Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Early Canadian Futurism: Tisab Ting, The Storm of '92, and The Dominion in 1983

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Canada has no strong history of Scientific Romances. It has only really been in the last 40 years that the Dominion has developed a strong voice in Science Fiction as a whole. Even then, amidst the Robert J. Sawyers, A.E. van Voghts and William Gibsons, there is still plenty of ambivalence towards the genre. The great dame of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood, still seems undecided on whether to allow her works to stoop to being called SF. 

The oddity of our lack of Scientific Romances comes into sharper focus when considering that Canada is, truly and uniquely, an invention of the Victorian Era. From earlier historic roots among Indigenous peoples, fur traders, and early French and British settlers, the Dominion of Canada as a single political institution began life with Confederation in 1867, when the independent colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia unified. In 1870, the Hudson's Bay Company sold its vast western holdings to the fledgling nation, all of which became the North-West Territories. Other colonies joined later, and other provinces were carved out of the NWT. Perhaps the most influential member was British Columbia. It joined Confederation in 1871 by the promise that within a decade, a Transcontinental Railway would be built connecting the Pacific coast to the Atlantic.

Not only is Canada a product of the Victorian Era, but it is even more so a product of the Steam Age. Perhaps no country on earth owes as much of its existence to the construction of a single railway. The driving of the last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia, in 1885 linked Vancouver to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway at a distance of some 5000 kilometres, allowing for the fast movement of immigrants, troops, and tourists through the rugged Canadian northwoods and beyond. Thanks to Canadian Pacific Railway's fleet of Royal Mail Steamers, the well-heeled could travel from England to Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand by way of Canada, journeying halfway across the world without ever leaving the British Empire.    

Imperial pride reflects in two of the earliest Canadian futurist tales... The only three early Canadian futurist tales to speak of. The Dominion in 1983, The Storm of '92, and Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss share the same essential conceit of showing the status of Canada in the decades hence. Published in 1883, 1889, and 1896 respectively, all dared to make technological and political predictions while imposing Victorian attitudes upon the 20th century.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Announcing "Science Fiction of Antebellum America: An Anthology"

With the world under quarantine thanks to the Spanish Flu Covid-19, it seems a good time to offer a literary respite through the publication of my second anthology of 19th century science fiction. I am hereby announcing Science Fiction of Antebellum America: An Anthology!

Science fiction and the United States of America were created together. The same Enlightenment ideals that gave rise to the United States also gave birth to science fiction, and the genre developed along with the country. Pioneering authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fitz-James O’Brien, and Washington Irving experimented with this new kind of story to capture the fears and ambitions of a new country, a new frontier, and a new era in human history. This companion volume to Science Fiction of America’s Gilded Age collects the earliest satires, hoaxes, macabre tales, lost world fantasies and fairy tales that established the genre of science fiction in the heady days between the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Science Fiction of Antebellum America also includes a new introduction by yours truly.

To order Science Fiction of Antebellum America, click here. My first book, Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age, is also still available. If you would be willing to share this post on your social networks, leave a review on Amazon, and rate Science Fiction of Antebellum America, that would go a long way to helping spread the word! Thank you very much for you support of this blog for all these years and for your purchase of my new anthology!

P.S.: I'm always one step ahead with these... Later this year I'll be releasing an anthology on science fiction of the British Empire! 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Importing the Tourists: Canada's Banff National Park

If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists.
This simple and pragmatic quote, spoken by William Cornelius Van Horne, vice-president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, not only articulates something fundamental about the creation of Canada's first national park but also something fundamental about Canada itself.

Banff National Park at dusk. All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Canada was not founded on any high ideals about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." On the contrary, Canada's comparable motto has been "peace, order, and good government"... A much more prosaic ambition, though certainly no easier to achieve. Canada's history is largely economic instead of ideological, a larder of natural resources to be exploited by European industry rather than a new "Promised Land" of liberty.

The first of these industries was the fur trade. The lure of luxurious fur and an expanded French empire drove Samuel de Champlain to establish Quebec in 1608. "Canadien" coureur des bois did a brisk business in beaver fur, independently trading with local Indigenous peoples, until Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers ran afoul of Quebec's governor in 1659. Soured to France, the pair turned to England and King Charles II, who signed the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. That company, which still exists as Canada's iconic department store chain, followed waterways into the heart of the continent, expanding the British Empire as they went. 

The formation of the Dominion of Canada was also largely economic. In 1867, a quartet of independent British colonies joined together in "Confederation" to solidify trade and reinforce British sovereignty against a rapacious United States. Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were joined in 1871 by Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. Lying between Ontario and British Columbia was a fair bit of space, monopolized by the Hudson's Bay Company. Anticipating the integration of British Columbia, the government of Canada bought the Hudson's Bay Company's interests in 1870. According to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, full title to the land could only be obtained from their sovereign inhabitants, leading to a series of treaties from 1871 to 1921 between the Crown and the Indigenous peoples of what is now Western Canada. It was from these "North-West Territories" that the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and the territories of Yukon and Nunavut, were eventually carved out  (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949).      

British Columbia, isolated on the Pacific coast, only agreed to join Confederation on the promise that a railway would be built connecting them to the markets in the East. After various and sundry political scandals, the Canadian Pacific Railway finally began construction in 1880. Anticipating a decade-long project, it was actually completed in five years. The CPR still holds the record for the most amount of track laid by hand in a single day. As one can imagine, laying down that much track that quickly is very expensive. When the last spike was driven on November 7, 1885, in Craigellachie, British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway slipped immediately into the tourism business.

Another view of twilight in Banff National Park.

Central to the CPR's strategy was the creation of a new national park. The world's first national park was Yellowstone in the United States, established on March 1, 1872. Within a decade Northern Pacific Railway laid tracks to park's northern gateway, and within the next two decades built up an infrastructure of luxurious lodges like Old Faithful Inn, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and Lake Hotel. This didn't escape the notice of Canadian Pacific, and in the course of building the railway through the Canadian Rocky Mountains they accidentally happened across exactly the attraction around which to build a national park.

For as long as Indigenous peoples have lived in Western Canada, they have known of the hot springs that bubble up from beneath the Canadian Rockies. One of the oldest settlements in the country was found by archaeological surveys on the shores of Vermillion Lakes. 10,700 years ago, Indigenous bighorn sheep hunters camped near hot springs that emptied into the lake, maintaining open waters even during the depth of winter. Early European explorers came across them through the 1850's and 1870's, but they were brought to public attention when railway workers Frank McCabe and William McCardell descended through the roof of a hot spring cave. They attempted to set up a spa by the cave and its nearby open-air hot spring pool, prompting a legal battle into which the Government of Canada (by the CPR's invitation) intervened to establish Banff Hot Springs Reserve in 1885. This was expanded to "Rocky Mountain Park" in 1887, and finally expanded and renamed to Banff National Park in 1930. Banff was Canada's first national park and the second oldest extant national park in the world after Yellowstone.

A panorama of Vermillion Lakes, with Sulphur Mountain to the centre
and the distinctive peak of Mount Rundle to the left.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

350 Years of the Hudson's Bay Company on Film

Today's special post comes from the 2020 O Canada! Blogathon. Click on the banner above to learn more about films from the Great White North!

One of the oldest American film genres is the Western, dating back to 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Being one of the oldest, it has also been the most prone to falling in and out of favour. Worse yet, it can often become a victim of its own popularity. In the heydays when Westerns were everywhere, filmmakers looked for every opportunity to set the next serial, B-movie, or A-lister apart. That sometimes led to inspired insanity of Weird Westerns like Gene Autry's Phantom Empire, but one of the most enduring has been the "Northern." Still steeped in American attitudes and traditions, the action is transplanted to the mighty "Northwoods." Mounted Police take the place of sheriffs and rangers (despite having very different approaches to law enforcement), French Canadians and Métis take the place of Mexicans and swarthy "half-breeds", the Sierra Nevada mountains replaced Griffith Park (few productions ever actually made it up to the Canadian Rockies), but the movie "Indians" remained more or less the same. And snow. Always snow.

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-97 became a potent setting, though it was always imagined by Hollywood's writers and directors to be a wild and lawless place more like Nevada, filled with gunfights and swaggering riverboat gamblers. The reality was that the Mounted Police under the command of Sam Steele kept everything very orderly in the Queen's Dominion, much to the surprise of unruly American Stampeders. Sometimes the setting was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the country in the early 1880's, though again, with considerably more bloodshed than happened in fact. Treaties had been signed between the Crown and Indigenous peoples years before the railway was built. Most often, the setting for a Northern was just the far-flung regions of a generic mountainous, forested landscape. The most archetypal of these films is Rose Marie, the 1936 musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald. Ostensibly taking place in Northern Quebec maybe, it was filmed in the Lake Tahoe region of California and features a song and dance number under a massive faux-Pacific Northwest totem pole.

But before the Mounties, before the treaties, and before the Canadian Pacific Railway, the vast regions of the Northwoods were the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company. Turning 350 years old in 2020, Canada's national department store is the world's oldest retailer and one of the world's oldest extant commercial enterprises. Its exciting images of palisade trading posts, luxurious beaver fur, ribald voyageurs, and isolation in the Northwoods turned Hollywood's head, and often to the Company's chagrin.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Edward S. Ellis' The Steam Man of the Prairies

The 1860's were a crucial period in American history. Perhaps the most crucial, in fact.

The American Civil War began in 1861, lasting to 1865. Over two million troops from the North and up to one million troops from the South clashed over very different interpretations of individual liberty and the meaning of a "United States." The catalyst for the American Civil War was the question of slavery, and the means to fight it was mass industrialized slaughter. In its terrible wake, 365,000 soldiers of the Union and 290,000 soldiers of the Confederacy lay dead, leaving behind a specter that still haunts the United States to this day. It also left Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, with the dubious distinction of being the first US President to be assassinated. Nevertheless the United States emerged from the violence wounded but whole. The question of slavery was emphatically answered with freedom's ring and the terrible machinery of warfare could be now turned to America's economic ascendancy on the world stage.

The Homestead Act of 1862 and completion of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869 brought a massive influx of newcomers to the prairies. The number of people living on farms doubled from 10 million to 22 million between 1860 and 1880, rising to 31 million by 1905. The rising number of settlers, mountain men, industrial magnates, and tourists also created a crisis on the frontier. In 1864, Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, a piece of federal legislation designating the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia as a California state park. This is turn laid the groundwork for the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first national park in the United States and the world. Yellowstone was itself only half-believed rumours through the 1860's, and it was in 1869 that Major John Wesley Powell conducted his unbelievable expedition into the Grand Canyon. These ventures only nominally protected these irreplaceable parcels of  land from exploitation. 1862 also saw a gold rush in Montana... Not as iconic as the California Gold Rush of 1849 or Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, it was still this gold rush that, in part, inspired one of the first true American science fiction novels: The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis.


Saturday, 22 February 2020

Disney's The Lone Ranger

Today's special post is part of the second annual So Bad It's Good Blogathon. Click on the banner above to see rousing defenses of other films, ranging from the unfairly maligned to the hilariously terrible.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Disney in the past decade was trying to recapture the magic of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and appeal to the young male demographics. 2010 saw Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Tron: Legacy, both of which under-performed and under-impressed. Pirates of the Caribbean returned in 2011 with On Stranger Tides, an attempt at a second series that sputtered out. That was followed in 2017 by Dead Men Tell No Tales, which also went nowhere. Disney completely threw John Carter under the bus in 2012. The company's ineptitude at either creating big budget franchise tentpoles or marketing them properly eventually lead to them buying out Lucasfilm in 2012 for the guaranteed moneymaker of Star Wars... Only to drive that one into the ground too. After adjusting for inflation, The Force Awakens (2015) is the 11th highest grossing movie of all time, The Last Jedi (2017) is 44th, and The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is 94th. Their only consistent success has been Marvel Studios, purchased in 2009, which may have succeeded in spite of Disney rather than because of it.

Tucked into that decennium horribilis was 2013's The Lone Ranger. The Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator currently shows a critical approval rating of 31% and they immediately declared it a flop after it pulled in second to Despicable Me 2 on opening night. When it came to Disney summer adventure movies of the 2010's, critics seemed more zealous than usual to ordain themselves the gatekeepers of culture who can make or break a film with the tap of a keyboard. Mark Hughes of Forbes decried the media as "flop-hungry," and it is hard to disagree with him given the histrionics critics have engaged in. Gilbert Cruz of The Vulture decrees that it "Represents Everything That's Wrong With Hollywood Blockbusters," San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle calls it "the biggest stinker of 2013" and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post audaciously declared it "the worst [Western] — and then some." On the contrary, The Lone Ranger was considerably better than most movies of 2013 and, far from being the worst Western ever made, it's not even the worst version of The Lone Ranger. I have worse Westerns in my own home video collection! Such insensible, immoderate, hysterical criticisms betray the fact that The Lone Ranger is actually a very enjoyable movie in the vein of 1990's costume adventure films like Tombstone (1993).

Perhaps critics were unprepared for the fact that it is predominately a comedy, or perhaps they were unprepared to have to think about it thematically. The Lone Ranger, drafted by the same creative team as Pirates of the Caribbean, pokes at the corniness of the original radio and television versions in addition to genuine attempts to reach out to the tastes of modern audiences. In doing so, it can become corny in its own right, with a wink and a nod, proving that it isn't poking at the original Ranger in a mean way. On the contrary, to fully understand the subtext to this film, it helps to have a working knowledge of the original. 

Our story opens in a carnival in San Francisco in 1933, the same year that The Lone Ranger debuted on radio. A young boy, clad in Hollywood cowboy style complete with Lone Ranger mask enters a Wild West show, out of which pours the music of Gene Autry. The carnival barker promises that the exhibit will take visitors back to "the thrilling days of yesteryear," another recall to the introduction of the radio show. Inside are mostly static displays of buffalo and grizzly bears, dusty relics of a bygone past. One display, however, features a living "Noble Savage"... An aged and decrepit Tonto, who proceeds to tell the boy the true story of the Lone Ranger.

Not long into the film we come to understand that Tonto - who has traditionally been represented as a "Noble Savage" archetype - is an unreliable narrator, raising the question of how much of the true story of the Lone Ranger is really true. The boy himself tries to remind Tonto (or convince himself) that the Lone Ranger is just a made-up character. A key point in the film is that Tonto is emotionally scarred from the childhood trauma that connects directly to his desire for revenge on Butch Cavendish. Cherokee elders relate the story to John Reid, the Ranger's alter ego, believing that Tonto's mind is broken and that his perception of the world is skewed. At least it would explain why he keeps trying to feed the dead crow on his head, or why he wears one at all. Supernatural, "Weird West" elements are layered throughout The Lone Ranger, but these are all called into question. Are they real or imagined by Tonto? Is the Lone Ranger real or imaginary? For that matter, is Tonto even real or was he also imagined by the boy?

Consequently, the film calls our attention to the act of Western myth-making and sets about, in its own way, to deconstruct how cultures recollect and reinterpret their own history (including a self-deconstruction of the very act of making cinematic reboots, which is the sort of self-awareness I haven't seen since the South Park movie being a satire of the controversy the South Park movie would generate). The reality of western settlement in the United States has been layered over and over again by myth-making and faulty recollection, due exactly to film, television and radio. Not only them, but even the people who lived it, as with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west shows, Ned Buntline's dime novels and the paintings of Charlie Russell. From Washington Irving to Walt Disney, the United States has always been a myth-making culture that reworks and retools its own history to communicate a certain ideal, however divorced that may be from fact. Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and Washington crossing the Delaware, but not about the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that was a proximate cause of the Revolution. The Royal Proclamation recognized Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations, thus forbidding the conquest of Native lands, instead requiring legal land surrender by treaty. Everyone remembers to remember the Alamo, but doesn't remember that Mexico was actually in the right in that conflict. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Travis and the Texan settlers were essentially foreign insurgents whose motivations included maintaining a slave economy outlawed by Mexico. It is common knowledge that the Wild West was settled by the gun, less well-known that the average annual homicide rate per city during the period of western settlement was two, and that gun control was strictly enforced in towns. The Gunfight at the OK Corral was instigated by the Clantons and McLaurys flouting the ordinance not to carry firearms in Tombstone, and three people died. Illegally carrying firearms was the second most common cause of arrest after drunk and disorderly conduct. 

Given this, The Lone Ranger did hold out the threat of imposing upon us that uniquely American version of the hero's journey, where the limp-wristed, educated intellectual must learn that the only way to decisively resolve conflict is with bloodshed. Theologian Walter Wink dubbed this story form the "Myth of Redemptive Violence," dating back at least as early as the Babylonian Enuma Elish of 1250BCE. In that classical myth, the god Marduk creates the cosmos by stretching out of the entrails of his slain foe, the dragon Tiamat. American history invites - almost requires - adherence to the moral framework of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, since the American Revolution is as concrete an historical realization of the myth of Tiamat and Marduk as is possible. The United States has a particular version of this myth which reinforces the ideal of the rugged, individualistic, gun-toting Republican type against the effete, intellectual, legalistic Democratic type. Our introduction to John Reid is his sitting on a train reading John Locke's Two Treatises on Government. During the first big train robbery action scene, we also find out that he eschews firearms and is a lawyer. 

Thankfully the film retains its composure and adherence to the original character, whose ultimate goal was justice. Not justice taken into one's own hand, but the justice of due legal process. Though he grows into a more model American toughguy, the Lone Ranger still possesses the ethic that he is an agent of civilization, even when being so requires being an outlaw (which also fits in with the American fetish for the criminal class, from Old West outlaws to Depression-Era gangsters to easy riding bikers to inner city gangstas). This new version also hews closely enough to the established origin of the character, complete with that infamous ride of the Texas Rangers into the canyon and the silver mine which would furnish a near endless supply of silver bullets. The origin of Silver is distinctly different, as required by the ambiguous supernaturalism imparted by Tonto.

Silver, the horse, is a fantastic actor and frequently steals the show. Armie Hammer is adequate in a role more clearly written for Brendan Fraser circa The Mummy (1999), and Johnny Depp does much to act his way out of the fundamental ickiness of casting a white actor to play an Indigenous character. The ambivalence of his playing Tonto is, I think, handled as well as one can hope by how Tonto is written. Because he is emotionally traumatized and mentally broken, he is not intended to represent a typical "Indian Brave" or "Noble Savage." His being in the Wild West show's display as a specimen of the "Noble Savage" is lampshading how Tonto has traditionally been portrayed. He is allowed to break out of having to portray Native Americans as a whole and permitted simply to act the character. Between them, the Lone Ranger and Tonto have a fun and lively dynamic that chews more scenery than did a taciturn Ranger and a stoic Tonto.

Some legitimate criticism pointed out the gratuity of some crude humour and violence. It seems that simply killing someone is no longer quite bad enough in a cinema environment glutted with zombies, starship disasters, planet-destroying lasers, and literally snapping half of the universe into nonexistence. Now the cold-blooded killers have to eat their victim's remains just to prove that they're really bad guys. Despite being needless, the acts of cannibalism were written well into the plot and fitted with the film's supernaturalism and theme of nature being out of balance. I suspect more would have been made of nature's imbalance had not major parts of the script been excised when Disney brought down the fiscal hammer during production. Lost were genuine werewolves, necessitating the iconic silver bullets. 

It would also have been too easy to play the Lone Ranger for laughs. As a product of a bygone age reinterpreted into an atmosphere of identity politics, it would have been seductive to make him the butt of a joke... That white men are stupid and old things are funny because they're not modern things. That is blessedly not the case, even though it is mostly a comedy with some very dumb moments. Any fun that is poked at the Lone Ranger or his race earns the climactic payoff when John Reid owns his masked identity, takes off on Silver's back, and Hans Zimmer's arrangement of the William Tell Overture hits the octane. It's an origin story after all. It has to end with the hero rising up to become the legend admired by our young boy in 1933.

The catastrophic reception of The Lone Ranger was unfair, but it wasn't as disastrous as, say, John  Carter's. The box office failure of John Carter ended any conceivable plans to continue with the trilogy implied by Burroughs' books. While The Lone Ranger's failure does deny us any further adventures with this particular duo of Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, the film itself acts as an origin story for all preceding versions of the characters. The boy in 1933 is clearly a fan of the radio show and film serials (1938 and 1939). Those begat the television show (1949-57), science fiction-inspired cartoon (1966-68), and other media. The purpose of this film is to highlight, lampshade, and deconstruct the origins of the character itself, to tell his "true story" after nearly a century of radio, television, cartoons, and film. As such, Disney's The Lone Ranger does stand alone, which works handily after the professional critic class were done with it.    

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland

When looking to breathe some life back into Disneyland's Frontierland in the late 1970's, legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter spearheaded a project dubbed "Discovery Bay". Placed along the Rivers of America, this was meant to mirror a San Francisco harbourfront out of Jules Verne, including a Nautilus restaurant and a ride based on the upcoming film Island at the Top of the World. Unfortunately, Island at the Top of the World failed at the box office and Discovery Bay was shelved, but the essential ideas developed for it resurfaced decades later when Baxter was put in charge of designing the new EuroDisney. Discovery Bay formed the backbone of the new park's version of Tomorrowland, dubbed Discoveryland.

All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

One of the consistent problems with Tomorrowland at Disneyland USA in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Orlando, and Tokyo Disneyland is that the future keeps coming. Walt Disney's original plans were extraordinarily ambitious: a permanent, constantly changing World's Exposition in which American industry could show off the latest technological developments in an entertaining format. That's also expensive, and the rate of technological progress is so rapid that an attraction may already be out of date before it has debuted. The last time that Disneyland developed a proper science-based attraction was Adventure Thru Inner Space in 1967, themed to a microscopic voyage through the atomic realm. The ride, sponsored by Monsanto and featuring a Monsanto showroom at its exit, closed in 1985 when it was replaced by Star Tours, a Star Wars-based attraction. The creation of Star Tours marked a major philosophical change at Walt Disney Imagineering by simply replacing a classic attraction with a new one based on a commercial intellectual property. 

Baxter and his team were given the opportunity with the EuroDisney project in the late Eighties and early Nineties to reimagine the entire Disneyland concept from the ground up. Their radical "blue sky" phase even questioned whether it was actually necessary to have a castle at the centre of a Disneyland park. The Tomorrowland problem was high on their list of concerns. One of the initial suggestions was to essentially abolish Tomorrowland completely and replace it with an entire land licensed to Star Wars. No idea at Imagineering is truly forgotten, and a Star Wars land has finally surfaced at both American theme parks. That plan for Disneyland Paris was ultimately rejected in favour of one that could kill two proverbial birds with one stone.

A challenge Disney faced with building a Disneyland park outside of Paris was France's cultural gatekeepers who saw the prospect as a gauche, kitsch incursion of American consumer culture into the very heart of European civilization. Appeasing those gatekeepers became a serious concern for Baxter's team, resulting in numerous lines of connection between Disney's IP and French and European culture. The French origins of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were emphasized, for example. Their new version of Adventureland drew more definitely from European colonial exploits and adventure tales like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. Phantom Manor, the reworked version of Haunted Mansion set to the American Wild West, found some inspiration in Gaston Leroux's immortal creation. An exhibit along Main Street USA celebrates France's gift of the Statue of Liberty. 

Rather than try to keep pace with the future or simply consign Tomorrowland to franchise IP, Baxter's team developed the retro-futuristic "Discoveryland" of Jules Verne's imagination. This version of the land consciously looked to the aspirations of the past to commemorate its ambitions for the future which we were now realizing, as well as celebrated the work of France's pioneers of Science Fiction and Disney's connections to them.

"Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible, doit être et sera accompli." - Jules Verne
("All that is within the limit of possible, must be and will be accomplished.")

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Musical, Aesthetic, and Mythic Roots of Disney's Fantasia

For whatever my opinion is worth, I think Fantasia could qualify not only as Disney's greatest film, and not only as the greatest animated film ever made, and not only as the greatest motion picture ever made, but even as the greatest single work of art of the 20th century. It is a bold claim, perhaps ridiculous on the face of it, but if we first accept that film was the artform of the 20th century - the artform that, despite being invented at the end of the 19th century, was refined in the 20th and which became its most popular and accessible type - then animation would be the artform of cinema. It is one thing to point a camera in the direction of a play and film it. It is another to understand and manipulate the very fabric of the medium itself. The first animators had the presence of mind to realize that each frame was a tiny picture that could be altered to produce the illusion of life. The film that could best exemplify animation would earn the title of the greatest artistic work of the 20th century, and I firmly believe that Fantasia fits that accolade.

Fantasia, released in 1940 as Disney's third animated feature, demonstrates everything an animated film can be. Across its seven distinct pieces, it proves that animation can be abstract (as in its Toccata and Fugue in D Minor segment) or narrative (as in The Sorcerer's Apprentice), mythological (Pastoral Symphony) or visualizations of scientific theories (Rite of Spring), comedy (Dance of the Hours) or horror (Night on Bald Mountain), anthropomorphism (Nutcracker Suite) or symbolism (Ave Maria). Married to the great compositions of classical music, it could also aspire to be high art. It is an incredibly rich, nuanced, and rewarding work, deeply rooted in the traditional fine arts... Far more than many would expect from a Disney film.

The physical storytelling in Fantasia is so accomplished that words were entirely unnecessary. No narrator was required to tell us that The Nutcracker Suite transitions through the seasons, and Mickey Mouse has no need to crack wise. What could Chernabog possibly say to make him more frightening? What could a David Attenborough add to Rite of Spring that we could not see for ourselves in all its violence and terror and power? Wisely, music scholar and radio personality Deems Taylor reserved his live-action annotations for between the animated sequences. His sonorous voice (now lost behind a dubbing over by Corey Burton) only gives us a few notes in the way of introduction to add to our enjoyment of the piece, like one may find in the program of an evening at the local philharmonic. Fantasia is a tour de force of pantomime, a lasting tribute to the skill of the animator who must draw every glance and gesture.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Disney's Mark Twain Riverboat and the Rivers of America

The Mississippi River is one of the great rivers of the world. Counting in its entire drainage basin, the Mississippi and its tributaries drain 31 states and the southernmost part of two Canadian provinces. It straddles the Rocky Mountains to the West and Appalachian Mountains to the East. It is the fourth longest and ninth largest river in the world. The Mississippi is the central artery of American industry, controlling it meant victory for the Union and defeat for the Confederates, it demarcates Country music from Western music, and the settlements along its ever advancing delta gave birth to Jazz. Sooner rather than later, the living river might bypass New Orleans and Baton Rouge altogether, rerouting its primary outflow to the Atchafalaya River. It already would be, if not for the engineering marvels placed by the US government attempting to bend nature to its will. Great industrial barges ply the urbanized riverscape today, but in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and wherever Imagineers have transplanted the American frontier, the romance of the river's old steamboat days are perpetually rekindled.

A tributary of the Mississippi or Disneyland?

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Mark Twain's From the 'London Times' of 1904

Mark Twain was fascinated by technology and industry, but rarely delved into the genre of Scientific Romance. I suspect there is a correlation between those two facts. After all, Twain was a satirist driven by his intolerance of what he deemed foolishness and hypocrisy. Being fascinated by technology, it would have been beyond him to really give it a good go the way he did to the institutions of society.

In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Twain takes the starch out of genius inventors, though one feels he's really poking at the genre of Scientific Romance itself and the airship created by the inventor serves mainly as a plot device. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the American author has a go at Mediaeval romances by allowing his protagonist to introduce modernity at Camelot. Even in the industrial carnage of its conclusion, one never quite feels that Twain is turning on industrialization. Throughout his travelogues like Innocents Abroad, he has sometimes shockingly cruel things to say about non-industrialized cultures. For his part, Twain had several patents to his name, including the elastic bra strap. Even the financial failure of his Paige typesetting machine seemed not to dull his overall enthusiasm for technology.

This love affair comes out in his 1898 short story From the 'London Times' of 1904. Its scant 4000 words are divided into three chapters, of which the first two concern themselves with a device called the "telelectroscope." It is this part that interests modern readers the most, because it essentially predicted the Internet. Twain plays it remarkably straight in doing so, with hardly a joke to speak of. His satirist mind comes to play in the third chapter, which savages one of his favourite targets - the French - over the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern legal history, the Dreyfus Affair violently divided French society at the turn of the century and could not escape Twain's notice either.

The concept of the telelectroscope first entered public consciousness in 1878, hot on the heels of Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent for the telephone. French writer Louis Figuier was taken in by an anonymous hoax article in the New York Sun describing a telephone-like invention by an unnamed "eminent scientist" that amounted to a videophone or, in modern parlance, a webcam. Figuier ascribed this invention to Bell, and while Bell was working on an optics-related project, it was not a telelectroscope. The actual invention was the photophone, which used optical cable to transmit communication via modulated light beams... Essentially, the precursor to fibre-optics.    

Nevertheless, the telelectroscope was a fascinating idea and savants took to it. Most notably, Jan Szczepanik and Ludwig Kleiberg filed a British patent for such a device in 1898, though there has been considerable debate over whether the device ever actually existed. It was from here that Mark Twain took notice and wrote his fictional story about Szczepanik and the invention.

Before continuing, it is worth reading Twain's own story, as originally published in the November 1898 edition of The Century Magazine. Click on each page for a larger version...

Twain was forced to declare bankruptcy after the failure of the Paige typesetter, necessitating a world speaking tour to pay off his debts. He had been in Paris in 1894 when the Dreyfus Affair broke out, and was living in Vienna in 1898 when he wrote From the 'London Times' of 1904. This gave him a ringside seat for a bizarre, often unfathomable, intersection of race, politics, nationalism, and injustice at the fin de siècle

The Dreyfus Affair is complex (and warrants its own lengthy Wikipedia article) but revolved around Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jewish captain in the French military who was accused, tried, and found guilty of treason with the Prussians by a military tribunal. While serving out his sentence on Devil's Island in French Guiana, new evidence came to light that Dreyfus was innocent. To protect its reputation, the military tribunal acquitted the guilty party, removed the officers who began uncovering the conspiracy, and levied new charges against Dreyfus using falsified documents. By the time of Dreyfus' second trial in 1899, a civil trial, France was deeply divided between the pro-justice Dreyfusards and the pro-nationalistic Anti-Dreyfusards. Émile Zola came out in support of Dreyfus, and even did jail time for his scathing critique J'accuse! (trans: I Accuse!) which pointed the finger at not only the military and political authorities in general, but specifically named names. Jules Verne began as an Anti-Dreyfusard, but in the process of writing his novel The Kip Brothers (1902) touching on the themes of the case, converted to a Dreyfusard. Georges Méliès was a Dreyfusard as well, and broke out as a filmmaker with his 1899 series of vignettes on the case.

Mark Twain already held a fairly dim view of the French. "France has neither winter nor summer nor morals," he wrote in his Notebook, "--apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country." Also "In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog & a Frenchman is not perceptible." He was quoted as saying "There is nothing lower than the human race except the French." And those were just some of the lighter remarks. The Dreyfus Affair did nothing to endear him to the nation.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Christmas with Georges Méliès

Over the hundreds of subjects that Georges Méliès covered in his hundreds of films, Christmas was bound to come up a few times. The following are a pair of those Yuletide shorts. Merry Christmas to all!

The Christmas Dream (1900)

The Christmas Angel (1904)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem by Sutton E. Griggs

Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, written in 1899 by Rev. Sutton E. Griggs, is a fascinating, prescient novella. In it, two men vie for control of a shadowy organization of African-American militants. One is the privileged mulatto Bernard Belgrave who advocates for full-out race war with European-Americans. The other is the self-made, full-blooded Belton Piedmont, who advocates for racial integration. The premise of a shadowy, militant African-American "empire within an empire" might seem like an ethnic peril novel except that Griggs was himself an African-American minister and social activist reflecting on the political forces in tension within African-American communities in the thirty years since the American Civil War. In that it is fascinating. It is prescient in how these forces are still at play in African-American communities today.

Despite being the greatest moral accomplishment in American history, and the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin becoming the best-selling novel of the 19th century, the abolition of slavery did not immediately translate to full material equality for African-Americans. Poverty was the main inhibitor to equality, with up to 80% of African-American farmers eking out a living as sharecroppers. Violence was also an effective tool.

The Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts, and independent actors emerged as domestic terrorists using violence and intimidation to suppress African-American voters. Between 1890 and 1910, Democrat legislators throughout the 11 former Confederate states passed Jim Crow Laws mandating poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that effectively disenfranchised the majority of African-Americans, most of whom still lived in the South. Many counties, and some whole states, lacked a single registered African-American voter. Being ineligible for the vote eliminated these African-Americans from serving in public office. They became, for all intents and purposes, politically invisible. This in turn made them vulnerable to regionally-instituted segregationist laws and continued white supremacist violence.

The response to this violence and disenfranchisement among African-Americans and their allies was varied. The Exodus of 1879 lead 40,000 people to simply up and leave the South for Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado to forge a new life. It was also common for African-Americans to band together for protection into "Union Leagues" organized by the Republican Party. Contrary to its reputation today, the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and spearheads of the abolitionist and integrationist movement through the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. In fact, the Republicans became increasingly under the control of African-American factions, with its white supremacists defecting to the segregationist Democratic Party. The modern Republican party was a product of the 1960's "Southern Strategy," when the Republican Party sought to win over white Democrat voters in the South, and the 1980's "Moral Majority." 

An 1879 Harper's Weekly illustration of
"Exodusters" on their way to Kansas. 
Illustration of the 1876 "Colored National Convention" held in Nashville.

Education was a key component in African-American emancipation. The creation of secondary and post-secondary schools became a priority of Northern churches and the federal government. Whereas only 22 African-Americans had graduated college prior to the Civil War, the number doubled to 44 in the 1860's, and rose again to 313 in the 1870's, 738 in the 1880's, and 1126 in the 1890's. Whereas the average US worker made $200-$400 annually in 1910, college-educated African-Americans were making approximately $15,000, using their wealth and education to improve their communities.

These realities are all expressed through Imperium in Imperio, as a pair of educated African-Americans struggle for the heart and future of their people through a conspiracy shaped by violence and political disenfranchisement.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Sultana's Dream, a Muslim feminist utopia

It is not without truth, or reason, that Science Fiction has traditionally been a Western-dominated and male-dominated genre. Scientific Romances grew out of the intersection between scientific investigation, technological invention, and colonial exploitation, as the most educated classes in Western society attempted to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. Voices of the colonized and those with less opportunity tended to be more marginal.

Many of these cultures were not experiencing the full brunt of the Industrial Revolution as such. For example, Canada does not have an especially strong tradition of Scientific Romances because it was, for most of the country through most of the 19th century, a wilderness colonial hinterland sparsely populated with farmers, trappers, and indigenous peoples. The colonized were also less likely to be writing, especially in English, especially in a genre that required a reasonable amount of technological, scientific, and cultural knowledge. An average indigenous person in a colonized nation would be unlikely, through no fault of their own, to have the same resources and opportunities available to them as a Jules Verne would, who could access information about the entire world through the library in Amiens.      

But some people are not average. The short story Sultana's Dream has a unique place in the canon of the genre, as a Scientific Romance written by a Bengali Muslim woman. Published in 1905, feminist and social reformer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain used the medium of Scientific Romance to postulate a reversal of fortune for women in her society, turning the tables on the men and hypothesizing a female-run utopia.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Victorian Science Fiction-Lover's Guide to Disney+

On November 12th, the Walt Disney Company launched it new streaming service Disney+. Though limited in scope right now, the service has the potential to offer an incredible assortment of films and TV shows through the company's various brands: Disney, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and 20th Century Fox. And in the mix are some classics of Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, including some unexpected hidden gems.

The following is a guide to what Disney+ has available, with the apologies that I'm subscribed through the Canadian version of the service. It has already been made apparent that Disney+ is unable to break the geo-locked curse of Netflix.

Without further ado:
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Of course, any Disney+ viewing list should be topped with this, one of the most important films in the company's history. When looking to produce their first epic, feature-length, live-action film at Disney's Burbank studio (a quartet of live-action films had been produced before this in England, using money tied up there during the Second World War), Walt looked no further than a classic adventure story of his youth, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Distilled into a lively picture with action, music, and perhaps surprising drama, it became an instant hit whose echo still rings down in Disney's parks to this day. One hopes that with it now available on Disney+, new audiences will rediscover this classic.  

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). One of the many Jules Verne adaptations to come out in the wake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this adaptation now enters the Disney fold through the company's acquisition of 20th Century Fox. It is fitting, not only because it so-closely hews to the style laid out by Disney, but Disney has already made a Journey to the Center of the Earth theme park attraction in Tokyo DisneySea. Unfortunately the Disney film In Search of the Castaways and Fox film Five Weeks in a Balloon (both 1962) have yet to appear on Disney+, but these four films are significant examples of the Atomic Age revival of interest in Jules Verne and Victorian Sci-Fi. 

  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003). Disney revisited the theme of submarines in their turn-of-the-century phase of Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi. Atlantis got something of a cult following for its faithful translation of the Lovecraftian, Pulp-styled work of comic artist and writer Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. The direct-to-video sequel was a compilation of three episodes for a failed Atlantis TV series. If one never bothered to get that DVD (and one would be blameless), Disney+ is a good opportunity to finally see it.
  • Treasure Planet (2002). Inexplicably maligned, Treasure Planet was certainly no worse than any other Disney animated film from the time period, and considerably better than most. It begins with the bones of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which is already good source material. Then it transplants that timeless story into a gorgeous post-Hubble outer space with a 70/30 mix of 18th century seafaring and futuristic Sci-Fi technologies. Hopefully Disney+ will lead to its reappraisal.

  • John Carter (2012). Speaking of reappraisals... Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame, with script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, was actually quite good. Unfortunately it was lost in Disney's shuffle and the company threw it under the bus when it was barely out of the gate, depriving it of its best chance to gain a cultural foothold and its sequels Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars
  • Tarzan (1999), Tarzan and Jane (2002), and Tarzan II (2005). And now speaking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Disney`s adaptation was probably the best since the original Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930's. The original film - a straightforward action film with incidental soundtrack by Phil Collins, at the time a departure from the Broadway musical-style of the 1990's Disney animation renaissance - is excellent. It first sequel, Tarzan and Jane, was a compilation of three unaired episodes of the Legend of Tarzan TV series which has yet to appear on Disney+. The series itself, though suffering from terrible animation, made excellent use of Burroughs' concepts including Opar and Pellucidar. Tarzan II was another direct-to-video sequel exploring Tarzan's boyhood years.  
  • Swiss Family Robinson (1940 and 1960). One of the biggest surprises hidden away in Disney+ was the original 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson. When making their celebrated 1960 version, Disney bought up the rights to the previous 1940 RKO Pictures version. The last time it surfaced was in excerpts on the 2-disc "Vault Disney" edition of the 1960 version. Now both versions appear, in full, on the streaming service, both very very different and very compelling takes on the story in their own ways. One also hopes that the 1940 version is only the first in a rich back-catalogue of films from Hollywood's Golden Age that Disney acquired through 20th Century Fox.

  • The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Join Basil of Baker Street and Dawson as they attempt to foil the vile Ratigan's attempt to replace the Mouse Queen of 19th century London with a tinkerer's automaton in this charming homage to Sherlock Holmes. The Great Mouse Detective was actually the second Disney film I remember seeing in theatres, after a re-release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and before a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), after which I felt I got too old for Disney films right as the Disney Renaissance happened. 
  • The Jungle Book (1967 and 2016). Both the original animated version and the recent live-action/CGI version are on Disney+ (as well as the 2003 animated sequel Jungle Book 2). The 1967 version is the final animated feature that Walt Disney was involved with, but is widely regarded to have suffered for the lack of his guiding hand in its homestretch. The 2016 version goes back to the source material by Rudyard Kipling to produce a driven, emotionally satisfying film with an actual story. 
  • The Sign of Zorro (1960). Disney's iconic Zorro series (1957-59) is not on the streaming service yet, but one can find the 1960 feature film abridging the original 13-episode story arc. Though not Science Fiction, the masked avenger righting wrongs in Spanish California is a distinctly American take on the Scarlet Pimpernel-style of superhero and direct inspiration for Batman. Disney's version is also the unequivocally best version of him. 

  • The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). A comedy of the California Gold Rush, Bullwhip Griffin was one of the last remaining films that Walt Disney had worked on prior to his death in 1966. It is a slapstick comedy in the silent movie vein, with wonderful title cards by animator Ward Kimball reinforcing the film's dime novel, Vaudville aesthetic. It also ends with a charming, retro-futuristic vision of modern San Francisco.
  • Mickey Mouse: Wonders of the Deep (2015). This third season episode of the modern Mickey Mouse cartoons invokes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in both its film and theme park forms. The entire Mickey Mouse series is hilarious in its own right, with its copious Disney Easter eggs and return to Mickey's ribald roots during his black-and-white days (such as his first official cartoon, 1928's Steamboat Willie, which is also available on Disney+).
  • Around the World in 80 Days (2004). Despite departing significantly from the novel, the Walden Media produced (and Disney distributed) version of Around the World in 80 Days starring Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan still has much to recommend it. It's not as epic or classic as the 1956 version, but its still highly enjoyable and makes good use of Phileas Fogg's recasting as a mad inventor.

  • The Black Hole (1979). Disney's entry into the bleak field of languid 1970's Sci-Fi suffers for its time period and is otherwise a straightforward futuristic film. Yet the style of its ship is unmistakably Gothic in ways comparable to Treasure Planet or Event Horizon (1997).   
  • Tall Tale (1995). A league of extraordinary characters from American fakelore - Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry - must unite to save Paradise Valley from a developer with a pretty awesome-looking steam engine. A largely forgotten film, it's worth another look if you've already got Disney+. 
  • Return to Oz (1985) and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013). These Disney-made sequels and prequels to the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz are controversial, red-headed step-children. Oz, The Great and Powerful was a vain attempt to dig up a revisionist fairy tale in the wake of the Broadway smash hit Wicked, and it shows. Return to Oz is a more feverish, even nightmarish, film that still haunts me some 35 years later. But it is also very inventive in its imagery, and stands up very well as an adaptation of the Oz stories in its own rights, if one can divorce it from comparison to the 1939 musical.  
  • La Luna (2012). Not Science Fiction per se, this Pixar short has all the romance and charm of a Georges Méliès film. A young boy must find his own way in the family business, which happens to be sweeping the Moon of fallen stars. 

Disney+ has much more to offer than Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, of course. Nearly every Disney animated classic is on there, many of the True-Life Adventures nature documentaries (my favourite being The Vanishing Prairie), Disney Afternoon cartoons, and much vintage content (the US version has the first five episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club, for example). My only complaint is that it needs more vintage content from the Disney vaults, especially those original episodes of the Walt Disney's Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color/Wonderful World of Disney TV series, and that they need to break the geo-lock so everything on the US version is available in Canada. The service also features several National Geographic documentaries (including two on two of my most favourite places in the world, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks). The future will undoubtedly bring more films in the genre, such as In Search of the Castaways and Island at the Top of the World (1974). For now though, that's a pretty good list to keep one going.

P.S.: No, Disney didn't pay me for this, though I certainly wouldn't have turned it down. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Percy Stow's Rescued in Mid-Air

Strange doings, what? A roadway collision sends a woman spiraling through the air until her umbrella opens and the wind carries her off, Mary Poppins-like. She comes to rest on a church spire, with no recourse but to wait for rescue by a local inventor and his flying machine. Released in 1906 by director Percy Stow, Rescued in Mid-Air is a fun little trick film hailing from one of the United Kingdom's Méliès imitators. A lower-resolution can be watched below, or you can hold out for a higher-resolution copy on the BFI online player. 

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Announcing "Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age: An Anthology"

Just in time for the Christmas season, I'm happy to announce my very first anthology of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age!

Extraordinary voyages, fantastic inventions, and challenging questions about technology, race, gender, the future, and the meaning of the United States of America. The period between the Civil War and the Great War – dubbed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain – was the crucible of modern America and few genres were as suited to grapple with its troubles and opportunities as speculative fiction. This volume features rarely reprinted stories by such authors as Mark Twain and fellow humorist Ellis Parker Butler, pioneering feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, African American activist Sutton E. Griggs, science writer Garrett P. Serviss (the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day), Jack London, dime novelist Edward S. Ellis, and John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man to die aboard the Titanic. Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age also includes a new introduction by me, as the much more pretentious and professional-sounding C.W. Gross.

To order Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age, clicking here or on the link below will take you through my Amazon Associates store, through which your purchases will further support Voyages Extraordinaires.  If you can also share this post or the Amazon Associates link on your social networks, leave a review on Amazon, and rate Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age, that would go a long way to helping spread the word!

Thank you very much for you support of this blog for all these years and for your purchase of my new anthology. And yes, I'm already gathering stories for a companion anthology of Antebellum American Scientific Romances! 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Written in 1820 before Halloween as we know it even existed, the best known and loved of Washington Irving's stories has become a Halloween classic... Perhaps even the Halloween classic. This status is no doubt due as much to Walt Disney's classic animated version appearing on televisions throughout the United States and Canada as to the qualities of Irving's writing itself. Nevertheless, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving taps into a primal vein. Published alongside his other most famous story Rip Van Winkle in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving adapts an archetypal European myth into the colonial milieu, itself a period of primal myth-making for American culture. Against the backdrop of autumn in New York and the American Revolution comes this potent story of ghostly pursuit. You have George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross... and the Headless Horseman.

Many North American tall tales have their roots in European legends and ghost stories. A particularly horrific one is known as the "Wild Hunt": those dark, moonlit nights when a phantasmagorical troupe of spectral huntsmen charge through forest roads astride their night-mares, cursing, killing or carrying off any mortal in their path. A popular modern American version of it is the song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend," written by Stan Jones while he worked for the US National Parks Service in Death Valley. The better-known American take on the Wild Hunt is, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

William Hope Hodgson's The Voice in the Night

There are a few things that we, the ordinary creatures of the world, share our planet with that seem like they should be from another. Echinoderms are one such group: unlike most animals, which have bilateral symmetry (an even number of appendages and orifices, such that each half is a mirror image of the other), the group composed of starfish, brittlestars, sand dollars, sea lilies, and sea urchins have radial symmetry... A bizarrely alien odd-numbered arrangement of limbs. Another is fungus. 

Though superficially similar to plants, they lack the common decency to be plants. Instead, they occupy their own niche, mainly revolving around the consumption of decaying matter. While many types are a food source, their instrumental role in the cycle of decomposition gives them a disquieting association with rot and corruption. For many people, they are an allergen, and some varieties are outright toxic. Altogether they are revolting organisms. 

Those attributes make fungus a prime candidate for stories of horror. Bram Stoker describes the boxes Dracula brings with him aboard the doomed ship Demeter not so much being filled with earth as with mould. H.P. Lovecraft said of his Dunwich that "it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries." Some storytellers have taken it a step further, from fungus being a symbol of corruption and decay to being the active agents of it. William Hope Hodgson accomplished this in his disquieting story The Voice in the Night, originally published in Blue Book Magazine in November 1907. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Ferdinand Zecca's À la conquête de l'air

In one short but majestic minute, French special effect pioneer Ferdinand Zecca introduced the world to the first ever film to depict aviation. 

Born in Paris in 1864, Zecca's career in theatre segued into film, first through Gaumont and then to Pathé. As a favour to Charles Pathé, Zecca set-up the company's exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and soon became indispensable as Pathé's right hand man. When the company looked to evolve beyond "actualities", short shots of everyday events, Zecca was given free reign to experiment with Scientific Romances, fairy tales, and religious films. His own realization of La Belle au bois dormant was released in 1902, Les Aventures de Don Quichotte in 1903, and La Passion de Notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ (La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) in 1905, among many, many other films. 

À la conquête de l'air is one of his earlier films, released in 1901. Though only a minute in length, it is an extremely complicated subject. The short depicts Zecca himself piloting a kind of aerial bicycle over the neighbourhood of Belleville, Paris. His method for achieving the effect - which allows the towers of the city to be seen through the spokes of his bicycle - isn't entirely obvious and demonstrates an accomplished understanding of trick photography. His aerial bicycle is the very image of Scientific Romance, taking him on a flight of fancy two years before the Wright Brothers' accomplishment at Kittyhawk.     

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Impossible to Conceive: Grand Canyon National Park

I have come here to see the Grand Canyon of Arizona, because in that canyon Arizona has a natural wonder, which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot.  I could not choose words that would convey or that could convey to any outsider what that canyon is. I want you to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country--to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.
Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest American president, spoke these words on his first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903, five years before he would exercise executive power to preserve it as a National Monument. He was not alone in his sentiments. Even the lyrical John Muir, spiritual father of the US National Parks, wrote in 1902 that "it is impossible to conceive what the canyon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good."

Click on images for a larger version.
All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

The most accurate description of the Grand Canyon is to admit that it simply cannot be described. Nothing does it justice. No words can capture its subliminity. No photograph prepares you for its vastness. The four edges of a screen constrain the pure power of being surrounded by its sheer walls of living rock. Listing off its dimensions is of little help: 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and 1.25 miles deep. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon sits at approximately 7,000 ft elevation - as high as some alpine passes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains - and the North Rim towers another 1,000 ft higher than that. During summer, the relentless Colorado River that continues to carve out the Grand Canyon flows at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second. For all but the most geographically astute, those are mere numbers.

The Grand Canyon from a viewpoint called "The Abyss".

The most able descriptor of the Grand Canyon's sheer power was Ferde Grofé. While working as an arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Grofé took on a role as the chanticleer of the American experience. He composed the Mississippi Suite in 1925 and Metropolis: a Fantasy in Blue in 1928. In 1931 he completed his magnum opus and most well-known work: the Grand Canyon Suite. In five movements lasting just over a half hour, Grofé captured in Jazz orchestral form the mystery, terror, and grandeur of the world's most magnificent geologic specimen. Its stirring refrains (and the clip-clop rhythm of hoofbeats) are some of the greatest in American popular music.

Yet Grofé does stray from the Grand Canyon itself: the second of its movements is "The Painted Desert". The story of the Grand Canyon is not limited to what is contained between its two rims. Its existence is owed to the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, spanning significant portions of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Complications in the roiling mantle of the Earth underlying the plateau began to push it upwards 20 million years ago. Drainage off the plateau in turn carved out and turned up an incredible array of geologic features. The Colorado Plateau has the highest concentration of US National Parks units in the country, with 9 National Parks and 18 National Monuments. The Grand Canyon's story is truly a regional story.