Sunday, 30 December 2012

Year in Review 2012

This past year, Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age celebrated its fifth anniversary. For the fifth time now, we are closing out the year with a retrospective of our highlights. I would even go so far as to say that the whole year in itself has been a lifetime highlight, as demonstrated by a May trip to Disneyland and a summer spent tracking around the Rocky Mountains with the lovely Ashley, as well as facing the necessity of pulling this weblog back to posting only once a week.

One of the challenges of a weblog like this is finding the time to read the books and watch the movies I review. I did manage to post about some new books by some of my favourite recent writers, including Mark Hodder's conclusion the Burton and Swinburne series, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, and Edward Erdelac's third Merkabah Rider book Have Glyphs Will Travel. I also learned about, and learned to love, Black Coat Press, which specializes in English translations of classic French Scientific Romances, like Albert Robida's The Clock of the Centuries and Jules Lermina's Panic in Paris. If you haven't ordered stacks of books (or torrents of epubs) from them yet, treat yourself to an after-Christmas present.

2012 was a notable year for bringing together a number of centennials. I discussed them in a general way in a piece entitled “1912: Zenith of the Scientific Romances.” We had the 100th anniversaries of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and John Carter, which Disney more or less recognized with their ill-fated film adaptation. I also looked at Disney's previous adaptation of Tarzan, for which they at least went to the trouble of advertizing, and one of Burroughs' own inspirations, Gulliver of Mars. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World also enjoyed a centenary, and I enjoyed contributing to a centennial edition of the novel now available for sale. And, of course, it was the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which I meditated upon in terms of its ending the Edwardian Era and entering the realm of a modern Atlantis.

Being the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, I took a moment to wax on the spectacle of empire, as well as my native Canada's love affair with royalty and the railway (not to mention my own love for Hudson's Bay Company heritage branding).

I'm also admittedly a sucker for the Victorian Science Fiction films of the Atomic Age, and reviewed a number of them including two of my favourites, Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In truth I most admire the “Gay Nineties” aesthetic found in many films of the era, and Ashley has been doing her part to expose me to the musical side of things. I also doubled-up on the fashion writing with a word about Sixties Edwardiana. Unfortunately, for as much as I love those mid-century movies, they did contribute to an unjust view of Jules Verne which I rebutted in this open critique of Robert J. Sawyer's opinion. I also attempted to set it a bit more straight in my review of Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century, Magellania, and Facing the Flag. The latter inspired the artistically standout and standalone Verne adaptation of the era, Karel Zeman's Fabulous World of Jules Verne. It could only be matched by his other adaptations, On the Comet and The Stolen Airship.

When not enjoying movies from that era, I may be found shivering at vintage Japanese tales of terror. Through October I took a look at the three most renowned of these stories: Botan Doro, Bancho Sarayashiki, and my favourite, Yotsuya Kaidan. I also had the opportunity to share one of my favourite Japanese animated shorts, an early piece that demonstrates the roots of the distinct anime look in mirroring the pie-eyed style of early American cartoons.

Thank you for remaining with us through our fifth year of Voyages Extraordinaires. As always it has been a pleasure and we have much planned for the coming year. Our running commentary on the original Doctor Who continues and possibly comes to its conclusion, we'll feature the longstanding connection between Oz and Disney, revisit both the Atomic Age and Golden Age of Sci-Fi cinema, ride along with the Lone Ranger, and possibly even expose the secret history of the American Space Program. Our next great voyage will be to Paris in May, and I'm sure there will be much to share when we return.

Best wishes for the coming year and we'll see you then!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

National Geographic's Top Stories of 2012

The National Geographic Society is one of the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to "increase and diffuse geographic knowledge," the Society's mission is to inspire people to care about the planet.

Throughout its 120-year history, the Society has encouraged conservation of natural resources and raised public awareness of the importance of natural places, the plants and wildlife that inhabit them, and the environmental problems that threaten them. National Geographic's explorers, writers and photographers have traveled the Earth, sharing its amazing stories with each new generation. The Society has funded more than 9,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects around the globe, and grantees make exciting new discoveries every day in both traditional and emerging fields.
Since beginning this weblog, I have featured the year-in-review articles of the esteemed National Geographic Society to reiterate the point that both the beginning and end of my goal is an appreciation of the wonders of nature, science and history. Once again, here are National Geographic's top science and nature stories from 2012 based on those articles most viewed by readers. Click on the links below to catch up on what's new in the world!

Top Ten Discoveries of 2012
Top Ten Weirdest Stories of 2012
Best of 2012: National Geographic Magazine Photos of the Year
Best News Pictures of 2012
Best Space Pictures of 2012: Editor's Pick
The 10 Best Traveler Photos of 2012
Best of Extreme Photo of the Week 2012

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Stolen Airship (1967)

An excerpt from The Stolen Airship.

Each of Karel Zeman's Verne-inspired films begins with an artistic montage outlining its general theme. In The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, we see the "age of progress" through the eyes of the protagonist, whereas in Baron Munchausen it is humanity's ascent into the sky, and into space, and finally to the moon where we catch up with the imagination. In The Stolen Airship it is the long history of adults wagging their fingers at children.

A little Neanderthal relieves himself on the family fire, Roman flower-bearers upset an urn on a horse's head, Mediaeval lovers steal a kiss, and a pet monkey interferes with a Victorian street performer... Adults just can't cut kids a break. We are then introduced to our heroes: a group of five children standing in the docket in court, forced to explain their adventure in a perloined dirigible. What an adventure! Zeman fuses together Verne's Robinsonade Two Years' Vacation about a group of schoolchildren lost on a South Pacific island with his Mysterious Island, by virtue of the schoolchildren making off with an airship and landing on Captain Nemo's secret base. The Nautilus and Nemo himself does make an appearance, in which he reminisces about his exploits with a boy who loves reading about them, and there is even a reference to In Search of the Castaways by way of a letter in a bottle conveyed via shark.

Boy's own adventure is deftly spliced with burlesques of the adult world. Scandals erupt over the children who have made off with the airship and the town magistrate is prepared to practically hang the delinquent parents, until learning that his own son is amongst the brigands. The airship's owner is a bit of an entrepreneur, having told everyone that his ship utilizes a new form of inflammable gas. Stocks are selling out and caper-comedy spies have been employed by foreign governments to uncover the secret of the gas. None of this does the boys any good when lightening strikes their airship and it bursts into flame. All of the scandals are fuelled by the local newspaper and its shifty reporter who has taken as great an interest in the airship owner's fetching Gibson Girl assistant as he has in the case itself. It's probably in the children's own best interests to get as far away from these people as they can.

In Zeman's typical fashion, he goes above and beyond the source material to fashion a world in which every sort of Vernian invention, Robidian airship and Mélièsian contraption preambulate. Not content to supply us with merely fantastic content, he is true to form by lovingly recreating the style of an engraved illustration come to life, employing every style of animation known to cinema by 1967. As in Fabulous World of Jules Verne, live actors and paper cut-outs interact with stop-motion models, double-exposures and hand-drawn animation, filtered through a gauze giving the linear engraved effect, all in the same frame at the same time.

In the cycle of Zeman's films, The Stolen Airship brings together his tributes to imagination and Jules Verne like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne with his "boys own adventure" stories like Journey to the Beginning of Time. It might appear to reinforce the maligned view that Verne was primarily a juvenile writer, but it is impossible to escape the fact that Verne really did appeal so much to children. The art is not to try and steal Verne back from the hands of the young, but to attain a sense of child-like wonder through this purloined zeppelin.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Case for Romanticism

While I have posted many times on the subject of Romanticism, I’ve always simply taken this approach to life for granted so I may proceed in the discussion. I’ve had yet to articulate an actual case for Romanticism itself.

I hope to rectify this oversight with the following video of a public lecture I delivered at my congregation on December 6th, 2012. It is entitled Beyond “Does God Exist?” The Real Question Asked by Scientists, Philosophers and You. Its ostensible purpose was to get beneath the question of God’s existence in itself and recognize that underlying it was a question of "epistemology": what you think you can know and how you think you can know it. In particular, in Western society, it is a debate between Rationalism and Romanticism.

I do talk a great deal about science in the lecture, but obviously it is a discussion held in terms of religion. That particular subject is not alien to these pages, but I invite anyone who might be tempted to respond in the comment section that they don’t come here for this sort of propaganda to take an ounce of protection and not watch the video to begin with. For the rest of you, I hope that it may provide some inspiration as you celebrate Santa’s birthday in the coming days!

As an addendum, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer to one of the questions posed to me at the lecture, so I posted a video reply which more succinctly addresses the issue of how I determine what is true if I am a Romantic.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

On the Comet (1970)

Excerpts from On the Comet.

On the Comet, released in 1970, is one of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's last feature films and his last direct adaptation of Jules Verne. Based on the novel Hector Servadac, Zeman has crafted a film that is once again true to the form of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Stolen Airship.

Unrest afflicts French Algeria as a coalition between an Arab warlord and a Spanish diplomat spells explosive doom for the French army. Ignorant to these machinations is Hector Servadac, a surveyor who, through hallucinations about a beautiful woman he saw in a postcard, falls over a cliff and into the sea. He is rescued from the brine by an equally beautiful woman, Angelica, who was kidnapped by the Spanish and escaped as they disembarked. While the Spanish plant their bomb at the French fortress, an evil star appears in the sky. In truth it is a comet, and when the bomb explodes, the fortress, village, and a large part of the Mediterranean lift. Compelled by the power of gravity, they land on the comet and retreat into the stellar frontier.

Zeman keenly uses the situation of castaways in space to satirize the absurdities of political intrigues and military bureaucracy. Though the world has completely transformed around them, literally gone out from beneath them, each force continues in its plots. The French revert to sealed orders "in case of confusion", locked away in the same cabinet as the fine wine. The Arab shiek is intent to take over this new world and the Spanish are waiting in the wings. Not even the sudden appearance of stop-motion dinosaurs is enough to stop them. Peace comes with the threat of apocalypse under the influence of Mars, but can it possibly remain?

On the Comet is as stunning as every Zeman film, its merits going without statement. However, like every Zeman film, it has yet to appear in wide DVD release. Thankfully the Internet has intervened where formal distributors have failed us.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Facing the Flag (1897)

Facing the Flag is one of Jules Verne's lesser known works yet one of those in the late stages of his career that are more prescient for their insights into human behaviour than for their technological speculation. It is a slight work, only 180 pages soaking wet, and had the pleasure of being adapted into an equally obscure film by Czech auteur Karel Zeman that was translated into English as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (which is the greatest non-Hollywood adaptation of Verne, if not the the greatest period). From a literary standpoint neither is it one of his best, suffering a decided overabundance of his most distracting tendency to ask rhetorical questions of his readers. Nevertheless it contains seeds of ideas that are only becoming relevant now.

Our story begins in an insane asylum with a Professor Roch, who has been incarcerated for his own good by the United States government. Roch, a French scientist, claims to have developed an incredibly powerful explosive which he has been attempting to shop around to the world's most powerful nations. The trouble is that he asks an exorbitant amount of money and provides no demonstration of the explosive. To great genius is madness closely allied, and Roch is an inherently suspicious and mistrustful person. His greed is merely a function of his desire for recognition, in this case a recognition in monetary form to the tune of millions of dollars. Each refusal made him more unhinged until finally his mind was lost in the inwardly-turned madness of offended brilliance. Tending him is the French engineer Simon Hart, masquerading as an orderly of the lunatic asylum. Hart hopes that in his ravings Roch might let slip the details of his explosive.

Along comes Count d'Artigas, a wealthy nobleman of indeterminate ethnicity who has come to pay his respects to the mad scientist he has heard so much about in the newspapers. This visit becomes the prelude to an abduction. In the night, both Roch and Hart are stolen away in gags and blindfolds. Hart feels the distinct sensation of being lowered from a raft into something, but cannot figure out what. All he knows is that he is locked in a windowless cell devoid of light whenever he is not taken on deck of Count d'Artigas' schooner. The better part of the novel concerns Hart piecing together the mystery of the abduction, ultimately learning that he and Roch are kept aboard a submersible craft tugging the schooner along to wherever lays d'Artigas' lair.

Their destination is the cavernous interior of one of the islands of the Bermudas, and in this prison Hart learns two terrifying facts. The first is that Count d'Artigas is really the merciless pirate known as Ker Karraje, his crew the band of cutthroat buccaneers assembled from the worst dregs of the Australian gold rush. The second is that Karraje has promised to give Roch everything he demands in exchange for the explosive. What are millions to men who can merely take it at will? Roch's mind has been poisoned and the opportunity for vengeance means more to him than even the gold he has no way to spend.

Here lies Verne's prescience. It is not in the submarines or even the explosive, but in what people would do with such limitless power. The similarities to Capatin Nemo are obvious, for both he and d'Artigas have submarines docked in the caldera of tropical islands, and both pose a clear and present threat to the established political order. Unlike d'Artigas, Nemo is a revolutionary, a progressive. He is a victim of his own drive for vengeance, like Roch, but his aims are ostensibly humanitarian. D'Artigas is a criminal and Roch a madman, together wielding an explosive comparable to an atomic bomb. In the 20 years between 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Facing the Flag submarines had become old news – even the British in Facing the Flag have one, which engages d'Artigas' ship in a thrilling duel – and powerful new types of explosive were constantly being invented. Alfred Nobel developed dynamite in 1867 and Eugène Turpin developed melinite in 1885. So close were the similarities that Turpin actually sued Verne for defamation because of the character of Roch. No, Verne's real prophetic genius was in anticipating the fear of weapons of mass destruction ending up in the hands of criminals and terrorists.

The bubbling anxiety in Facing the Flag is not that such power should exist – it already did – but what should happen if it is used by those with no accountability to themselves or others, guided by no compass or higher calling. Verne's literary universe is populated by solitary romantic geniuses, of which Nemo is the most archetypal, and I should imagine that the author would prefer such a superweapon to be employed by one of these if by anyone. Roch and d'Artigas almost read like self-parodies, a satire on the theme of the romantic genius. One is a criminal, the other is insane, and together they might very well incinerate the globe. Though make no mistake about Verne's sympathies: he over and over again finds ways to reconcile his solitary romantics to the wider society, and Facing the Flag is no different.

At the time of its writing, Facing the Flag would have resonated on the themes of destructive power. Half a century later it would have done the same, only then with nuclear weaponry at the outset of the Atomic Age. Only now in the post-9/11 melieu are we really, truly acquainted with the full threat posed by Verne in his novel.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Terovolas (2012)

In his latest novel Terovolas, Edward Erdelac crafts a fantastic sequel to Dracula in the style of Bram Stoker’s classic but transplanted into the environment that Erdelac knows best. A specialist in Weird Western tales, most notably those of his Hasidic gunslinging demon hunter the Merkabah Rider, Erdelac is in his element when transplanting the esoteric horrors of the Old World into the soil of the American frontier. For Terovolas, he recounts what happens to Abraham Van Helsing when he returns the remains of Quincy P. Morris to the family ranch in Texas. Because, of course, it could never go smoothly…

As demonstrated in the Merkabah Rider series, Erdelac is masterful at examining the psychological state that the encounter with demonic forces leaves on the humans who bear arms against it. In my reviews of those prior works, I lauded him for the sensitive connection he drew between the condition of the titular character’s soul and the effectiveness of his battle. The powers dealt with by the Rider were not simply superheroics operating by morally insensitive natural laws. Neither was his faith a window-dressing of “local colour” which, all too often, religious faith is treated as in the real world let alone in fiction.

His encounter with Dracula and the vampire lord’s brides has left Van Helsing psychologically scarred. So much so that he spent the immediate wake of the events locked away in Dr. Seward’s asylum, and the pretense of the novel is Seward collecting the notes of Van Helsing alongside clippings and other journal entries, much in the same way as the novel Dracula. This is a wonderful conceit that makes Terovolas a sequel in style and substance, not merely in rehashed characters. Once having regained his wits, Van Helsing makes the trek to Texas to turn the ashen remains of Morris over to his brother Coleman. It is not a warm reception: though Van Helsing and Coleman get along as well as can be hoped from a taciturn and stoic cowboy, there was apparently some family strife between the brothers. It also came at a bad time, as a range war is brewing between the Q&M Ranch and a neighbouring outfit recently purchased and occupied by a secretive gang of Norwegians.

Van Helsing unwittingly became embroiled in this war before he even arrived. On the train ride west, he enjoyed the company of Callisto Terovolas, an erudite and bewitching Greek maiden on her way to become the bride of the chief Norwegian, Sigmund Skoll. After an apparent good deed that puts Skoll and his boys in the good graces of the town, Van Helsing attends an engagement at the ranch where he is reunited with Callisto, only to learn that she is unhappy, even frightened, and with child. Through an examination of the Norse accoutrements adorning Skoll’s ranchhouse, and an uncomfortable conversation with the man himself, Van Helsing deduces that his band are a cult of devotees to Fenris.

Here Erdelac exercises his skill in applying mythological research to the Western setting. Fenris is a Norse deity, a monsterous wolf, child of Loki and prophesied to devour Odin during Ragnarok. Fenris himself has two pups, one of which is named Skoll, a coincidence not lost on Van Helsing. Another coincidence the professor recalls is that the Berserker warriors of Norse history wore wolf skins into battle. These warriors of Odin would fire themselves into a frenzy that doubled their strength and made them immune to the effects of injury. This would certainly explain the accounts of large predatory animals suddenly skulking around the rangelands at night. The idea of a range war against a cult of enraged heathens does not particularly excite Van Helsing but at least, he tells himself with relief, he’s not dealing with the supernatural this time.

Invariably, whether you are a fan of mythology or Westerns, a book by Edward Erdelac is a pleasure to read. This continuation of life after Dracula done in the style in the great book results in a novel of near equal greatness.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)

If anyone can truly be said to have captured the spirit of Georges Méliès, it is Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. It is one thing to use the methods pioneered by Méliès, which in a sense makes all subsequent filmmakers his children. When Méliès purchased his first camera, the art was so new that in developing his screen fantasies, he created many of the techniques that would become standard practice in the medium for a century. It is quite another to be heir to the spirit of wide-eyed wonder and fantasy that infuses Méliès' films themselves.

Most filmmakers don't even make the attempt, which is their right, since not all creative visions need be the same. A few try, but none have come so close as Karel Zeman. Heralded as one of the fathers of Czech animation, his films are celluloid adventures in wonder and whimsy carefully crafted from nearly every form of special effect known by the 1950's and 60's.

Most indicative of his work is his fantastic magnum opus, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. While a specific adaptation of Verne's Facing the Flag, this 1958 film pulls in influences from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and the Robur stories, at the barest minimum. Overall, it's more the sort of film that could conceivably take place in a world in which all of Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires were true.

The story is ultimately a fig leaf of rationalization for the real purpose of Fabulous World. In it, a man waxes philosophical on the magnificent achievements of humanity as it has conquered the land, sea and air, ushering in a new age of science that has abolished outmoded ways of life and thought. He is on his way to visit his friend Professor Roch, who has discovered a new energy source that could be just as easily used for destruction as for creation. Unfortunately, after a midnight raid, the Professor and his assistant are abducted into the submarine of the villainous Count Artigas, "last and most diabolical of the buccaneers". To the chagrin of Simon, the assistant, the Professor is unwittingly helping the scallywags to develop a doomsday weapon on their volcanic island base.

The contention of the plot is familiar to anyone who has seen any Atomic Age Science Fiction film of the 60's. What sets Fabulous World apart is its unbelievable conception and execution. It is not only a film set in the kind of world envisioned by Verne, but also the world as visualized by the illustrations to Verne's novels. Karel accomplished a most fabulous feat in combining live action, stop motion, painted sets and traditional animation under the guise of a Victorian engraving come to life. It is as though the lush illustrations of a Edouard Riou sprang to life, projected and given motion right from the pages of the texts in a moving magic lantern display.

A review for Locus Online eloquently describes the complicated and astonishing process:
This is a live-action black and white movie — but it uses every camera trick and every form of animation known in 1958... Methods include stop-motion, paper cutout, drawing and painting animation, drawn foregrounds and backdrops, dissolves, miniatures and models, double exposure (probably in-camera and superimposition), still images, traveling and stationary mattes — they're all here. There were at least eight people watching; someone yelled out at one point "There are at least seven different things going on in this scene!" (I counted eight.) And all this before the invention of blue screens!

There are lines drawn on sets, and even on people, to keep the original steel-engraving feel. The scenes of ships of the water have been treated with some sort of light, striped screen (probably cloth, probably double-exposed) that makes the moving waves of real water take on the appearance of the engraved lines in a 19th century drawing of the sea. There's a scene of a train coming down a track — the train is drawn; the wheels and the tracks are animated; the (real) engineer stands on an open platform in the engine's cab and (real) people lean out of the (drawn) passenger car. (It's so simple and powerful it takes your breath away.) Actors walk through back-projected sets; at the same time they're walking behind animated full-sized paper cutouts of spinning flywheels and meshing gears, all this in front of a painted set in the middle-background. For maybe five seconds of screen time. There's a scene of an animated shark attacking a real diver in a model set with painted water.

As the reviewers exclaim, the film is truly a masterpiece... A European piece of art comparing favourably to the best of the genre's Hollywood films.

In a travesty of history, few today know of Zeman and his legacy outside the circles of film history. His echos do reach down through filmmakers of the imagination like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, but it is a real shame that his works have not received their due in the West. For the fan of Voyages Extraordinaires, there are none more fabulous than those of Karel Zeman.