Zemania

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Invention for Destruction (1958).

In addition to Jean Kerchbron’s Golem my weekend viewing involved a fresh immersion in the semi-animated fantasies of Karel Zeman, one of which, Invention for Destruction, I’d not seen for many years. It hadn’t occurred to me before how closely Zeman’s technique on these films matches some of my own recent illustration when it applies original drawn elements to settings constructed from old engravings. For Zeman, combining actors with animated models and pictorial backgrounds was an economical way of bringing to life the worlds of Jules Verne, Rudolf Erich Raspe and others while retaining the feel of the original book illustrations. These films are also closer to the Max Ernst school of engraved collage than they may at first seem. The mansion at the beginning of Invention for Destruction could easily have been an illustration of a single building but Zeman offers a hybrid construction with unrealistically conflicting perspectives; later on we see a desert cavalry of camels on roller skates. It’s no surprise that Jan Svankmajer admires Zeman’s films. And having recently watched all the Svankmajers it’s good to know there are several Zeman features still to see.

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Claude Shepperson’s First Men in the Moon

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In the week following the Moon-landing anniversary I’ve been re-reading The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. This was a late entry in Wells’ extraordinary run of science fiction novels, and is both shorter and lighter in tone than his earlier novels, some of which veer at times into outright horror. The First Men in the Moon might have been a serious examination of interstellar travel but the narrative is overtly comic in places, rather like The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a Wells story in which a fantastic gift is offered to a character unprepared to make the most of it. Wells’ lunar explorers—Bedford, a failed entrepreneur, and Cavor, an absent-minded inventor—lurch from one mishap to another, yoked together through their own inadequacies. Early in the proceedings Cavor destroys his house when his gravity-repelling “Cavorite” generates a violent funnel of air before launching itself into space. Cavor regards this as fortunate, explaining that a slightly different set of circumstances might have removed the breathable atmosphere from the entire planet for a day or so. The trip to the Moon is conducted almost on a whim: Cavor has no real reason for going, and Bedford tags along in the hope of finding some future business opportunity. Like the hapless protagonists of Withnail and I, this is a lunar voyage undertaken “by mistake”.

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It’s probable that Wells regarded absurdity as being the best way to approach a story that was less original than his earlier works. The first edition of the novel opens with an epigraph from Lucian’s True History (or True Story), a book from the second century AD which includes a journey to the Moon among its planetary travels. Lucian’s book was the first to feature such a journey (and is often regarded as the first work of science fiction) but many others followed, even before From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by Jules Verne, a book which Bedford mentions during the expedition discussions. (Cavor has never heard of it.)

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The illustrations here by Claude Allin Shepperson are also from the first edition, and are closer to the tone of the novel than those by other artists. E. Hering’s illustrations for American readers are in a style which is more detailed and inventive than Shepperson’s but which also suggests a more serious story. Readers expecting a new War of the Worlds would have been surprised. Shepperson’s drawing of Cavor’s spacecraft evidently provided the model for Ray Harryhausen in the 1964 film adaptation, although Harryhausen’s Selenites differ from both Shepperson and Wells’ descriptions. Nigel Kneale’s screenplay deviates from the book elsewhere but the film is still a more faithful adaptation than those based on Wells’ more popular novels, as are many of the other screen adaptations, the first being a lost silent from 1919. All of which reminds me that I’ve not seen Harryhausen’s film for many years. I’d welcome another date with the Grand Lunar.

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More vapour trails

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Those covers everyone likes. My designs for KW Jeter’s steampunk novels from Angry Robot and Tor Books.

When I wrote a brief history of steampunk for Eye magazine last year I ended by somewhat provocatively declaring that until something better appeared this was the defining aesthetic of the moment. A year later, the movement (if we can use that term) continues to evolve despite the steady drip of complaints that it’s all reactionary, historically illiterate, and so on. Much of the ire remains nonsensical, and often seems to boil down to a common disdain for people enjoying themselves in some unorthodox manner.

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Design by Galen Smith after the Hetzel editions of Jules Verne’s novels.

If I hadn’t got involved on the art side I would have found it difficult to avoid being attracted by steampunk in one form or another since so much of it originates in areas I was already interested in, not least HG Wells and Victorian science fiction. The rapid evolution of the past few years means we’re currently seeing an aesthetic leaving behind its origins to become an international subculture. What’s striking about this activity—and this is something that doesn’t seem to have been discussed very much—is the way the whole thing has been birthed by genre fiction rather than by pop music, as was the case for the second half of the 20th century. This piece is meant to be a news post, however, not another cultural critique, but if I happen to write any more on the subject there’s something there that’s worth exploring.

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As to the news: this month finds my steampunk artwork manifesting in three very different locations in one of those odd coincidences of timing that occur now and then. First up there’s the Steampunk User’s Manual edited by Jeff VanderMeer & Desirina Boskovich, a follow-up to 2011’s Steampunk Bible. For the new volume I designed spreads for three entries by Jess Nevins from The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana: Alternative History Edition.

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Weekend links 201

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An illustration by John Kettelwell for The Story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (1928).

• “The strain in everything I write, of not being taken with the bounteousness of humankind, was also the attitude of both my parents.” Jonathan Meades talking to James Kidd about his forthcoming memoirs.

• 7 Trumps From the Tarot Cards and Pinions (1969), and album of electronic music by Ruth White, is being given a limited vinyl reissue. Related: Ruth White—An American Composer.

• 82 minutes of Michael Moorcock talking in 1972 to Jean-Pierre Turmel, co-founder of the Sordide Sentimental record label.

If Verne’s protagonists often seem to stop short of revelation, it’s because the revelation is not meant to be known. Revelation has a way of putting man back at the front of the evolution chart, moving neatly toward a happily progressing future, out of the darkness and into the light. The characters who embark upon the Voyages Extraordinares move backward and forward and all about, spun around like blindfolded children trying to pin the tail on the donkey. The point of the adventure, after all, is not to have a conclusion; it is to get knocked off your feet.

Stefany Anne Golberg on Journey to the Center of the Earth at 150.

• Photographs of pre-Haussmann Paris by Charles Marville, and photographs by Amy Heiden of industrial ruins.

• Mixes of the week: FACT Mix 427 by Wild Beasts, and Secret Thirteen Mix 108 by Kangding Ray.

• Hear Italo Calvino read selections from Invisible Cities, Mr Palomar and others.

William S. Burroughs in Dub conducted by Dub Spencer & Trance Hill.

• Cycles, Returns & Rebirth: Alexander Tucker on Derek Jarman.

Harold Budd: the composer with no urge to make music.

The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments.

• 80 minutes of Monolake playing live in 1999.

• At 50 Watts: Dyl’s Dance.

Owls And Flowers (2006) by Belbury Poly | Learning Owl Reappears (2011) by The Advisory Circle | The Owls (2013) by Félicia Atkinson

The Angel of the Revolution

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The British Library’s recent uploading of a million copyright-free images to Flickr has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s an exemplary gesture on the Library’s part, on the other I wish they’d archived their images somewhere other than Flickr where the recent interface changes have made using the site for any length of time a very frustrating business.

Complaints aside, the unsorted BL haul is being slowly sifted by those who aren’t dissuaded by Yahoo’s iniquities. A recent set labelled Science Fiction is comprised as much of science fact as fiction but it does include these illustrations from The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror (1893), a novel of aerial warfare and anarchist revolt by British author George Griffith. This is one of several works from the late Victorian era which show how lazy it is to characterise the period as a time of unthinking imperialism:

First published in 1893, The Angel of the Revolution is a fantastical tale of air warfare in which an intrepid group of Socialists, Anarchists and Nihilists defeat Capitalism with their superior knowledge of dirigibles. Led by a crippled, brilliant Russian Jew and his daughter, Natasha, The Brotherhood of Freedom establishes a ‘pax aeronautica’ over the world, thanks to the expertise of Richard Arnold, a young scientist. Arnold falls in love with Natasha (the eponymous Angel), and Griffith builds a utopian vision of Socialism and romance.

As well as writing a cracking good story, Griffith is also remarkably prescient in predicting future technology, including air travel, tidal power, and solar energy. He also engages with timeless debates over social responsibility. Griffith imagines a world in which the wealth of the obscenely rich is sequestered, their property seized for the public good, and their businesses nationalised. Those with unearned incomes are forced to either pay punitive tax, or to undertake equivalent labour in the community. Griffith’s message lacks subtlety, but it couldn’t be more pertinent in the twenty-first century. (Précis swiped from here.)

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Griffith’s novel is essentially Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (1886) with a helping of revolutionary politics; even the aircraft are similar, with Griffith’s illustrator, Fred T. Jane, depicting an armed sky-boat held aloft by the same vertical propellers as those used by Robur’s machine. Jane (not “Janes” as they name him on the Flickr pages) later founded the Jane’s series of warship and aircraft catalogues so it’s fitting that his illustrations combine both those craft in a single design.

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