There has been plenty of scholarship on science fiction over the decades, but it has left one crucial aspect of the genre all but unanalyzed: the visual. Ambitious and original, Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary corrects that oversight, making a powerful argument for science fiction as a visual cultural discourse. Taking influential historical works of visual art as starting points, along with illustrations, movie matte paintings, documentaries, artist’s impressions, and digital environments, John Timberlake focuses on the notion of science fiction as an “imaginary topos,” one that draws principally on the intersection between landscape and historical/prehistorical time. Richly illustrated, this book will appeal to scholars, students, and fans of science fiction and the remarkable visual culture that surrounds it.
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About the Author
John Timberlake is a senior lecturer of fine art at Middlesex University.
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Land of the Giants: Size and Scale, Macroscopy and Microscopy in the Landscapes of Science Fiction
A Landscape of the Idea and the Idea of a Landscape
Juxtapositions of size persist as a recurrent element in the landscapes of science fiction. In Johannes Kepler's Somnium, a narrative published in 1634 (1967: vii) but probably written 25 years earlier, the narrator describes a flight 'as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas' (1967: 16) to the small world of Levania (the Moon) which is inhabited by giants. Edward Rosen (1967) renders Kepler's original Latin thus:
The whole of Levania does not exceed fourteen hundred German miles in circumference, that is, only a quarter of our earth. Nevertheless, it has very high mountains, as well as deep and wide valleys; to this extent, it is muych less of a perfect sphere than our earth is. Yet it is all porous and, so to say, perforated with caves and grottoes everywhere [...] these recesses are inhabitants' principle protection from heat and cold [...] Whatever is born on the land or moves about on the land attains a monstrous size. Growth is very rapid. Everything has a short life, since it develops such an immensely massive body. (1967: 27)
It is the seeing of discrepancies of scale in landscapes that are either miniaturized or outsized that introduces overtones of the uncanny or estrangement: the everyday rendered extraordinary and fantastical. Simple shifts in scale are a form of transformation which simultaneously preserves the particular iconicity of a representation, whilst fundamentally transforming the viewer's relationship with it. Shifts in scale are, arguably, a primal form of manipulation; children famously ignore perspective, to draw large those things which dominate their lived experience. Dramatic differentials in scale appear repeatedly in the landscapes of science fiction, either in their embodied form, as giants or more commonly as artefacts constructed by humans or alien others. A subcategory of this sense of the alien could be described as that of 'humans made alien by the passage of time': the trope of the Ozymandian artefact, originating in the distant past – particularly the pre-historic or the post-historic future. The manner and circumstances in which giants are located in science fiction originates in their place within an Arcadian 'landscape of the idea' and inversely, it is through the giant that an idea of landscape is constituted.
In his story The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon, sometimes published as Journey to the Moon (1654), Cyrano De Bergerac's narrator is captured by beast-men – giants who lope and gallop on all fours – and taken to their city. The landscape of Cyrano's novel is simultaneously that of the Moon and also that of the Book of Genesis: for Cyrano suggests that the stories of the Creation, the Noachic flood and the Earthly paradise are those of interactions between the Earth and our satellite world, whose denizens, reciprocally, regard the Earth as their satellite.
Despite the ostensible familiarity of the biblical/lunar landscape – it is, apparently, that of his religious schooling – Cyrano's narrator finds he does not easily fit in. First castigated by Enoch the Just and expelled from the Garden of Eden, the Narrator's capture by giants takes place in the unknown terrain beyond, when the certainties of the Earthly paradise have been taken from him, reminding us, perhaps, that encounters with new landscapes inevitably raise doubts about belonging.
Cyrano's giant lunar captors make sport of him, attaching him to a lead for the entertainment of a baying mob. A bystander – a visitor from the Sun – eventually speaks to him in Greek, reminding him that much the same would happen to one of the beastmen should he find himself caught by humans. The ensuing dialogue further inscribes Cyrano's Moon as a mirror world to our own, and, mutatis mutandis, the passage between the two involves chiastic cross-overs and inversions. In the sky, we find the grounds of the Earthly Paradise; whilst the human qualities the solar visitor values are not the power and glory of kings, but the humility of hermits. In the Lunar landscape, sexual symbolism of the Narrator's world is likewise reversed or questioned: he is mistaken for the female of his species by his captors and ordered by their King to sleep with another captive man, in the hope they might mate; at court he finds Lunar aliens hanging metal phalluses on their belts as signs of fertility and life, instead of the death-symbolizing swords preferred by their Earthly counterparts.
A Freethinker, a materialist and a lover of both sexes, before becoming a writer, Cyrano had himself, famously, been a brave and adventurous soldier. His short life – he died at the age of 36 – was one that challenged both the territorial and the social precepts of a changing world, and encountered various ambitious constructions designed to reflect upon or effect such changes (from Atomist philosophical circles to the cannon, siege engines and explosive mines at the Siege of Arras). As in his personal life and his writing, so elsewhere: in general, it might seem that European landscapes of the seventeenth century are ones of inversions and reversals – a continent wracked by wars, popular insurgencies and autocratic reaction made all the more vicious by developing pyro-technologies. Intriguingly – but not unpredictably for a student of the materialist philosopher Pierre Gassendi – Cyrano proposes that stories of supernatural phenomena such as 'shades [...] spectres, and phantoms' are, in fact, remembered past visits to Earth by these alien visitors from the Sun, who live for 'three or four thousand years'. Cyrano's worldview is one that therefore recognizes the power of Ur-myths.
Not surprisingly, given such a terrain of refractions and reversals, in Cyrano's Journey to the Moon, we find the figure of Diogenes referenced. An emphasis upon presentation of the historical event rather than the representation of history itself, reflected in the extolment of the hermit, similarly finds accord with the actions of the Cynics of the ancient world, who often sought to performatively invert or reverse the accepted orders, values and hierarchies of the world around them. The Cynics preferred action over theoretical reflection and an ascetic life of truth and virtue over the acquisition of wealth and power. In a fabled encounter between Diogenes and Alexander the Great, wherein, having been asked by his royal visitor if there is anything he wants, Diogenes requests that the young and brilliant military adventurer 'stands a little out of my sun' or 'stands away from the light'. Diogenes cuttingly contrasts the 'radiance' accorded to Alexander by the sycophants and politicians surrounding him to the actual radiance of the sun, and implies that Alexander 'the Great' is not only blind to that which really matters – the warmth and light of the true sun – but that his great presence, and the pomp which attends upon it, keeps the small commoners in shadow or darkness.
Yet if such a figure as Diogenes the Cynic can wander unimpeded through the landscapes of Cyrano the Materialist, a decade or so earlier we also find him in a painting by the NeoStoic painter Nicolas Poussin. There need not necessarily be an inconsistency here, insofar as Diogenes's rejection of pomp and his extolment of humility would appeal equally to each, to their respective interpretive ends: however, Diogenes, as a destabilizing figure, is left isolated in the pastoral landscapes of Poussin – whereas in Cyrano his legacy is made, by allusion, to speak to the throng in which the hero finds himself.
As Anthony Blunt (1958) remarks in his catalogue raisonné of Poussin, the artist went 'beyond the humanist conception of nature as something which can be controlled by man and made to act in accordance with his rationalist conception of the universe' (1958: 313). Poussin, Blunt argues, was an artist engaged with philosophy and the intellectual debates of his time, and, as such, his late landscapes became landscapes of ideas (1958: 4). It is in this context that Poussin's influential paintings, replete with juxtaposition and the perception of landscapes in which such are situated, repay close inspection in the context of my discussion here. Again, in contrast to Cyrano's giants, who live as a community, Poussin's giants are for the most part alone, or separated from the group: we see this in his 1648 painting, Landscape with Polyphemus, where the lone giant Cyclops sits atop a distant Mount Etna, with his back to us, wistfully playing his pipes in memory of his lost love.
The trope of the distant giant is one seen in many paintings. J. M. W. Turner uses it both with humanoid giants – for example his own painting of Polyphemus Derided by Ulysses (1829), and in his portrayal of a gigantic crocodilian dragon in The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806). As with both Turner's and Poussin's portrayals of Polyphemus, the dragon here is shown basking on a distant mountain ridge, away from those it is charged by the gods with protecting. The dragon's relatively faint colours effectively render it aloof from any immediate discussion around choice of the goddess. Nevertheless, it remains present as figure of wider contexts: both underlying and overarching. In Robert Zemeckis's 1997 film Contact, based on both an original screenplay and intervening novel by Carl Sagan, the huge interstellar transportation device constructed on Earth at alien behest is first glimpsed from afar as a similarly faint pastel toned but ominous structure on a coastline, seemingly aloof from the controversies and politicking swirling around it, but nevertheless, now integral to the world, much like Turner's giant dragon.
Although most often formally defined by its novel form, giantism in science fiction visually emerges as a montage of epic and tragic elements juxtaposed against tropes of scalar normativity. Before man, Apollodorus (1998) writes, the Gigantes – born of a wrathful Ge (Gaia) – rose against the Olympian gods, before being cast down into the abyss of Tartaros, where their continuous writhing causes earthquakes in the world above. In the Theogony of Apollodorus, as of Hesiod, the Cyclopes, the one eyed giants are sired, like the Gigantes, by Uranus, the first ruler of the universe (1998: 27–29). Rejected by their father, the Cyclopes – who Virgil, in Book IV of his Georgics, calls 'Blacksmith Giants', and compares to industrious bees – become the makers of thunderbolts, and subsequently arm Zeus (Jupiter), the grandson of Uranus, in his battle against his father Cronos (Saturn).
The sense in both the stories of the Cyclopes and the Gigantes is that of giants as primordial, as having 'gone before' – having been born of the Earth before Man, and having worked and made things all through the Golden Age, before the labours of humans commenced, at the dawn of the Age of Silver. The mystery of that which is gigantic is therefore located in time – in its original creation and the subsequent disappearance – as well as in space, where only the indexical trace such as a footprint, ruin or ichnograph remains.
Although variously located by different classical authors in the central region of the Peloponnese peninsula, to the fields around the volcano Etna in Sicily, the definitive landscape of the pastoral ideal remains Arcadia. This sense of Arcadia differs in the hands of different authors, but the recuperation of Classical Greek culture and its re-introduction into Western European intellectual discourse during the Renaissance, reinstituted the concept of Arcadia as an ideal land, simple and rough-hewn, an ur-landscape that, of the Golden Age now lost, was ruled by an older god, Pan, the only god who, in classical legend, is killed. This conception of Arcadia as the landscape of the idea, of an original thought of the creation, inscribes the land of giants as one that, ruled by a god now vanished, presages the world of men in its entirety: it has been through a cycle we may or may not yet follow ourselves.
There are, however, other visual senses in which the gigantic is linked to an 'idea': insofar that the viewer ideates (imagines or conceives of an idea of something) through the incomplete visual hint; the traced or sketched outline, which indicates vastness through its incompleteness. Visual indicators of scale often work by being comparably incomplete – the building whose top is half lost in cloud, or the huge orbiting space station with diurnal and nocturnal halves, indicated by myriads of tiny lights. The figuration of the huge often requires a bisection – in Poussin's image of Polyphemus, for example, a line of birds crosses in the middle distance, intersecting with the mountainside upon which the giant sits; in Francisco Goya's (1746–1828) drawings and paintings made amidst the horrors of the Peninsula War, their feet are lost below the horizon. Whilst such visual conceits are repeated visual tropes of the sublime, what arises from this particular example is that giants and the gigantic remain unknowable and fragmented, because their entirety is too stupendous for human comprehension.
It is in this context of the incompleteness of depiction that colour also plays an important part when giants and humans are kept separate: that is to say in the depiction of the separation between the human and the giant, in its evocation of distance and size. Faintness, the juxtaposition of slight shifts in tone played off against one another, contributes to a sense of unreadability in distant giants as much as incompleteness of outline. There is a corollary to this in the experience of astronauts. Just as the conditions of earthly light – and the conventions of its depiction – dictate that which is large and distant is portrayed as increasingly bluish-grey, due to the effects of the refraction of the Earth's atmosphere. During the Apollo moon landings, astronauts reported some difficulties in judging distance because distant objects did not look fainter, nor was there a greater blue content to the colours of distant mountains in the way there is on Earth, because there was no atmosphere to 'dilute' the deep colours of shadows by refraction, and the shadow of a near object appeared as dark as the shadow of a mountain or hill a mile away.
Terrain, Technology and Precariousness: Traversing Landscapes on Giants' Shoulders
Science fiction landscapes do not, of course, limit depictions of the gigantic to the passively distant. But they do often conflate size with some form of detachment or elevation – and, as such, a moral or ethical shift. Shifts in size are accompanied by shifts in power – whether increased or diminished. The foregrounding of the gigantic however, is most frequently accompanied by a sense of precariousness or danger: the giant robot or mutant monster running amok, the crash-landing spaceship and so on. Just as I have drawn upon Poussin's image of Polyphemus in my discussion of the distant giant, there is a fascinating counterpoint to the tendency to locate the giant in the distance to be found in a late painting by the same artist, entitled Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (1658, Figure 1).
Poussin's painting places the giant in the foreground and amongst men, as he gropes his way, blinded by a cloud in front of his eyes, in search of the sun. The effect of this visual juxtaposition is bizarre, disturbing, uncanny: a giant man, being directed by a small man riding on his shoulders. This is not simply a matter of relative height – say, a seven-foot tall man carrying one who is four foot: here there is a scalar juxtaposition. Poussin's arrangement of the other figures in the painting allows the viewer to both feel sympathy for Orion, but not ultimately identify him as kindred. Rather Orion is presented as displaced from the group. Once the normative human height is established by reference to the onlookers, the man riding on his shoulders, the trees and so on, the viewers' relationship with Orion becomes somewhat reified – he is at least in part a thing. At this point in the myth, the giant Orion is blind to the world around him, and so has to be guided. In his search for the sun, Poussin's Orion is guided by Cedalion, who is the man standing upon his shoulders, steadying himself with his left hand upon the side of Orion's tousled head. Cedalion gestures forward with his other hand, but his gaze is downwards towards the top of Orion's head, as if he is speaking to the giant. The effort and concentration of the two, man and giant, as they make this precarious progress, is contrasted with the figure of the goddess Diana, who, despite her alien green skin and divine status, strikes a humanly relaxed pose – hand on hip, leaning with head quizzically propped, standing on a portion of the occulting clouds which precede Orion and Cedalion. The relative poses of Diana and Cedalion are telling: Diana, a deity of elemental force, remains indifferent, not merely looking on, but rather brazenly exhibiting the artless grace of her own divine powers by standing upon a cloud; Cedalion, by contrast, is actively piloting the giant. Diana's clouds are backlit by an unseen sun; their silver lining hints at a happy ending to the quest of Cedalion and Orion, but it also indicates her indifference to that of which she has plentiful supply: she has nothing of Orion's urgent need for the light, and can turn away from it if and when she pleases. Diana gazes on at the human-giant contraption as bemused by its contingent oneness: less a friend helping another, but a human-giant hybrid producing an unexpected symbiosis. Through their unlikely contrivance, the human can travel amidst the clouds, previously the exclusive preserve of the gods, whilst the giant can regain his vision.
Excerpted from "Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter 1: Land of the Giants: Size and Scale, Macroscopy and Microscopy in the Landscapes of Science Fiction Chapter 2: A Game in the Ruins: Landscape and Virtual Realities Chapter 3: Blasted Heaths and Turbulent Energies: Chris Foss’s Accelerated Dream of Wessex Chapter 4: An Unforgiveable Composure: The Apocalyptic Imaginary Since Yosuke Yamahata’s Nagasaki Chapter 5: ‘Suppositional Realism’ and the Fictions of Science: The Astronomical Landscapes of Pavel Klushantsev and Chesley Bonestell and Their Legacy Chapter 6: Beyond the Periphery: Desert and Darkness Conclusion: Where Otherwise Nothing Has Changed