The Art of Science Fiction

It’s common knowledge that Science Fiction (or Scientific Romance as it was originally called) was very much a product of its time.  A combination of Victorian adventure story, the influence of war and Empire, the speed and revelations of the industrial revolution (and the associated scientific advances), and, in the hands of the best writers, a literary critique of the times.  There are earlier traces of the speculative and the fantastic, but it was the Victorians that firmly set the template of what we now know as Science Fiction.

Title-pageEven early explorations of this new form of writing were associated with striking visual art, which is wholly appropriate for the nature of the genre.

A good example are the illustrations for the 1905 French edition of H.G. Well’s ‘The War of The Worlds’ (first published in 1897).  Henrique Alvim Corrêa (1876–1910) was a Brazilian artist working in Belgium who created wonderfully atmospheric images, full of darkness, light and menace, an example of which can be seen to the left.

As was common at the time, many of the stories we now know as novels began life as serialised stories in popular magazines like The Strand Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine, and The Idler.  It’s wasn’t until the 1920’s though that specialist Science Fiction magazines began to appear.Amazing Stories

Beginning with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926 – these highly illustrated magazines soon proliferated and spread the graphic iconography of the genre as much, if not more, than the words from which they originated.

In a strange way the magazines, which were there to spread the ‘word’ of Science Fiction were superseded by the images they used to illustrate the text.  When the cinematic Science Fiction boom of the 1950’s took hold it would only be a short time before the age of the magazine was over (apart from a few survivors).

Although I love early Science Fiction stories (I’d read all of H.G Well’s short stories before I’d left school), I did not feel as much of a fondness for the mid-20th century stuff (and the space operas were just a drag!).  I was far more attached to the films of the 1950’s Science Fiction craze (many of which were based on novels) and even now I would rather see a Science Fiction film than read a Science Fiction book (probably because Science Fiction is such a fantastically visual genre).  I think this is part of the reason why I have migrated to the relative of Science Fiction in the speculative fiction genre that is The Weird.

Village Of The DamnedSince the magazines lost their near-monopoly on Science Fiction stories and the eventual decline in such movies (The Village of The Damned being one of the last original stories of the era), the graphic or illustrative element of the genre flourished on the covers of paperback books.

I remember in the 80’s and 90’s seeing loads of classic Science Fiction paperbacks with cover art from the 1960’s and 70’s in charity shops – but of course, like so many other things, I did not appreciate them at the time!  It is now rare to see the striking and strange book covers at all, and particularly the first editions (paperback or otherwise) anywhere at all.

Fortunately I recently came across a collection of these speculative stories from another age and I decided to buy the lot!  They look stunning and on the whole are in fantastic condition; but my mind is skewed towards the Weird and that is where my heart is, so reluctantly I have decided to pass them on.  Just looking at the covers makes you wonder what imaginative wonders the pages contain and I would love to have the time to read them all but it’s just not possible.

I currently have them for sale very cheaply on eBay, here, but be quick, the first lot end this Sunday evening (25th Oct.) – why not try a few, you never know what astounding stories await!

Here are just a few of the books available:-

DSC_0084DSC_0108DSC_0119DSC_0112DSC_0102DSC_0096

Time Stacks by Matt Molloy

Time-lapse photography has a history about as long as photography itself and the effect of the photographic image on art has had a huge influence.  The blurring of an image has been repeatedly used – whether in the cause of Impressionism, Futurism, or any number of artistic ‘ideals’ – that its photographic origins are sometimes forgotten.

Traditional time-lapse photography tends to create a smooth blurring effect, a softening of the image, a merging of motion into a continuous stream of light.  Matt Molloy, a photographer from Ontario in Canada, has taken a different approach.  For his time-lapse images he has ‘stacked’ a sequence of time-lapsed images, creating a staggered blurring effect.  The images are quite ethereal, bridging the line between a photograph and a painting.

Matt Molloy ‘Land of the Giant Lollipops’

Matt Molloy ‘Sky Sculptures’

Matt Molloy ‘Smeared Sky Sunset’

Matt Molloy 'Sunset Spectrum'

Matt Molloy 'Spun'

The British Library Sound Archive

Sound equipmentIn May of this year The British Library highlighted the situation regarding it’s Sound Archive (something I had not previously realised the British Library had), and that if nothing is done to preserve it we may loose chunks of our history captured in audio form.  The situation is succinctly put on the website, and reads:-

The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Global archival consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.
Some people will recognise the problem from a similar situation – the difficulty in reading early computer programmes (see my article, here).  Once a technology is superseded, the ability to access material stored in certain formats becomes increasingly difficult, let alone the natural degradation of the recording medium itself.  To counter this the British Library has set up the Save Our Sounds web page and identified three main aims for the project:-
  • to preserve as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings, not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK
  • to establish a national radio archive that will collect, protect and share a substantial part of the UK’s vibrant radio output, working with the radio industry and other partners
  • to invest in new technology to enable us to receive music in digital formats, working with music labels and industry partners to ensure their long-term preservation.

It has received a huge injection of funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund but still requires donations to further it’s work (you can find out how to contribute here).  If you would like to explore some of the archive you can gain access to 60,000 recordings which have been digitised and made available online, here.The British LibraryCurrently there is an ongoing project, begun in 2012 and recorded by the BBC, called The Listening Project.  I have heard a few of these edited conversations on the radio and they are quite fascinating.  The British Library page has this to say about them:-

The Listening Project is an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC.  People are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and curated and archived in full by the British Library.  These one to one conversations, lasting up to an hour and taking a topic of the speakers’ choice, collectively form a picture of our lives and relationships today.

Whether you interest lies in Classical Music, Oral History, World Traditional Music or the sounds of nature and the environment, there should be something of interest in the archive.  There is even a section of images of early play-back and sound recording equipment and early record catalogues from 1898 to 1926!  The Listening Project recordings can be found under the Accents and Dialects section or through the link above which goes to the BBC page on the project.Sounds of Our ShoresThis summer there is another audio project, but this time it brings together The British Library sound archive and The National Trust called Sounds of Our Shores:-

What does the UK coastline sound like during the summer of 2015? What are the distinctive sounds of Scottish estuaries, Cornish beaches, the Pembrokeshire coast or a busy seafront? In what ways do these sounds fascinate us, move us or seem important to us?

Sounds of our Shores is a community-led, interactive soundmap which asks members of the public to upload their favourite seaside sounds and help build a permanent digital resource of UK coastal recordings.

If you are near the coast in the UK and fancy contributing to this sound archive just go to the website and read the simple instructions – you can contribute as many recordings as you like, but I think they want something more than just waves crashing on a beach or seagulls screeching, so try to be creative.  I happened to be on the stern of HMS Warrior when the America’s Cup boats left Portsmouth Harbour a few weeks ago and caught the vague sound of people as they watched it happen.  It’s quite indistinct, except for a woman saying “Pretty good init.  Really impressive wan’t it….all come past us like that…” (from about 1.15), you can hear the whole thing here.

Children of the Stones

Children of the Stones is one of those rare children’s television series whose reputation has given it a cult attraction over the years, largely due to the disturbing impression it left on those who were lucky enough to see it when it was first broadcast.Children of the StonesI am not quite old enough to have seen it in 1977 (well I was, but it might have been a bit too scary for me then!).  It is one of a series of programmes from the late seventies and early eighties which hold a strange fascination for people who, like me, crave that rare strata of storytelling which incorporates intelligent ideas with weird elements.

I have just received the DVD in the post and although I have only seen the first few episodes, it is certainly living up to its reputation.  The themes and ominous mood of the series bring to mind a plethora of other films, directly and indirectly; from Val Lewton’s ‘The Cat People‘, through to ‘The Village of the Damned‘, ‘Quatermass and The Pit‘ and ‘The Wicker Man‘.

The soundtrack is quite unique and unnerving by itself and reminds me of the strange choral sounds which arise in ‘Invaders From Mars‘ when the holes appear in the sandpit, but it is far more guttural and Pagan sounding.

The story (created for the series by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray) is certainly not dumbed down for its target audience – if only more children’s television series were brave enough to stretch the minds of its viewers.  Supported by an excellent script, great camera work and classic 70’s acting which all adds to its strangeness and to what made it so memorable at the time and what still makes it so appealing today.

The series was filmed in and around the Avebury stone circle (renamed as Millbury) as well as the HTV Bristol Studio.  From what I can gather so far, it draws on myths and legends, occultism, Ley lines, magnetism, Paganism and the eternal tension between science (rationalism) and folklore (superstition).AERIALS 2002 PIC DAVE EVANS 1.6.02It is only seven short episodes long (about 25 minutes each) yet it has not been repeated on British television since its second showing in 1978.  It is supposedly the one of the scariest children’s programme ever screened and today actually carries the unusually high 12 certificate on the DVD.  It was released as a book  in 1977, and more recently a follow-up book called Return to the Stones (also by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray) was also published (in 2012).

'Children of the Stones' book version

In a way it deserves to be remade, but on the other hand I think it would be a wrong move – we seem to have become far too superficial in our tastes (and rational thought has oppressed our folk memory); at the same time we are usually fed simple stories as if we are unable to process complex plots.  Not only that but so many great films have been remade and ruined (basically they’ve been dumbed down!) – ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ is a perfect example!  ‘Quatermass and The Pit’ is another fantastic story which deserves a good remake, but I’m sure the multiple layers of ideas would be stripped out and it would end up as a simple horror (horror in the modern sense – gore over mood).

If you are at all interested in strange goings on and atmospheric storytelling then ‘Children of the Stones’ is well worth a look!

“Happy day!”

Abstract Realities by Serge Najjar

I love architecture and I love photography and it is great to see these two art forms coming together and creating really striking images.
Yes, the architecture is already there, a space filling physical object which can be walked around and should, of course, be experienced first hand; but what sometimes makes a particular building or place somewhere that people want to visit can be down to the eye of the photographer.  A good photograph shows us what a thousand bad ones fail to show – the beauty, symmetry, elegance or humour of a place and it’s people.
The photo’s in the series ‘Abstract Realities’ by Serge Najjar (of Beirut, Lebanon) do just this.  They highlight the repetitive patterns and angles of the architecture and also feature a person, to give both scale and often light relief from the austerity of the geometric lines.
Here a few words by Serge Najjar on his LensCulture page:-

Every Saturday I drive my car towards a destination still unknown and guide myself by my instinct, by light and by whatever attracts my eye. This is when I stop, position myself and wait for something to happen.

Abstract Realities 1Abstract Realities 3Abstract Realities 2Abstract Realities 4 Abstract Realities 5Abstract Realities 6 Abstract Realities 7Abstract Realities 8Abstract Realities 9Abstract Realities 10

Cross Rail, London

Finally, it’s happened.  At last, an engineering triumph to be proud of – an epic feat of engineering which can be compared to the marvels of the original the Industrial Revolution, in the country which gave birth to modern world – Great Britain (can you guess I’m British?).

I have been lamenting the lack of vision and what you can only be described as ‘greatness’ of achievement in construction and engineering for a long time.  Our touch-screen, nano-technology world is astounding in many ways, and a lot of the things dreamed of by previous generations have become reality – quite literally the future is now.  Which is all well and good – but it doesn’t provide a sense of awe, it doesn’t make your mouth drop open and go ‘wow’.

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), Frank Whittle (1907-1996), John Harrison (1693-1776) Alan Turing (1912-1954), Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) – and the list goes on!  All great names who changed the world with their leaps of imagination and dogged determination.  The subject of this article may not have one particular name to highlight (a whole range of architectural firms are involved in the new and re-modeled stations, but I cannot find a name for the design of the tunnel and the overall project), but, like Bazalgette, we are heading beneath the streets of London.

Cross Rail is a truly epic undertaking, creating 42Km of new tunnels under the capital; and what is so encouraging about this new type of construction is that the whole process has been thought through from beginning to end – for example, the vast amounts of spoil which have been generated has not just been dumped somewhere, it has been used to create a new 1,500 acre RSPB nature reserve at Wallasea Island in Essex.  Engineering with the environment in mind is engineering at it’s best.

Interestingly, although the building of the route has finally happened in the 21st century, it was actually proposed in the 19th and again in the 20th century (see here for more info on that).

Here are some photos, and here you can see videos of the construction on the Cross Rail YouTube page:-

Crossrail Tunnel Boring MachineCrossrail Shaft CrossrailCrossrail breakthrough Crossrail Full WidthCrossrail Route Map Geographic OutlineTo give some idea of the scale of this project here are a few fact from the Cross Rail website (edited from, here):-

General Info

  • Crossrail is Europe’s largest construction project – work started in May 2009 and there have been over 10,000 people working across over 40 construction sites.
  • Over 62 million working hours have been completed on the Crossrail project so far.
  • Crossrail will transform rail transport in London, increasing capacity by 10%, supporting regeneration and cutting journey times across the city.
  • The Crossrail route will run over 100km from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels under central London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.
  • There will be 40 Crossrail stations including 10 new stations at Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House, Woolwich and Abbey Wood.
  • Crossrail will bring an extra 1.5 million people to within 45 minutes of central London and will link London’s key employment, leisure and business districts – Heathrow, West End, the City, Docklands – enabling further economic development.
  • The first Crossrail services through central London will start in late 2018 – an estimated 200 million annual passengers will use Crossrail.

Tunneling

  • A total of eight tunnelling machines are being used to construct the new rail tunnels under London. Tunnelling is now complete.
  • The tunnelling machines in the west were called Phyllis and Ada and have completed their journeys, constructing 6.8km of tunnel each between Royal Oak to Farringdon.  In the east they were called Elizabeth and Victoria and were constructing new tunnels between Limmo Peninsular in Canning Town, and Farringdon.  In south-east London the machines’ names were Sophia and Mary and have completed their 2.9km drives from Plumstead to North Woolwich.  The tunnel boring machines Jessica and Ellie have completed their 2.7km tunnel drives from Pudding Mill Lane portal near Stratford to Stepney Green.  The tunnelling machines Jessica and Ellie have also completed their second tunnel drives – a 900 metre drive from Limmo Peninsual in Canning Town and Victoria Dock Portal.
  • Each tunnelling machine is a 1,000 tonne, 150 metres long underground factory with 20 person ‘tunnel gangs’ working in shifts.
  • At peak, the tunnelling machines aim for around 100 metres of tunnelling progress per week – as the tunnelling machines move forward, precast concrete segments are built in rings behind – 250,000 tunnel segments will be used to line the 42 kilometres of tunnels.
  • 4.5 million tonnes of excavated material from the tunnels will be shipped to Wallasea Island in Essex where it will be used to create a new 1,500 acre RSPB nature reserve.

Jobs

  • Over the course of the project, we expect there to be at least 75,000 opportunities for businesses, generating enough work to support the equivalent of 55,000 full time jobs.
  • The delivery of Crossrail will create thousands of business and job opportunities including 400 apprenticeships. Over 350 apprenticeships have already been created on the project to date.

Sustainability

  • Contractors across the project are exceeding recycling targets with more than 92 per cent of demolition and construction waste beneficially reused.
  • More than 98 per cent of excavated material recycled with the vast majority being used to create to a RSPB nature reserve at Wallasea Island in Essex.
  • Development of a new Building Research Establishment Environment Assessment method (BREEAM) for evaluating the environmental performance of new below ground Crossrail stations.
  • Crossrail rolling stock procurement includes requirements relating to regenerative braking, energy consumption and weight limits.

Surprisingly, the whole project is on time and on budget – such a rare thing!

All in all, it is a truly epic undertaking, and one that our Victorian predecessors would be proud of.