Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling and Normal by Warren Ellis

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

If you ever publicly identify as a futurist, you will eventually be asked what contemporary futurism – an admittedly vague term which somehow covers everyone from tech-centric venture capital strategists and Pentagon policy wonks to Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil and the snake-oil Barnums of Silicon Valley – has to do with the proto-fascist 1920s Italian art movement of the same name. Bruce Sterling’s latest novella, Pirate Utopia, is (in part) an attempt to answer that question.

Written in the bombastic style that animates much of Sterling’s more recent short fiction, Pirate Utopia is populated by characters whose larger-than-lifeness is predominantly a function of their unfettered will-to-power (but also cocaine). In this alternate Adriatic, minor historical figures and allegorical types rub shoulders in Fiume, the little city at the heart of the breakaway microstate known as the Republic of Carnaro, where Futurist poets and artists work side by side with rogue military leaders and mercenary engineers to establish a proto-fascist entrepôt with its own hi-tech missile factory.

Identified by glamorous (and thus ridiculous) nicknames – “the Poet”, “the Ace of Hearts”, “the Art Witch” – the heroes of capital-F Futurism unwittingly slip into the narrative space occupied, in our own timeline, by the more fully developed European fascisms of the early 20th Century: Mussolini, a magazine editor, is emasculated in his office chair by Syndicalist women with single-shot handguns, while a former Austrian art student takes someone else’s bullet during a failed putsch in a Bavarian beer-hall. But Carnaro is doomed not to last – for as Peter Lamborn Wilson has observed, the pirate utopia is always-already temporary and contingent; the polder cannot hold.

The arrival of “the Magician” – one Harry Houdini, squired by two USian pulp fiction  pioneers – and his inviting of Lorenzo Secondari the Pirate Engineer to the States completes the story of Futurism and futurism. Both are essentially poetic movements fuelled by utopian genres of writing and the creative arts, and powered by the modernist legacy of a lust for power, velocity and creative destruction. Which is not to claim that small-f futurism is necessarily fascist, of course – but the same desires and fetishes can be found the manifestos of both, and today’s self-styled “neoreactionaries” (a small but scary intellectual splinter of the soi disant “alt-right”, fond of cool tech, racist pseudoscience and the presumed meritocracy of enlightened dictatorship) mark the ideological space where futurisms past and present overlap. Both futurism and Futurism are far less about the future than they are about a present in the perpetual process of radical sociotechnical reconfiguration, and the possibilities of power in times of flux.

Warren Ellis’s Normal begins with an ageing academic demanding cat gifs with menaces (assuming “menaces” can stretch to include a shank whittled from the handle of a ten-buck toothbrush), and the story only gets darker and weirder, unfolding around a plot featuring “a missing guy, a locked-room mystery out of Agatha Christie, and a pile of insects.” Normal Head is a retreat facility for burned out futurists – not the “woo, flying cars!!” sort of futurist, but the strategists and forecasters who have learned the truth of Nietzsche’s old aphorism about gazing into the abyss, and learned it the hard way. The abyss in question is the light-cone of increasingly plausible and probable end-games facing a civilisation whose ability to generate interesting new technologies has far outpaced their ability to plan, predict or control the consequences – and speaking from beneath my own futurist’s hat, I assure you it can best a basilisk when it comes to lookin’ back atcha.

In contrast to the pulpy swaggerdocio of Sterling’s story, Normal has a stark style and shape, tracing a bleakly Ballardian arc which, plotted on paper, would resemble a stock-market chart during a bank run: a justifiably and self-consciously doomed male Western professional attempts a heroic final act of self-abnegating redemption, only to reveal in doing so the even more comprehensive fuckedupness of, well, pretty much everything. Mercifully, Ellis leavens his grim prognosis with gallows humour, and with his well-tuned ear for the contemporary vernacular: you may be headed for a boot-on-a-human-face-forever sort of an ending, but you’ll find yourself smiling as an academic from a rival discipline describes economics as “a speeding death kaleidoscope made of tits” – particularly if you know anything about economics. (Or about academics, for that matter.)

Taken together, these two books shine a light on the intimate but often occluded kinship between science fiction and futurism, rooted in a shared ideology and teleology. I am reminded of a recent Clute riff, in which he observes – and I paraphrase – that in “the old sf” (which is to say, roughly speaking, 20th century sf) the reward for saying ‘yes!’ was the future, while in “new” sf, the reward for saying ‘yes!’ is death; this reflects and reproduces a recent tectonic slippage in our attitude to change, and to technological change in particular. The Republic of Carnaro may be doomed in Sterling’s story, but as Houdini and friends say ‘yes!’ to Futurism and smuggle its Promethean flame back to their homeland, they mark the beginning of a hegemonic American century – albeit one which seems to be drawing to a shuddering halt even as I type. But Adam Dearden and the other inmates of Normal Head, after long careers of saying ‘yes, but…’ to the future, suddenly find that it’s too late for questions and analysis, let alone for saying ‘no’. 

Things being what they are, I think we’re all victims of #abyssgaze to some extent … and yet the dream of Carnaro lives on in the tax-exempt sea-steading fantasies and vaporware Martian colonies of libertarian millionaires. Perhaps, then, we could say that Futurism’s greatest trick was – and still is – making the capital disappear.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith

The MIT Press/Whitechapel Art Gallery (2020), 240 pp

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler. This review first appeared in Vector 292.

There is a moment in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution when John Constable argues that “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” Various nineteenth century artists actually made science-fictional paintings — John Martin and Thomas Cole spring to mind — and groups of artists such as the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Surrealists embraced the ambiguities of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1956, the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and featured science-fictional imagery among its utopian and dystopian reactions to post-war, consumerist Britain. Among its many visitors was a new writer called J.G. Ballard. 

It is thus appropriate that this book on science-fiction art is published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery (in conjunction with MIT). As part of the Documents in Contemporary Art series — other titles include The Gothic, Beauty, Abstraction, The Sublime and Ruins— it brings together extracts from theoretical essays, academic journals, museum catalogues, interviews and written creative works, mainly produced in the last two decades. The book is arranged by theme rather than chronologically: “Estrangement”, “Future”, “Posthumanism” and “Ecology”, the first being driven by academic definitions of sf and the others by three broad areas of sf art. It is perhaps surprising that “Utopia”, “Dystopia”, “Technology” or “The City” are not sections, but it seems a reasonable breakdown. There is no editorial voice to situate each extract, beyond the bare fact of bibliography, and so most voices are gifted equal status, some contesting and others contradicting. Occasionally I longed for a map, or perhaps a clarification of whether, say, Afrofuturism starts in 1993 (South Atlantic Quarterly) or 1994 (that issue reprinted as Flame Wars) and I’m not clear whose typo M.R. Shiel was. And the volume assumes that you are familiar with the artists under discussion — a good many of them were names new to me, reflecting the eclectic range.

Across the volume there are some leading academic voices, such as Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Darko Suvin — represented by judicious extracts from central works — and writers such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Kim Stanley Robinson. Atwood is given prominence as someone who has been accused of committing science fiction and who begs off the label, as what she writes isn’t what she thinks science fiction is, and she apologises that we may have taken offence at being misled into thinking it is science fiction. This is nicely countered in the interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, “Whenever science fiction gets interesting, then people try to give it another name. […] If its content becomes relevant, you call it cyberpunk, cli-fi, Anthropocene literature or dystopian fiction” (195). Nevertheless, Atwood places herself in the Vernian rather than the Wellsian tradition. But, of course, she isn’t producing art, in the sense of the other practitioners in the book.

The heart of the “Estrangement” section is an extract from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which situates science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (36). It is estrangement that is picked up on by the rest of the book — the sense of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becoming familiar, which we can surely see in the dialectical dance between the artistic simulation of, say, a landscape in paint or the reimagining of a location thanks to its depiction. Estrangement is a socio-political act, persuading us to think about the real world in a new way. The cognitive part of the equation — loosely, the science — is not really discussed in the extract, although Sherryl Vint picks it up in the next one. Suvin’s formulation allows us to see art in Pawel Althamer’s salutation to the new millennium in a Warsaw housing estate and then the travels of its inhabitants in gold spacesuits to Brasilia, Belgium, Mali and Oxfordshire. It empowers Afrofuturism and a huge amount of non-Western art by reframing European colonialism as an alien invasion and opens the space for new myths and fables. For example, Amna Malik discusses Ellen Gallagher’s Ichthyosaurus installation at the Freud Museum as “the basis of a foundation myth in which the sea becomes an incubator for the potentiality of the future” (79) (and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is mentioned in an interview with Ama Josephine Budge [215]). Meanwhile Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Dysfunctional Family, featuring an alien family dressed in batik cloth imported to Nigeria from Indonesia, was on display at the “Alien Nation” exhibition at the ICA, reappropriating fabrics sold to that country because it was perceived to be African.

Continue reading “Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith”

Treasuring the Wreck of The Unbelievable: Envisioning a future archive of contextualised contemporary art

By Alex Butterworth.

This academic article explores Damien Hirst’s 2017 exhibition The Wreck of the Unbelievable, which mischievously purported to present treasures salvaged from the wreck of the legendary Apistos. How might we preserve, curate, and otherwise mediate such ambitious and distributed artworks, which extend in such convoluted ways through diverse social and cultural spaces, and which deliberately ambiguate their own boundaries and encounters? Where artworks both seek to capture and to intervene in their own historical moment, what obligations and affordances arise for future historians, curators, critics, and publics? Might the challenges set by The Wreck of the Unbelievable even model a new kind of digital art history including, for example, data generated incidentally and abundantly by digital processes? This article playfully mobilises new Digital Humanities methods for reading the vast and stormy seas of social media data discourse, reading between the artwork itself and the historical ‘moment’ in which it is so entangled.



Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst

Man has no harbour, time has no shore;

It flows, and we pass away!

Alphonse de Lamartine: ‘The Lake’ as quoted by Franck Goddio, ‘Discovering a Shipwreck,’ in Damien Hirst, Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable

Damien Hirst’s 2017 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was work of ‘spreadable’ historical narrative, spun around an elaborately wrought hoax. Ten years in planning and execution, the exhibition straddled two large spaces on either side the mouth of Venice’s Grand Canal, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana. It alleged to present treasures salvaged from the Apistos, a ship lost almost two thousand years ago, comprising the art collection of a freed slave of incalculable wealth and cupidity. Treasures wrought of marble, gold, crystal, and jade were accompanied by films of the marine archaeology in action, featuring animistic figures — some with the disconcerting features of Disney characters — gently raised from the sea bed. The authenticity of the sculptures themselves was vertiginously involuted, with some sculptures appearing in variant versions, scaled up or down, cleaned of or encrusted with coral. Captions, located inaccessibly, also played games with curatorial authority, describing the construction of the luxurious display ‘cabinets’ as often as they did the contents of the vitrines.

But the physical exhibition was only a single, ephemeral manifestation of the world of Treasures. To commit wholeheartedly to comprehending that world is to hazard one’s sense of coherence in a game of narrative disentanglement, played out within a mise-en-abyme. The layering of the Lamartine epigraph, above, illustrates this experience: it serves as a textual gesture towards mortal infinitude, extracted from its context, relocated within an essay of playful dishonesty — printed in one of three catalogues advertised as accompanying the exhibition, of which only two appear ever to have been published — that aims to ground the exhibition in a plausible fictionality. In his essay in the same catalogue, Goddio ponders parenthetically of the wrecked ship, which bore the Greek name Apistos, translated as Unbelievable: ‘Was that its original name? Or did it acquire it subsequently because of its fabulous cargo? No one knows.’ On such uncertainty, the fascination of the show pivots.

Continue reading “Treasuring the Wreck of The Unbelievable: Envisioning a future archive of contextualised contemporary art”

Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable

A sneak peek at Vector 292, the contemporary art issue. Juliana Huxtable’s groundbreaking postdisciplinary artistic practice encompasses cyberculture, portraiture, performance, poetry, transmedia storytelling, critical making, fashion, happenings, and myriad other modes and magics. In September 2020 Vector took the opportunity to chat with Juliana about her work, especially the role played by science fiction

What were your early encounters with science fiction like?

My father, in particular, was obsessed with science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction lying around the house, games, films, magazines. He was really into Heavy Metal magazine, which featured this sci-fi soft-core pornography. For my dad, who was not a religious person, it was as close to a religious practice as we came.

My mom on the other hand was highly religious. But both of my parents really saw technology almost as this necessary gateway to liberation, to cultural and social advancement. There was a strong racial aspect to that. So that was the context in which I grew up, and what’s funny is that when I went to university, I almost had this kind of adolescent “I need to define myself!” moment. I pulled away from science fiction, and would feign disinterest.

How long did that last, that feigned disinterest?

It really was when I moved to New York that I started to develop my own interest in science fiction. Possibilities related especially to gender are so interesting to me. So I found myself naturally drawn to subjects that heavily relied on science fiction, or that were actually a form of science fiction … even if they might not be formally classified as part of that cultural sphere.

For instance, there was my interest in the Nuwaubian Nation. The merger of Ufology and Egyptology, and the literature and contemporary almost pseudo-science which that produces, is essentially a form of science fiction. That reanimated my interest in science fiction more generally. I started engaging with it again almost as a form of art research.

“Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering …”

This morning I saw this tweet where somebody was like, “Describe your gender in five words or less or more, and you can’t use words like masc, fem, androgynous.” People were replying with song lyrics and so on. I guess my question is, Juliana, what is gender?

For me, the struggle for gender that I’m interested in, and the work for gender that I’m interested in, is about expanding beyond inherited gender structures. That means expanding the signifying space that floats right above the concrete materiality of sex. So if ‘sex’ is this literal form of inherited embodiment, whose essence supposedly can’t be modified, then ‘gender’ is the directly corresponding world of cultural, religious, linguistic, and social meanings. Meanings that are, it’s assumed, birthed from that materiality. 

The struggle for gender and the work for gender that I’m interested in is de-linking those two, and then expanding that field, ideally to a point where maybe it doesn’t have any meaning any more. Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering, both of the two parts of a binary to each other, and to the idea of gender as it’s tethered to sex.

Continue reading “Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable”

SFF Non-Fiction and Art in 2018

Nominations are now open for the BSFA Awards longlist. If you’re a member, you may nominate up to four works in each of four categories: Novel, Short Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Artwork. If you’re not yet a member, consider joining the BSFA.

Earlier we shared some suggested reading in short fiction and novels. Below is a list of crowdsourced recommendations (in no particular order) for the categories of non-fiction and artwork. You can also still explore (and add to) the suggestions sheet.

Continue reading “SFF Non-Fiction and Art in 2018”

The Last Days of John Martin

John Martin may have died around 158 years ago, but his paintings and other works are still well worth seeing! John Martin: Apocalypse, the show of his work at the Tate Britain in London, the third-and-last venue for the show, is only on until THIS Sunday.

Go see it while you still can!

And, in case you missed it, Andrew M Butler’s review of the show, forthcoming in the next Vector, was posted here on Torque Control a few weeks ago. He explains – if you didn’t already know – just why this show is so worth seeing.

John Martin: Apocalypse – Reviewed by Andrew M Butler

This review will appear in Vector 269. I encourage you, if you’re able, to go see the show before it closes in mid-January!

John Martin: Apocalypse

Tate Britain 21 September 2011  –  15 January 2012

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler

The Deluge, engraving by William Miller after the painting by John Martin

There is a moment in a mid-1820s etching by John Martin when Biblical narrative collides with archaeology, and with market economics — in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise the couple are running out of the Garden of Eden through a rocky landscape, a tongue of lightning in the background. Down to their right is some sort of prehistoric creature, almost certainly depicted with the latest theories of what dinosaurs would have looked like, at a time when such palaeontology was in its infancy — the word dinosaur being coined by Richard Owen in 1842. In Martin’s earlier oil painting of the same title, dated about 1813, the image is broadly similar, but lacks the creature. The addition would help him sell the print. This was no one-off — he illustrated for Gideon Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology (1838), in the form of The Country of the Iguanodon, and Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons (1840) [PDF], as well producing other images of antediluvian fauna. Such depictions suggest that Martin is one of the first science-fiction artists, and his paintings of Biblical, historical and mythological scenes, often featuring disasters and tumultuous landscapes, reinforce this sense. His uneasy status as a provincial outsider having to earn a living from a metropolitan élite also anticipates the struggles for mainstream respect of genre writers.

Martin was born in 1789 in Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Northumbria, the youngest of four sons. Apprenticed to a coachmaker, he intended to learn heraldic painting, but after a dispute about terms his indenture was cancelled and instead he went to work with Italian artist Boniface Musso. Musso had already given him lessons in drawing and oil techniques in Newcastle; now Martin learnt to paint plates and glass as part of a commercial operation. In 1806, he moved to London, where he supplemented his income by producing watercolours and, in time, became a professional artist. The key place to be exhibited was the annual Royal Academy of Arts summer show, then held at Somerset House, although his first painting was rejected in 1810. The same painting, retitled, hung the following year; the breakthrough came when a member of the board of governors of the Bank of England, William Manning MP, offered fifty guineas to buy Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812). This painting had been inspired by James Ridley’s Oriental fantasy Tales of the Genii (1764), where the hero Sadak crawls across a mountainous landscape toward amnesia-causing waters. Further large canvases followed over the next forty years, with Martin in search of wealthy and influential patrons. But Martin also found popular acclaim, with the Biblical painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816), and was to both show his work in London exhibitions and to tour them around the world — it is thought that two million people saw his Day of Judgement triptych (1849-53) in the UK, the USA and Australia.

Martin’s paintings typically invoked a sense of the sublime. Longinus, writing about rhetoric in the first century, argued that “the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy”, whereas the eighteenth-century Edmund Burke argued that “delightful horror […] is the truest test of the sublime”. In Martin’s case, the feeling is invoked by vast landscapes containing tiny figures in the fore- to midground to give a sense of scale — and his canvases tend to be portrait in orientation, allowing for the composition to tower above the viewer. The terrain is often bowl-shaped, with cliffs and trees taking up the left and right sides of the frame, and then, further back, rivers, lakes, seas and classical cities in the haze of the background. Sometimes the sky forms an answering semicircle, perhaps with clouds of fire, and in some canvases the patina of the painting is cracked in concentric circles. Frequently, the sky is scarred with lightning, scratches across the canvas. In The Deluge (1826), the sea curves around the bottom of the canvas, sweeping the boat clockwise, with storm clouds completing a circuit around the top of the composition, an oval of fairer weather and a glimpse of cities in the distance between them.

The Deluge is one of several paintings Martin made of the Biblical flood, alongside The Eve of the Deluge (1840) and The Assuaging of the Waters (1840); the painting of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise, alongside The Garden of Eden (1821), The Fall of Babylon (1819), Belshazzer’s Feast (1820), Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Raphael (1823) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), suggests an Old Testament theme running through his work, especially the sense of a powerful, destructive, vengeful God. The success of Belshazzer’s Feast, which was reproduced in several versions, clearly suggested that there was a market for such apocalyptic thrills, in a Britain which in the process of being changed forever by the industrial revolution and a network of railways threading its way between mines and factories and ports, and between London and the provinces. The aristocracy and the upper middle classes could go on Grand Tours across Europe, to the Matterhorn, the Alps, Venice, Sicily and beyond, but Martin had been on no such journey and locates such landscapes within England. It is tempting to see the valley of the Tyne with Newcastle perched above it as one inspiration for his topography.

It was apparently a journey through the industrialised Black Country which pointed him to the New Testament subject of The Great Day of His Wrath, a book of Revelation style destruction of Babylon in which volcanic powers rip open a landscape, and vast boulders — on which ruined cities can be glimpsed — are thrown through the air. A second painting, The Last Judgement (1849-53), has a landscape riven in two, beneath Christ and the Angels sitting in court at the top of the picture against a more heavenly sky. On the left of the canvas are the saved, including a range of politicians, poets and artists from antiquity to the present day, on the right, across a chasm filling with corpses, are the damned. Before the painting was damaged, there was a train being driven towards the abyss. The trilogy is completed by The Plains of Heaven (1851-3), a gentler pastoral of the era after the Second Coming, the green of grass and trees surrounding a rich azure of sky and sea. But Martin also looked to Pompeii and Herculaneum for his subjects, and its destruction by volcano (1822, 1822-6), and a classical story of Marcus Curtius being swallowed up by a chasm in a city street.

From the 1820s onwards he was developing plans for canals across London to provide a water supply for London and Westminster, for a sewage system to improve London’s hygiene (and to provide fertiliser for farms) and for a network of railways circling central London and along the banks of the Thames. In this work he anticipated Joseph Bazalgette’s improvements to the London drains and the Embankment and the piecemeal engineering of the London Underground network and overground lines, then in its infancy. Funds were never quite available to translate Martin’s plans into practice. He was also friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and other scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a French palaeontologist. In the painting Arthur and Aegle in the Happy Valley (1841), inspired by a Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton poem, Martin insists that the background constellations are accurate in astronomical terms, even if the topic was fictional. He drew on the latest science and engineering.

Martin also knew Charles Barry, who won the competition to design the neo-gothic yet classical new Houses of Parliament, and it is likely this architecture also fed into his work. One could scale his painting of Balshazzer’s Feast to discover how many miles long his palace interior was — or so Martin argued — and contemporary archaeology was another source of inspiration and publicity. Pamphlets and handbills listed details of the people painted in crowd scenes and drew attention to details. All of this contributes to the showmanship which Martin clearly possessed in spades — but also, perhaps, to the sense of insecurity from being an outsider, a working-class artist with little training. Conspicuous testimony to his sense of pride is a piece of furniture, shown in Apocalypse: a bureau with drawers labelled for Martin’s various projects and honours. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, he presented himself as an engineer rather than as an artist.

Salespitches remained necessary, as the art market ebbed and flowed in the era of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, the former artist stopping at nothing to gain advantage and positioning in the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Whilst it was possible to sell similar paintings in several sizes, this undercut their exclusiveness, so Martin made a virtue of copying through the comparatively mass medium of the mezzotint. But the mezzotints enabled Martin to revise his earlier compositions — hence the appearance of a prehistoric creature alongside Adam and Eve. Martin employed other engravers to make plates of his images, although he was not always happy with their work and would sometimes reject it. Other times he would do his own engraving, and for a period set up a state of the art press in his own home where he supervised the production of mezzotints by professional printers.

One series of mezzotints were commissioned in 1824 by Septimus Prowett as illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), returning to Old Testament scenes, but also paving the way for scenes from Revelation and the New Testament in general. The most striking of these depict Satan, especially Satan in Council, whose composition seems to anticipate the council chamber in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and Lucas apparently was inspired by Martin’s work; the empty landscape of Solitude (1843) is echoed in the climax of THX 1138 (1971) or the deserts of Tatooine). Martin went on to work on illustrations of the Bible, a less successful project than he had hoped, as was his attempt to sell direct to customers, bypassing the established English network of print emporia. Worse, he undercut himself by designing cheaper plates to be printed by Edward Churton. Nevertheless Martin still made more money from his mezzotints than his paintings — Michael Campbell, a Martin collector and scholar, suggests up to £25,000 — although the market declined through the 1830s.

Perhaps such mentions of money are vulgar — but I see in Martin a kindred spirit of today’s science-fiction writers. He might not have quite been competing for the reader’s beer money, but he knew how to exploit a successful image in more than one format, and he knew how to bring showmanship to his exhibitions. In the lack of official recognition from membership of the Royal Academy nor was he knighted — although the Belgians honoured him — we might also think of the anxieties over the injustices of the Booker Prize or snootiness about the Granta Best of Young Novelists lists. But mostly it is in his fusion of science and art, his use of the sublime, and his creation of apocalyptic imagery that never quite feels reducible to allegory or political parable. (His painting The Last Man (1833) is inspired by an 1823 Thomas Campbell poem rather than Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, but his accommodation of Jane Loudon as a house guest might put him somewhere in the genesis of The Mummy! Or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).)

His work remains sublimely astounding. If you want to see the inspiration for a hundred ends of the world, or be inspired yourself, immerse yourself in Martin’s art, which is, in the words of curator Martin Myrone, “suspended or caught between mass production and the unique, the popular and the rarefied, the industrialised and the artistic, the sensationalist and the scholastic.” And that, after all, is the place where we often find sf.

Reading List

Adams, Max (2010) The Prometheans: John Martin and the Generation That Stole the Future, London: Quercus.

Aristotle/Horace/Longinus (1965) Classical Literary Criticism, trans. T.S. Dorsch, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Burke, Edmund (2008) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Feaver, William (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Martin, John (2011) Sketches of My Life, ed. Martin Myrone, London: Tate.

Myrone, Martin (ed.) (2011) John Martin: Apocalypse, London: Tate.

BSFA Nominees So Far: Best Artwork

With just a few days to go (midnight on Friday) until nominations close for this year’s BSFA Awards, the Awards Administrator Donna Scott has been diligently posting lists of the nominees so far on the BSFA forum. To provide an excuse to remind you all several times to email her with your nominations, I’m going to post one category per day here, starting with Best Artwork — for which you can find some additional suggestions here and here.

So, the list of all artworks that have received at least one nomination currently looks like this:

  • Cover of Conflicts, ed. Ian Whates (Newcon Press) by Andy Bigwood
  • Cover of A Capella Zoo 5 (“Acrobats”) by Martha Brouer
  • Cover of Silversands by Gareth L Powell (Pendragon Press) by Vincent Chong
  • Cover of Shine ed. Jetse de Vries (Solaris) by Vincent Chong
  • Illustration for “Flying in the Face of God” by Nina Allen (in Interzone)
  • Cover of Crossed Genres 21 (“A Deafened Plea for Peace”) by Ben Greene
  • Cover of Fun with Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press), by Charlie Harbour
  • Cover of The Immersion Book of SF ed. Carmelo Rafala (Immersion Press), by Charlie Harbour
  • Cover of Engineman by Eric Brown (Solaris), by Dominic Harman
  • Cover of The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris), by Dominic Harman
  • Cover of Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz), by Dominic Harman
  • Cover of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot), by Joey Hifi
  • Cover of Rigor Amortis (Absolute Xpress) by Robert Nixon
  • Cover of Elric: Swords and Roses by Michael Moorcock (Del Rey), by Jon Picacio
  • Cover of Clarkesworld 44, by Rodrigo Ramos
  • Cover of Go Mutants by Larry Doyle (HarperCollins), by Owen Smith
  • Cover of Crossed Genres 17 (“Our Hell”) by Tania Sousa Ribeiro
  • Cover of The Voyage of the Sable Keech by Neil Asher (Tor UK), by Jon Sullivan
  • Cover of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Corvus), Unknown
  • Cover of The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett (Corvus), Unknown
  • Cover of Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (Corvus), Unknown
  • Cover of Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan (Orbit), Unknown
  • Cover of The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean), Christian Pearce
  • Cover of The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto (Haikasoru), by Natsuki Lee
  • Cover of Music for Another World ed. Mark Harding (Mutation), Unknown
  • Cover of The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M Valente (Night Shade Books), by Rebecca Guay, design by Cody Tilson.
  • Cover of Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit), Unknown
  • Cover of Version 43 by Philip Palmer, Unknown
  • Cover of Cthulhurotica (Dagon Books), by Oliver Wetter
  • Cover of The Future Fire 20, by Rebecca Whitaker
  • Cover of New Model Army by Adam Roberts (Gollancz), by Blacksheep

London Meeting: Jim Burns

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Jim Burns (SF artist, winner of the Hugo award for best professional artist three times—the only non-American ever to have won it—and winner of 12 BSFA Awards), who will be interviewed by Pete Young.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes. See you there, I hope.

Future meetings:
24th February: David Edgerton interviewed by Shana Worthen
24th March: BSFA Awards discussion*
21st April: Kari Sperring interviewed by Tanya Brown**

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays
** Note that this meeting is on the third Wednesday

The Art of Penguin Science Fiction

Your nifty website of the day: James Pardey’s collection of the art of Penguin science fiction.

There’s a full table of contents here, and something of an explanation here:

Penguin books and their iconic covers have a place in history that merits study and appreciation. They have influenced generations of readers and played an important role in our cultural heritage. Over the years new cover designs have appeared, and in the 1950s a transition took place from typographical to pictorial covers. This was followed by the introduction of a radically new cover design in the 1960s, and the launch of a Penguin science fiction series with covers featuring reproductions of abstract and surrealist art.

This curious linkage of modern art and sf is at the heart of this website, and is made all the more intriguing by the subtle and often ingenious connections between the artworks and the stories within. Following on from this, Penguin continued to publish sf as a number of mini-series, with covers that reveal the influence of Pop Art and to some extent Op Art. But to put these later developments in perspective it is necessary to go back to the first sf titles that Penguin published in the 1930s, for these early covers, now celebrated on a stamp, have come to be regarded as artworks in their own right.

Until recently the history of Penguin sf and its cover art has been largely overlooked. This website, along with a series of articles on the subject, attempts to rectify this. But what the articles convey with words this website does with images, and thereby offers what words cannot: over 150 Penguin sf covers, and the ability to trace their evolution at the click of a button, as titles were reprinted and different covers came and went. As such this website complements the articles, which focus more on the science fiction and its linkage to each book’s cover art. Here, however, it is the covers themselves that light the way along the multiple paths that weave through the history, and art, of Penguin sf.

One of the mentioned articles is available here; the others are forthcoming. Still, plenty of browsing pleasure to be had!