Thursday, April 26, 2012

Short SF Review #23: Ministry of Space

"Ministry of Space," by Warren Ellis (writer), Chris Weston (artist), Laura Martin (colorist), and Michael Heisler (letterer)
Originally published as Ministry of Space #1-#3, April 2001 to April 2004

"I must have had one too many brandies at lunch. Because, you know, I could have sworn you said missiles and space rockets to my bloody face as if I were stupid."

It was the Second World War that brought the world to the edge of space, and it was London where the first seeds of a human future in space fell - granted, though, they were not seeds so much as V-2s. Those checkered rockets from Peenemunde killed thousands in London and Antwerp, but they were also the first things made by human hands to go beyond the sky and touch what waited beyond. The V-2 designs and the rocket research team, headed up by Wernher von Braun, were spirited away to the United States and played a key role in getting the American space program off the ground.

But did it have to happen that way? One alternative that could result in a rather different Cold War might have the Soviet Union take the lion's share of men and materiel from the German rocket program, leaving the United States to catch up with whatever it could scrape together. One could find interesting stories in there stemming from the desperation of the nascent American space program, searching for an edge to let them beat the Reds at their own game... but in the end, it'd likely end up being like real history, only more so.

In Ministry of Space, Warren Ellis rejected that possibility. Instead, he weaved together a world where the spoils of German rocket science went not to the United States, not to the Soviet Union, but to the United Kingdom - a world where a Britain battered by six years of war looked upward to reinvigorate itself and its empire - not just a world where the UK participated independently in the Space Race, but a world where the UK independently conquered space. Since we're now living in a world where there is at least one company actively planning to mine asteroids, I figure it's appropriate and instructive to look at a world of might have beens.

Ministry of Space follows the rise of the titular British space agency, from its formation at the end of the war thanks to an unorthodox black budget, through its first satellite launch in 1948 to the first man in space in 1950, flying a spaceplane that seems to take no small inspiration from the Gloster Meteor, from the assembly of a space station and a direct ascent lunar landing in 1960 to a fleet of dozens of ships claiming Mars for Queen and country in 1969. The primary conflict is found in the "present day," 2001, when protagonist and Ministry founder Sir John Dashwood is finally confronted with the truth of what he did in order to give space to the British.

In his afterword, Warren Ellis is clear about where Ministry of Space came from - it was an attempt to figure out how a world like the one inhabited by Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future could come about, a world where the big dreams of 1950s science fiction and rocket scientists like von Braun weren't dashed by the pursuit of more and bigger ICBMs, but were planted in rich soil and allowed to bloom, a world of riveted space stations and helibackpacks and a shiny jetpack England at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Ministry of Space seems to inhabit a kind of wishful-thinking neverneverland in that respect, a world where nothing blocks Britain's path to the stars, where the Cold War is just something that happened to other people. It's a strange world to get one's head around, but it does dovetail well with the sense of postwar wistfulness that Ministry of Space was meant to channel - that after the destruction of the First World War, the deprivation of the Great Depression, and the destruction of the Second World War, the world in general and the United Kingdom in particular had earned the right to look up, to go beyond. Outside of the prelude, I don't think the Soviet Union is even mentioned anywhere in the story.

For all of that, Ministry of Space is also a work of social commentary - and while there are hints scattered throughout, it doesn't become evident until the very last panel. It's an important question that many people would have considered; if the United Kingdom had managed to replace its fading colonial empire with an empire of the solar system, what would it not have had to address? If you make yourself busy and stay busy, it's easy to avoid looking in the mirror. Sure, thanks to the Ministry of Space 2001 England has "her free electricity and cheap food and her glorious, unchanging aspect," with ships at Saturn and biodomes on Mars, but the big question remains - "was it all worth it?"

At its core, despite the label on the spine Ministry of Space is a science fantasy. The UK was clobbered by the war, and even after it ended rationing remained in place to such an extent that there were restrictions on how much furniture one could buy. I have difficulty seeing the British people cheering on a Ministry of Space when every spaceplane launch meant bombed-out houses that weren't being rebuilt or empty store shelves that weren't being restocked - perhaps that's just my cynical 21st-century character showing through.

Ellis openly admits its fantastic flavor, but it's a peculiar kind of science fantasy at that - one that reaches into the barely vanished past for its resonance, and which builds upon those haunting whispers of what if and if only. It's not supposed to be plausible, but not in the sense that space magic and superpowers are supposed to be plausible. I feel that its nature as a comic series works in its favor and lets us ignore this - after all, we're already used to suspending disbelief with the comic form to the extent of accepting flying bulletproof people in tights. Compared to most of the stories you'd find on the racks today, a 1969 British expedition fleet to Mars straight out of von Braun is the very picture of rigor and plausibility.

My only real complaint is that it could have done with being longer - Ministry of Space offers a rich world full of possibilities, of which we see shards and shadows. It seems to me that there are a lot of stories to be told there... but considering that Ministry of Space is a creator-owned work, something that is regrettably rare in the comics world today, there may yet be more tales of the Ministry down the road.

To tie it up, Ministry of Space is something I heartily recommend. The original three-issue miniseries has since been collected in a single volume with foreword, afterword and extras, and set me back only $12.99 plus tax. If you're interested in "nuts and bolts" visions, this one will work for you.


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