Wednesday, 1 October 2014

House of Usher (1960)

By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.

Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving miniscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.

As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allen Poe. Richard Matheson, arguably one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones that had the most enduring popularity and public notoriety. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle."

When it comes to Gothic horror, one could very easily make the argument that it needs to be in black-and-white or it's not worth doing. The lack of colour strengthens the sense of the Sublime, deepening shadow and invigorating light, and today adding an implicit patina of age. By the Sixties, however, black-and-white didn't give an elegant sense of vintage maturity as it was just old. If you wanted to show that you were tapped in to the day, you had to make a film in splashy Technicolor. To compensate, Corman decided to go overboard. If one were to pick a single word to describe the colours and sets in his Poe films, it would be "lurid"... The outside of a high Gothic manor on a hill may be dark and brooding, but it is under a lurid sky or, in the case of House of Usher surrounded by a lurid green mist. The house is filled with quintessential spooky stuff - cobwebs and stone corridors and the like - but otherwise overindulges colour by painting walls in vividly lurid tones. Corman's Poe films are all purples and reds and greens with smatterings of blues and orange.

Lurid is not only an appropriate adjective for the sets, but also for the script. House of Usher is a rarity in the Poe cycle for actually baring some strong resemblance to the story upon which it is based. Some, like The Raven (1963) and War-Gods of the Deep (1965), merely used a Poe poem as a jumping-off point for some fever dream. Some, like The Haunted Palace (1963), only attached the profitable Poe name to a movie adapting work by an entirely different author (in that case, H.P. Lovecraft). As the first of these films, House of Usher manages to hew closely to the outline of The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe's brand of melancholy, madness, and oppressive gloom didn't necessarily fit with the formula adhered to by AIP's studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff: Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory, Fantasy, and Fornication (the, yes, ARKOFF formula). This House of Usher requires less careful studies of man's descent into madness and more yelling and punching and running and fighting and things exploding in fire and whatnot. The anonymous narrator isn't just a compassionate observer of his friend Roderick, but the red-blooded fiancée of Madeline running on adrenaline. Vincent Price is reserved in his role, and one almost feels his full sardonic wit and gleeful evil wanting to break lose. Or at least, one might want it to. His charisma leaps off the screen no matter what role he is in, and he still has that voice to die for. Soon, Corman will just let him off the leash.

Corman and Price's Poe films, starting at House of Usher, are lurid, gaudy, brash, drive-in movie fare. They aren't to the same level as the early Universal Monster films, but what is? They are nonetheless very enjoyable low-budget flicks good for giving your partner a protective squeeze. They also get better at doing that after House of Usher. It was a good, and relatively successful, first kick at the can, which pays off later in the levels of dark comedy and outright insanity of succeeding films in the series.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A Wedding in Banff and a Honeymoon in Florida

On the lovely, late summer morning of Friday, August 29th, the beautiful Ashley and I were married in Banff, Alberta, Canada. At 8:00am the weather looked like it wasn't keen to cooperate: the stunning view of the Canadian Rocky Mountains that we scouted out was completely obscured by morning fog. By ceremony time, however, it cleared up for ourselves and our 100 guests to enjoy. I admit that it was hard for me to fixate on, with the loveliness of my bride occupying every thought. The unsurpassable surroundings also lent themselves to some incredible photographs by K&E Imaging. Our thanks also go out to Ashley’s choir, Harmony through Harmony, and our good friends, Calgary’s Steampunkish folk duo Hazel Grey, for providing beautiful music befitting the occasion.

While we are both great Disney fans, neither of us are big on just throwing Disney stuff around everywhere. Even the Disney-inspired blog that we share is dedicated to the original stories and source materials of Disney’s films and attractions. Therefore we opted for more subtle nuances, exemplified in the centrepieces of our reception. Each table was dedicated to a different fairy tale or story, most which had a Disney adaptation (I even lobbied for, and got, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!), and the guests had to listen keenly for their table’s song (i.e.: “Whale of a Tale”) to know when to head up for the buffet. 

A sampling of some of our test photos.
Beauty and the Beast.
Winnie the Pooh.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Alice in Wonderland.
I managed to sneak some Disney Haunted Mansion cards in there.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

That said, our honeymoon was to Walt Disney World, the last on my list of Disney resorts not in Communist dictatorships where my religion is illegal. It was the first time for both of us, and provided an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast it with the resorts in California, Paris, and Tokyo. The nature of Walt Disney World as a self-contained property in central Florida certainly lends itself to complaints about the ungodly heat and excessive prices, but I’ll let that slide for the present. Suffice it to say that those reasons unto themselves make us reluctant to go back now that we've checked Walt Disney World off our list.

After having visited other Disney resorts with relative regularity, there wasn't much that Walt Disney World had to show us in the way of rides. I do grade its version of the Haunted Mansion as my favourite, and its version of Space Mountain as a particularly inventive form of physical torture. The rides aren't really what makes Walt Disney World what it is. What really stood out what its variety of different attractions, parades, restaurants, and games. Ashley’s favourite Disney film is Beauty and the Beast (reflected in our costumes for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party), so we were a common sight around New Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, whereupon one could find the Enchanted Tales With Belle character experience, the Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Gaston’s Tavern. The irony is not lost on me that this area replaced what was once the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage, but I’m glad it was supplanted by something my new wife loved. The next time I feature a month of Disney content, I’ll post photos of the various references in New Fantasyland to what used to be.


We were also entranced by Epcot’s World Showcase, leading to several instances of disorientation as to which continent we were actually on, and Animal Kingdom. What I particularly liked about Animal Kingdom was its integration of human culture and natural history, linking animal exhibits and human entertainers together in stunning pastiche of the regions from which they hailed. I won’t soon forget seeing tigers prowl simulated Indian temple ruins while live sounds of sitar and tabla wafted through the air, or eating a delightful light lunch from a boma in the midst of their African savannah, surrounded by giraffes and springboks, at the close of the Wild Africa Trek tour. My favourite thing at Magic Kingdom ended up being the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. In it, you try to help Merlin protect the Magic Kingdom from being taken over by Hades and his army of villains. To do so, you can pick up a free pack of collectable cards each day, each of which activates different character-based spells at interactive “portals.” For example, our final battle was against Chernabog, the demon god from my favourite Disney film, Fantasia. To beat him, we flashed a combo of the Sleeping Beauty and Prince Philip cards, taking care of Chernabog in a flurry of roses, swords, and what we joked as being “the power of love.” Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom hit all the right notes in being interactive, collectable, entertaining, and neatly integrating the characters of Disney’s oeuvre. I certainly hope they consider bringing the game over to Disneyland in California, which is a little easier and affordable for us to get to.

Scenes from our Wild Africa Trek.
We stayed at the delightful Port Orleans French Quarter Resort, which has spurred in me an increased interest in visiting the actual French Quarter of New Orleans, and made sure to tour the other resorts Walt Disney World had to offer. Strangest was the Wilderness Lodge, which was inspired by the National Parks lodges that are only a stone’s throw from where we live. Both of us being museum educators, we immediately slipped into work mode, closely examining the Blackfoot First Nations artifacts on display. Then we got into the spirit (and spirits… phew!) of the South Pacific at the Polynesian Village Resort, where we took in the Spirit of Aloha dinner show. Tasting the food and watching the dancing is almost enough to make me want to visit Hawaii, Tahiti, and Samoa, if not for contemplating how it would be even hotter than Florida. I just can’t get over how hot it was. While we were gone, there was a freak September snowstorm back home, and I was a bit jealous when I found out.

Scenes from the Port Orleans French Quarter Resort,
including the view from out our window.
Outside of Walt Disney World, we paid a visit to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. Originally colonized by Ponce de León in 1513, St. Augustine’s life-giving aquifer sustained Florida’s first Spanish settlement and fuelled reports of a Fountain of Youth. That first settlement, the springs, and the Native American settlement that preceded the Europeans by thousands of years, are all enshrined at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. I question whether the sulfurous spring water actually added life or took it away, but afterwards we carried on to the Castillo de San Marcos. This stone fort built between 1672 and 1695 was a key player in the defense of the Spanish Main, even after it passed from the Spanish to the English, and from the English to the Americans, and from the Americans to the Confederates, and from the Confederates to the National Parks Service. Just across from the Castillo de San Marcos is the Pirate and Treasure Museum, a beautifully designed museum jam packed with atmosphere and interesting artifacts, like the only known pirate treasure chest, one of three remaining pirate flags, and the treasure of multiple sunken vessels, including the infamous Queen Anne’s Revenge. Unfortunately our daytrip didn't furnish enough time to visit the other attractions hearkening back to St. Augustine’s development as a Victorian vacation destination – including two magnificent hotels now serving as the Lightner Museum and Flagler College – but seeing as much as we did was remarkable.

Castillo de San Marcos, exterior and interior.
The old city gates and St. George Sreet, St. Augustine.

Inside the Pirate and Treasure Museum.
Another half-day tour took us out to Wild Florida Airboats and Wildlife Park. There we took to the Everglades by airboat to see alligators, gator nests, egrets and great blue heron in the wild. Included in the premises is a boardwalk through Hawk Swamp, a pleasant boardwalk through a cypress swamp. Walt Disney World also preserved a great deal of swamp, but still in very controlled conditions. Here was the wild thing, towering cypress dripping in Spanish Moss, swampy understory obscured by a floating mat of green water plants. It was a truly iconic experience.

Of course we did spend a day at Universal Studios to enjoy The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. What I can say for it is that it was exquisitely themed but a limited experience. What Universal really did well was recognize that the biggest appeal of Harry Potter is wanting to be a student of Hogwarts and be a part of that world. Therefore they built a pair of shopping areas for you to buy the means to make believe, each focused on a single ride (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Orlando). The rides are well done as quasi-thrill ride simulator attractions that give you a good shaking down, but the real brilliance was in turning the shopping into an attraction. For example, at Ollivanders you may be selected (as Ashley was) to participate in the magic wand selection process. That wand ($45) can then be used to activate the various interactive elements around the two lands… At least, the ones that weren’t “hexed.” Ashley observed that half of the interactives not working was “very Universal.” You could also go into Honeydukes and buy Chocolate Frogs or Everyflavour Beans in movie-accurate packaging ($10), or to the various clothing stores to get your robes ($110), scarves ($35), Quidditch jerseys ($35) and so forth, or to the pub for your cup of butterbeer in a souvenir mug ($15). In short, if you like shopping, Wizarding World is a feast for the senses. Our pace is more Enchanted Tiki Room and Haunted Mansion, so Universal as a whole was nice to visit but left us calling the shuttle for an early pick-up.

You're cut off!!

With the monumental planning of a wedding and a honeymoon now over with (and how weird is it to suddenly find yourselves not having to do that anymore after a year of work?), we’re ready to forge ahead on new content for this blog. Stay tuned next month as we take a Halloween look Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s famous cycle of films based on Edgar Allen Poe! Thank you once again and always for continuing to support Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

A Honeymoon Not in Space

Time has come for our annual month-long break. This time, it coincides with the honeymoon of Ashley and myself, who were married on August 29th and departed for Walt Disney World this morning. As of this moment, we're flying through the sky on a jet aeroplane, and afterwards fighting the contrary impulses to ride all the rides or sleep off a hectic and exciting week.

If you want to follow along on our adventures, be sure to check out the Facebook site for our Disney-inspired blog Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy at We'll try to post some photos as we're going along.

In the mean time, we might have a trip report towards the end of September (and maybe our wedding photos will even be in). But definitely come back in October, when we'll spend a Halloween month enjoying the Edgar Allen Poe films of Vincent Price and Roger Corman! As always, thank you all for your continued support for Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Honeymoon in Space (1901)

Quite often, both the chief delight and the greatest challenge of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances is the quality of the language. Earnest, effervescent, sometimes overwrought 19th century prose can, in the right hands, not only describe the scene with vivid intensity but convey the mood of Victorian formality's overstuffed absurdity. In less capable hands - say those of a Garrett P. Serviss - it never achieves the smoothness of a nice pulp. Instead, they are a mulch of jagged cliches, stilted dialogue, and bizarre Eurocentric racial attitudes.

Thankfully George Chetwyn Griffith was a much more accomplished writer than Serviss. Granted, he certainly has his share of melodrama, unrealistic conversations, and objectionable views towards the ethnic characteristics of Martians. Nevertheless, Griffith's background as a journalist prepared him to deliver his forays into Scientific Romance with the pitch of a Jane Austin novel set in space. For your consideration, this extended excerpt from the opening chapter of A Honeymoon in Space, in which "the tall athletic figure and the regular-featured, bronzed, honest English face" of Rollo Lenox Smeaton Aubrey, Earl of Redgrave, Baron Smeaton in the Peerage of England, and Viscount Aubrey in the Peerage of Ireland, appears in his flying machine to whisk Miss Lilla Zaidie Rennick and her chaperone away from a trans-Atlantic steamer to an arranged marriage of economic convenience...
Mrs. Van Stuyler was shaking in every muscle, afflicted by a sort of St. Vitus' dance induced by physical fear and outraged propriety. Quite apart from these, however, she experienced a third sensation which made for a nameless inquietude. She was a woman of the world, well versed in most of its ways, and she fully recognised that that single bound from the bridge-rail of the St. Louis to the other side of the clouds had already carried her and her charge beyond the pale of human law.
The same thought, mingled with other feelings, half of wonder and half of re-awakened tenderness, was just then uppermost in Miss Zaidie's mind. It was quite obvious that the man who could create and control such a marvellous vehicle as this could, morally as well as physically, lift himself beyond the reach of the conventions which civilised society had instituted for its own protection and government.
He could do with them exactly as he pleased. They were utterly at his mercy. He might carry them away to some unexplored spot on one of the continents, or to some unknown island in the midst of the wide Pacific. He might even transport them into the midst of the awful solitudes which surround the Poles. He could give them the choice between doing as he wished, submitting unconditionally to his will, or committing suicide by starvation.
They had not even the option of jumping out, for they did not know how to open the sliding doors; and even if they had done, what feminine nerves could have faced a leap into that awful gulf which lay below them, a two-thousand-foot dive through the clouds into the waters of the wintry Atlantic?
They looked at each other in speechless, dazed amazement. Far away below them on the other side of the clouds the St. Louis was steaming eastward, and with her were going the last hopes of the coronet which was to be the matrimonial equivalent of Miss Zaidie's beauty and Russell Rennick's millions.
They were no longer of the world. Its laws could no longer protect them. Anything might happen, and that anything depended absolutely on the will of the lord and master of the extraordinary vessel which, for the present, was their only world.
"My dearest Zaidie," Mrs. Van Stuyler gasped, when she at length recovered the power of articulate speech, "what an entirely too awful thing this is! Why, it's abduction and nothing less. Indeed it's worse, for he's taken us clean off the earth, and there's no more chance of rescue than if he took us to one of those planets he said he could go to. If I didn't feel a great responsibility for you, dear, I believe I should faint."
By this time Miss Zaidie had recovered a good deal of her usual composure. The excitement of the upward rush, and what was left of the momentary physical fear, had flushed her cheeks and lighted her eyes. Even Mrs. Van Stuyler thought her looking, if possible, more beautiful than she had done under the most favourable of terrestrial circumstances. There was a something else too, which she didn't altogether like to see, a sort of resignation to her fate which, in a young lady situated as she was then, Mrs. Van Stuyler considered to be distinctly improper.
Griffith was most famous in his day for his political novels of future war, such as Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror and Olga Romanoff. Pure Wellsian cosmic explorations were more rare, and he restrained himself from the socialist revolutionary views that he injected more freely into his war books. These views likely limited his appeal in the United States, but perhaps enhanced his appeal in the milieu of public debates between Edwardian England's intelligentsia. He afforded himself a few allusions in A Honeymoon in Space, primarily in the knockout first chapters, but for the most part contented himself with the romance of stellar exploration between newlyweds.

Though British himself, Griffith's novel is notable in the annals of American Scientific Romances for its unification of the Anglophone peoples. Lord Redgrave represents the old English aristocracy of propriety and heredity, while Miss Zadie represents brash and youthful American inventiveness. Zadie's father came up with the plans for a flying machine powered by a mysterious repulsive force, and Redgrave's money financed it, though primarily as a means to impress the nubile young lady. After rescuing her from her terrible mistake, their wedded union signifies a union of the United States and United Kingdom under the sole dominion of aerial travel. Griffith takes his time to expound on how the non-English speaking parts of the world bristle at this new development, and he goes out of his way to allude to his views on an American presidential election circa 1900 whose contenders have long since been forgotten (William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, for the record, and his implied support was behind McKinley's platform of "sound money").

After their exercises in electioneering, Lord and Lady Redgrave depart for a whirlwind tour of the solar system, with stops on the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. On each orb the couple meet expressions of various hypothetical stages in human development. Life on the Moon is all-but extinct, the atmosphere slowly having ebbed away from Selene's weak attractive force. All that remains are degraded forms living out degraded lives in the black swamps of the Moon's deepest craters. Mars is people by a civilization that has bred out emotions, and thus become barbarous and violent. Their duration on that planet is nasty, brutish, and short. Venus fares much better: on the love-planet are a sensuous, innocent people who fly on diaphanous wings, to whom all manner of sin are unknown. Despite the pleasures of their time spent on Venus, Redgrave and his wife feel they must leave lest they become the serpents.   

A typical interaction on Mars.

After finding Calisto, a moon of Jupiter, to be another dead world like our own Moon, the couple stop at Ganymede. Here are a highly intelligent and evolved race whose technological supremacy is allowing them to hold onto the last ebbs of life on their own dying world. Here, more than anywhere else, Griffith wastes time on his unfortunate racial ideas (with a strange reminder of how prevalent such views were in their time... Griffith was a liberal). When Zaidie asks why these people are akin to Greek statues come alive, her husband replies:
"Survival of the fittest, I presume. These are probably the descendants of the highest races of Ganymede; the people who conceived the idea of prolonging the life of their race and were able to carry it out. The inferior races would either perish of starvation or become their servants. That's what will happen on Earth, and there is no reason why it shouldn't have happened here."
These people are intelligent and sophisticated, stoic and rational. On Venus "the inhabitants had never learnt to sin; here they had learnt the lesson that sin is mere foolishness, and that no really sensible or properly educated man or woman thinks crime worth committing." A group of distinguished Ganymedian scientists acquiesce to join the stellar explorers on a hazardous trip through the thick clouds of Jupiter to it roiling, pyroclastic surface. Barely surviving this, the couple returns the scientists to their slowly extinguishing orb and make way to Saturn.

The ringed world has Griffith's closest approximation to a world that recapitulates evolution. They first descend to the equator, which is so low and heavy in atmosphere that it acts as something of an aetheric ocean populated with aerial jellyfish of sorts. After recklessly prodding those carnivorous monstrosities  (because they're Victorian jerks and that's what they do), they head further north where the atmosphere thins out, discovering primordial saurian swamps and glacial mastodons before finding traces of Saturn's own race of proto-humans. Finally, after several millions of miles, they decide it is high time to return home.

A Honeymoon in Space is not without its clumsy prose ("I wonder if the descendants of the ancestors of the future human race on Saturn will invent anything like a suitable language.") but compared to other novels of exploration of the celestial frontier, it is considerably more enjoyable.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Moon Metal (1900)

Shortly after his unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds, titled Edison's Conquest of Mars, Garrett P. Serviss tried his hand at another Scientific Romance. This novella was considerably more restrained than either Edison's Conquest or the one he would write a few years later, A Columbus of Space. It also benefits greatly by Serviss' restraint.

The Moon Metal begins with a simple and practical premise: the discovery of gold reserves at the South Pole which throws off the gold standard and creates economic chaos throughout the world. Suitable replacements are discussed with little resolution, and one would be excused for thinking that Serviss saw this as his chance to offer up his opinion on global monetary systems. Into this mess arrives Dr. Max Syx, bearing with him a brand new metal of previously unknown type. He has dubbed this metal "artemisium" and offers it as a substitute for the gold standard. And how will he maintain the appropriate and necessary amounts of artemisium available to the world's governments? Why, by his own proprietary knowledge of how to extract it.

Dr. Syx has little fear for the security of his monopoly. He even invites bankers, investors and other scientists out to his mine in the Grand Teton Mountains to investigate the ore for themselves. To the untrained eye, Syx insists, natural artemisium looks virtually identical to ordinary chrysolite, and the process for its extraction is so deceptively simply that it defies the brilliance of anyone but him to discover it. Prospectors flood to the Tetons to try their hand and find a great deal of the ore, quite easily... too easily... but are none the wiser for how to turn it into the precious metal.

This piques the curiousity of a group of investigators, who deduce that it must be Syx himself who is seeding the mountains with an ore that not only seems like chrysolite but is chrysolite. This sets off a scientific mystery story as they try to figure out what Syx is up to and uncover the nature of this miraculous substance which only he can produce. Evidently they did not read the title of the story they are in.

Serviss is at his best in this story. With the cosmos at his fingertips he seems only to produce something banal. When forced to restrain himself to a scientific mystery, and only in so many pages, he fashions a real little gem. The investigators' snooping around is enjoyable and there's some fun nonsense science in it to explain the eponymous element. Most curiously, we see in The Moon Metal an early prognostication of our still-ambitious proposal to mine the celestial bodies for resources that may prove useful (and profitable) here on earth. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Brick Moon (1869)

Edward Everett Hale's 1869 short story The Brick Moon is one of those tales that is more notable for its conceit than for its quality. In this case, it is inscribed in the annals of history as the first fictional account of the creation and launch of an artificial satellite.

Four years prior, Jules Verne had written one of the first scientifically plausible stories of human spaceflight, From the Earth to the Moon. Though it seems clearly wrong to us today, it was a significant departure from prior stellar fantasies like Cyrano de Bergerac's The Other World, where the author ascends by bottles of morning dew. Verne was rigorous enough to accurately calculate the location for a likely American moon launch to within a few miles. The use of a railgun to send payloads into orbit has been an ongoing project in many governments and private corporations as well.

Hale, to his credit, is also very rigorous in the calculations for an artificial moon built from brick. A large part of his short story is dedicated to such calculations, blueprints, and other such things that no doubt many readers would glaze over. At times he becomes nearly obsessive over details, which is mainly responsible for the fact that The Brick Moon is more notable for its conceit than its literary value. Not only does Hale regale the reader with the details of his spherical brick structure, whose purpose is to provide a navigational aid to sailors, but also his own asides into the politics and philosophy of his day.

Another literary device employed by Verne and most authors of the Scientific Romance genre is that of a testimonial. Their stories are recollections by a participant in the fantastic events - say, the journals of a Professor Arronax aboard the Nautilus - who guides the reader through the novel's events. The purpose of a good narrator is, not to put too fine a point on it, to narrate the story and make its events clear and sensible to the reader. They get to ask all the stupid questions that we would want to, and if they refer to a newspaper article of some fantastic happening that we would supposedly all have heard of, they diligently reprint the article "with permission." Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle employed this device for almost the entire final chapter of The Lost World. Ordinarily their purpose would not be to obfuscate the story.

The Brick Moon breaks with convention, to its detriment. Hale almost seems to take deliberate glee in making references to events that were "well-known" and then going off on his own tangents instead of actually telling us what these events were supposed to be. At times it almost feels like this was supposed to be a supplement to another, better, novel which actually tells us a proper story. Rather than romance us with the tale of building a satellite out of brick that accidentally launches with several families still camped out inside - which would be a great story of the Crusoe type - he takes sharp turns back into minutiae of engineering or sectarian Unitarian squabbles. The majority of the narrative is practically gibberish.

It's really too bad, since the conceit itself is very good. The Brick Moon is a story of historic importance that one would read for historic reasons, but not much else. 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Columbus of Space (1909)

From the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th, Garrett P. Serviss was one of the best-known popularizers of astronomy in the United States. Though trained in law, Serviss became a journalist in 1876 for the New York Sun and revealed an aptitude for reporting on scientific matters in clear terms that could be understood by the lay reader. This led to his first publication, Astronomy Through the Opera Glass, in 1888. A decade later he dipped his toes into writing fiction with the publication of Edison's Conquest of Mars, an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

Another decade passed - during which he mostly wrote scientific books - before he wrote another Scientific Romance. This was A Columbus of Space, which began with a lofty dedication "To the readers of Jules Verne's romances..." Thankfully he had the presence of mind to clarify  "Not because the author flatters himself that he can walk in the Footsteps of that Immortal Dreamer, but because, like Jules Verne, he believes that the World of Imagination is as legitimate a Domain of the Human Mind as the World of Fact." He was right not to flatter himself so.

It was for and from books like Edison's Conquest of Mars and A Columbus of Space that Sci-Fi encyclopedist John Clute coined the term "edisonade." In his own words:
As used here the term "edisonade" or "Edisonade" – which is derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe – can be understood to describe any story dating from the late nineteenth century onward and featuring a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors. The Invention by which he typically accomplishes this feat is not, however, simply a Weapon, though it will almost certainly prove to be invincible against the foe, and may also make the hero's fortune; it is also a means of Transportation – for the edisonade is not only about saving the country (or planet) through personal spunk and native wit, it is also about lighting out for the Territory. Afterwards, once the hero has reaches that virgin strand, he will find yet a further use for his invention: it will serve as a certificate of ownership, for the new Territory will probably be "empty" except for "natives". Magically, the barefoot boy with cheek of tan will discover that he has been made CEO of a compliant world; for a single, revelatory maxim can be discerned fuelling the motor heart of the edisonade: the conviction that to fix is to own.
The quality of edisonades varies depending on the author, and Serviss' works are the most edisonadish of the edisonades... The pulpiest, purplest, most petrified stories of the type. Their key is the lionization of specifically American individualism, industry and invention, with a peculiarly American approach to colonial expansion. As the American frontier was declared closed in the 1890's, Serviss simply expanded it into space. In a genre replete with what a friend of mine described as "Victorian assholes in pith helmets," A Columbus of Space charts the pranksterism of four of its most obnoxious kind.

The science-hero of the book is Edmund Stonewall, a quiet and dreamy-eyed inventor whose associates never cease to praise his unfailing, unflappable, imperturbable intelligence. It begins with the very first sentence of A Columbus of Space, and is loathe to diminish in intensity:
I am a hero worshiper; an insatiable devourer of biographies; and I say that no man in all the splendid list ever equaled Edmund Stonewall. You smile because you have never heard his name, for, until now, his biography has not been written. And this is not truly a biography; it is only the story of the crowning event in Stonewall's career.

The effect Serviss was going for is severely diminished by the fact that neither Edmund nor his companions have the slightest clue what they're doing as they traipse around the planet Venus aboard his atomic-powered airship. Most of their choices seem to be made simply for the Hell of doing so, like strapping a gang of the gorilla-like inhabitants of Venus' dark side to a carriage on the underside of their ship, only to have them die in a reckless charge on the stormy winds of the great ice mountains separating the hemispheres. "Reckless" is absolutely the word to describe the nearly senseless and often violent activities of the group during their year and a half on Earth's sister sphere.

If A Columbus of Space was a satire, it would almost be funny. There is such an earnestness in Serviss' delivery that the reader must inescapably conclude that he kind of means it. Edmund with his floolhardy choices and bipolar regret after those choices kill off one or two or a dozen people really does come across like Serviss' ideal man. One has to wonder how much is attributable to the genre and how much is Serviss' own ineptitudes as a writer of fiction. It is no wonder that he was more famous in his day as a popularize of science than of Scientific Romances.

In more capable hands, the edisonade can be enjoyable. You necessarily have to get over the artifacts of its time period, and in exchange it can offer high adventure and the aesthetic pleasures of Sci-Fi in a Main Street USA milieu. It just needs someone who is less clumsy with it.