have collapsed from boredom at yet another Van Helsing speech like this one:
"...my good friend John, let me caution you. You deal with the madmen. All men are mad in some way or the other; and inasmuch as you deal discreetly with your madmen, so deal with God's madmen... You tell not your madmen what you do nor why you do it; you tell them not what you think. So you shall keep knowledge in its place, where it may rest-where it may gather its kind around it and breed. You and I shall keep as yet what we know... I have for myself thoughts at the present. Later I shall unfold to you." - all Van Helsing means is that he and John Seward should keep a secret, and that he has something else to reveal later on!
On the other hand, Van Helsing is determined and brave. He deals with Lucy's undead body in the tomb, he travels with Mina back to Castle Dracula, and he butchers the 3 undead bodies of Dracula's lady companions.
In an age where women were not treated as equals by men, all of Mina's companions at times overcome the constraints of 'polite society' to listen to her wisdom, give her a weapon, and take her into danger.
The book does have some genuinely horrific moments. However, they are spaced out between reams of 'to and fro' that leads to little actual action. The final demise of Dracula in his coffin outside the castle was disappointing - I won't spoiler zone it here, but I expected much more from the closing pages after such a long build-up.
In summary, a good read but with many flaws when viewed from the perspective of modern story-telling.
For me, 'Dracula' scores 6/10 on the garlic&stake scale of horror.
'PAIN' - noun: that terrible feeling you get when you decide to abandon the method you were taught about 40 years ago for formatting inner voice in fiction!
I've just made the choice to adopt one of the modern styles: no quote marks, italicised text with a tag.
Heck - this means I've now got a circa 90k words wip manuscript to edit...
it's a long way to the end of that tunnel... gulp.
I've just enjoyed reading Frederik Pohl's 1979 novel "Jem".
Pohl was a prolific author - first published in 1937, with a final novel ('All the Lives He Led', 2011), and a collection of essays in 2012 - he died in 2013. I've been reading SF for about forty years and was aware of Pohl but never really go into his writing. I think I was simply too young when I first encountered his books because, as a winner of four Hugo and three Nebula awards, he clearly had a lot to say. I returned to his writing a couple of years ago and enjoyed reading 'Gateway' (from 1977, the opening book in his 'Heechee saga'), 'Man Plus' (1976) and his 1955 short-story called 'The Tunnel Under the World'.
In 'Jem' Pohl presents a dystopian future world, set roughly around 2024 (based on the reference to Carl Sagan being a '... a spry octogenarian instead of whatever incredible age he really was...'). International politics has settled into three competing power blocs:
The Fuel Bloc - known as the 'Greasies', they have control of much of the world's fossil fuel reserves and are leading lives of profligate energy consumption,
The Food Bloc - known as the 'Fats', they control much of the world's food growing lands, and
The People Bloc - known as the 'Peeps', they represent the countries with large populations but much less access to Food and Fuels.
Competition for resources is fierce between the blocs. There has been a significant proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat of a planet-destroying confrontation has become a daily norm. The discovery of a habitable planet called 'Jem' creates the opportunity for humanity to spread outwards. However, rather than cooperating, the three blocs compete for advantage and control of this new world. They draw in Jem's three sentient species into their fight and create new rivalries that had not existed on the planet before - rivalries that will have terrible consequences for the Balloonists, the Krinpit and the Creepies.
In some respects 'Jem' has not aged well and its message can feel a bit naively obvious today. Read in the context of being a late Cold War era novel, it retains an entertaining contemporary relevance.
In my latest vlog I talk about how to write Efficiently and Effectively using a combination of:
- Plotting (not "pantsing")
- Mind-mapping in "FreeMind"
- The 7-Point Story Structure
- A writing tool like yWriter5
- Dictating a first draft using the "Dictanote" Chrome app
- Editing with SmartEdit, Hemingway and editMinion
Take a look at https://youtu.be/jr1fxXq9JFc
A productivity/editing tip - did you know that recent versions of MS Word have the ability to read your text back to you? I am finding that an excellent way to catch missing words, repeated words, gender mistakes as I edit etc.
It also has the huge benefit of helping to catch plain boring bits of text - if you are bored listening to a section, why would someone else want to read it?
If you want to try it out, here's a link for how to set that up:
I totally loved the RSC production of 'As You Like It' tonight - it was funny, entertaining and thoughtful.
Excellent emotional acting and a great experience!
Surprised I wasn't hit by Sandra for laughing at this line:
"Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak." - Rosalind, Act 3 Scene 2
more info at: https://www.rsc.org.uk/as-you-like-it/
I enjoyed watching "All About Eve" livestreamed to Vue from the National Theatre last night. Based on the 1950 film and Mary Orr's play 'The Wisdom of Eve', this was a gripping experience!
Gillian Anderson (of 'X-files' fame, remember that one?) plays Margo Channing, an actress feeling the years tugging at her heels. Lily James plays Eve Harrington, the manipulative noir young lady looking to usurp Channing's position in the theatre.
There was a delightful twist at the end from the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (played by Stanley Townsend) that was uncomfortable to watch with plenty of contemporary resonance.
A great play makes you FEEL something, and I left this one feeling depressed about getting old (really empathising with Margo) and excited to have seen such a great performance - recommended
I've just enjoyed reading Frank Herbert's 1973 novel "Hellstrom's Hive". Originally published (in 4 parts, I think) in Galaxy Magazine, the book is a written version of the 1971 film 'The Hellstrom Chronicle' directed by Walon Green (easily found on YouTube). Film-Book crossovers, and visa versa, are often unsatisfying experiences, but this novelisation by Herbert is an exception...
In the police-state world of this story, Dr Nils Hellstrom is the leader of a secret, (literally) underground society called 'The Hive'. Using selective breeding, Hellstrom is seeking to manipulate human genes in order to create a new society modelled on the cooperative behaviours of insects. We learn that this process has been proceeding for hundred of years, that the Hive has nearly 50,000 inhabitants, and that it is getting ready to 'swarm'.
A single document about the Hive's "Project 40" is discovered by The Agency, who then send agents to the film studio that Hellstrom is using a cover for the Hive. The agents are captured, interrogated, killed and fed into the Hive's "vats". The book then revolves around a race against time as the Hive seeks to complete Project 40 (a weapon) before they are attacked by the State.
The story is not a dumb criticism of socialism/communism. While you can certainly find elements of that, Herbert takes his story to a higher level, treating the progression of humans in the Hive from being 'wild' to cooperative specialists, all working selflessly for their society. The means by which that adaptation are being achieved are horrific, but there is a relentless "why wouldn't you do that" logic that makes the story very engrossing.
A classic read from a master author of themes like human survival and evolution.
There are more sci-fi books published every year than any reader could comfortably read in their lifetime. It is impossible to keep up with them all and I find myself discovering gems like Gary Gibson's "Extinction Game" long after they were first released. "Extinction Game" was first published in 2014 by Tor, but being only 5 years behind the curve on this occasion is actually pretty good for me...
The story revolves around a disparate group of adventurers called 'Pathfinders'. Each Pathfinder is the sole survivor of an extinction event on their home planet. Having demonstrated unique survival skills, they are then brought to an island by 'The Authority' using some hokum science called 'transfer stages' that allow people to be moved across alternate realities.
The Authority then sends the Pathfinders on missions to other alternate realities, to find information or technology related to the extinction event that happened there.
The Pathfinders eventually discover the real reason why the Authority is going to so much trouble to gather up those materials from the other realities, and then a rebellion begins.
This is a good and enjoyable book. I found that the pages turned quickly and I wanted to know what would happen next to characters that I had come to care about. Well-written and engaging, I recommend 'Extinction Game' to sci-fi fans.
After a couple of weeks of "fiddling" I've just finished updating my website onto a modern HTML5 template.
It is now using the open-source, 12-column "Reponsee" css grid from Vision Design graphic studio with an alternative menu bar.
- I'm really pleased with the new look, and it will be a lot easier to maintain from now on!
Netflix has profoundly changed how we consume visual entertainment in our homes. Founded in 1997, the company has rapidly expanded from an online DVD rental store into a market-dominating internet streaming service, distributing mainstream TV programs and Movies, as well as a growing portfolio of 'Netflix Originals'.
'Netflix Original' films are either produced, co-produced, or distributed exclusively by them. I've found that 'Netflix Originals' tend to have good story lines and strong production values that easily rival the traditional cinema experience, all enjoyed from the comfort of my own armchair.
Last July I wrote about how much I had enjoyed the Netflix series 'Spectral' but that 'Annihilation' had been rather disappointing. I guess they can't get it right every time, but I've also just finished watching 'The Cloverfield Paradox', which was excellent, and the short series 'The Rain' which was truly superb.
'The Rain' is a (near-future?) science fiction adventure story in which scientists from the company "Apollon" have released a biological agent that has caused rain water to become aggressively lethal. Even exposure to a single drop of rain water will kill, and those deaths are typically fast, painful and shocking. Small groups of people are surviving and we follow one group of protagonists as they attempt to find Simone's father, an Apollon scientist who they think might be looking for a cure for The Rain. They have many adventures on the way as the episodes slowly reveal aspects of their backgrounds from before 'The Rain', transforming them into believable characters.
It's well-acted and well-produced... and I'm quite jealous of its success because I have a plot outlined in my notebooks which is very similar - from 24/8/15:
"1) Rain isn't necessarily water any more - climate change, pollution, sunlight etc has created a biologically active "something" that rains down on people. Maybe this is bacteria / microbes that have been changed - this effects humans and makes it profoundly hard for us to touch each other - but we want/need to continue touching each other for comfort/reproduction etc - what would this mean for us?
... This would probably have profound impacts on the food we can eat, the water we can drink, and what we can breathe. Would we use tech to make those things safe or we would we evolve biologically?"
That's the problem with being a part-time author... I just can't write fast enough to keep up with all the ideas I'm generating!
My latest author vlog is now up on my YouTube channel - today I explain how you can use a digital voice recorder and YouTube to automatically convert your spoken word into text - take a look at https://youtu.be/DZnVoV3Qt0c
The DVR I'm using is a Sony ICD PX370. The lavalier lapel mic is an unbranded purchase from Amazon, circa £10.
I'm finding this to be a great for ensuring that when I'm walking or driving, that my creative thoughts don't just get lost!
Click here to see earlier updates.