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In a strange way the magazines, which were there to spread the ‘word’ of Science Fiction were superseded by the images they used to illustrate the text.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:-

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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!”

Days Of Fear and Wonder – A Celebration of Science Fiction at the BFI

We are living in an era of astounding possibilities, in many ways the very futures that science fiction always dreamt of.  Yes, the genre has changed in many ways since it’s earliest incarnations in the minds of Jules Verne and HG Wells, but essentially it has retained the same core concept – that of extrapolating our deepest fears as well as our idealised hopes for the future of both the individual and the whole of human society.
imageIt was no coincidence that the scientific romance (or what became known as science fiction) appeared during the Victorian era, when the dirt and disease which spread with the cities accompayning industrialisation, as well as the awe-inspiring technical wonders of the industrial revolution itself, were strikingly evident and of serious social and political concern.  The fantastical possibilities that the swift technological advances implied for both the good and the detriment of ordinary people became a fertile ground for the imaginative author.  Also, by the end of the 19th century the political unrest, particularly across Europe, spawned ‘invasion’ novels and the idea that technology for all it’s wonders could easily be turned against us, whether by colonising Martians or our own kind.image
The moving image was one of the many astounding innovations of that productive era.  Although we are no longer shocked to the point of dodging the approach of a train arriving at a station, film still has the power to captivate our imaginations, move our emotions or shock our senses.  It was partly because of this that even from the early days of cinema, science fiction was felt to be a natural subject for this futuristic medium and most of our preconceptions of the genre were in evidence from the beginning – from Georges Melies ‘A Trip To The Moon‘ (1902) and his many other fantastical creations, to the ever popular mad-scientist ‘Frankenstein’ (1910) – (by the way, the formation of the monster in this film is quite grotesque!), to our fascination with Martians and not to mention wacky futurist costumes and sets in ‘Aelita:Queen of Mars’ (1924), to time out of context in ‘The Lost World’ (1925), or the ultimate dystopian/utopian/saintly girl/evil robot/future city/slave to the machine/freedom fighting/love story of them all ‘Metropolis’ (1927).
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The fascination that film makers had with science fiction continued with the advent of sound and the development of what became known as special effects, which made even more visually possible. I wont go into the many variations of the genre which proliferated throughout the decades (although here’s a thorough list), but there has, on the whole, been a healthy mix of the deeply thought provoking and the entertainingly trashy.
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The BFI are scanning the decades with a range of classic science fiction films between October and December 2014 – Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder.  If you can’t actually make it to London (or a few other places around the UK) to see the films on the big screen, it would definitely be worth re-assessing your ideas of what science fiction can be by checking out at least a few of these films.

wpid-brazil.jpgFor some reason the general idea of what a science fiction film is seems to have changed over the last couple of decades (unless I am missing some great films) – it has lost its insight into contemporary issues, the mystery of discovering worlds beyond our own, or the thrill and wonder of technologies just out of reach. It has become a by-word for little more than an action movie in space or a horror movie in space. Of course they can be both of these, but they could also be so much more. Where are our own Quatermass equivalents?

I’m not calling for remakes – look at the vacuous remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still for instance! But I believe we would all benefit from more involved story lines than the recurring ‘kill the ugly alien monster’ one.  Hopefully this season will remind film makers of the infinite possibilities inherent in the limitless realms of thoughtful science fiction.

By the way, watch the trailer – how many have you seen?
imageHere’s a list of some of the films that will be on show, I’ve highlighted some of my favourites.  I think they are also showing The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) an excellent slice of British atomic sci-fi, directed by the under-appreciated Val Guest.  Although they do include ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ I would also have shown Jack Arnold’s superior The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – a stunning piece of existential Sci-Fi and a lot less laborious than another memorable existential genre film, the equally stunning Russian film Solaris (1972).  Another recommendation is Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), which is still probably one of the best introductions to intelligent Science Fiction.  I don’t think these are on the list, which is a shame, but I might be wrong!:-

Metropolis (1927), William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1961), Jean-Luc Godard‘s New Wave offering Alphaville (1965), Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Planet of the Apes (1968), George Miller’s Mad Max II: Road Warrior (1981), Terry Gilliam’s surreal masterpiece Brazil (1985) and the dystopian vision from Margaret Atwood’s novel in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990).  The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), starring Rock Hudson, David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Michel Gondry’s emotive Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).  A Message From Mars (1913), Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (1953), Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Steven Spielberg’s chilling Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); there will be an Extended Run of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and screenings of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010).

Which would you choose and which have they missed out…?

The Small World of Sammy Lee (OST) by Kenny Graham

A few things I know nothing about:- The Small World Of Sammy Lee, British Jazz, Soho in the 60’s, Kenny Graham.

What little I do know about:- Anthony Newley, London, British Films, Jazz (but only in general – well, essentially the popular American bits).

What I now know:- British Jazz is very different from American Jazz (and I like it too), I need to see this film.

Small World Of Sammy Lee - album cover artThis was supposed to be a review of sorts about the latest release from Trunk Records, but I really don’t feel qualified in terms of my knowledge of British Jazz to do that, so this posting is more a way of highlighting a discovery than a proper critique.

Trunk Records specialize in releasing for the first time, or re-releasing, forgotten music in all its retro forms – from old Library Music discs, the music to half-remembered children’s TV series, weird folk recordings, a few naughty things and the soundtracks to films which were not big enough to get a soundtrack album at the time.  For anyone bored of shiny pop and looking for something a little different (or a lot different, for that matter!) this is an absolute godsend!

The forgotten film this time is The Small World Of Sammy Lee.  It was Anthony Newley’s first film lead and is a story about a nightclub compère, Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman (Anthony Newley), who gets seriously into debt and has to quickly find the money to pay off the bookies.  It was filmed in and around the sleazy streets of Soho in the early 60’s and sounds like a real-time capsule of a movie.  I must see it!

So, to the brand new soundtrack album to a 50 year old film – after finally tracking down the original master tapes (through Kenny Graham’s oblivious daughter, I believe) we can hear the music which was especially composed for the film by one of the UK’s premier exponents and promoters of modern jazz throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and beyond. The music generally has a plaintive mood about it, but is at turns wistful (Soho At Dawn), playful (The Hustling Starts), cool (Four O’Clock Hop), swinging (Dash To Bellman’s) and groovy (Thoughts At Home).

There is no Wikipedia entry for Kenny Graham, which is a real shame – from the evidence of this album of previously unreleased music he deserves to be much better known, and hopefully, with the increasing interest in British Jazz, he soon will be.

Postscript:- Allmusic mentions Kenny Graham, and there is a decent obituary in The Independent newspaper from 1997.  If you would like more of Kenny Graham’s music try his re-interpretation and response to Moondog’s music – Moondog and Suncat Suites.  And if you don’t know Moondog (also known as Viking of 6th Avenue) then check him out too – you’ll never know where it’ll lead!

Boat Buildings

When I was a lot younger I remember watching the 1935 version of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield – apart from W.C. Fields and the dotty, but loveable, Mr. Dick (played by Lennox Pawle) the one thing that stuck in my mind above all was Peggotty’s house on the seashore, which was constructed from an up-turned boat.  It felt so warm and snug against the stormy weather outside – I really wanted one (and I probably still do!).

The only picture I can find of this boat-house is on another wordpress blog called Paradise Leased, about the architecture and people of old Hollywood.  Apparently the boat-house ‘prop’ was moved and became the home of Mr. R.H. Stiles (pictured below), who intended to turn it into a seafood restaurant – whether he did or not, I really don’t know.Peggotty's House RelocatedThere are similar up-turned boats used as sheds and dotted around The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeast coast of England (see below).Boatshed near Lindisfarne

But the main reason for this posting is to highlight how this quirky and quite Victorian-looking interpretation of recycling has been updated and turned into a very trendy winery in Mexico.

It is featured on the ever-bountiful designboom website.  The architecture uses discarded boats from a nearby port to form the ceiling and walls and is a wonderfully practical way to reclaim wood.  Not only do we get to see the curvacious lines which are usually submerged under water but, by the very nature of it’s original purpose, the underside of a boat is just as effective as the upside of a building.  The fact that there has been very little re-processing involved in changing one use to another is also a huge positive in environmental stakes.  Although the architect is not mentioned (which is a real shame!) hopefully this ingenious and elegant re-interpretation will inspire other architects to think a little differently about the materials they use.

Vena Cava Winery in La Villa del Valle 1

Vena Cava Winery in La Villa del Valle 2

Vena Cava Winery in La Villa del Valle 3

Vena Cava Winery in La Villa del Valle 4

Die Nibelungen, pt.2 – Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge)

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” – this famous line written by the great Billy Wilder and spoken by Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard could have been written about Die Nibelungen, but probably not quite in the way it was meant.  This film is full of striking faces, beautiful and horrible – Norma had a point.

AtillaSo, I have finally seen the second part of Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen, almost a year after seeing and being completely floored the first part (read my review here).  Yes, it’s taken me that long to get over it (although being in the right mood is a major factor when deciding to watch a two-hour and more silent movie).  Another factor was that I did not believe that it could possibly live up to the power of the first installment – and in many ways it didn’t, yet it is still a majestic and truly great film.

Where the first part was saturated with an air of mysticism and littered with stunning visual effects, the second part was far more earthy, metaphorically and literally (it even featured a handful of earth that was soaked in the blood of Siegfried).  This film also hinges on honour and the loss of honour if you do not keep your word – be careful of the oaths you take and what you swear to do.

The thrust of this film is evident in the title – it is about Kriemhild’s obsession with avenging the death of Siegfried and her single-minded pursuit of revenge with complete disregard for the consequences to both her subjects and all those close to her.  In one scene, the fact that she was so blind to anything but Siegfried is emphasised by Kriemhild going to the handful of blood soaked earth, rather than her own crying child.

The film had the feeling of a Greek tragedy, as though Kriemhild was driven by the gods – yet the god’s played no part in this story.  She was driven by her own desire for revenge alone.  Throughout the film Kriemhild was imperious and aloof, even when marrying the mighty but squalid Attila the Hun (pictued above) – she married him purely to use his love to further her own warped scheme.KriemhildThe story descends into battles and destruction on all sides and highlights the pointlessness of hate and the self-destructiveness in which ‘an eye for and eye’ approach inevitably results.

As with the previous movie Kriemhild’s Revenge was also bathed in an orange glow and had similarly striking sets.  The decoration of the scenery and the clothes were both medieval and geometrically modern for 1924, which gives the film a timelessness and succeeds, as Fritz lang intended, in distancing itself from the Wagnerian model.

It is understandable why the first film was such a wide-reaching success at the time of release and also why it was re-editied and revised throughout the 20’s and 30’s (for both regional distribution reasons and as an example of Germanic heroism for the Nazis to venerate).  It is also understandable why the second film did not do so well (in comparison to the first film it does not shine quite so brightly).  But if we were only left with the second film it would still be classed as a great piece of work – thankfully we have both and the condition of the film, after extensive research and restoration, is utterly stunning.

Watch this film – but watch part 1 first!

Blackout – Channel 4 Tonight

BlackoutPre-empting a programme may not be such a wise thing to do.  Having previously suggested that ‘Darkside’ could be an interesting experiment, a new combination of story and music – then actually listening to it and being thoroughly disappointed by its earnest but aimless rambling.  Maybe I should learn from my mistakes!

However, this time the programme is not the tired imagination of an aging playwright, weaving his words through a classic album.  It’s a ‘what if’ scenario which is not as far-fetched from reality as it first may sound.  What if the UK was subject to a major cyber attack which completely cripples the national grid for a week?

Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness.

The programme is a feature-length one-off called Blackout and is on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight (Monday 9th september 2013).  If this works well it could effectively highlight two of the big rarely acknowledged fears of modern times – our complete reliance on both the internet and electricity.

We flick switches everyday without the slightest thought for where the power comes from, or what may happen if the power fails.  And with so much of our lives online, exactly how exposed are we to the threat of cyber attack and what would be the consequences if the network crashed?

Both of these situations are closer than we I think most people realise.  For instance, California has repeatedly suffered from loss of power to wide areas of the state on an almost annual basis for at least a decade and the demand for electricity worldwide is increasing exponentially.  As for the internet – what isn’t online?  Health and security services, food distribution, banking, etc. – but if it breaks, or is broken for any reason (by a country, an orginisation or an individual) we would soon find out how reliant we all are on it.

So, how would we cope?  Would the country descend into anarchy, reminiscent of the appalling scenes of mob rule in London 2011?  Or would we just get on with things and work our way though it?  I’m hoping it would be the latter, but I imagine the programme will focus on the anarchy.