If you read the forums and the comments sections of blogs about spaceflight you will see many posts bemoaning how the conquest of space hasn’t quite gone according to plan. By now, rocket-launched capsules ought to have been rapidly superseded by reusable spaceplanes, spacestations should be huge wheel-shaped things, people should be living in domes on the Moon while giant spaceships assembled in Earth orbit should be shuttling between Earth and Mars. Some British internet commentators point out the alternative history depicted in Ministry of Space as how the future could and should have been. I thought I would read it to see what the fuss was about.
Written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Chris Weston and published by Image Comics in 2004, the book is a graphic novel (a posh comic aimed at adults) set in a 2001 where Britain dominates the Solar System. The story is told from the viewpoint of the elderly Sir John Dashwood, mastermind of the British space program, jumping between 2001 and flashbacks to his past. Thanks to a conspiracy in the Air Ministry led by Dashwood in the closing days of WW2, the British government seized all of the German rocketry facilities and technicians and put them to work, throwing resources at them (how the bankrupt postwar UK financed this is a central plot element) to enable the conquest of space. So in 1948 the UK launched the first satellite, in 1950 a Briton (Dashwood himself) made the first spaceflight in a spaceplane air-launched from a Canberra bomber and in 1956 a 25 man expedition landed on the Moon. In 2001 Britain is wealthy, running on power from orbiting solar collectors. Spaceflight is routine, the Ministry of Space and Royal Space Force has claimed and colonised the Moon, Mars and asteroids and is exploring Saturn by manned spacecraft. The spacecraft are depicted strongly resembling classic 1950s designs from the Dan Dare strips and Chesley Bonestell book illustrations (with just a bit of Kubrick’s 2001 thrown in too).
Of course this is science fiction, where natural laws, technology and economics do not have to correspond with reality if the story requires it. It would be wonderful if a manned spacecraft built with 1950s technology could be launched into orbit from under a Canberra but it is simply not possible (a Boeing 747 might just do the trick). It is disappointing how none of the pundits praising this alternate history point out its technological infeasiblity (note too that gravity manipulation technology seems to exist in the story too, something never likely to be possible). The world politics too are odd and unexplained, an isolationist UK has apparently opted out of the Cold War and somehow prevented other nations from entering space. In the story the US is applying pressure on the UK to permit them launch a lunar mission (called Apollo, but it is not the same as our timeline’s Apollo).
Avoiding spoilers, the story is not the jolly romp you would expect, in fact it is a rather dark affair; Dashwood and his colleagues are willing to carry out crimes including murder to further their agenda. Dashwood, a compelling character, is a reactionary bully and self-described monster, although he is not wholly unsympathetic – his delight and wonder during his pioneering spaceflight is well-depicted. The alternative British society is revealed on the final page to be much less civilised than it is in the real world. There is distinct impression that the nation has gained the Solar System but lost its soul.
I enjoyed this book, it is interesting and some of the artwork is very nice, but it is not the masterpiece some would have you believe. What is more, reality would never have been like this.
(Article by Colin Johnston)