Saturday, 27 April 2019

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: The Ambient 90s

Electronic music, developed from the synthesiser experiments of the earlier twentieth century and refined by German band Kraftwerk in the 1970s, was at the peak of its popularity on the cusp of the 1990s, both in the pop mainstream and underground variants. Combined with the prevalence of mind-altering chemicals, different strands of 90s electronic music drew heavily on science fiction themes. In the UK, the ‘ambient’ instrumental soundscapes of Brian Eno and others were modified for club-goers ‘coming down’ from chemical highs as the basis of ‘ambient house’. The Orb, a partnership of Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, a member of the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (or JAMs), were influential in refining the genre. Cauty eventually re-worked their collaboration Space into a solo recording, released in 1990; with nods to 1970s ambient pioneers Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, it was envisaged as “a voyage through the solar system from Mercury outwards”, with each piece named after a planet.

Space, 1990

The Orb evolved into Paterson and a shifting cast of associates; their 1991 debut album Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld set the template for sci-fi-influenced themes and imagery. The album’s centrepiece, the side-long ‘A huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the Ultraworld’ was directly inspired by an episode of Blake’s Seven, ‘Ultraworld’, written by Trevor Hoyle. Their live performances were accompanied by “a constant stream of psychedelic images… projected onto the screens about the stage” (another echo of Pink Floyd), typically featuring aliens, astronauts and futuristic cityscapes. Their next album, U.F. Orb, continued the sci-fi links with samples from NASA transmissions, science fiction references and ambient explorations of space travel, notably on the 40-minute 1992 single, ‘Blue Room’. The track is believed to reference a secret location at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, containing UFO evidence. An edited version was aired on Top of the Pops

The Orb’s affinity with the progressive rock of an earlier era was illustrated by their connection to guitarist Steve Hillage, member of 1970s cosmic rockers Khan and Gong. He played on several sessions, was credited as a co-writer on ‘Blue Room’ and his 1979 solo proto-ambient album Rainbow Dome Musick was sometimes aired before Orb performances. Hillage, who was originally part of the influential Canterbury Scene and later worked with Hawkwind’s Nik Turner, pursued his own early 90s ambient/dance project as System 7 with partner Miquette Giraudy. Hillage’s burgeoning interest in electronica led to him programming the acts for the first Dance Tent at the Glastonbury Festival of 1995, at which System 7 themselves performed.

Paterson’s contemporaries, Cauty and Bill Drummond, had first recorded as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, a name taken from a secret society in the counter-cultural 1975 Illuminatus! Trilogy of novels by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. The duo’s first commercial success was as the Timelords, whose single ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, incorporating the Dr Who theme tune, was a ‘novelty’ number one in the UK in 1988. They released an ambient house album in 1990, Chill Out, a term derived from an area called ‘The White Room’ (the title of their next album) at London’s Heaven nightclub, where Cauty and Paterson were DJs in the late 1980s. Later applied to various forms of “music of a trance-like nature”, chill-out was defined by slowed-down dance beats. Cauty and Drummond rose to international fame with a series of chart-friendly singles as the KLF, whilst earning notoriety for their post-modern pranks. Upon their retirement from music in 1992, they deleted their back catalogue and pursued situationist ‘actions’, art projects and media campaigns as the K Foundation. When they returned on 23 August 2017, it was with a novel, 2023: A Trilogy, a “self-referential dystopian tale” credited to the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, drawing both on the Illuminatus! Trilogy and their own self-created ‘mythology’. 

Many of the original creative forces behind ambient house moved beyond its confines; Cornish electronic artist Richard James went by the name Aphex Twin, and explored the hinterlands of acid house, ambient, jungle and techno music in a bewildering series of releases with an other-worldly flavour. He enjoyed chart success in the late 90s, before promptly reverting back to more experimental forms. Another band rising from obscurity to mainstream success in the 90s were the Shamen, initially a psychedelic guitar band who embraced new technology and sampling. An interest in mind-expansion and dance culture saw them emerge as pioneers of multi-media performance whose ‘Synergy’ concept was intended to dissolve “the boundaries between rock gigs and warehouse parties”. Their 1990 LP En-Tact was described by one breathless reviewer as “the KLF remixed by William Gibson in a massive multi-coloured warehouse inside your head”.


After the untimely death of key member Will Sin, the Shamen subsequently enjoyed their biggest hit with ‘Ebenezer Goode’ in 1992, a straightforward celebration of drug/rave culture which also erased much of their underground credibility. A spoken-word collaboration with the celebrated author, ethno-botanist and psychedelic enthusiast Terence McKenna (“the intellectual voice of rave culture”) on ‘Re-Evolution’ was more in the spirit of their early work. With another contribution by Steve Hillage on the same album, the past was acknowledged as they simultaneously embraced the future. With a long-standing interest in cyberspace, the Shamen were among the first bands to explore Internet releases on their interactive site Nemeton, launched in 1995. The group’s mainstay, founder member Colin Angus, commented that “We’ve always seen ourselves as an ‘information band’, so it was a natural step to connect to the internet.”

Hillage and McKenna’s involvement, like that of Timothy Leary with the contemporary Cyberpunk trend, reinforced the connections between the cultural explorations of the late 60s/early 70s and the dawn of the 90s, not least a shared interest in altered states of consciousness. It also linked to ‘new age’ overtones, a label with which ambient house was becoming associated, together with ‘chill out’, or ‘trance’, as the terms became interchangeable – certainly for the record labels who capitalised on its popularity with vast numbers of compilations over the following years. Once the impetus of its innovators was removed, the music was as bland and formulaic as the artwork; uninspiring and depressingly earth-bound.

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Transcultural Fantastic at Leeds

The Transcultural Fantastic seminar series – hosted at the University of Leeds – aims to opens up the rich traditions of the Fantastic from a transcultural and interdisciplinary perspective, investigating utopian and dystopian thought in art, fiction and film, as well as science fiction, folktales and fantasy literature.

The series seeks to conceptualise and problematise the Transcultural Fantastic and discuss the following questions:

  • What are the local and global contexts for the Transcultural Fantastic? 
  • What is the critical and political potential of the Transcultural Fantastic? 
  • What drives multi-media and artistic expressions of the Transcultural Fantastic? 
  • What is the role of translation and publishing in the creation and consumption of the Transcultural Fantastic? 

This inquiry into the transcultural is grounded in the local, highlighting the regional and the provincial as part of the wider transcultural imagination. Leeds and the University’s Special Collections strengths in the Fantastic are important in this space, as is the city’s own history of the Fantastic, being JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for Middle Earth and the site of the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1937. The series also explores the importance of ‘the North’ in recent publishing ventures such as the Northern Fiction Alliance, which has a strong focus on translation and the intercultural, as well as being firmly rooted in the local.

Questions around place and origin feed into the broader international dimensions of the Fantastic, informed by the research specialisms of the organisers. The Transcultural Fantastic depends on, and benefits from, a global and multilingual exchange of ideas, cultures, traditions and media. Events in the series are listed below.

Semester 1 – Local Contexts for the Transcultural Fantastic 

‘Fantastic Leeds’ – seminar exploring the history of the Fantastic in Leeds, coupled with an exploration of selected items from Special Collections.

‘The Old Gods Return’ - Professor Tom Shippey discusses Norse Mythology in contemporary novels.

‘Realms both Real and Unreal’ – Simon Armitage reads from and discusses his revised translation of the medieval epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Semester 2 – Global Contexts for the Transcultural Fantastic 

‘Beyond Tomorrow. German Science Fiction and Utopian Thought in the 20th and 21st Century’ – Ingo Cornils examines humanity and technological progress in German film and literature.

‘Works in Progress‘ – research presentations from the series organisers and other colleagues working on the Transcultural Fantastic.

‘Publishing and Translating the Transcultural Fantastic’ – workshop to explore publishing opportunities and potential anthologies.

‘From Cyberpunk to Biopunk: On Posthuman Technologies’ – Lars Schmeink traces the shift from cybernetic and prosthetic transhumanist fantasies of 1980s cyberpunk to critical posthumanist interventions in contemporary SF, or biopunk dystopias.

The series organisers are Ingo Cornils (School of Languages, Cultures and Societies), Sarah Dodd (School of Languages, Cultures and Societies) and Liz Stainforth (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies).

The series is funded as part of the Sadler seminar series at Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Hugo Gernsback and the Electrical Experimenter Archive

Born in Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsbacher emigrated to New York at the age of 20, in 1904. In the USA, he soon displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, changing his surname to Gernsback and setting up the Electro Importing Co. to sell the latest specialist electronic devices from Europe. Always interested in developments in science and technology, he founded the magazine Modern Electrics in 1908 as a mail-order catalogue, with technical articles and instructions for home electronics enthusiasts. He also registered patents for such exotic items as the Isolator, a sensory-deprivation helmet intended to increase concentration and focus, despite looking more suitable for deep-sea diving.

Electrical Experimenter, which ran between May 1913 and July 1920, was the successor to Modern Electrics, where Gernsback had serialised his own novel Ralph-124C 41+ between 1911 and 1912. Although, like its predecessor, it concentrated on technical science for amateur hobbyists – particularly in the field of radio, or ‘wireless’ – its scope was expanded to include some early science fiction, among them his own stories. Alongside these were articles by Nikolai Tesla, who also published segments of his autobiography in the magazine during 1919. In a 1916 editorial, Gernsback argued that a “real electrical experimenter, worthy of the name” must have imagination and a vision for the future.

The monthly editions of Electrical Experimenter in 1918 largely focused on technology in warfare, with the First World War still raging in Europe. From January’s ‘Electro-Magnetic Depth-Bombs’ through the ‘Gyro-Electric Destroyer’ to ‘The Automatic Soldier’, Gernsback showed his pragmatic knack of seizing the moment. Although the August issue harked back to a more innocent era of transport speculation, presenting the ‘Aerial Mono-Flyer of the Future’, the year concluded with tanks and barbed wire. The magazine continued to run extensive advertisements for all things electrical, including Gernsback’s own Electro Importing Co., which was still in business. The archives of Electrical Experimenter can be found in several digital repositories; the bulk of them are at American Radio History, and the Internet Archive.

Though his magazines were both successful and influential, Gernsback was notorious for his sharp business practices, taking advantage of struggling writers. One of these was H.P. Lovecraft, who referred to him as ‘Hugo the Rat’. He went on to found Amazing Stories in 1926, accepted as the first major science fiction magazine (although Gernsback’s preferred term was ‘scientifiction’, which he initially used). He was declared bankrupt in 1929, losing control of his publishing empire, but recovered to launch Wonder Stories and other popular magazines; he founded over 50 different titles during his lifetime. Gernsback was involved in early radio and television broadcasts, and anticipated the rise of mass media and air travel as early as the 1920s. He continued to envision the future, invent and register patents, until his death in 1967. The prestigious Hugo Awards, inaugurated in 1953 at the World Science Fiction Convention, are named after him in recognition of his contribution to the genre, as is a crater on the Moon.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Synthesizers: Sound of the Future

A recent trip to Melbourne took me back to some of the blog's 2015 posts, on the theremin and electronic music. The Grainger Museum's exhibition 'Synthesizers: Sound of the Future' explored electronic music experimentation in Melbourne in the 1960s and 70s.

Based on the University of Melbourne campus, the Grainger Museum was originally set up by Australian composer Percy Grainger and opened in 1938. The Museum's collection holds scores and manuscripts relating to Grainger's compositional career, as well as 50,000 other items, including diaries, ethnographic objects, furniture, decorative arts, photographs, artworks, clothing and correspondence.

After giving some background to Grainger's own interest and experimentation in free music in the 1950s, the exhibition then turned to the Museum's 1960s transformation into 'the Grainger Centre', a studio for students and composers of experimental electronic music. This was largely brought about by composer Keith Humble, who was appointed as a senior lecturer at the University in 1966.

Over eight years, Humble built up the Centre's electronic music studio, sourcing the most cutting-edge synthesizers of the time, including a VCS3 MK1, VCS3 MKII, Synthi AKS (which included a keyboard) and the EMS Synthi 100. These were purchased from Electronic Music Studios (EMS) in London, a company formed of Peter Zinovieff, David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, the latter of whom wrote music for Doctor Who.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was its bringing together of a range of these EMS instruments, some of which could be played. I couldn't resist trying out the theremin (an earlier invention) and hearing its spooky science fictional tones, although 'playing' thin air proved difficult!

The exhibition finished on the 9 September but the Grainger Museum have created an online exhibition based on the show for those interested in finding out more.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

R.C. Churchill – A Short History of the Future

The 1950s seem to have been a particularly fertile period for writers exploring both the near and far future. In the wake of the totalitarian regimes which proliferated in Europe during the 1920s and 30s, with the coming of the Cold War and the horrors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s purges still fresh in the collective memory, these speculative visions tended toward the dystopian. Influenced by accelerating cultural and technological change, popular topics included authoritarianism, mechanisation, post-apocalypse survival, social control and state tyranny, reflecting the fears of a post-War generation. 
In the middle of the decade, the English writer R.C. Churchill delved into this world to produce A Short History of the Future. Presented as a factual work based on ‘historical’ sources, Churchill constructed a chronology of the future from the 1950s to the sixtieth century, including maps and a timeline to trace the rise and fall of various fictional empires and regimes. The Airstrip One of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a primary text, is supplemented by American author David Karp’s One, which expands on the terrors of Winston Smith and the Ministry of Love with Professor Burden and the Department of Internal Examination. Ranging across the world, the benign New Cretan Epoch documented by Robert Graves’ Seven Days in New Crete is followed by Gilbert Frankau’s Second Christian Empire in 4192 (from Unborn Tomorrow). Churchill concludes by drawing on Bertrand Russell’s short story ‘Zahatopolk’, which depicts the fall of a sixtieth-century ‘religious dystopia’ governed from the University of Cuzco, Peru, and its succession by a reformation centred on Mount Kilimanjaro.

The works and writers considered in A Short History of the Future range from the well-known to the obscure and all-but-forgotten, concentrating on the literary tendency of sf rather than the pulp magazines. Thus Ray Bradbury, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Vonnegut and Evelyn Waugh are cited alongside Margot Bennett, Charles Chilton, Geddes MacGregor and C. H. Sisson. Sometimes Churchill references a lesser-known work by a famed author; Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence rather than Brave New World, or Nevil Shute’s In the Wet, as On the Beach was yet to come. The skill with which the various sources are woven together is satisfying, providing a portrait of the times which produced them, and leaving scope for the future updating of this history.

R.C. Churchill (1916-1986) was born in Bromley, Kent – also the birthplace of H.G. Wells. In a long and varied literary career, he worked as a journalist and book reviewer for the Birmingham Post. He had pieces published in T.S. Eliot’s prestigious literary magazine The Criterion and the journal Scrutiny, founded by the influential critic F. R. Leavis. Churchill wrote extensively on English Literature, mainly Shakespeare and Dickens – his essay ‘The Genius of Charles Dickens’ appears in The Pelican Guide to English Literature. His interests and subject matter were wide-ranging, with titles and topics including Art and Christianity (1945), culture and democracy (Disagreements, 1950), The English Sunday (1954), and Sixty Seasons of League Football (1958). A Short History of the Future is, to my knowledge, his only foray into the field of science fiction.

I am grateful to Nick Reynolds for his help with my initial research into A Short History of the Future; his blog contains valuable information on the book, which otherwise has a very small digital footprint.

Friday, 10 August 2018

A Spanish Anarchist View on The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed found an appreciative reader in the Spanish anarchist Victor García (the pseudonym of Germinal Gracia). Here, we reproduce the brief summary of the novel he included in his untranslated 1977 work on utopias and anarchism. Gracia was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and the post-war clandestine anarchist movement in Spain who had subsequently spent decades exiled in Venezuela and France. A voracious reader, traveller and linguist, Gracia was concerned that the classic works of anarchism that had shaped his ideological development and that of his comrades were no longer appropriate for disseminating anarchist ideas. In Le Guin, Gracia perceived an imagination capable of translating their shared ideals for a contemporary audience.

Taken from: Victor García, Utopías y Anarquismo. Laguna de Mayrán: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 1977, pp. 101-3 (my translation):

Because it doesn’t have established pre-requisites, science fiction offers its readership all kinds of fantastical situations.

Such is the case of Anarres, the utopian planet created by Ursula K. Le Guin, nine light years from Earth, where the Odonians – anarchists who wanted to found a regime without authority or government, with solidarity as the basic norm of behaviour – chose to live in voluntary exile.

The Dispossessed is the work of a writer with a deep understanding of and open sympathy for libertarian ideals. It is the first work of science fiction in which anarchism is brought into objective focus without avoiding, which is to be applauded, the recurrence of human problems that no social regime could ever eliminate.

Three space days’ travel from Anarres we find Urras, the planet the Odonians left one hundred and sixty years ago. Shevek, a great mathematical physicist, is working on an equation as transcendental as those of Einstein and Planck, and as such is the first inhabitant of Anarres to visit Urras, where he is feted by the great and good and universities fight for his services.

Urras conforms to a system of state regimes more or less like our own, where the powerful live in unimaginable luxury while those in poverty would envy the conditions endured by the poor in our society. Shevek discovers this gradually:

The conversation went on. It was difficult for Shevek to follow, both in language and in substance. He was being told about things he had no experience of at all. He had never seen a rat, or an army barracks, or an insane asylum, or a poorhouse, or a pawnshop, or an execution, or a thief, or a tenement, or a rent collector, or a man who wanted to work and could not find work to do, or a dead baby in a ditch.

When Shevek, evading the surveillance of the powerful, manages to visit the poor neighbourhoods where a general strike is being planned, the people let him know that they are aware of the existence of Anarres and long to emulate its system. The greatest wish they express for one another is ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ ‘To know that it exists, to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation…’ ‘I wonder’, the worker Maedda says to Shevek, ‘if you fully understand why they [the powerful] have kept you so well hidden… because you are an idea. A dangerous one. The idea of anarchism, made flesh. Walking amongst us.’

Shevek returns to Anarres disillusioned. He has not revealed his theory because the powers that be in Urras only wanted to understand it to make themselves still more powerful and to subjugate the nine planets of their universe, which includes Earth: ‘A planet spoiled by the human species’, as Keng, ambassador of earth on Urras, explains:

We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is still habitable, but not as this world is.

The work of Ursula K. Le Guin could successfully replace, for modern minds, venerable tomes like At the Café and Between Peasants by Malatesta, Sembrando flores by Federico Urales, and Jean Grave’s The Adventures of Nono. While it suffers the impact of environmental pessimism, it holds fast to a glimmer of salvation: Anarres, refuge of the anarchists.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

SF Images on the Mechanical Curator

I attended a British Library event in Edinburgh recently where I learned more about the activities of their Labs initiative, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Launched in 2013, BL Labs helps researchers develop new ways of working with collections content and data. In practice, this work ranges from making digitised collections more accessible, to facilitating the use of text analysis software and spatial mapping tools.

So, on to the SF part of the story. Many people who encounter BL Labs will have done so (perhaps without knowing it) through the images taken from its ‘Mechanical Curator’ project. This is a program that BL Labs created to extract images from 65,000 of the digitised books in the Library's collection. In 2013, as a result of this process, a million images were uploaded to Flickr Commons under the CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, which means that anyone can copy, modify and distribute them, even for commercial purposes, without needing permission. The collection includes cartoons, architecture, adverts and decorative art, among other things. But there's also a Space and SF album, made up of astronomical and speculative space imagery (see example below).

Image taken from page 84 of La fregate l'Incomprise. Voyage autour du monde à la plume par Sahib.

These reminded me of illustrations from some of the Special Collections volumes included in the the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Visions of the Future’ (4 April - 11 June 2011) (see below).

Albert Robida Le Vingtième Siècle
Albert Robida Voyages Très Extraordinaires

For those who prefer chance encounters, there's also the Mechanical Curator tumblr page, which automatically publishes a randomly selected image from the collection every hour. And the public domain mark on the images has led to some interesting cases of creative re-use. Notable examples include artist Mario Klingemann's series of artworks using the images and the music video design for the song 'Hey There Young Sailor' by The Impatient Sisters.