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In a strange way the magazines, which were there to spread the ‘word’ of Science Fiction were superseded by the images they used to illustrate the text.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

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.

Lost Knowledge of the Ancients

I know – it sounds like the title of an Erich von Daniken book; but I’m not about to make fanciful claims about the interstellar origins of civilisation, this is far more interesting because it is based on actual scientific inquiry.

The national health service is prominently in the headlines at the moment while it is used as a political football, with all parties claiming to be its saviour.  Rather than point scoring politicians, some of the focus should really be on the incredible work that is done behind the scenes to create the medicines we rely on for our exceptional level of health.  No one now remembers a time before antibiotics and how many died from what are now easily curable problems, let alone the physical pain that many people had to simply put up with.

Being able to cure the majority of ailments has for a long time been taken for granted. I am not a student of medicine but before our golden era of medicine it appears that we had to rely on herbs and/or magic, if you were lucky!  Otherwise you might have to risk a concoction created by a quack-doctor, simply because you couldn’t afford a real doctor.

Much of what was administered did nothing to cure the problems, and if the patient survived is was more likely due to luck than any form of healing properties of the medicine. Although we can now see how misguided much of medicine used to be we should not dismiss out of hand the endeavors to find cures before modern scientific analysis.

There has long been a snootiness from the scientific community towards what has been termed ‘alternative medicine’, but surely a scientist should be open to alternatives until they are proven or diss-proven.  The following example, from the University of Nottingham, is a case in point:- AncientBiotics – A Medieval Remedy for Modern Day Superbugs?  Bald's Leechbook - example of textThis is the story of a 10th century medical text from the British Library called ‘Bald’s Leechbook‘, which describes a remedy for eye infections, but has found to kill the notorious MRSA superbug.  The text reads:-

“Work and eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with a leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night-time apply with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.”

Translated by Dr Christina Lee and tested at the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences by Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, the astonishing antibacterial qualities of this ancient mixture is as efficient (about 90%) as modern antibiotics.  The next conundrum is to find out exactly how and why it works!

This is just one example of what may be lost if we do not seriously investigate ancient texts.  Yes, much of it probably is nonsense – but what about the knowledge we may lose through our own arrogance, it is all too easy to dismiss the investigations of the ancient world as ignorant fumblings.

We do not know everything and with our over reliance on antibiotics and the increasing resistance to it’s effects, this may be a very good time indeed to investigate the ‘alternatives’ more thoroughly.

The Art of Reading

women-dress-reading-books-turkish-nail-polishMost people take reading for granted and much of the text we read has changed format over the past few decades from analogue sources to become largely electronic in form.  This of course is fine for the majority of what we read, because a vast amount of it is at best work related or instructional, and if not then it’s usually inconsequential chatter.  But what about reading for pleasure or for proper learning?

I can see the advantages of reading via an e-book (particularly the space saving aspect and the instant access to what you are searching for) but this convenience has not persuaded me to exchange printed words for e-ink.  Part of the pleasure for me is in the connection to the physical page, it’s natural feel and warmth, a book has a physical presence, it feels like a body of work, rather than an anonymous block of plastic and the cold glow of a screen – simply put, you cannot snuggle up with a computer, can you!

With this in mind it was interesting to read recently that the format we read on significantly affects how well we absorb what we are reading.  Apparently we tend to skim read the digital, whereas we are more inclined to mentally and emotionally connect with the analogue – it is nice sometimes to find that what you instinctively feel is actually supported by a range of learned studies.

Ironically it was on the digitally published treehugger.com website that I found an article by Katherine Martinko called Why You Should Read More Paper Books This Year which summarises the issue quite nicely (I have reproduced it below).

E-readers are undeniably practical, but science has weighed in on the debate and come up with a surprisingly traditional conclusion.

As life moves faster and faster, there is a growing desire to slow things down. This is reflected in the burgeoning “slow” movements, in which people purposely take time to complete tasks that could otherwise be done faster. Interest is increasing in activities such as knitting, cooking the “slow” way, baking bread, engaging in slow travel, and shopping for “slow” fashion.

There is even a “slow reading” movement, which advocates regaining the ability to enjoy an old-fashioned paper book for long periods of time without the distractions of the digital world. Some people have even started book clubs where they get together to read in silence, phones turned off.

You may think it strange to place such priority on a mere material, but these slow readers realize something that many others don’t – that reading paper books has real benefits, supported by a number of studies, that e-readers simply cannot match, despite their undeniable practicality.

Readers absorb less on Kindles and iPads than when they read on paper.

According to a study from Norway’s Stavanger University, lead researcher Anne Mangen says:

“The haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”When 72 Norwegian tenth-graders were given a text to read either as a PDF or as a printed document, followed by a comprehension test, the “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension tests than students who read the texts digitally.”

The Wall Street Journal reported a 2007 study of 100 people that found that multimedia presentations using a mixture of words, sounds, and moving images resulted in lower retention levels than when the audience read a plain text version, minus all the fancy so-called comprehension aids.

Reading on paper reinforces a skill that must be practiced in order not to be lost.

We have become so accustomed to reading sentences accompanied by links and colourful advertisements that it’s actually difficult to follow the long and often meandering progress of literary sentences.

Screens have changed the way in which we read. Barraged by information and in a perpetual hurry, most of us read, without even realizing it, in an “F” pattern – scanning across the top line of text, but then down the left side of the screen and only partly across the other lines, searching for important words and headlines.

Slow reading is exercise for your brain.

Unless we actively pursue the act of reading as it used to be done, we risk losing our ability to enjoy it – and there are repercussions for that, including greater stress, poorer mental agility later in life, reduced ability to concentrate, and less empathy.

Kids do better in school when firmly grounded in reading, and that is a lifestyle habit that is seriously influenced by parental guidance and example. A 1997 study published in Developmental Psychology found that reading ability in first grade is closely linked to academic achievement in grade eleven – all the more reason to have paper books lying around the house as a tangible reminder to keep reading.

Slow-reading advocates recommend setting aside 30-45 minutes per day to read a book, much in the same way you’d dedicate time toward regular exercise. Make a date for yourself with a paperback, and think of it as a workout for your brain. It will calm you before bed in a way that an e-reader screen cannot, and you will experience a real improvement in your ability to get through a novel, especially if you haven’t done it in a while.

Perhaps you can make it a personal challenge for 2015 to read more than one book, which is what 25 percent of the U.S. population failed to do last year.

The Tarn by Hugh Walpole

Hugh WalpoleSo, who was Hugh Walpole?

Well, apparently he was a hugely successful, well regarded and extremely popular author in the 1920’s and 30’s!  Never heard of him?  Nor had I until I was browsing the shelves in Waterstones a couple of months ago – I came across a collection of his supernatural tales (published by Tartarus Press).  Being a huge fan the uncanny tale I was interested to find out more about him.

Of course my first recourse (and the usual lazy one) was to refer to Wikipedia, which actually sums him up quite nicely in the first paragraph:-

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE (13 March 1884 – 1 June 1941) was a New Zealand-born English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high-profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large readership in the United Kingdom and North America. He was a best-selling author in the 1920s and 1930s, but his works have been neglected since his death.

I’m fascinated by forgotten authors and a champion of the unjustly maligned – why should Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf (all who recognised Walpole’s scope and ability) be remembered, but not Hugh Walpole?

It was while I was making my way through ‘The Weird(which I highly recommend, by the way – it also includes ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood, which I reviewed a while back) when I came across the very short story ‘The Tarn’.

The story involves two characters of quite different temperament, who used to be friends – well, one of them still thinks they are friends, the other one hates him but keeps it very well hidden.  This suppressed tension is wonderfully realised and the writhing hatred in one of the men is so perfectly described that it almost made me laugh with appreciation.  It is the way Walpole expresses how someone can, from very little idiosyncrasies, build them into an all-consuming hatred.

The story ends badly for both men (I won’t tell you how, I don’t want to spoil it!), but it is the way the last death happens which makes this a suitably weird story – was it something inexplicable, or was it simply a thing of the mind.

Apart from the writing, it is the ambiguity of the ending which makes this story stand out and I’m hoping to find similar inventiveness when I read more of Hugh Walpole’s supernatural short stories.

Darkside by Tom Stoppard

Having recently come back from a lovely long holiday I was wondering what on earth to write about for this Monday’s blog posting.  As luck would have it I stumbled across an article on the BBC website about a new radio play by Tom Stoppard which is based on the classic 1973 album – The Dark Side Of The Moon.

The Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink FloydNot having listened to the album for many years I decided to re-acquaint myself with it by playing my old vinyl copy.  It has been many more years since I’d heard it on this format and I have to say it sounded fantastic, much better than the CD (or was that just my romantic imagining).

What is different about this posting is that it is not a review (the play has not been aired yet) but a pre-emptive strike, a notification of an imminent arrival.

Darkside (written by the playwright Tom Stoppard) is  a dramatic re-imagining of the themes running through the album – so I would imagine that greed, madness and death will all be evident.  It is also a celebration of the album’s 40th anniversary.

Tom Stoppard is of course no stranger to dark themes, having worked on the script for Terry Gilliam’s stunning Brazil in the 80’s.  So this could prove to be a very interesting experiment.

It is not meant to be a direct retelling of the album as a play, it is supposed to be a new work which uses the music as structure and background to the events in the story.  How well this works will be interesting to find out.

Darkside

Strangely for a radio play it has a video trailer (a still from it can be seen above).  It was created by Aardman animations and what is immediately striking about it is how un-Aardman it looks.  There are elements of Manga, but what is more directly Floydian is it’s similarity to Storm Thorgerson‘s Hipgnosis album cover designs.

The radio play is due to be aired tonight (Bank Holiday Monday, 26th August 2013) on BBC Radio 2 at 22.00 (UK time).

If it works well I would love to see the play fully animated – maybe that is already on the cards considering that Aardman were commissioned to do the trailer – we shall see…!

The End of The World?

With a giant meteor 150 foot wide (or 45 meters) narrowly missing the earth by 17,200 miles (or 27,000 kilometres) and another one exploding over the Ural Mountains in Russia (shattering windows and injuring over 400 people), it makes us realise how utterly insignificant this little planet is in the vastness of space.  At the same time it also makes us realise just how miraculous our very existence and continued survival is, surrounded by the indifferent universe.

The Big Eye by Max EhrlichIt reminded me of a book I read recently.  I picked it up last year for one pound and fifty pence at the Southbank book market under Waterloo Bridge, just in front of the BFI Southbank Cinema.  The book was called The Big Eye by Max Ehrlich, and I bought it a) because I’d never heard of it before, b) I liked the cover (it looked like a bit of pulp science fiction from the 50’s), and c) it was only one pound fifty!

I have a theory that many good books get lost.  Due to the vast number of books published each year I’m certain that many either do not find their audience or simply get forgotten in the rush for the next new thing.  This book appears to be one of the forgotten ones, it’s not perfect by any means but as an ‘end-of-the-world by giant meteor’ scenario goes, it is quite interesting.  The population come to terms with their inevitable demise rather than the now predictable movie sci-fi solution of saving themselves by blasting the thing out of existence.

The story begins with quite another threat to the human race – that of nuclear war.  The book was originally published in 1949 (and first published in 1951 in the UK – my copy was published by Boardman Books in 1954) and it is set in the early 60’s.  The cold war obviously made this eventuality quite plausible.  I believe that I’m in the last generation to feel the threat of all-out nuclear holocaust, when I was young it was still a very real possibility.  I remember hearing about ‘Threads’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and the ‘Protect and Survive‘ Public Information Films, all of which heightened the fear of nuclear war.

The imminent threat of the giant meteor heading towards the earth makes the warmongering countries realise how futile their posturing is in the face of complete annihilation from outer space and an era of peace begins, unlike any other in the history of mankind.  The date for the end of the world is set for Christmas Day 1962 (just imagine, the world would only ever know the Beatles for ‘Love Me Do’).

I wont give away the ending – is the earth smashed to smithereens, is it saved, or is there a ‘Day The Earth Caught Fire’-like ending?  I’ll let you find out…!