Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Future of the Earth (1918)

Consider the earth in its origin: at first, a shapeless nebula, be­coming gradually more and more condensed; next, a globe of fire, of rocks in fusion, whirling for millions of years through space, with no other object than that of forming, into a mass and cooling--an inconceivable incandescence which none of our sources of heat can suggest to us--an essential, scientific, absolute barrenness which may well have proclaimed itself irremediable and everlasting. Who would have thought that from these torrents of matter in eruption, which seemed to have destroyed forever all life or the least germ of life, there would emerge each and every form of life itself, from the greatest, the strongest, the most enduring, the most impetuous, the most abundant, down to the least visible, the most precarious, the most ephemeral, the most exiguous? Who could have dared foresee that they would give birth to what seems so utterly alien to the liquefied or viscous rocks and metals that alone formed the surface, the Aucleus, and the very entity of our globe? I mean our human intelligence and consciousness.

Is it possible to imagine a more unexpected evolution and ending? What could astonish us after so great an astonishment, and what are we not entitled to hope of a world which, after being what it was, has produced what we see and what we are? Considering that it started from a sort of negation of life, from integral barrenness, and from worse than nothing in order to end in us, where will it not end after starting from ourselves? If its birth and formation have elaborated such prodigies, what prodigies may not its existence, its indefinite prolongation, and its dissolution hold in store? There are an immeasurable distance and inconceivable trans­formations between the one frightful material of the early days and the human thought of this moment; and there will doubtless be a like distance and like transformations, as difficult to conceive, between the thought of this moment and that which will succeed it in the infinity of time.

It seems as if, in the beginning, our earth did not know what to do with its material and with its force, which inter­devoured each other. In the vast, flaming void in which it was being consumed, it had not yet the shadow of an object or an idea; to-day, it has so many that our scholars wear out their lives to no purpose in seeking them, and are overwhelmed by the number of its mysterious and in­exhaustible combinations. At that time, it disposed of but a single force, the most destructive that we know­ fire. If everything was born of fire, which itself seemed to be born only to destroy, what will not be born of that which seems to be born only to produce, beget, and multiply? If it was able to do so much with the lava and red-hot cinders, which were the only elements that it possessed, what will it not be able to do with all that it will end by possessing?

It is well, sometimes, to tell ourselves, especially in these days of distress and dis­couragement, that we are living in a world which has not yet exhausted its future and which is much nearer to its beginning than to its end. It was born but yesterday, and has only just disentangled its original chaos. It is at the starting-point of its hopes and of its experience. We believe that it is making for death, whereas all its past, on the contrary, shows that it is much mote probably making for life. In any case, as its years pass by, the quantity, and still more the quality; of the life which it engenders and maintains tend to increase and to improve. It has given us only the first-fruits of its miracles; and in all likelihood there is no more connection between what it was and what it is than there will be between what it is and what it will be. No doubt, when its greatest marvels burst into being, we shall no longer, possess the lives which we possess to-day, but we shall still be there under another form; we shall still be exiging somewhere, on its surface or in its depths, and it is not utterly improbable that one of its last prodigies will reach us in our dust, awaken us, and recall us to life, in order to impart to, us the share of happi­ness which we had not enjoyed and to teach us that we were wrong not to interest ourselves, on the further side of our graves, in the destiny of this earth of ours, whereof we had never ceased to be the immortal offspring.

The Future of the Earth by Maurice Maeterlinck, Cosmopolitan, March 1918. Illustration The Earth with the Milky Way and Moon by Wladyslaw T. Benda.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

To The Moon (2008)

Courtesy of Cartoon Brew TV and according to this short cartoon's creator, Jacob Ospa:
I first got the general idea for this cartoon back in my third year at SVA (School of Visual Arts) when I read an article about The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the old New York Sun published a series of articles claiming that an astronomer had discovered fantastical life on the moon when he looked through a powerful new telescope. I thought, “Gee! What if the newspaper articles were actually accurate and someone was actually intrigued enough by the discovery to actually go to the moon and actually make contact!”

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Great Moon Hoax

Of all the giants of scientific endeavour, perhaps none are as significant to history as Sir John Herschel. Already an accomplished astronomer and natural philosopher - having written A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy in 1831, which in turn inspired many scientists including a young Charles Darwin - Herschel departed for South Africa in 1833 in order to chart the courses of the southern stars. It was there that he developed his greatest invention and made the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

The report delivered by the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25th, 1835. It announcement read:
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe, and nearly akin to those with which a departed spirit may be supposed to discover the realities of a future state. Bound by the irrevocable laws of nature to the globe on which we live, creatures "close shut up in infinite expanse," it seems like acquiring a fearful supernatural power when any remote mysterious works of the Creator yield tribute to our curiosity. It seems almost a presumptious assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds.

We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity.

And well he might pause! From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them, there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying; and we are taught to believe that, when a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public, they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.

Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket which contained it.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of things; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.

This understandibly florid prose led to the news of the great discovery by the accomplished Herschel: life on the moon!

What fantastic and alien entities there were populating Diana's crystal shores as well! The second and third of the six daily columns describing the discoveries outlines some of them:
The whole breadth of the northern extremity of the sea, which was about three hundred miles, having crossed our plane, we entered upon a wild mountainous region abounding with more extensive forests of larger trees than we had seen before -- the species of which I have no good analogy to describe. In general contour they resembled our forest oak; but they were much more superb in foliage, having broad glossy leaves like that of the laurel, and tresses of yellow flowers which hung, in the open glades, from the branches to the ground. These mountains passed, we arrived at a region which filled us with utter astonishment...

In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears. We could most distinctly perceive this hairy veil, which was shaped like the upper front outline of a cap known to the ladies as Mary Queen of Scots' cap, lifted and lowered by means of the ears. It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Dr. Herschel, that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.

The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of horn and beard, but had a much longer tail. It was gregarious, and chiefly abounded on the acclivitous glades of the woods. In elegance of symmetry it rivalled the antelope, and like him it seemed an agile sprightly creature, running with great speed, and springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten...

On examining the centre of this delightful valley, we found a large branching river, abounding with lovely islands, and water-birds of numerous kinds. A species of grey pelican was the most numerous; but a black and white crane, with unreasonably long legs and bill, were also quite common. We watched their pisciverous experiments a long time, in hopes of catching sight of a lunar fish; but although we were not gratified in this respect, we could easily guess the purpose with which they plunged their long necks so deeply beneath the water. Near the upper extremity of one of these islands we obtained a glimpse of a strange amphibious creature, of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach, and was lost sight of in the strong current which set off from this angle of the island...

Dr. Herschel has classified not less than thirty-eight species of forest trees, and nearly twice this number of plants, found in this tract alone, which are widely different to those found in more equatorial latitudes. Of animals, he classified nine species of mammalia, and five of ovipara. Among the former is a small kind of rein-deer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire. Still its head and body differ only in the points stated from that of the beaver, and it was never seen except on the borders of lakes and rivers, in which is has been seen to immerse for a period of several seconds.

The most fantastic were the sentient hominids that populated an area full with natural-collisiums lined with living gold and ruby, as well "an equitriangular temple, built of polished sapphire" that was "a fane of devotion, or of science, which, when consecrated to the Creator is devotion of the loftiest order; for it exhibits his attributes purely free from the masquerade, attire, and blasphemous caricature of controversial creeds, and has the seal and signature of his own hand to sanction its aspirations." These were dubbed by Herschel "Vespertilio homo"... the Man-Bat!
But whilst gazing upon them in a perspective of about half a mile, we were thrilled with astonishment to perceive four successive flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds, descend with a slow even motion from the cliffs on the western side, and alight upon the plain...

Certainly the were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified... They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of simia genus...

Whilst passing across the canvass, and whenever we afterwards saw them, these creatures were evidently engaged in conversation; their gesticulation, more particularly the varied action of their hands and arms, appeared impassioned and emphatic. We hence inferred that they were rational beings, and although not perhaps of so high an order as others which we discovered the next month on the shores of the Bay of Rainbows, they were capable of producing works of art and contrivance...

These fantastic revelations by advanced telescope technology were, of course, a hoax. The perpetrator seems to have been reporter Richard Adams Locke, reported by Edgar Allan Poe as a descendant of the great Locke, in a publicity stunt for the Sun. Sir John Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing.

If you would like to read the full account, please visit the article at The Museum of Hoaxes.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Mars (1895)

At the close of an already rich life spent in the service of the United States diplomatic envoys to the Far East, the American aristocrat Percival Lowell dedicated himself to the study of Mars and the theory that there was life upon it.

The inspiration came to him by way of Camille Flammarion and Giovanni Schiaparelli, who first noted the optical illusion of the Martian canals. The means came to him by the establishment of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894. The justification for his latter life's work came in the form of three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).

Lowell at his telescope.

Lowell never lived to see his hypothesis proven, dying a disillusioned man in 1916. Nor would the hypothesis be demonstrated: by the end of his life the idea of Martian canals were already falling out of disfavour, finally being disproven in 1965 with the Mariner lander missions. However, the Lowell Observatory - which was also designated a National Historic Resource in 1965 - has since contributed to much important work in the field of astronomy. The observatory was itself a pioneer in placing astronomical studies in high, remote places for optimal viewing. Lowell also began the search for the elusive "Planet X", which led researchers at the observatory to discover Pluto in 1930. Charting of the "recessional veolcities" of two nearby galaxies in the two years prior to Lowell's death stacked evidence for the expansion of the universe.

Lowell's views, as romantic as they were, did not hold much water in his own day, let alone in our own. However, his works provide interesting reading on Victorian-Edwardian fringe science and it's worth keeping in mind that he was perhaps zealous but no crackpot. The value of the search has yeilded plenty in the accomplishments of his observatory. In the mean time, Mars has been made available for perusal via Bibliomania. Click on Lowell's Martian map to take a look.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Steam Trek: The Moving Picture (1994)

There is a great deal of fun in reimagining modern Science Fiction in a Scientific Romance setting, be it everything from Transformers in the form of steam trains, "Steampunk" Star Wars or a multitude of different versions of Star Trek. We participated in one such version, the online Steam Trek role-playing game. A decade prior to that (and much without our knowledge), the Ad Hoc Film Society made their own version of Steam Trek in the fashion of a slapstick, Georges Méliès style silent film. There is much to recommend about it - including the fantastic riverboat Isambard with a rope ladder instead of transporters - and more information can be found on their blog.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (2005)

It was an ambitious project. Butting up against the Hollywood powerhouse of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, Pendragon Pictures released their own direct-to-DVD version of H.G. Wells immortal classic. Unlike any other cinematic adaptation ever, this version by director Timothy Hines was set in the original era of the novel, intending to be a dazzling piece of costume Sci-Fi that was as faithful to the source material as possible.

Unfortunately, let us say that it was too ambitious. It would be enough simply to be the underdog, the independent company working on a shoestring budget and forced into doing the CGI equivalent of Ed Wood's flying pie pans. That would certainly be enough to explain atrocities like the scene below, which defy description. Such things are a study in how many layers of bad effects one can put into a single scene, in almost a perverse contrast with Karel Zeman's genius.

Poor effects resulting from no financing can be an easy excuse, however. Would the film have been any better had it the kind of money behind it that Spielberg and Cruise's bastardized variation did? Beneath the flat CGI backgrounds, poor matting, horribly integrated tripods and obvious day-for-night shots, does one catch the hint of a good film stunted by circumstance or simply a bad movie?

The latter seems the more honest answer. As much as one would like to compliment a faithful adaptation of the novel, the sad fact is that it was shot like it was a novel rather than a film. The cinematography is, at best, the quality of soap opera television, and even that is stretching things. In a film where the budget allows for a cast of a dozen, wide-angle objective shots are not the filmmaker's friend. Nor are stiff-faced, nepotistically-cast first-time actors. In a case such as this, inventiveness with the camera is not a luxury, but a necessity. Instead, all possible drama is sucked clean out of the picture and into the vacuum of space.

What we have in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, then, may best be looked upon as an extended fan film. From the hapless direction and acting to the horrible special effects, it bears all the hallmarks of something that ought to have gone no further than YouTube. Like a dozen Star Trek fan films that supremely value adherence to continuity in their adventures of Captain Mary Sue, the emphasis on faithfulness to the needless exclusion of every other virtue puts the mark upon it.

As a Wells' fan film, it is deeply and sincerely overambitious. Would that it were nothing more than a cynical DVD rushed to market, a King of the Lost World, meant to ride the wave of a Hollywood film. It always feels a bit mean to say that a fan's sincere best effort is actually just not very good.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Channelling Martian Maps

Know your enemy! In this case, if we're going to take the fight back to the Martian invaders that attacked England in 1899 or New Jersey in 1938, we need to know the topography of the War God. Thanks to BibliOdyssey, we can! Click the map below to read their article on mapping Mars...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (1938)

Of any adaptation of Victorian Scientific Romances, perhaps the one that stands head and shoulders above all others is not a piece of film or any other visual medium. Very likely the best, easily the most dramatic, and absolutely the most legendary is a radio broadcast performed by brilliant young artist Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air on October 30th, 1938: War of the Worlds. Though this 1898 novel by another Wells - Herbert George - was updated to a contemporary setting in the halcyon days of the 1930's, it so deftly teased out the helpless apoclypticism of the story that it created a nationwide panic.

The anatomy of the panic has been well-studied... On that fateful October 30th, most of America was listening to radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC. Twelve minutes into the program, singer and movie musical star Nelson Eddy began a number, which caused the audience to touch the dial en masse. The Mercury Theater on the Air over on CBS began their Halloween program with an extended narrative and repeated warnings that this was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel, but there would be no further announcements until the 40 minute mark when the story switched gears from the faux news reports to Orson Welles' aftermath monologue. When refugees from NBC tuned in to War of the Worlds, they arrived at roughly the same time that reporters reached Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and martians began popping out of the cylinder. By the next commercial break, people were running amok in the streets.

In truth, reports of the panic were exaggerated for effect. There wasn't mass rioting in the streets, though plenty of people were very afraid. Not of martians, mind you, but rather that the Nazis were finally launching the war that was looming on the horizon in 1938. Nevertheless, the newspapers were just about ready to crucify Welles for exploiting their fears of war and trust in the radio. For his part, Welles admitted in later years that he was trying his best to look like an early Christian saint. A few critics lauded Welles for shattering America's gullibility and broadcasters resolved never to let fiction masquerade as fact again. Unfortunately neither has held, but that's a different commentary.

The hoax never would have worked if the play wasn't as dramatically strong as it was. Minute-for-minute, The War of the Worlds has deserved fame as the best drama ever produced for airwaves. Though not completely original, the pattern of news reports and military radio broadcasts raise the subject to a fever pitch of excitement and dread that was delivered impeccably. Only the smallest of details breaks the illusion: the abbreviated spans of time it takes reporters and martians to work their way across the American seaboard. Heightened by panic, this detail is mitigated by the anticipation to find out what happens next. You don't want to wait for minutes to find out where the martians are headed next or if the militia was able to stop them. You want to know now!

The play begins as a slice of 1930's culture as ballroom music is being broadcast from a classy New York hotel, interrupted only by reports of gaseous emissions from Mars. The interruptions become more frequent as reporter Carl Phillips heads to Princeton University to visit astronomer Richard Pearson. This is a fortuitous visit, as an ominous meteor crashes at nearby, real life, town of Grover's Mill. The martians emerge with some trepidation, but there is no real sign of danger until the heat ray cuts off communication and the life of Phillips. Then all Hell breaks loose, an announcement is made by a President Roosevelt sound-alike, and everything builds to a fever pitch of futile attack after futile attack on the Tripods. Finally they are seen over the rushing mass of humanity in New York City as thousands succumb to their black smoke and heat rays. The last thing heard over the airwaves is a lonely, haunting "2X2L calling CQ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?"

Here the program breaks for station identification, and the listener can't help but slump back into their chair. Welles was so masterful at building the tension to the point of breaking, and when he finally releases his hold on you, the relief gives way to astonishment that anyone could make a drama in any medium that is just this damn good.

The last 20 minutes, when the performance reverts to a more familiar radio drama, is certainly weaker than the first 40. By the time the listener reaches it, their emotions are spent anyways. They're as exhausted as Welles' Pearson and ready to sleepwalk with him through post-apocalyptic New York State. By this part, you're not even really thinking about the story anymore... at least if you've heard it several times and been amazed and excited each time. What's left is contemplation on the genius that produced such an adventure and who would migrate on to Hollywood to conquer yet another medium.

Click here to listen to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds at the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

"Anta Odeli Uta"

These are the mysterious words received by radio transmission of unknown origin by stations all over central Europe. Few are piqued by this coded message except the Soviet engineer Loss, who dreams and works on building a craft that can voyage to Mars... Where he thinks the transmission may be from.

Meanwhile on Mars, the Keeper of Energy has developed a telescope that can peer all the way down to the surface of the neighbouring planet. Panic-stricken with the implications, the ruler of Mars demands that this be kept a secret from the populace. However, his wife, Queen Aelita, finds out about the discovery and demands that she be allowed to look upon this alien world of Earth. She does... Seeing the height of 1920's European civilization and falling in a distant love with Loss.

1924's Russian Expressionist Aelita: Queen of Mars is best remembered today as one of the earliest Science Fiction films. Its echos ring loud through the 1920's and 30's, with its strange, angular Martian palaces informing such films as Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The strange thing is, the Sci-Fi content only occupies a short fraction of the full screen time.

The vast majority of Aelita is a look on the complicated way of Russian life in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. In particular, we track the lives of Loss and his wife and their circle of acquaintances through their trials and tribulations. There are conflicting strains of approval and disapproval running through the picture, as we see characters cheating the system for bags of sugar and being found out, railway cars and checkpoints full of destitute refugees in their own homeland, and duplicitous marital and extramarital shenanigans culminating in murder most foul.

This pro- and con- approach is articulated most clearly in the Martian sequences, when Loss finally achieves his goal in the last third of this two-hour epic. Life on Mars is highly stratified, with the ruling class riding on the backs of the enslaved underclasses. The Martian monarchs hold the power of life and death over their minions, including freezing the life forces of a full third. To cement the association, they even appear as futuristic Egyptians, whose silver and celluloid costumes recall the heyday along the Nile among the overlords of the Hebrews.

For the sake of Aelita - who both swoons for the Earth-man's kisses and opposes the tyrannical rule of her husband - and as a good, honest Soviet commrade, Loss leads a revolt of the working classes. Unfortunately for him, while Aelita opposes her husband's tyranny, she has no problem whatever with her own. The alien proletariat are soon suppressed by the soldiers now loyal to Aelita, but all works out for the best in the twist ending. Nevertheless, there is a provocative critique as the rulers are overthrown, and new rulers rise up out of the revolutionaries. Perhaps that is why the film was sent into the KGB's lockers for so long a season.

The Science Fiction portions, once they finally get around to them, are quite smashing. At least, they are a sumptuous aesthetic feast. It's just quite a pronounced journey to get to them amidst the Soviet soap operatics. Economic use of film is not this movie's strong suit, and it could have abbreviated a good half of the Earthbound plot, if not more. One almost wishes to do the unthinkable and edit Aelita down so as to bring the Sci-Fi elements into greater prominance while pacing faster through the rest. That is, of course, if the Sci-Fi aspects are those which one considers to be of the most significance. No doubt there is a greater artistic integrity to the full picture, but if the aesthetics are more your concern, then watch the first half hour and skip ahead to the last half or third of Aelita: Queen of Mars.