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In a strange way the magazines, which were there to spread the ‘word’ of Science Fiction were superseded by the images they used to illustrate the text.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

Old Science Fiction, or Yesterday’s Tomorrows

Here’s my first Reblog and I’m partly doing it as a personal aide memoire – I’ve read a few Victorian Science Fiction novels (I grew up on Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells!) and I’ve always wanted to explore more, so this might prove to be a good starting point…

I’ve been trying to think of old Science Fiction stories I’ve already read and one that came to mind is After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies, which is probably one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels.  The first half of the book deals with what happens to England after an undisclosed disaster wipes out most of the population and how the natural world gradually reclaims the streets and buildings of a once mighty city.  It is wonderfully descriptive of natural processes and how quickly the edifice of man’s dominance over the natural world is subsumed by the wild and is altogether quite believable.  His eloquence is understandable as Jefferies was an essayist on rural life and natural history.  The second half of the book is unfortunately quite dull – it involves a small tribal community set up with a Medieval style hierarchy and is really not worth reading at all (just read the first section, that is worth reading!).

two men enter . . .

A friend recently directed me to this post, which is a survey of 19th and early 20th century science fiction that came out of a conference discussion of the same (it actually extends a bit before and Victoria and after Edward, but categorizing based on monarchs’ names sounds legit and scholarly or whatever).  As someone who has studied and taught the history of the genre, I was interested in what the list compilers/panelists included.  It’s a solid list, to be sure.  And, as expected and acknowledged by the authors/participants, the list is dominated by a few usual suspects with pretty homogeneous backgrounds.  Partial list below the cut (the author, David Malki, has linked to online texts where available):

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Invaders From Mars (1953)

I have always had a love of past visions of the future or the fantastic – not so much for how far off the mark they were, but for the vision and sheer imagination involved in creating something that could be, if things were not quite as they are.

As the inherent possibilities for illusion on film were discovered it was soon realised that cinema was a perfect vehicle for the new genre of Science Fiction, or Scientific Romance as it was first called.  Science Fiction coalesced in the late 19th century through the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and it was a couple of stories by these two writers that became the source material for one of the earliest science fiction films – Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon) by Georges Méliès.  For the next fifty years there were sporadic films with Science Fiction themes but the first and greatest era of the Science Fiction on film happened during the 1950’s.  Some people suggest that it was a response to the Cold War – little green men from the red planet / the Reds from the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Or was it simply that film making became more liberated in the 1950’s, in terms of both the subject matter and who had access to making movies.  Maybe movies paralleled the rise of the teenager and mass-market appeal, were movies becoming more youth based – or were people simply wanting something less serious than a Crime Drama and more fantastical than yet another Western!

If I had to choose three films to represent the 1950’s Science Fiction boom they would have to be Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invaders From Mars (1953).  The first two films are still rightly classed as classic examples of the genre, the third is far more debatable.  I could have selected War Of The Worlds (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), It Came From Outer Space (1953), or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), all worthy contenders –  but I’m sticking with Invaders From Mars.  I like to back an underdog.

The film starts with a sub-War Of The Worlds style introduction, gazing out at the stars and planets before focusing in on a typical 1950’s American happy family – big house, smiling parents and little David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt), a freckled-faced mini-scientist with a telescope at the ready.  I don’t really want to give a step by step plot summary (you really should just watch the film) but I will need to give the main points as I go along.  Anyway, the boy wakes up and sees a UFO land behind a rise in the sandpits behind his house.  Although David doesn’t, we see the glowing green tip of the spaceship sink beneath the sand.  The father (Leif Erickson) goes to investigate but when he returns he is a changed man, moody, gruff and he has a strange mark on the back of his neck.  In these early stages of the film there are already two extremely striking images (one literally).

First is the sandpit, essentially the main set of the film – it rises slightly from the back of the house, is dotted with black tree trunks and has a simple wooden fence which follows the path up the rise then disappears into the sand (as do many of the characters).  Although the set is quite sparse it has an unsetteling quality, partly due to the strange forced perspective.  The fence and path (reminiscent of the scene when the somnambulist carries the girl off along the path in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is cleverly used to both lead the eye and suggest that something is not quite right about the sandpit.  The trees are used to conceal a few of the disappearances, adding to the mystery of what is out there.  I should also mention at this point the eerie choral waves that are heard as people approach the sandpit.  Once heard they are never forgotten and add a nightmare edge to proceedings.  Although credited to Raoul Kraushaar (who conducted the finished score) it was actually written by Mort Glickman who wrote the score for a huge list of low-budget movies in the 40’s and early 50’s, largely uncredited – Invaders From Mars was one of his last.  This choral passage has an interesting part to play in creating a dream-like feel – when it is first heard we assume that it is purely an effect to increase the tension, but later in the film David hears it and knows that something is wrong.  This creates a shift in perception, just like in a dream, of where the film, the story and reality cross paths.

It is the cleverness in the simplicity of the sandpit set that demonstrates the genius of William Cameron Menzies.  Although he was credited with the Production Design and Direction of this film he will be more remembered for his Production Design role.  Production Design did not exist as a separate job in the film industry until David O. Selznic issued a memo to everyone involved with Gone With the Wind (1939) stating that “Menzies is the final word” on the look of the film.  He deserves a posting all to himself – maybe another time.

The second aspect of this early sequence is less technical but completely emotive.  The kind, smiling father has been changed into a monster who lashes out and hits David to the floor with the back of his hand.  The shift in his character, rounded off by that whack and the image of the boy being knocked across the room has stuck with me since I first saw this film when I was little, and it still has, for me at least, an unnerving power even today.

Soon David’s mother (Hillary Brooke) is changed, as are a couple of Policemen, and when David goes to the Police Station he finds that even the Police Chief has that mysterious mark on the back of his neck and is acting oddly as well.  Strangely enough David is not believed by the grown-ups when he talks about flying saucers and people changing character, but eventually he is believed by Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) and Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz).

The Police Station set is another piece of minimalist surrealism – it consists of one long corridor with unusually high blank walls, a double door at one end with a policeman sitting at a high desk at the other.  The policeman’s desk also has two excessively large lamps on it.  The set is re-used as a laboratory, with different props and a lower ceiling, later in the film and is shot at a different angle to conceal the fact, but the re-use of the set only adds to the dreamlike nature of the story.

There are two versions of this film – the original American release and a slightly later British version with a few re-shoots to satisfy the British distributors.  This review concentrates on the British release version, largely because it is the one I know the best but I will compare it to the American version as well.  One of the changes made to the original film is during the observatory scene.  Essentially used a brief slow down of the action and as a quick explanation of where the invaders may have come from.  It is dealt with quite swiftly in the American version but is much longer in the British.  The longer version has models of various UFOs, a book of newspaper clippings of UFO sightings, and an illustration of a vegetated Martian surface.  The extra scenes were re-shot long after the filming had been completed – there are a few continuity inconsistencies, but they are minor and unless they are pointed out, generally go unnoticed.  That said, the British version does have the most ridiculous couple of lines in the whole film:-

Dr. Pat Blake – “What do you think it’s all about Stu?  What David thought it was?”

David – “A spaceship!”

Dr. Pat Blake – “From where?”

Dr. Stuart Kelston – pause “From outer-space.”

Maybe it is because I grew up with the British version but I do prefer it, this scene does go on a bit long but it gives the film a little more breathing space, a bit more science to the fiction before we are plunged back into the action, no matter how dubious that science is, and my goodness is it dubious – but Dr. Kelston is a scientist, so it must be true!

I also want to mention the background inside the observatory – in the American version it is a continuous blank yet vibrantly deep blue, this effect is disrupted in the extended version, but it is typical of the very particular use of colour in this film.  The original print was shot in SuperCineColor, one of the last films to be shot using this colour process which gave “an oddly striking look to the final print” (see CiniColor on Wikipedia), which unfortunately is only hinted at and needs a proper restoration to bring out.  The two versions of the film are available on a special 50th Anniversary DVD which unfortunately has not been restored, but due to its popularity we are apparently lucky to have it at all.  Most of the original prints have been worn out and poorly stored for decades.  The image has many lines and stratches and is overall a little too dark, as well as missing the vibrancy of the original print.  This film really needs saving, the best surviving print needs to found and a proper physical and digital restoration needs to be done before it gets completely beyond repair.  If the restoration of Forbidden Planet is anything to go by there are plenty of people who would appreciate a decent copy of this film – when released I was amazed to see Forbidden Planet in the HMV top 10 selling DVD’s that month!

After a military man gets sucked into the sand (another scene which sticks in the mind) the Army is called in and we see sporadic use of not very interesting stock footage of tank maneuvers.  Of course, watching this as a child it is not something that I noticed.  The film was independently made, hence the low-budget and was then taken up and distributed by 20th Century Fox – it is essentially a kids movie and apparently the film was well received at the time by its target audience.

It is over an hour into the film before we see anything of the aliens or their spaceship.  The first glimpse of their presence is when the army blast a hole in the ground and find a deserted tunnel, evidently bored by “some kind of ray”.  The walls of the tunnel are covered in 3000 blown up condoms, to give the effect of a melting ray – they originally tried balloons but they moved too much.  The effect of the ray gun, which is seen later on, was created by filming a bubbling saucepan of porridge, dyed red and lit with red lights to give the illusion of melting rock.

Another dreamlike aural effect is created by the sound of David’s voice repeatedly calling out “Colonel Fielding! Colonel Fielding!”, we rarely see him say the words but we hear his disembodied voice echoing down the tunnels over and over again.

We soon come into contact with the Mutants, part of an army of synthetic men created by the aliens.  Unfortunately they are annoyingly referred to as Mu-Tants throughout the film – I have no idea why, but it sounds silly.  The Mu-Tants are large bug-eyed men with three fat fingers on each hand.  They are all dressed in green velvet from heat to foot.  I think this was meant to be their skin but the zipper up the back gives the costume away a little.  Again this was something I either failed to notice, or refused to notice, when I was much younger – like many now ridiculous things, they were real enough to my youthful mind.

I have mentioned a few striking images from this film, but probably the one that has haunted me the most was that of the tentacled “alien intelligence”, essentially a green head in a glass sphere.  Sitting there silently gazing at the characters who appeared before it, indifferent to David MacLean as he beat the glass in anguish, the tentacles moving gently, the blood-shot eyes surveying him coldly and calmly.  Quoting from the booklet that comes with the DVD:-

Amazingly, this terrifying vision which scared the heck out of kids the world over was played by kindly midget Luce Potter, who star Jimmy Hunt [David] later remarked was a “neat little lady. She sat on a box with the bubble round her whole head.  She was just in her little street clothes, and all she did was move her eyes”

The inside of the spaceship is another testament to Menzies production design.  Again the sets are sparse, mainly blocks of colour and lighting, with a few objects set at strange angles and it really shows what can be done on a small budget if you have the flare and imagination to do it.  But the budgetary restrictions of the production are evident with the repeated use of a number of shots, both above and below ground – the Mu-Tants run through the same tunnel in the same way a couple of times. Also, when the army plant a ticking bomb in the spaceship everyone has three minutes to get out, but time does not seem to be linear in this film – the hand ticks past the same point over and over again extending the time beyond even the most extended count down on any other film.  Another repetition happens as the ship tries to escape the sandpit – the green glow breaks the crust of sand over and over again.  Is this all just a dream?

It is the end of the film where the two versions diverge significantly.  In the American version we see a strange montage of clips overlaying an extreme close up of David’s face as he runs away from the imminently exploding spaceship.  The ship explodes before it gets out of the sandpit and at the same time we hear a clap of thunder as David wakes up back in his bed.  He runs to his parents bedroom and realises that it was all just a dream – then his alarm goes off and he sees the ship land in the sandpit again.  Was it a dream, a recurring dream or a premonition.

The British version dispenses with the montage altogether and the notion that it was all just a dream.  The spaceship lifts off before exploding, then Dr. Blake reassures David that his parents will now be alright.  We then cut to David in his own bed with Dr. Blake and Dr. Kelston saying goodnight and “He’ll be safe now” before the film fades to a close.  It has a strangely abrupt ending which used to make me think that a bit was missing off the end, it wasn’t, but even this adds to the film’s feeling of being off-kilter and somewhat disjointed from the waking world.  It is a fittingly British ending – it is reminiscent of the whimsical Lewis Carroll-like day-dreaming, yet also has the dystopian fear element that is popular in British science fiction (think Quatermass and The Pit (1958 & 1967) and The Village of The Damned (1960)).

Although both version have their good points, I have to say that here again I prefer the British cut of the film.  I feel the original dream ending is a bit of a cop-out and the montage that leads up to it is too long.  That said, it does use previous footage in an imaginative way that, with the images going forwards and backwards and the endlessly ticking bomb, adds to the dreaminess of the film and sets things up for the dream ending.  The alternative version obviously suggest that the events in the film actually happened and the hallucinatory feel of the film could be attributed to the view-point of the child – the events are so out of the ordinary and as the whole film is shot from David’s perspective it could seem dream-like to a young boy.

On many levels it is a terrible film – the excessive use of stock footage, repeated shots,  the alien costumes zipped up the back and the acting is occasionally questionable (is it stylistic, expressionistic, or just average?).  It is well-known that Menzies was not a good director, but his production designs shine through on this movie as they did whenever he was visually involved.  The positives of this film far out-weigh the negatives – it is shot from a child’s perspective, has a fairytale quality enhanced by the colour process and repetitions, there are strange perspectives and deep angular shots, not to mention the dream/nightmare mood which permeates throughout.  All this adds to the appeal of a film which should not work.  In many cases it is where this film can be seen as wrong or cheap that injects it with a pervasive disorienting effect.  If you take this film as an example, you could say that perfection is undesirable – yes, perfection should be aimed for, but if it is achieved is the result just another bland film?  This film is far from bland and sticks in the mind long after it’s been seen – for this reason alone it deserves a proper restoration and elevation to the place it deserves with the great Science Fiction films of the 1950’s.

Exploring Space – A Ladybird ‘Achievements’ Book

There are certain things when growing up which linger subconsciously and influence your perception and decision-making throughout your adult life – it might be a piece of music, a person or experience, a book, a game or a toy.  It may well have been one, two, or all of these things which have combined to make us who we are.  The distance of time and the accumulation of experience have obscured the exact source of many of our ingrained likes and dislikes, it is the same for all of us and goes some way in creating the individuals we are.

One of the few influences I do remember from my childhood was a particular Ladybird book – the very copy of Exploring Space that I owned as a child is pictured on the left (minus its dust jacket, which disintegrated long before it was relegated to the attic from where I recovered it a few years ago).  I did have other ladybird books, but what they were I cannot now remember – it is this book which held words and images (particularly the images) which have stuck with me ever since.

Essentially it is the history, pre-history and the hope filled visions of future space flight and exploration from the perspective of 1964.  It not only relates the factual and theoretical, but also the dream-like and fantastical – I think that is why it had such a profound effect on my imagination.

It begins with Storybook Space-flight and one of the book’s strongest images – a man in a chair being taken to the moon by ten wild swans.  It was drawn by B. Knight and based on Francis Godwin’s book The Man In The Moone (probably written sometime in the 1620’s).  Other fantastical flights are also mentioned by Kepler and Jules Verne, but it is the image of the swans in flight which I remembered long after I could recall exactly where I’d seen it.

The book covers the evolution from fireworks to weaponry and mentions the destruction and loss of life, particularly in London, caused by Wernher von Braun’sexperimental work in Europe‘ with the V2, but also that he now helps the American’s plans to explore space.  The usefulness of satellites is also mentioned for weather watching and relaying radio waves around the globe and even television pictures.

A date which will go down in history books for a long time to come is October 4th 1957.  This was when the Russian scientists launched the first earth satellite.  it since been followed by many others, some carrying the first men into space.

This is quoted from the page called Round the Earth, yet nowhere in the book is Yuri Gagarin mentioned.  I can only assume it was a cold war influenced decision in 1964 not to trumpet the Soviet Union’s dominance of space exploration during the early years and America’s faltering start with the repeated failures associated with the Vanguard project.  In an attempt to balance the achievements between the two superpowers the first astronaut mentioned is John Glenn and his orbit of the Earth.  How strange it seems to us now that political sensibilities should impact on a child book, yet reminds us just how tense the situation used to be.  Back then the opposition was clear and well-defined, is was a physical place that we placed behind a wall, but knew it could destroy all of us.  Now our terror is everywhere and nowhere, as yet not so finite a threat, but sporadic and insidious, hiding in the shadows and waiting.

Among the many speculations were moon bases, stations in space, telescopes in orbit and finding life on Mars.  It wasn’t until 1976 and the Viking programme that a successful Mars landing was achieved and many of the Mars based fantasies were finally scuppered.  From the perspective of a mid 60’s Ladybird book the ‘patches and streaks of a blue-green colour‘ were probably not ‘some kind of vegetation‘ and that the famous ‘canals’ were an ‘interesting idea [that] is unlikely to be true‘ and probably not dug by some industrious Martian civilisation – what a shame.

After the moon landing in 1969 Ladybird re-issued the Exploring Space book as a Revised Edition by updating the ‘Journey to the Moon’ page and replacing ‘Target – the Moon’ with ‘Exploring the Moon’.  Some of the original drawing were also updated (by B. H.  Robinson) to look more like Apollo style rockets rather than those found in science fiction magazines.

I may be over extrapolating – but was it due to this book that I had a fascination with space exploration as a child and did its influence guide me towards the wild imaginings of H. G. Wells – I had read all of his short stories before I left school.  Was it the source of my obsession with 50’s science fiction (Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Invaders from Mars) let alone the earlier film series like Flash Gordon, The Phantom Empire and King of The Rocket Men (they just don’t show those things any more, do they!).  If so, it is probably responsible for my continuing interest in the wilder side of speculative fiction – and for that I have a lot to thank Ladybird Books and in particular, Exploring Space.