Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Utopia: Crafting the Ideal Book - Online Exhibition for 2017

Utopia by Thomas More (Kelmscott Press)
Continuing in the vein of my recent utopia post, next year will see the launch of a new digital exhibition for the University of Leeds Library's Special Collections - Utopia: Crafting the Ideal Book.

The centrepiece of the exhibition comprises two significant copies of Thomas More's Utopia, held in Special Collections. The first is an early edition, published in 1518 by the famous printer and publisher Johann Froben. The second is an 1893 edition, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in a limited edition of 300 (see image right).

The theme of utopia will be explored through its dialogue with More’s text, addressed directly by Morris in the foreword to the Kelmscott Press edition, and by drawing attention to the production methods and collection histories of both.

For example, the re-printing of Utopia by the Kelmscott Press reflects Morris’s interest in the book as a work of art and his belief in the transformative role of art and culture in social life. In the short essay, ‘The Ideal Book’, he wrote:

The picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man's life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive.

The exhibition will be launched in 2017 and will be available from Special Collections' online exhibitions page.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: The Adventures of Spaceship Hawkwind, starring Robert Calvert and Michael Moorcock

Formed in late-1960s London, Hawkwind were the pioneers of a strand of Progressive Rock known as ‘Space Rock,’ incorporating cosmic themes and musical experimentation in a style which assimilated “repetitive hypnotic beats and electronic/ambient soundscapes.” Their shifting line-up was augmented by the addition of South African-born poet and writer Robert Calvert, who had been involved with street theatre and underground magazines, and occasionally by the English author and editor Michael Moorcock; both shared the same counter-cultural aspirations and background in the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill area as the band, and brought literary and particularly science-fictional inspiration to Hawkwind’s sound.

From their first (and only) hit, 1971’s ‘Silver machine’, with lyrics by Calvert, and on the subsequent album In Search of Space, Hawkwind produced otherworldly music and explored science fiction themes, creating the template for a series of ground-breaking albums during the 1970s. In Search of Space and the follow-up album, Doremi Fasol Latido, introduced the ‘Starfarer’ concept, “a loose story line involving the adventures of Spaceship Hawkwind and its eventual crash-landing on Earth.” Calvert functioned as the band’s ‘resident poet,’ giving spoken-word recitals during concerts, composing lyrics and appearing as lead vocalist on record. Favourites on the UK’s then-flourishing free festival circuit, Hawkwind presented an on-stage spectacular with dancers and lightshow to accompany their live performances – captured on 1973’s Space Ritual, regarded as “the ultimate space rock album.” Lavishly packaged, the artwork was by regular associate, graphic artist Barney Bubbles, who also wrote a short sci-fi story of Spaceship Hawkwind for the performance programme, building on their existing overall Starfarer concept of the band travelling through time and space. Calvert’s manic-depressive condition and the demands of touring took their toll, and he drifted in and out of the line-up, his role on stage and as lyricist intermittently filled by his friend Michael Moorcock as a self-confessed “understudy,” who contributed ‘The Black Corridor’ (adapted from his own 1969 novel) and ‘Sonic Attack’ to Space Ritual.

Hawkwind - Space RitualHawkwind - In Search of Space

A prolific author and, from 1964, editor of the magazine New Worlds – where he had published some of Calvert’s poetry – Moorcock found acclaim with the Cornelius Quartet of novels, following the weird and wonderful adventures of central character, Jerry Cornelius, a psychedelic harlequin-secret agent, an anti-hero of the times, picking his way through the debris of ‘swinging London’ and all points beyond. The first of the novels, 1968’s The Final Programme, was filmed in 1973 (though the result was much to the author’s disapproval); Mick Jagger was reputedly approached to play the lead, only to decline the Cornelius role as ‘too freaky.’ The Jagger connection was not coincidental – amongst other endeavours, Cornelius fronts a pop group known as the Deep Fix, a name Moorcock used in turn for his own musical project when he came to record the 1975 Concept Album The New Worlds Fair. In the same year he contributed lyrics to, and was credited as the originator of, Hawkwind’s album Warrior on the Edge of Time – based on his concept of the Eternal Champion, a recurring character found in different guises throughout his work, including Jerry Cornelius. The connection between author and group was further cemented by a series of dubious genre novels attributed to Moorcock and Michael Butterworth (though primarily the work of the latter, Moorcock’s name guaranteed respectable sales), beginning with Time of the Hawklords in 1976, featuring the band as protagonists in a series of sci-fi-inspired adventures.

Michael Moorcock - the Cornelius ChroniclesMichael Moorcock & The Deep Fix - The New Worlds Fair

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of TimeMichael Moorcock & Michael Butterworth - Time of the Hawklords

Once Robert Calvert took the helm on a more permanent basis as lead singer and songwriter in 1976, he oversaw a shift in Hawkwind’s conceptual concerns. Their later-70s output focused more on dystopian and futuristic themes, closer in spirit to the contemporary work of J. G. Ballard than the fantasy territory they had previously explored, in keeping with Calvert’s experimental solo albums. This phase began with Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (referencing the classic magazines of early science fiction), continued with 1977’s acclaimed Quark Strangeness and Charm and culminated in their final album of the decade, PXR-5, the last to feature Calvert, and released after his departure from the band. Calvert and Moorcock (whose versatility saw him expertly turn his hand to any style within – and occasionally outside – the sci-fi genre) had similar preoccupations, and while Calvert was a captivating, at times eccentric and flamboyant front-man, the pair’s work is complementary. After Calvert left to pursue his own projects, Moorcock continued to perform with Hawkwind on a regular basis and worked with them throughout the 1980s, notably on the albums Sonic Attack and Chronicle of the Black Sword, “all but one of whose songs are based on his Elric saga (the other, ‘Needle Gun’ is about Jerry Cornelius).”

Hawkwind - Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicHawkwind - Quark Strangeness and Charm

Whilst Robert Calvert sadly died in 1988, Michael Moorcock remains a celebrated and successful author; a variety of splinter groups featuring original or one-time members of Hawkwind (including founders Dave Brock and Nik Turner) continue to tour the UK and world-wide, under a number of related band names. In their various incarnations they are recognised as innovators and prime exponents of a distinctive and enduring style, an influential and widely-respected group whose admirers include such diverse musical figures as Jello Biafra, Julian Cope, John Lydon and Henry Rollins.

Hawklords Tour November 2016

Thursday, 27 October 2016

A Dream of a Low Carbon Future: New Graphic Novel for 2016

View of York's streets in 2150
In 2013, I wrote a post about the graphic novel project 'Dreams of a Low Carbon Future', coordinated by James McKay, a comic artist and manager of the doctoral training centre for low carbon technologies at the University of Leeds. The launch of the novel was accompanied by an exhibition at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, featuring selected items from Leeds University Library's Science Fiction Collection in Special Collections. Following the success of the first novel, James is now working on a second novel, to be launched at the Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival on the 5-6 November 2016.

Rather than multiple visions, this second novel focuses on one dream of a low carbon future, viewed through the eyes of a young girl in the year 2150. The story unfolds in the form of a history lesson, which goes through the changes to the environment that have taken place in the last 100 or so years, particularly in the northern region of England. For example, the caption for one frame (see above) reads:

Lazing in the sun, the port of York straddles the estuary of the River Ouse where it opens out into the saltmarshes of the Bay of York. Once Caer Ebrauc to the Celts, Eboracum to the Romans, Eoforwik to the Saxons, Jorvik to the Vikings, and finally York, its days are numbered, with scientists predicting it will be fully under water within a century. Already, although a thriving port with floating leisure complexes, large numbers of residents have had to evacuate, to be replaced by Da Hai You Min (Sea King) settlers in kychys (floating communities), gaining a living in the ocean of reeds that line the bay.

The inevitable submersion of York under water (by 2250) is not portrayed negatively here. James's thinking is that our current challenge is to attempt to imagine environmental change positively, in contrast to the dystopian tropes that pervade disaster movies.

While coming up with solutions to the environmental problems humanity faces is no easy task, the novel explores such possibilities, drawing from the contributions of school children, students, sustainability researchers and professional artists. The emphasis is primarily on low-carbon technologies but also on changes to the way people live, and is less a plan or roadmap to the future than an imaginative response to future eventualities. Difficult as it is to think of ourselves living and being otherwise, the project shows how stories and SF narratives can help us to try. 

Saturday, 17 September 2016

J.G. Ballard: Landscapes of Tomorrow Book

Following on from the 2014 'Landscapes of Tomorrow: J.G. Ballard in Space and Time' conference, a new edited volume of essays, J.G. Ballard: Landscapes of Tomorrow, has been published by Brill. The publisher recently shared an editor interview on their Facebook page, reproduced below:

An interview with Richard Brown, Elizabeth Stainforth and Christopher Duffy, editors of Dialogue 22, J.G. Ballard: Landscapes of Tomorrow, who answer questions about the volume they recently collected and edited for the Dialogue Series.

1. Describe your interest in J.G. Ballard’s life and art. How did you come to study his writings?

Richard Brown: Personally speaking, I’ve been a fan since I was studying and working in London in the 70s and 80s. It was the experimental Atrocity Exhibition that first excited me. Coincidentally my father-in-law worked in Road Safety which lent an unusual perspective to my early readings of Crash! As a critic of postmodern and millennial literatures I came back to his work in a big way as it matured in new directions around the turn of the century.

Elizabeth Stainforth: I first encountered Ballard’s work as a reader of science fiction and, following on from that, I did my BA dissertation on the The Atrocity Exhibition. Later, I became interested in Ballard’s collaborations with Eduardo Paolozzi in Ambit, which led to an exhibition and essay for the Henry Moore Institute in 2011.

Christopher Duffy: I’ve been a long-time fan, beginning with a teenage enthusiasm for science fiction that steadily matured into an interest in experimental and postmodern literature. Given Ballard’s widespread influence in contemporary British culture – including films, music, and visual art – it seems like he has been a constant presence in many areas during my academic development. Fascinated by textual representations of space, I finally decided to make him the subject of my PhD thesis.

2. Was there a method involved in the selection of essay-chapters for the volume? What were the selection criteria for the work?

As we explain in the Introduction the volume partly emerged from a conference we ran in the University of Leeds on May 4th 2014. Ballardian expert David Pringle had once been a student at Leeds and enthusiasm for his work across the Humanities has grown strongly since those days and entered the curriculum in ways that would have been hard to anticipate back then, partly as a result of the rise of Postmodernist cultural theory and partly, no doubt also, as a result of the successful film adaptations of his work. Contributors to that conference provided the core of the volume. Gradually the Landscapes theme emerged as the focus of a volume and we selected essays and developed them through the editorial process towards various aspects of that theme.

3. How would you describe the current field of Ballard scholarship and criticism, and your volume’s relationship to it?

We chose the Landscapes of Tomorrow theme to highlight significant aspects of emerging research in physical, social, cultural, digital spaces and selected or encouraged development of essays in the light of that theme. One of the great things about Ballard’s work that we hope the volume takes forward is the wide range of academic disciplines that are beginning to register its importance centrally in what they do. Much great work on Ballard has begun to appear and we hope our volume will take this further and with an international dimension for example for North America and for China, areas where Ballard’s work has clear relevance but is not yet fully recognised.

4. How did Fay Ballard’s work come to be included in the volume, and on the book’s cover?

Fay Ballard was brilliant from the start, picking up on news of the conference and contributing fully, though really busy at the time with the exhibition of her own drawings House Clearance, based on found objects from her father’s house following his death in 2009. She was fantastically generous in her enthusiasm for our project and in letting us use a detail from one of her “Memory Box” works, which became our cover image. Her sister Bea was also terrific in her support for our project.

5. What will your next Ballard-related projects be?

Now that Landscapes is out we are having a small launch event together in Leeds and lots of other Ballard related projects are taking place. Chris did a lecture for Liverpool John Moore’s University around the launch of the film of High-Rise, Liz’s invisible library collaboration with Mike Bonsall is ongoing (, Richard is appearing in Rick McGrath’s Deep Ends 2016 and soon speaking at Thomas Knowles’s day workshop on Ballard and the Natural World at Birmingham City University.

About the editors:

Richard H. Brown, Reader in Modern Literature at the University of Leeds, has published widely on the works of James Joyce, among others, and teaches courses in modern, contemporary and millennial literatures.

Liz Stainforth is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is conducting research on digital culture and memory.

Christopher Duffy earned his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds; his doctoral dissertation was on the writings of J.G. Ballard.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: A Brief Survey of the Seventies, Part Two

II. The Concept Album

The ambitious scope of Rock – as opposed to disposable, chart-friendly Pop – grew in the later sixties from its commercially-driven origins and gradually became the province of Serious Artists, many of whom turned to works inspired by, or adapted, from the rich field of science fiction literature. Accordingly by the early seventies, the album, rather than the single, was firmly established as the ideal vehicle for such explorations. These musicians were often keen to promote the source of their conceptual material, drawing on classic pioneering works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the later speculations of Isaac Asimov amongst others, whilst George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four remained a staple across musical genres. Thus was born the science fiction Concept Album.

A notable example of literary inspiration is found in Rush’s 2112 – one side of this 1976 album details an anonymous protagonist’s struggle against the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, guardians of a totalitarian regime suppressing individual thought in the interests of a “Brotherhood of Man” with the aid of their “great computers.” Located in “the bleakness of Megadon,” one of the planets of the Solar Federation, this epic is by the band’s own admission indebted to Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem, and continues to excite debate about its true meaning.

Of the direct adaptations and interpretations of science fiction works, Rick Wakeman’s undertaking of a musical rendering of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth; was one of the more ambitious. No stranger to the grandiose gesture (this 1974 album was sandwiched by his historical epics The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Round Table), Wakeman partly self-financed the project, enlisting cult actor David Hemmings (star of Blow-up and Profondo Rosso) as narrator. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir, in its combination of what Rolling Stone described as “pageantry and pretentiousness,” it epitomises a strand of seventies progressive rock which teetered on the edge of bombast and lays itself open to ridicule. Wakeman later revisited the project on its twenty-fifth anniversary in Return to the Centre of the Earth, this time narrated by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame. The latter effort followed his own idiosyncratic take on Nineteen Eighty-Four as concept album, with lyrics contributed by Tim Rice.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, as one of modern science fiction’s seminal texts, had already proven influential in a series of re-interpretations, notably the 1938 radio play adapted by Orson Welles, which reputedly convinced a substantial number of American listeners that the Martians really had landed. Composer Jeff Wayne went one better than Rick Wakeman, though, by securing the services of Richard Burton as Narrator, and then-popular artists Julie Covington, David Essex, Justin Hayward and Phil Lynott to record individual songs for his double-album musical interpretation. Its success was immediate, and enduring. Prescient as he was, even Wells surely couldn’t have envisaged The War of the Worlds continuing to be staged in the twenty-first century, in an extravagant theatrical production with a hologram of Burton narrating from beyond the grave...

Following a debut album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, re-telling selected works of Edgar Allen Poe, in 1977 the Alan Parsons Project chose to tackle Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. Song-writer Eric Woolfson spoke to Asimov, and found him to be “extremely friendly and enthusiastic about the idea.” Intending to explore the inter-woven narrative of the nine stories in detail, the band discovered that the rights had already been sold for film/television production (although nothing materialised until a 2004 film only loosely connected to Asimov’s originals). With the title’s comma also removed for legal reasons, I Robot the album instead covered more generic themes of man’s tendency to act in robotic fashion “as well as the dangers of uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence.” Its cover depicts the band at Charles De Gaulle Airport, then representing the cutting-edge of futuristic architecture, overlaid with a painted ‘robotic brain.’ Their 1982 album, Eye in the Sky, whilst a title shared with an early Philip K. Dick novel, was another in the long line of albums inspired by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The seventies saw the heyday of the Concept Album; by the end of the decade, changing tastes and ever-fickle fashion decreed that the lofty ambition to marry art forms via the long-playing record was not only folly, but terminally uncool (perhaps especially so if it incorporated science fiction). The idea of literary inspiration was condemned as pretentious in an era when virtuouso musicianship could be safely scorned. Names such as Rick Wakeman and the Alan Parsons Project became bywords for the outmoded pomposity of progressive rock (while Jeff Wayne simply slipped into obscurity). Many years would pass before the first signs of cautious critical re-appraisal - if not yet full rehabilitation - of the Concept Album could be detected.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

500th Anniversary of More's Utopia - Connected Communities Festival

I've written on the blog before about Utopia and the early printed and Kelsmcott Press editions of Thomas More's work in the Brotherton Library's Special Collections. The name Utopia refers to the island counter-world to which the characters of the story travel, and can be read as both the good place (eutopia) and no place (outopia). While More's island reflected the expanding geographical knowledge of sixteenth century Europe, during the eighteenth century the spatial utopia gradually gave way to a temporal model and utopian narratives became aligned with the idea of a better or alternative future.

Originally published in Latin in 1516, this year sees the 500th anniversary of Utopia, and a number of projects and special events to celebrate the occasion. Among these was the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Connected Communities Festival 2016; this year’s Festival theme was Community Futures and Utopia. I've been involved with the Festival as part of the project team for My Future York. Inspired by work with York Libraries and Archives and the York Past and Present Facebook group, the project explores the potential of utopian thinking for heritage in York and focuses on how these debates can be harnessed in important ways for local democracy. It encompasses a range of temporal perspectives; from thinking about housing plans that didn’t happen to inviting ideas for the future development of the city.

Utopia logo

More's island of utopia

The Festival was in partnership with The Somerset House Trust’s 'Utopia 2016: a year of Imagination and Possibility'. The designs for the 'Utopia 2016' season (see flag above) were created by Jeremy Deller and Fraser Muggeridge studio. They are inspired by Thomas More’s 22-letter Utopian alphabet, which appears in early editions of Utopia with the Latin translation underneath. You can download a copy of the Utopia alphabet here.

To read more about heritage utopias and the My Future York project, visit

Friday, 20 May 2016

Science Fiction in 1966 – US: Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick


This particularly fertile year saw the publication of works by a trio of arguably the most influential science fiction authors of the second half of the twentieth century: J.G. Ballard (The Crystal World and The Impossible Man); Ray Bradbury (S is for Space); and the even more prolific Philip K. Dick (Now Wait for Last Year, The Crack in Space and The Unteleported Man). Jon Savage’s study of ‘the year that the decade exploded’ considers that among the opportunities 1966 offered was the freedom “to envision what the future might be”; with it, the scope for science fiction was growing. It is probably no coincidence that on either side of the Atlantic, both Ballard and Dick began to emerge as the definitive writers of their era – even if only acknowledged retrospectively.

To look back half a century, for this short study of science fiction in 1966, suggests the difficulty of ‘envisioning the future’ and imagining the world even a relatively short distance into the future, a skill mastered by few artists or thinkers in any field; who knows what those looking back in 2066 will make of 2016, let alone 1966?

Part Two

By 1966 Ray Bradbury was one of the best-known and most successful of American science fiction writers, a position confirmed by the release that year of Fahrenheit 451, adapted from his 1953 novel by the celebrated French director Fran├žois Truffaut in a big-budget production starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. Depicting a future society in which books are banned and indeed burned – the title refers to the temperature at which they burn – the film’s success cemented Bradbury’s status. A documentary made earlier that decade captures him close to the peak of his powers, discussing his inspirations and working methods, a portrait of a confident and contented artist. Born in 1920, a man steeped in the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction magazines and pulp publishing, and a masterful exponent of the genre’s staple mid-century themes of alien contact, space exploration and time travel, Bradbury’s profile grew post-War, with numerous adaptations of his stories for radio, cinema and television helping him to reach an ever-broader audience. By the time of his death in 2012, he had amassed a large and impressive body of work, and remains a revered figure in science fiction’s gradual journey to literary acceptance.

Philip K. Dick, a close contemporary of Bradbury’s, who had also been born in Illinois before moving to California (and likewise largely self-educated), was neither acclaimed nor particularly well-known in 1966, beyond a small group of enthusiastic admirers. He was prolific however, and in that calendar year saw the publication of three novels – Now Wait for Last Year, The Crack in Space and The Unteleported Man – showcasing his wide-ranging interests in literature, philosophy and religion, which he often struggled to fit within the constraints of genre publishing. In addition, he wrote the novel Ubik (not published until 1969) and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, later very loosely adapted as the film Total Recall, in 1966. Though all of these, like the majority of his books from the 1960s onward, are concerned with artificial states of mind, communication and language, the individual’s place within society, and often raise complex questions on the nature of reality, their packaging reflects the limitations which American SF authors still worked under. Startlingly at odds with the imaginative content, their cover artwork relies on a tired formula of ray-guns and rocket-ships which bear little or no relation to Dick’s thematic preoccupations. It was not until 1982, when his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (itself begun in 1966) was filmed as Blade Runner, that the sophisticated nature of his fiction began to be recognised outside science fiction circles. Sadly, he died shortly before the film’s release (though, having been shown the opening twenty minutes of footage, he was quoted by Paul Sammon as saying, “it was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”) The years since have seen a proliferation of further film adaptations of his work, in tandem with a steady re-appraisal of his career, to the point where he is arguably regarded as the genre’s pre-eminent writer, a status Bradbury once popularly enjoyed.


Friday, 29 April 2016

SF Small Ads 2: Magic, Wonder Cures and Other Fictional Sciences

The last SF Small Ads post was all about Hugo Gernsback publications and the craze for amateur radio that pervaded the pages of SF magazines such as Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories. As part of the research for that topic, I took photos of other small ads, which could perhaps be broadly described as lifestyle themed. In fact, the profile of your average 1920s SF reader could probably be fairly well pieced together from the claims and products advertised. See you what you make of the following...

Monday, 28 March 2016

Science Fiction in 1966 – UK: New Worlds and J.G. Ballard


Fifty years ago: a tumultuous year in a decade marked by rapid social, technological and cultural change, a snapshot of 1966 captures science fiction in the process of evolution, absorbing outside influences and re-defining its possibilities – a mirror of its wider social context. With the broadcast of the first Star Trek episode in North America that year, and Doctor Who going strong in the UK since 1963, science fiction had widespread exposure on the rising medium of television and, in Fantastic Voyage, one of the year’s most successful films. There was sufficient interest in publications beyond the mainstream to allow for a thriving sub-culture of independent journals and fanzines. Novels such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! were well-acclaimed examples of science fiction’s continued relevance, even as fresh possibilities emerged. Various factors, including a keen interest in ‘literary’ writers – notably William Burroughs, whose experimental novel Naked Lunch was first published as a paperback in 1966 – suggested new directions for genre fiction, just as modern art and popular music began to incorporate ideas from the avant-garde, which were in turn adopted by the burgeoning counter-culture. These developments helped to create a climate for a gradual move away from traditional science fiction toward more contemporary settings and subversive themes.

To be continued...

Part One 

The highly-regarded English science fiction magazine, New Worlds, began a process of transformation in 1964, when Michael Moorcock took over as editor. Moorcock has written that he was “interested in broadening the possibilities of the SF idiom and New Worlds... seemed the best place to do it.” His predecessor as editor, E.J. ‘Ted’ Carnell, was a stalwart of the domestic science fiction scene since the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s – an attendee at the very first convention of 1937 – and perceived as being representative of an outmoded and conservative notion of the genre. By 1966, Moorcock’s avowed intention after replacing Carnell – to steer the magazine away from its increasingly dated preoccupations with alien invasions and far-flung galaxies, and to embrace contemporary art and avant-garde literature, such as that of Eduardo Paolozzi and William Burroughs – was being put into practice. February 1966 saw the inclusion of ‘A Two-Timer’ by David I. Masson, Head of Special Collections at the University of Leeds, who brought an academic rigour and keen interest in linguistics to the established time-travel formula.

Another writer eager to seize the opportunity to adapt and subvert familiar concerns was J.G. Ballard, already an established author but whose work at that time was moving in the same trajectory as the magazine, away from traditional themes and toward the experimental works for which he was to become (in)famous. Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, relates that it was in fact Carnell, while associated with “a rather conventional view of the nature of science fiction”, who had begun to encourage this development as early as a decade before, and Moorcock who endorsed it. Carnell recognised “that science fiction needed to change if it was to remain at the cutting edge of the future” and accordingly urged Ballard to “concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.” While his full-length books that year, The Crystal World and the short-story collection The Impossible Man, broadly conformed to genre expectations, he used New Worlds and the literary magazine Ambit (for which he contributed a lengthy review of Burroughs to the Spring 1966 edition) as vehicles to pursue his new direction. These “fragmented narratives” or “condensed novels” included ‘The Assassination Weapon’, ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ (published in both magazines) and, appearing in the 1966/67 edition of Ambit, ‘The Assassination of J.F. Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race’, short pieces that were later to form part of one of his most notorious books, 1970’s The Atrocity Exhibition. 1966 thus found Ballard in a period of transition, publishing conventional work while simultaneously developing the more daring and disturbing approach which was to carve him a unique and hugely influential place in modern science fiction.

Ambit #29, Autumn 1966

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Museums of the Future

Museums make fairly frequent appearances in SF novels, as discussed in the 2012 post, 'The Museum in Science Fiction'. Often, the encounter with the museum in SF is a metaphor for the past (former societies, wars, lost civilisations etc.) and a counterpoint to the future or parallel world of the story. This association is perhaps related to the management of time such institutions are implicated in. Debates in the museum profession are revealing of a similar impulse but from the perspective of the future as well as the past. However, beyond the perennial concern about the future of museums, there seems to have been an intensification of future-gazing type surveys and opinion pieces during the last few years, in a distinctly science fictional vein. The influence of scientific and technological developments, particularly involving the Internet, is clearly part of the reason for this trend. Therefore, I thought I'd do a quick round-up of commentaries on what the 'future museum' might look like.

One of the most interesting things I noticed was that the word 'platform' came up a number of times. This term is increasingly associated with digital media platforms but used in different ways here in relation to museums. For example, in a Tate blog post, Chris Dercon (Director, Tate Modern, London) draws attention to the ever expanding space of the museum, both physical and virtual, writing that 'it is becoming a unique platform for human encounters'. Several contributors to a Museum ID piece also make the connection between the museum and social technologies; Peter Gorgels, (Internet Manager, Rijksmuseum) says: 'Modern museum visitors want to follow their own interests and form their own opinions. The museum of the future will therefore function more as a "meaning platform" where users are inspired to chart their own course and to become, as it were, designers and artists themselves. The digital domain has a logical role to play in this development'.

Others emphasised the social over the technological aspects of the platform model; Clare Brown (Program Head, Master of Arts in Exhibition Design, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University) commented that exhibit designers are becoming inspired to 'consider exhibitions as nimble platforms for information exchange and social engagement' and Andrew McClellan echoes these thoughts in the Frieze article, 'What is the future of the museum?' He also points out, 'museums can be palliative as well as acting as platforms for global dialogue, and will thrive to the extent they successfully manage their dual identities as zones of engagement and escape'. Finally, in response to the Guardian's question, What should our museums look like in 2020?, Robert Hewison stressed the need for museums to be flexible, suggesting, 'they are meeting places for people and ideas. Their future depends on remaining a dynamic part of the public realm'.

It's difficult to tell how far these ideas constitute prophecies about the museum of the future. Nevertheless, it's a useful insight into the history of the present and the way in which digital technologies are having a growing impact on how people conceptualise their interactions with culture and each other. And if museums in the future do end up becoming increasingly digital, let's just hope the oft-predicted digital dark age doesn't catch up with them...

Thanks to Bethany Rex for the links and for drawing my attention to this topic.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: A Brief Survey of the Seventies

I. Following on from the 1960s, with its space race themes and craze for all that was cosmic and mind-expanding, both David Bowie and Pink Floyd carried their pioneering work into the next decade, to great acclaim. The 1970s also saw the totalitarian state-surveillance vision of George Orwell’s 1949 novel of the nightmare near future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, provide a topical musical theme for a number of artists.

In any discussion of science fiction-related popular music of the 1970s, David Bowie looms large; on the fringes of the ‘Sixties Scene’, it was 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ which first brought him widespread attention. That song proved to be the first of several successful forays into the field of science fiction – notably Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as an album and concept (but not a Concept Album) – encompassing themes which run through the decade. Prime examples include his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, an acting role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, his incarnation as Aladdin Sane and the dystopian Diamond Dogs album. The latter grew from Bowie’s original intention to produce a theatrical version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was stymied when the author’s estate refused to grant permission; the songs ‘1984’ and ‘Big Brother’ were incorporated as part of the album. Whilst his musical and thematic content evolved over the decade, echoes of this interest in science fiction surfaced in the later, experimental albums Low (whose cover is a still of Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth and which contains material originally composed for the film’s soundtrack) and 1978’s ‘Heroes’ – specifically in lyrics to songs such as ‘Sons of the Silent Age.’ Bowie even revisited ‘Space Oddity’ and the saga of Major Tom at the dawn of the 1980s, in ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ complete with its ground-breaking promotional video.

Pink Floyd had emerged as a major attraction of London’s UFO Club with their live performances in the late 1960s and, as befitted the times, their early albums showcased a cosmic preoccupation in titles such as ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ A Saucerful of Secrets and ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ alongside the fairy-tale whimsy of wayward song-writer Syd Barrett. After Barrett’s untimely departure from the group, their albums became arguably more serious, and indeed better-selling, tracing a trajectory to perhaps their signature work, 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, credited with transforming Pink Floyd “from ambitious art-house hipsters to international superstars, while influencing virtually every rock band of the past forty years.” Differing theories have been attached to the iconic prism cover art, and the various poster and sticker inserts contained within the album’s gatefold sleeve; however its designer Storm Thorgerson stated simply that “it related mostly to a light show. They hadn’t really celebrated their light show.”

UFO Club Poster featuring Pink Floyd, 1967; The Dark Side of the Moon album cover, 1973

Before and after Bowie’s abortive stage musical, Nineteen Eighty-Four has proved to exert a persistent influence on musicians. The omnipresent “plexi-plastic eyeballs of your special friends” in the California-based band Spirit’s somewhat hazy 1970 homage to Orwell, ‘1984’ crudely conveys the notion of police-state surveillance with the ominous reminder that “you’re never out of their sight.” It was a fruitful theme for well-established artists in the following years; Stevie Wonder included ‘Big Brother’ on his 1972 album Talking Book, which opens “your name is Big Brother; you say that you're watching me on the telly.” Himself being watched by the FBI, John Lennon’s 1973 song ‘Only People’ features the line “we don’t want no Big Brother scene...” The Jam and the Dead Kennedys both incorporated allusions to Nineteen Eighty-Four into their own ‘protest songs’ of the later 1970s. The references have only proliferated in the decades since; despite the passing of the date itself, bands have continued to draw musical inspiration from the novel.