Friday, 20 December 2013

Mechanical Muses: The Legacy of Automata in SF

Since 2009 I've been jointly responsible for maintaining the Leeds Verse database, creating catalogue entries for poetry from 17th and 18th century manuscripts. I rarely find anything in the way of interesting SF-related stories but I recently came across a poem called On seeing the Microcosm, dated September 1774, an extract of which reads:

Here all Copernicus's pains,
The labour of great Newton's brains,
What puzzled ages - one short view
(Each knowledge of the mind) can shew.
Inigo Jones with envious eyes
Might see the finished orders rise;
Raphael, outdone, behold, with grief,
The painted figures spring to life.

The description of painted figures springing to life was intriguing. After a bit of research, I discovered that the Microcosm in question referred to an automaton, one of the clockwork machines that became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the Greek meaning 'to act of one's own will', automata enchanted the courts of Europe, with their lifelike movements and musical chimes. During the French Revolution, they were so much associated with the ruling classes that revolutionaries likened them to the wealthy elites, 'bodies without souls, covered in lace'.

However, automata were sometimes exhibited to wider audiences for publicity purposes, hence the poem's full title of On Seeing the Microcosm, Now Exhibiting in the Red Lion Assembly Room, which originally appeared in Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle. This particular automaton was credited to the British goldsmith James Cox, who was best known for producing mechanical clocks.

Along with Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin, Cox was also the creator of the famous Silver Swan, now the star attraction of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. Mark Twain describes his own encounter with the swan in Innocents Abroad:

I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it.

Of course, the automaton has been a continuing source of fascination for scientists and novelists alike. Inspiring characters from Isaac Asimov's Bicentennial Man to Douglas Adams' Marvin the Paranoid Android (for a more comprehensive list see this Wikipedia entry, 'List of fictional robots and androids'), it has become a classic trope of SF literature. Perhaps one of its most memorable incarnations is in the character of 'False Maria', the Maschinenmensch (German for 'machine-human') from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Also notable for being the first feature length film of the SF genre, Metropolis tells the tale of a divided city: a utopian idyll above ground but below the surface a dark pit, where workers run the heavy machinery that keeps the city functioning. The image of Lang's Maria, a female automaton created to cause unrest among the workers, is an enduring and haunting screen icon.

Those interested to know more about the history of automata (as I was) can watch this excellent documentary, Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, presented by Simon Schaffer:

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Shock of the Numan: Electric Music to Freak your ‘Friends’

It is safe to say that Gary Numan (solo, or with his Tubeway Army) was never a critical favourite, but perhaps the time has come to recognise his contribution to a particular strand of dystopian science fiction and musical innovation. As a pioneer of popular synthesiser music, he brought both content and medium from the margins and the avant-garde to Top of the Pops. The mechanised sound and image was undoubtedly refined from Kraftwerk and David Bowie’s earlier templates, but his lyrics, at least up to 1980’s Telekon, are imbued with the bleak futurism of his literary heroes. The defining album Replicas, released in 1979 at the height of both Numan’s creative powers and popularity, is based on “a series of short stories... concerned with London in a few decades time”, distilled into a set of three/four-minute pop songs. This is his explanation of one of the central themes, and specifically those of his first number one single, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’:

Machines were made with cloned human skin, making them almost identical to humans. These were called 'Friends' and carried out a wide range of services from police officers to prostitutes. The only difference was the eye, they had a horizontal black bar as the pupil, rather like a sheep.

By his own admission, Numan was consciously echoing concepts expressed in the work of Philip K. Dick, primarily his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – probing the nature of reality, the essence of humanity and the notion of the simulacrum. The resultant sound was like nothing on earth, with Gary an alien, android or replicant, constructing a cold, otherworldly persona. Part of the same song/story cycle, ‘Down in the Park’ (“where the machmen meet”) combines sci-fi imagery with the alienated, violent dystopias of Crash and A Clockwork Orange, performed live in all its strangeness. Then there is his rendition of ‘M.E.’, with Numan rising, caged, as if from the subterranean depths of Metropolis, before emerging, cutting a singular figure in his jumpsuit as he intones lyrics of isolation and despair from the perspective of “the last machine left on Earth”. His other number one single, ‘Cars’, remains a prescient vision, which certainly resonates with anyone exposed to the UK’s public transport network on a regular basis, while ‘I Nearly Married A Human’ captures the elusive Numan sense of humour (though in fact he married a fan, one of his devoted Numanoids). ‘Listen to the Sirens’, the opening song on the first Tubeway Army album, references another seminal Philip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, in its introductory line; he is also an avowed admirer of J.G. Ballard, though he never paid homage as overtly as his contemporaries the Normal did with their ‘Warm Leatherette’.

So much for the texts; Numan’s pop-cultural influences extend from the groups who followed the path he charted, such as Depeche Mode, the Human League and Japan, to luminaries of the formative New York hip-hop scene – Afrika Bambaataa commented that he “was so spooky, so spaced out and it sounded like the future of music to me.” Just as Gary himself has acknowledged his debt to various literary inspirations, there is a sci-fi novel featuring a character speaking entirely in Numan lyrics (Sean Williams, Saturn Returns, 2007), and then there were the Sugababes, returning him to the top of the charts by sampling ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’; you can even visit a themed establishment in Wolverhampton, the Numa Bar. In truth, it is easy to mock the man for his love of flying, conservative politics, and especially the unabashed ambition to succeed, which aroused the ire of the late 70s music press – then, as now, he and his music were deeply unfashionable. Fashion is nothing if not fickle, however, and there have been suggestions of a critical re-appraisal. For all the variability of his later output, the early albums (1978-80) stand as his legacy, bridging the worlds of popular music and dystopian literature like no-one before, or since – yesterday’s ridiculed eccentric may yet prove to be tomorrow’s prophet.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

More's Utopia: Historically Bound

A tradition of utopian writing, in which an ideal state or ‘other worlds’ are portrayed in order to cast a light on contemporary society, runs through English and European literature. The idea of utopia can be traced back to around 380 BC and Plato’s Republic, in which he outlines what he sees as the ideal society and its political system, and discusses the concept of ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ worlds. The word recurs in a modern context in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, where he too sets out a vision of an ideal society. The meaning of utopia - literally ‘no place’ - indicates that the perfect state may be an unattainable goal, and it is often depicted via satire and parody. There are two notable editions of More's Utopia in the Brotherton Library's Special Collections; the first is a 1893 edition, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in a limited edition of 300 (see image), the second is an early edition, published in 1518 by the famous printer and publisher Johann Froben.

Utopia by Thomas More (Kelsmcott Press)
This second copy of Utopia forms part of the Howard de Walden Collection. The Roundhay Hall catalogue shows that by 1926, Lord Brotherton had purchased 117 volumes from the library of Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis VIII, Baron Howard de Walden (1880-1946) for his own collection, which he later bequeathed to the Library. While the works themselves were published between 1471 and 1889 (although most date from the 16th and 17th centuries), many of the collection were bound early in the 20th century with Rivière bindings. These sought to recreate binding styles that were contemporary with the period of the printed work, in-keeping with the fashion at the time. The firm of Rivière, active in London between 1840 and 1939, was famous for the quality of their workmanship, and their work was prized by collectors. However, although the subject requires further research, it has come to light that the techniques used were not always accurate so that in some cases the binding reveals more about the binders' knowledge of historic binding than about the binding styles themselves.

Perhaps, then, the ideal of the perfect binding, much like the ideal of the perfect society envisaged by More's Utopia, remains elusive and ultimately unrealisable. The mixing of memory and desire, quoted famously in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (see also the Memory-Technology-Utopia post on this blog), reflects that impulse to delve into the past in the hope of creating something perfect for the future, even if a sense of history becomes distorted the effort.

This post adapts text from the booklet Visions of the Future: The Art of Science Fiction by Paul Whittle and Liz Stainforth.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Fugitive Futurist

The Fugitive Futurist is a silent short from 1924, made available by the BFI via Youtube. Cast in the same mould as H.G. Wells' time-traveller, the fugitive of the title reveals to us the secret of his prophetic visions by way of a magic camera.

Opening a window onto the future, these visions include Trafalgar Square submerged in water, the fashionable 1920s Strand boarded up and littered with 'To Let' signs, an airship platform on top of Westminster and high speed trains whizzing across Tower Bridge.

While the camera's inventor turns out to be an escapee from the local asylum, the film's French director Gaston Quiribet may have been onto something with his images of high speed rail lines and famous landmarks flooded by rising sea levels. As BFI curator Simon McCallum wonders, 'could this be a prophetic glimpse of our great capital's fate?'

To find out more about the BFI National Archive visit 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Science or Magic? The Optical Lantern

Over the past year, myself and colleague Kiara White have been researching and documenting the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine's slide and optical lantern collections, also known as magic lanterns. While not directly related to SF, the application of an early form of scientific technology to create effects that were considered magical is another example of the crossover between science and fiction, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries (see Futures Past, P. 5).

The historical development of these instruments dates back to at least the 17th century, with the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens often being cited as a key figure in their invention. The peak of production was during the second-half of the 19th century. Magic lantern shows provided a popular form of entertainment in both public and domestic settings. Combining slide projection with live narration, music and other special effects, lanternists delivered highly successful entertainment spectacles, including phantasmagoria (gathering of ghosts) shows. Slides could have moving parts, and the use of two lanterns in conjunction with pairs of slides could produce ‘dissolving’ (transforming) images. In the days before moving pictures, it was this ability to produce projection effects that appeared miraculous to audiences and gave lanterns their 'magic' moniker. As Marina Warner writes in her book, Phantasmagoria:

Magic lantern images reveal an instrinsic unexamined equivalence between the technology of illusion and supernatural phenomena: Kircher projected souls in hell, leering devils, the resurrection of Christ, and other products of imagination, not observation.
The mention of Kircher is a reference to the 17th century German priest Athanasius Kircher, another figure credited in the development of the magic lantern. The lanterns in the Museum’s collection are recent by comparison, dating from the early 20th century, and were once used for teaching. It was thought that using visual aids would improve memory retention in students, and lanterns and slides provided a convenient way of reproducing images and displaying them to a large audience.

More interesting still, a short article in the Review of Reviews (1890) reveals that Leeds may have been quite pioneering in its uptake of the magic lantern for use in lectures. The article, entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, cites ‘The Optical Lantern as an Aid to Teaching’ by C.H. Bothamley, which gives details about the use of lanterns in classrooms at the Yorkshire College, now the University of Leeds. Bothamley refers to Professor Miall (then Professor of Biology), who promoted the use of the magic lantern for teaching students, and was able to demonstrate its successful use even in day-lit rooms. According to this article, “in the Yorkshire College almost every department has its lantern”, used to illustrate lectures on a range of “widely different subjects”. The educational slides in the Museum’s collection are representative of this variety, covering a huge range of topics, including the sciences, engineering, history, art, architecture, industries, geography and travel.

This post is adapted from an excerpt of the 'magic lantern and slides object history files' by Kiara White and Liz Stainforth.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Guardian's 'Fiction in 2043'

As a special feature for the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, author Ewan Morrison takes a Wellsian trip through time - to the year 2043 - to report back on what he's seen of the future of fiction. You can read his satirical correspondence on the Guardian website, published in two parts. The first part, 'The War Years', pictures a world in which books have morphed into 'titles' to accomodate the diversity of reading formats, and a reluctance to publish new authors has led to an explosion of spin-offs, prequels and sequels, producing franchise hybrids such as 'Shades of Hermione - a pornographic Potter serial, and The Twilight Code - in which vampires save the Catholic church'. The second, 'Peace after the Digital Revolution', describes the post-revolution environment, the international commitment to rediscovering the art of fiction and the intervention of China, the new world superpower.

Personally though, and at risk of sounding like one of the 'useful idiots' sent up by Morrison, while his serialisation spells out a dystopian fate for fiction in the wake of the digital revolution, I'd be reluctant to lay the blame on the proliferation of fan-fiction, file-sharing and community-based Wiki-texts. I think perhaps these types of ventures could be compared to the boom in pulp publishing in the 20s or the popularisation of exploitation cinema in the 60s and 70s, forms that have since gained a measure of critical acclaim. Besides which, The Twilight Code sounds like a thrilling read...

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Bridges Between the Worlds

‘The Bridges between the Worlds’ by J.J. Grandville
Un Autre Monde, or Another World, is perhaps one of the most famous works by the 19th century French illustrator and caricaturist J.J. Grandville. The ‘other’ world, created by the central characters of Dr. Krackq, Dr. Puff and Dr. Hahblle, is a satirical depiction of 19th century Parisian society, full of parody and political allusions.

Later acknowledged as an influence on the Surrealists, Grandville’s illustrations could also be regarded as early representations of science fiction:- visions of the future that drew from the contemporary interest in popular astronomy. ‘The Bridges between the Worlds’ (see above), also known as ‘The Bridge over the Stars’ and ‘The Footbridge between Worlds’, is one such example. A strange fusion of industrial innovation and intergalactic exploration, there’s something instantly appealing and memorable about this image, probably accounting for why it is one of the more commonly reproduced prints from Un Autre Monde. Fortunately, an entire copy of the book has been digitised and uploaded onto Flickr, which makes for easy viewing of Grandville’s beautiful illustrations.

A copy of Un Autre Monde is held in Special Collections, University of Leeds Library, and was featured in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Visions of the Future’ (4 April - 11 June 2011).

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Or, Can We Salvage the Future?

[The following is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing, which forms part of my PhD research]

‘Why are there no utopias today?’ is Judith Shklar’s opening gambit in her essay, ‘The Political Theory of Utopia: From Melancholy to Nostalgia’,  a question that assumes the utopian project to be a thing of the past, a historical artefact. This view forms part of a broader narrative of utopia, dominant since the late 1960s, which attributes its disappearance to the decline of modernist narratives of collective progress and improvement. So, where did these utopian visions go? Were they banished to the convenient ‘no place’ of the word’s Greek origins? Was the unfashionable and deterministic idea of progress responsible for their fall from grace? And what, if anything, stood in their (no)place? One version of events is that by the 1970s, the unifying drive of utopia was no longer up to the task of reconciling the competing claims of minority groups in a world with increasingly global perspectives.  As the utopian project waned, the concept of collective memory began to emerge in academic discourse, with all its evocative, recuperative and inclusive potential. Offering a means of coming to terms with the events of the past in order to move forward, memory seemed like an antidote to the perceived authoritarian strain in historical narratives. The past, then, having achieved a healthy distance from the present, was once again close and familiar, no longer a foreign country, but the vehicle for societies’ shared inheritance.  This temporal manoeuvre is well documented, whereby the past, through a discourse of social remembering, is shaped and interpreted according to the present situation.  However, there is something in the latest incarnation which, under the banner of memory, speaks of a particular anxiety about the future. The renewed impetus to remember, memorialise and pass on a legacy, particularly in the sphere of culture, is underpinned by the fear that a failure to do so will perpetuate the already pervasive spectre of cultural amnesia.   Consequently, stories, sites and monuments of the past were never so popular, as much for what they represent as for what they are. But the question of what they represent now is critical; do they memorialise the glories of the past or hold the promise of the future? Is there something faintly utopian about the new and oft cited memory boom?

I want to explore this possibility further and to argue for a theory of utopia that goes beyond its status as an artefact of the modernist era. So rather than asking, as Skhlar does, ‘why are there no utopias today?’, I will not foreclose the question of utopia because it seems to me to be intimately linked to the contemporary concern with memory, borne out of a desire for the future. There is, of course, a well-established precedent for locating the utopian impulse within the realms of memory, for example, in the figure Walter Benjamin's angel of history,  or in the mixing of ‘memory and desire’  in T.S. Eliot’s opening to The Waste Land. Theodor Adorno gave a succinct expression of this relationship in Aesthetic Theory, writing ‘ever since Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis, the not-yet-existing has been dreamed of in remembrance’.  Here, memory appears as the anchor for utopia, opening up the space from which it emerges. The anchoring function of memory is significant in an age where temporal boundaries are being increasingly challenged, effecting a sense of displacement that has been noted by several cultural theorists. For instance, Zygmunt Bauman comments that, ‘due to the ‘pendulum-like’ trajectory of historical sequences a close proximity of forward and backward or ‘utopia’ and ‘nostalgia’ pregnant with confusion is virtually inevitable’.  In this regard, utopia is peculiarly relevant to my study, where the museum, that shrine to the past, is explored in its relation to digital technologies, the current symbol of the future par excellence. Furthermore, my focus is on memory, specifically the discourse of collective memory, and its uptake in discussions about preserving cultural heritage digitally. The question of digital technology is not insignificant, since it potentially re-defines the transmission of culture as the flow of information. Nor is memory a politically benign concept in the projects, press and policies that have the digitisation of cultural heritage as their goal. The central proposition is that a loss of memory is what is at stake in a failure to digitise. Yet there is an irony in making claims, in the name of memory, for a technology which, arguably, changes the nature of how we experience time. As Andreas Huyssen, claims ‘the very organization of this high-tech world threatens to make categories like past and future, experience and expectation, memory and anticipation themselves obsolete’.  The study of memorial forms also entails the study of the history of communication technologies; Paul Ricoeur’s observation that ‘what is peculiar to a history of memory is the history of the modes of its transmission’  highlights the extent to which they are inter-related. Developing this thought, Patrick Hutton adapts Walter J. Ong’s theory of media communications to broadly distinguish four modes of mnemonic representation. He links ‘orality with the reiteration of living memory; manuscript literacy with the recovery of lost wisdom; print literacy with the reconstruction of a distinct past; and media literacy with the deconstruction of the forms with which past images are composed’.  In its latest phase, the opportunities for a more reflexive engagement with memory are both obstructed and enabled by technology. While the capacity to access and interact with heritage collections are greatly increased by their presence online, the process of digitisation potentially disrupts the conventional sequence of past, present and future events, since cultural memory (that sense of the past defined through human actions or social phenomena), is not applicable to the digital archive, which has a time-based element internal to the workings of technical media.  The attendant concern is that in an environment of instant messaging and real-time updates, temporal categories will be swallowed up by an all-pervasive present. 

However, rather than allowing that this situation precludes the emergence of utopian visions, I want to examine how the utopian project is manifested in the wake of temporal crisis. Contra Huyssen who concludes that ‘there can be no utopia in cyberspace, because there is no there there from which a utopia could emerge’,  I will suggest that there is a viable account of memory, technology and utopia beyond the narrative of ‘techno-utopianism’ critiqued by many contemporary commentators. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Futures Past: SF History in Leeds, P.5 Professor Cyril Oakley

Professor C.L. Oakley (1907-1975)
David I. Masson was previously featured on this blog for his role in founding the University of Leeds SF collection by donating books from his personal library. The rest originated in the gift of Professor Cyril Leslie Oakley, who began in 1971 to present his own extensive collection of science fiction literature to the Brotherton Library's Special Collections.

Appointed Brotherton Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Leeds in 1953, Professor Oakley was a founding fellow of the College of Pathologists and at various times edited the Journal of Pathology and the Journal of Medical Microbiology. He was awarded a D.Sc. by the University of London in 1953, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and made a CBE in 1970. He died in 1975.

Sadly, there are few that now remember Professor Oakley but SF was just one of his many and varied interests. Former students and colleagues can recall a lecture on ‘Bug-eyed Monsters’ addressed to members of the Medical and other student societies. These were illustrated with slides of the magazine covers that later formed part of his gift, notably Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, which have recently been made available online. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to assume that Oakley's interest in SF was informed by his career as a scientist, and whether his lecture was delivered in a serious manner or just for fun (one would guess the latter), it is still indicative of the extent to which these realms were more closely aligned in the past than perhaps they are today. The time when SF stories were regarded as the speculative branch of science as opposed to complete fictions are therefore within living memory, and it's a period I'd like to explore further in this blog.

This post adapts text from the booklet Visions of the Future: The Art of Science Fiction by Paul Whittle and Liz Stainforth.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Guardian Books - Five Science Fiction Novels for People who Hate SF

Guardian Books recently featured the article, 'Five Science Fiction Novels for People who Hate SF'. This title is in-keeping with a slightly annoying tendency of some literature feature writers:- to offer a pre-emptive apology, assuming that readers will be automatically put off by the SF label.

But is this really reflective of what people think? So often has the well-worn, albeit legitimate, argument about SF's resonance with societal issues been stated that it seems contrived to make it the opening gambit of the article. Nevertheless, we are told, 'science fiction is all around us, from clandestine electronic surveillance to robots taking our jobs', echoing J.G. Ballard's 1971 observation that, 'everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century'.

In this case the writer, Damien Walter, is obviously an SF fan, so the early disclaimer is soon forgotten because of his evident enthusiasm for the genre. His picks are:

5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
4. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
2. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Le Guin's exploration of gender and race issues, Gibson's prophetic vision of the disturbing progress of technology and Banks' end-of-history based adventure story offer plenty for readers to get their teeth into. All things considered, this list is less 'Five SF Novels for people that hate SF', and more five novels for those that enjoy reading (less catchy, I know!) That being said, I recently joined a book group where the first novel we read will be my suggestion of The Female Man by Joanna Russ. It'll be a good opportunity to find out if the old sterotypes about SF come out in a group of voracious, library-based readers. Watch this (outer)space...

UPDATE: November 2015

Apparently others have also found critics' separation of literary and genre fiction frustrating. See the following articles in The Guardian and The Norwich Radical:

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Life in Wax: Teaching Collections at Leeds

Still from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
For many years now, arguably since the advent of the SF genre, insects have enjoyed an association with aliens in the popular imagination. From the archetypal bug-eyed monster depicted on the covers of early SF magazines, to the nightmarish insectoids of Starship Troopers, to the ant-like physiology of the creatures in Quatermass' pit, writers and filmmakers have drawn much inspiration from the insect world in their representation of martians, forms often regarded as frightening and strange.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the first thing I thought of when I saw the wax models of Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle' (see image below) were dormant, chrysalis-like aliens. These are part of the collection at the University of Leeds' Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and were formerly used in University teaching from the late 19th century onwards. What is unique about Hydrophilus is that it is the only insect to have been reproduced by the noted embryo modeler Adolf Ziegler (1820-1889). Louis Compton Miall (1842-1921), former Professor of Biology at Leeds, was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on The Great Water Beatle, second only to Karl Heider (1856-1935), who provided the drawings that the wax series was based on.

Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle'
While scaled up in size, the models replicate even the minutest features of the beetle throughout different stages of its life cycle, making them ideal for the study of biology and zoology, since they could be observed by a class of students. With real specimens being both expensive and difficult to present, wax models provided a clear visual aid to teachers trying to explain the development of human and animal embryos as three-dimensional structures.

During the latter part of the 19th century, wax models became instruments not just for teaching, but for research. Embryological development was called upon as key evidence in evolutionary debates and the models' great detail and accuracy meant they could be used in new investigations. Due to the public interest in embryology, wax models, along with text and print images, were displayed in a number of private and public museum collections. 

As well as Ziegler's water beetle, the collection holds series detailing the development of the pig, the vertebrate eye, the human heart, and the convolutions of the human brain. For further information, please visit:  

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories now in Leeds University's Digital Library

Just a quick post to alert any interested parties to the fact that selected covers of the Hugo Gernsback-edited magazines Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories are now available to access via the University of Leeds' Digital Library (some images may require a University login). The covers viewable online are designed by Frank R. Paul, the artist most closely associated with Gernsback’s publications. Paul had studied to be an architect and, working in bright colours to offset the poor paper quality of low-cost printing, he became regarded as the most influential artist in the development of modern science fiction artwork. Here's a full list of issues with Paul's cover artwork in the Library's collection:

Amazing Stories

1927: April, May
1928: January-April, July-September, November
1929: January-March, June

Wonder Stories

1930: June, July, August
1931: April, June, August-December
1932: January-December
1933: January-June, August, October-December
1934: January, February, April-June, August, September, November, December
1935: January-October, December
1936: February, April

The completion of this project would not have been possible without the support of the Frank R. Paul estate, and is a step towards preserving these very fragile magazines.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Start the Week: Hari Kunzru and Dystopia - 17 June 2013

Lots to interest SF fans here. The episode focused on Hari Kunzru and his dystopian novella, Memory Palace, where books and the act of remembering have been banned. This work of fiction sits alongside 20 original commissions from leading graphic designers, illustrators and typographers to create a multidimensional story exhibition at the V&A. Jane Rogers discussed her apocalyptic tale, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which is running as part of R4's Dangerous Visions season. This encompasses a selection of contemporary dramas with near-future dysopian themes, as well as new dramatisations of J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World and Concrete Island. James Robertson spoke about his latest novel, The Professor of Truth, which explores grief, justice and the truth, and the photographer Adam Broomberg raised questions about how far images of war capture the truth.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Futures Past: SF History in Leeds, P.4 Fan Fiction

As mentioned in an earlier post, a comprehensive history of science fiction fandom in the UK can be found at Rob Hansen’s excellent website. The subject of Leeds SF fandom has also been an ongoing topic in Peter Weston's Relapse. Added to which, I was recently in touch with Philip Turner about digitising copies of Leeds-based magazine The Futurian War Digest (FWD) illustrated by his Father, Harry Turner.

Futurian War Digest, Vol. 1, No. 9 (June 1941)
This correspondence prompted an interest in the fanzine itself and about the history of fan fiction in Leeds generally. FWD was published by J. Michael Rosenblum, one of Britain's earliest generation of science fiction fans. Active from the mid-1930s, he attended the the world's first SF convention in Leeds in 1937, and in June 1938 he launched his fanzine, The Futurian. In New York, a group of enthusiasts known as ‘the Michelists’ were looking for a new name, and they liked Rosenblum’s title to the extent of renaming themselves the Futurian Science Literary Society. Eventually abbreviated to ‘the Futurians’, the members included many who would go on to become prominent figures in the development of science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl and Donald Wollheim. However, it was 1945 before they acknowledged their debt to Rosenblum’s fanzine. He continued to self-publish fanzines under various Futurian titles throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, including FWD, which first appeared in October 1940. The zine ran for 39 issues, the last being released in March 1945, and is notable for coining the term 'fanzine' in an article from Vol 1, No 6 by Leslie Croutch. The fact that the publication ran throughout the entirety of the war heavily influenced the themes of the issues. Topics included 'Post-War Prospects As Seen by the President of the British Fantasy Society' and 'Post War Plans'. Of his Father's friendship with Rosenblum, Philip Turner said:

My father knew Mike Rosenblum [...] pretty well -- the Manchester and Leeds science fiction fans used to visit one another regularly, and go to London for events. So when M.R. wanted someone to put an illustration on the front page of issue 6 of FWD, after 5 text-only issues, my father was a logical choice of artist. He also did covers for 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14.
Other cover artists included R.L. Bradbury, D. Elder, Bob Gibson, Edwin MacDonald and Arthur Williams. Rosenblum's early efforts, along with the 1937 convention, made a significant contribution to the fan fiction movement in Leeds, and nationally. However, by the following year, the focus was already beginning to shift to London. The second SF Convention, which was far better attended, was held in Holborn on 10 April 1938, and it was decided at the Annual General Meeting of the Science Fiction Association (SFA) to transfer its headquarters from Leeds to London.

By way of an aside, in the course of reading through back issues of Relapse, I found this reference to the University's own exhibition, which I helped put together:

The 75th anniversary of the world’s first SF convention (in Leeds) [...] was due to fall on 2nd January 2012. This was something we simply couldn’t miss! Rob suggested we should visit Leeds and scout-out the location at the Theosophic Hall, which he’d discovered was still standing. And we need to do it soon, he said, because there was an exhibition at the University (‘Visions of the Future: The Art of Science Fiction’) which closed on 11th June. Rob had supplied material for this, and had put the curator in touch with Jill Godfrey, daughter of Harold Gottliffe (who took the historic photographs of the 1937 con) and he was anxious to see how the promised panels on fandom had turned out.
This passage reminded me of how exciting it was to see a resurgence of interest in SF at the time (largely due to Andy Sawyer's exhibition at the BL), and how much I learned about the University's collection through being involved. It was also great to have contributions from local experts and SF enthusiasts as part of the project, and to be able to put on an exhibition in Leeds, the place where it all began.  

Friday, 31 May 2013

Dreams of a Low Carbon Future - New Graphic Novel Project

Artwork by James Mckay
Scientists based in the Energy Building at the University of Leeds have won £25k funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to produce a graphic novel entitled Dreams of a Low Carbon Future. The novel will be a collaboration between scientists, artists, and school children, and will examine the issues of climate change and how we adapt our society to achieve a low carbon sustainable future.

The project is currently seeking artists and designers from the University's UGs, PGs, academics and support staff who are interested in participating in this project.

5,000 copies of the graphic novel will be printed. It will be launched at Thought Bubble Comics Festival in Leeds (23-24 November 2013), and exhibitions of artwork will be held at the Cartoon Museum London and the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery on campus in early 2014.

High profile contributors include the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Prof. David Mackay, Futurologist and author of You, Tomorrow, Dr Ian Pearson, and US environmental activist and author of Endgame, Derrick Jensen.

The project is managed by James Mckay, a professional comics artist working for 2000AD magazine and manager of the Doctoral Training Centre for Low Carbon Technologies.

Participants are invited to contribute:   

* Comic strip art   
* Single images e.g. sketches/paintings
* Text e.g. poems, stories that could be illustrated by other artists   
* Design – help design, format the book and promotional material (e.g. posters, flyers etc.)   
* Concepts – what do you think the future will look like?

Anyone with Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Futurist/comics/graphic novels interests, or with interests in the environment, technology or science in general will hopefully find this a fascinating, unusual project to be involved in.

ANY contribution, no matter how small, will be valuable. Please contact James at for further information.

Friday, 17 May 2013

SF Small Ads: One Giant Leap for Amateur Radio

The year is 1925, one year prior to the launch of Hugo Gernsback's first issue of Amazing Stories. This was the magazine that, along with Gernsback, would later be credited for the invention of scientifiction- science fiction but not as we know it... It is for his contribution to SF that Gernsback is now remembered, the Worldcon Hugo Awards are named in his honour. But, as a former electrical engineer, his first interest was actually amateur radio. 1925 was the year he launched WRNY, an AM radio station that operated in New York and ran until 1934.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century amateur radio was a widespread hobby. In 1912 Gernsback said that he estimated 400,000 people in the U.S. were transmitting or picking up radio signals, and it was presumably audience demand that led to the establishment of WRNY. The first broadcast was on 12 June, 1925 and was covered by The New York Times. The programme included an address from the radio pioneer Lee de Forest and two hours of live musical entertainment. In those early days the idea was that anyone could build their own radio and start picking up frequencies and there were so many stations, it wasn't unusual for them to share the same frequency at different times during the day.

The prevalence of small ads. in contemporary magazines and other Gernsback publications, including Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, testifies to the popularity of amateur radio. However, Gernsback was also a notorious self-promoter and often used his publications to cross-market one another; some titles would carry the radio station’s call letters on the cover and his company, Experimenter Publishing, produced several specialised publications for radio. In the adverts, amateur radio enthusiasts were called fans and frequently petitioned to buy the latest manuals, which covered such mind-boggling topics as 'radiotics' and 'broadcastatics'.

Still, amateur radio wasn't the only pursuit vying for the attention of the discerning reader- magic sets, night classes, exercise programmes and thinly veiled appeals to enlist for the Navy were among the other adverts. These build up a detailed, if slightly off-putting, picture of the contemporary SF enthusiast: male, possibly lonely and lacking in confidence, with an interest in all things technical and/or magical. Even during this early phase, the stage was being set for the familiar geek-sterotypes, although the later professionalisation of radio would lead to the emergence of an even more unsavoury character... the DJ.

Through his publishing actvities, Gernsback had a significant influence on the growth of early broadcasting. So, while perhaps a more modest achievement than Father of SF, his shortlived ascendancy over the airwaves is nevertheless an interesting footnote in SF's history.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Future Foods: Episode 1 - Cereal Solutions

Sci-Fi Forward dons a pair of investigatory moon boots and prods at the sugar-coated underbelly of space-themed breakfast cereal in the first of a new series looking at the many ways in which science fiction has influenced The Food What We Eat.
Breakfast - the most important meal of the day
As a child in the 1980s I was spoilt for choice when it came to cereal. Humdrum offerings such as Corn Flakes and Bran Flakes were quickly supplanted by more exciting fare such as Rice Krispies and Sugar Puffs once I realised that a combination of pleading with/moaning at my poor Mum in the supermarket could result in the purchase of teeth-dissolvingly good treats. My desire to make DOUBLY SURE I ingested my recommended daily allowance of sugar in a single spoonful wasn't my only motivation when it came to choice of cereal however, I was also hypnotised by a combination of cartoons, commercials and 'collectable' free gifts. Muesli may well be good for you but Frosties had an animated talking tiger. Called Tony. Who wore a cravat. Ace. 

Whether I was putting together a collection of almost unplayable flexi discs by bands I'd never heard of or amassing enough of those stalwarts of 'Weren't the 80s TOTALLY BONKERS' TV shows, Spokey-Dokeys TM, to drive my neighbours to an early grave as I clicked and clacked up and down the street, my sticky-pawed formative years seemed to derive an unreasonable amount of excitement from cereal. And it wasn't all about promotional items... Firstly there were 'Kellogg's Variety Packs' which featured eight wee packets of different cereals and were usually bought to 'take away with us' when we went on holiday. In the monochrome world of the 1980s, Variety Packs offered the discerning child an almost unbelievable amount of choice at breakfast (and gave my Mum a wonderful opportunity to fill the back of our cupboard with uneaten packets of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes). And then there were The Sci-Fi Cereals. As we know, few things are more appealing to a child than The Wonders Of Space, with its endless possibilities and lack of school teachers. Apart from sugar and chocolate, the one thing guaranteed to elicit a nauseating whelp from my little face when browsing the cereal aisle with Mum was a tenuous link to The Great Black Void wrought in cartoon-form on the front of a packet. Maybe I could save the world from the clutches of Generic Space Alien Man... by eating some crisped rice.

Anyway... Dear reader, why not come with me as I run down the Top Five Sci-Fi Themed Cereals... EVER!!!?

5. Ricicles

Essentially Rice Krispies with added sugar, Kellogg's used a 'Henry's Cat' tie-in to market the product at launch, realising several years after everyone else that said cartoon was in fact just a shit 'Roobarb & Custard'. The perma-stoned jaundiced feline was soon removed from packets and replaced by {drum roll} Captain Rik. Looking like a cross between the MilkyBar Kid and that irritating green alien knobcake from The Flintstones, it seems fair to assume that Rik purchased his commission in the manner of a Victorian nobleman, unless 'flying round a bowl of cereal with a wimpy jetpack like a wheezing bee' is considered enough of an achievement to warrant promotion to Captain in The Future. Ricicles still have a space theme today but the redesigned Captain Rik looks even more gormless. They're just a bit, you know, 'ordinary'...  Kellogg's added divvy marshmallow bits at one point in an attempt to inject a bit of interest, but this move resulted in a drop in sales so they soon reverted to the 'puffed rice with sugar' of my childhood. Full marks for staying power but Ricicles only scrapes into the top five.

Captain Rik then and now
4. Nestle Honey Stars 

The first entry for a cereal I've never actually eaten comes from Evil Corporate Megalith Nestle. Honey Stars are only available in the UK as a ludicrously expensive import from online grocery stores and, as much as I'm committed to this blog, I aren't prepared to pay £10 a box. Soz. They do look pretty cool though. The cereal itself is star-shaped, with the recent addition of the occasional rocket-shape. *Amaze*. Sadly the cereal loses points as its mascot is a lame-ass bear in a spacesuit. Literally seconds of thought must have gone into that one. Seriously, just look at him. What a nipple end.  

UnBEARably bad box art

3. Ready Brek

How exciting can porridge be? Thanks to a stroke of genius from the marketing bods at Lyons, the answer is 'very'. The message was simple: eat Ready Brek and you will attain a radioactive orange glow during your walk to school. More than once I could've sworn I saw this aura reflected in a car or shop window on a cold winter's morning. In your face Jack Frost. The fact that I developed no interesting mutations or special powers after consuming Ready Brek beyond a slightly higher tolerance to chilly weather was rather disappointing but maybe if I just ate a few more packets...


"Get up and glow" kids

2. Weetos Meteors

I mean HOLY SHIT y'all. If Weetos Meteors had existed when I was a kid I would have died of a wheat overdose before high school. Yer standard Weeto was pretty darn special, depositing so much chocolate into the bowl that they made Coco Pops look worryingly anaemic. And the trippy adverts sparked the catchphrase "Derek was reaaaaaaaally bored" which led the similarly named Dad of my mate Johnny to think that our entire school was taking the piss out of him. 

Evidently Weetos included copious amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide... 

But they were just hoops. Been there, done that. Meteors though?!! And did I mention that alongside these meteors are stars? Wow. Not only that, they're actually pretty good for you, containing hardly any sugar, salt or fats. If they threw some rockets into the mix they'd be pushing for the number one spot...

1. C3-PO's

C3-PO's what?

Ok, so they were never released in the UK (as far as I know) and they were apparently bloody awful but come orrrrrrn! This was a cereal with serious pedigree. Freakin' C3-PO was no mere cartoon, this dude helped rid the universe of the Evil Galactic Empire. What I would have given to have his gold head stare at me from the breakfast table when I was a kid. And you didn't just get any old free gifts with this bad boy, there were Star Wars related trading cards and even a creepy Luke mask should you want to convince your friends that, not only were you said Jedi Knight, but that you'd spent all your cash on botox and cocaine.

This is either the back of a box of C3-PO's or a Nazi recruiting poster, I'm not sure which

The accompanying ad campaign was pretty weird too. Our camp friend is seen evading lazer fire by dashing into a cave with a tray of cereal, revealing to R2-D2 that he wants to name the cereal after himself while wearing a pinafore, then looking rather frightened as a fluffy monster puts his arm round him like a predatory disc jokey. It also features that staple of advertisements, the 'nutritious breakfast', which every cereal is meant to be 'part of'. I mean really, who the hell has an orange, several slices of toast and a whole pot of coffee on top of cereal?

"Two crunches in every double-o" apparently

So there you have it, conclusive proof that a product need not be either a) any good or b) available in your own country for it to be OFFICIALLY THE BESTEST THING THERE IS if it's associated with the right sci-fi movie.

Rational thought 0 - Capitalism 1

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

To Boldly Go: The Curious Musical Career of William Shatner

1968: “The times they are a-changin’” (if they haven’t in fact changed already); the world of popular music is certainly in flux. A transformation – from pop to rock, from single to album, from entertainment to art, from the frivolous and disposable to the deadly serious – is well underway. The White Album by the Beatles; Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones; Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; Astral Weeks by Van Morrison; Scott 2 by Scott Walker. All released in 1968, all frequently, and rightly, cited as testament to seismic changes in the western cultural – let alone the musical – landscape, and now part of the canon, featuring in countless ‘best of’ lists. Less well-documented (and certainly less celebrated) is a debut LP from that same epochal year, aptly titled The Transformed Man, by one William Shatner.

His journey from jobbing actor to international recognition as Captain Kirk is a transformation in itself, before even considering his irregular detours into literature (though the University of Leeds SF collection is curiously lacking in his written works – namely the Tek War series, once referenced in an episode of Father Ted) and especially his alternative career as a recording artist.

Capitalising on the Kirk connection, he shamelessly appeared in full Star Trek regalia on the sleeve of The Transformed Man – but the contents are not the cosmic journey into alien worlds and parallel universes that the casual record-buyer may have been deceived into imagining lay within. It is something very different that awaits the listener… strange and yet familiar. The album stands as Shatner’s attempt to capture the heady, experimental spirit of the times, before the decade went into meltdown; though ostensibly a spoken-word album, his unique delivery defied such narrow categorisation. In a nod to his roots in theatre, he included Shakespearean soliloquy (‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’) alongside re-workings of contemporary hits (‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’), all set to an easy listening backdrop. If questions had been raised about the wooden qualities of Shatner’s acting, this album, regarded by most as a novelty cash-in at the peak of Star Trek’s popularity, was savaged by reviewers: describing his “reading of Hamlet as a hammy doped-up cabaret turn” was unkind, and “his Romeo sounds like a child molester” possibly libellous, but “the worst record in the history of music” was surely excessive.

A re-interpretation of the re-interpretation of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’

After such brutal treatment, he retreated from music to concentrate on other projects, only surfacing during the 1970s for such occasions as this rendition of ‘Rocket Man’ at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. Though some of these live performances were captured for dubious posterity, he remained silent over the following decades; during this exile Leeds-based band the Wedding Present paid tribute (of sorts) with 1987’s ‘Shatner’, whilst the man himself spent long years in the musical wilderness. Therefore his eventual return to the recording studio in 2005, with Has Been, was as unexpected as it was startling. Other than an opening deconstruction of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, it contained original Shatner compositions, the title track in particular reading as a cutting riposte to his critics. In collaboration with credible artists such as Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, and Henry Rollins, Has Been showcased Shatner’s remarkable ability to re-invent himself. This success was consolidated by his next album, Seeking Major Tom, his most recent to date, a return to cover versions, science fiction and space themes, with his strange career – in many respects a uniquely (post-)modern one – having come full circle.