The comic is told as a series of flashbacks, with a framing story set in 2001. We get to see Britain's triumphant achievements in the final frontier. From their first satellite, to their first manned space flight, the first mission to the Moon, the first mission to Mars and so much more. Meanwhile, in 2001, America is trying to break into space. They're doing this by trying to blackmail the British over the nature of the black budget that created the Ministry of Space.
Ministry of Space is one of the most famous alternate history comics out there. In fact, it won the 2005 Sidewise Award for Best Short Form. For those who don't know, the Sidewise Awards are an annual award that recognizes outstanding alternate history fiction. It's basically alternate history's equivalent of The Oscars or The Hugos. Thus far, Ministry of Space is the only comic to win a Sidewise Award.
First, let's take a moment to talk about the artwork and the designs. The art is top of the line. It's certainly what you might expect for something produced by Image Comics. Of course, if there's one true star of this comic, it's the technology. It's all very sleek and Jet Age, with a bit of British flair, of course. Many of the vehicles and missions seen in the comic are based on actual proposals by scientists such as Wernher von Braun. It is mentioned that Von Braun was among the scientists that the British captured, so this isn't all that surprising. The technology really embodies that optimistic can-do attitude you see in a lot of science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s.
Now let's talk about the alternate history. As stated above, it's in large part based on actual plans and is very optimistic...perhaps a bit too optimistic. Let me give you a few highlights of this alternate British Space Program: breaking the sound barrier (1946), first satellite (1948), first manned spaceflight (1950), first space station (construction from 1953-1956), first mission to the Moon (1957), and first mission to Mars (1969).
This is clearly meant to be a nod to Collier's Magazine's famous Man Conquers Space series of covers, but I'm not sure how realistic it is. Britain might have the willpower and the money, but they've also got quite a few problems. In 1945 cities across Britain were still clearing away the rubble from the Blitz, and strict rationing was still in place. Having a black budget is going to help, but it won't make all of the other problems magically disappear. In fact, it will potentially make things worse. People are gonna wonder why money is being wasted on a space program, and not on helping them.
Still, I'm willing to give it a pass. The premise of the comic is about Britain developing a successful space program. For the sheer awesomeness of that alone, it's all worth it. Still, there is a slightly more pressing issue. Towards the end of the comic it's implied that, for all its technological advances, the British Empire remains socially backwards. There's a couple panels that show that British space stations are racially segregated, for example. The problems is that the comic contradicts this on multiple occasions. The leader of the first mission to Mars was a black man, and in the present, there's a Sikh man on the space station council.
It also doesn't make sense given historical precedent. The British have always been leader when it comes to human rights. They abolished slavery in the home isles in 1800, and in their colonies in 1833. They were able to do this without spilling a single drop of blood. After that, the Royal Navy spent quite a bit of time intercepting slave ships. During their time in India, the British worked to abolish practices such as sati, aka Hindu wife-burning. Also, many American ideals of freedom come strait from the works of British thinkers.
I'm not saying the British were always perfect. They had their share of flaws, just like any other nation. However, I seriously doubt they'd still have segregation in 2001 of this alternate world. There's also the question of how the Cold War played out. We get a few throwaway lines about America and the Soviet Union squabbling with each other, but that's about it. The Soviets would have been set back a bit without German scientists of their own, but they still had Sergei Korolev. Was there a very one-sided space race between the British Empire and Soviet Union?
Towards the end of the come we see that America is attempting to launch a Moon mission...using Apollo era technology. I'll grant that NASA would have be set back quite a bit, but they wouldn't still be using Apollo tech. Surely, they would have been able to observe British spaceplanes enough to at least come up with their own version. That brings us to the nature of the black budget. This is a bit of a spoiler, so turn back now if you don't wish to find out.
Okay, everyone gone who wants to be gone? Good, let's talk black budget.
So, how did the impoverished post-war British government procure the funds to fund a space program? Why, by looting gold and other assets from the victims of the Holocaust, of course. Would that have realistically have been enough to fund a space program? Well...you got me there. Math has never really been my strong point, so I'll give that one to the comic.
Alright then, maybe the alternate history is a bit optimistic at times, but is this comic worth a read? Yes, it absolutely is. The Space Race has always been one of my favorite points in history. I've always loved the idea of space traveling being more advanced than it is in our world. I've also been intrigued with the idea of a successful manned British space program, and manned space flight in general being more widespread. Yes, I am aware that Britain has a space program in our world, but it's only ever launched a few probes.
The comic is worth it for the great artwork alone. As far as I'm aware, Warren Ellis has no plans to revisit Ministry of Space. That's certainly a shame, we get some very tantalizing glimpses into this world, but it feels like there so many great stories that could be told in this world. Still, what we got is pretty good, if a bit short. Ministry of Space is one of the best alternate history comics out there, and it is more than worthy of your time. You can find it pretty easily on Amazon, and you can also find it digitally on Comixology.
Well, I think that does it for now. I'm off to find some more great alternate history comics to share with you guys. I will see you all next time.