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Flash Gordon: An Atompunk Hero for a Dieselpunk World.

The Atompunk hero began in the great depression. Tales of outer space, wild futures, and ray guns, always ray guns became immensely popular, thanks to the invention of the daily comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Due to the success of Buck Rogers the syndicate Kings Feature was looking for a strip to compete with it (read: jump on the bandwagon) and young writer/artists Alex Raymond, who worked for them on another strip, Tim Tyler’s Luck, begged to have a crack. In 1934 he created a character Flash Gordon, who would soon eclipse Buck Rogers and for the 30s and 40s dominate the science fiction landscape of american youth.

The strip became a huge hit and soon outshined Buck Rogers. For one thing, young Alex worked hard to improve, and improve he did, his style becoming adored.

The 2nd strip

2 years later

The story was fun, interstellar, fantastic and imaginative. Earthman Flash Gordon, female interest Dale Arden, and scientist Dr. Zarkov leave earth to face impending threat which turns out to be interplanetary emperor Ming The Mercifless. Highjinks ensue. “In the course of their improbable and breathtaking adventures they meet Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter, Prince Barin, the rightful ruler of Mongo, Thun, Prince of the Lion Men, Vultan, King of the Hawk Men, Azura, the Witch Queen of the Blue Magic Men, Fria, Queen of the frozen kingdom of Frigia, and countless other friends and enemies—all beautifully illustrated with the lush, sensuous artwork for which Alex Raymond is so justly remembered.” (Clark Holloway)

From the immensely talented Al Williamson who eventually took over the Flash Gordon strip.

Alex worked on the series for 10 years, until 1944 when he enlisted in the US Marine Corp to go and kill some nazi bitches. Bravo, sir.

But of course, as with most popular characters from the pulp era that are still remembered today, the thing that cemented Flash Gordon’s fortune was his treatment in other medias.

He was featured in 2 radio serials, the first of which followed the comic strip closely. Except of course for the last 2 episodes of its run, where all of a sudden Flash and Dale go back to Earth, meet Jungle Jim and get married in said jungle. They run off and next week begins the exciting adventures of Jungle Jim.

But the thing that cemented his legend, which led to that atrocious 80s movie and numerous other horrid attempts to reinvigorate the characters (although some will argue the 80s movie is so bad it’s good, and the soundtrack by Queen kicks over the top ass)…

the thing that made Flash Gordon the adored memory for a generation of imaginative youth, is the epic, classic film serial.

Shown before the feature movie presentation, serials were HUGE back in the day. Every character who you can think of that existed in the 30s and 40s had one, but by far one of the most remembered and revered is the Flash Gordon serial. Beloved by both Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, it starred Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. It’s popularity was through the roof. kids lined up every week to breathlessly catch the next installment.

By today’s standards it’s… well look you can’t compare the two. But the PBS station where i grew up would play the entire serial on some holiday every year and it worked.

Interesting note from imdb: “Despite its large budget, this serial utilized many sets from other Universal films, such as the laboratory and crypt set from Bride of Frankenstein, the castle interiors from Dracula’s Daughter, the idol from The Mummy and the opera house interiors from The Phantom of the Opera. In addition, the outer walls of Ming’s castle were actually the cathedral walls from The Hunchback of Notre Dame .”

My mom would bring home the collected Flash Gordon comic strips from the library and i adored those even more. Even in this late age, Flash Gordon was a significant part of my childhood and colored my view of science fiction adventures just as it did for so many kids in the early days of fantastical, science fiction adventure.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Starmaker & First And Last Men: Olaf Stapledon

One of the towering giants of sci-fi fantasy, writing in the 1930s and whose works blew me out of the water when i read them 60 years later is Olaf Stapledon.

In particular, his two books First And Last Men and Star Maker, are two of the best sci-fi books i’ve ever read, and as such are naturally far, far outside the tropes and cliches of the genre. His works influenced the next generation of sci fi writers and he is the contemporary of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. In fact, C.S. Lewis wrote The Cosmic Trilogy in horrified response to Stapledon’s Star Maker, which was too amoral for him.

These two seminal works by Stapledon, while hugely influential and wildly beloved by segments of the sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction reading community have not acheived anywhere near the level of popularity of Lewis or Tolkien, mainly because he neither dwells in a pleasant realm of elves, witches and medieval myths, nor does he actually tell normal stories, where heroes go on adventures to save great Lands which are in danger. Stapleton is something entirely other. He tells long histories until the end of species or the end of time.

Last And First Men

Last And First Men is  a history of the human race, from now through our next 18 evolutions.

“A work of unprecedented scale in the genre, it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across 2 billion years and 18 distinct human species, of which our own is the first and most primitive. Stapledon’s conception of history is a repetitive cycle with many varied civilizations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, but it is also one of progress, as the later civilizations rise to far greater heights than the first. The book anticipates the science of genetic engineering, and is an early example of the (up to now) fictional supermind; a consciousness composed of many telepathically-linked individuals.”

It is wildly imaginative, and indeed that is what Stapledon does: he throws deliciously awesome concepts at you, one after the other after the others. The human race undergoes incredible transformations across numerous planets, including inventive biological transformations.

But this is no space opera. Honestly, it’s like reading a fantastic history book of an  unknown future going on and on until the final end of humanity. I loved it. Adored it. Swooned over it. Didn’t think he could be any more awesome until i read:

Star Maker

What kind of history do you write after you’ve covered the entire rest of the human species? Well duh. The future history of the universe.

It’s not just that it’s jaw dropping, it’s not just that this guy eats psychedelic mushrooms for breakfast (okay, not really. I’m just saying he’s THAT creative), it’s not just that this books invents species and planets and species interactions that were a joy, a neverending orgasm to read… it’s that all this is within a through line of creation reaching, straining, desperately searching for its Creator.

Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur C Clarke, Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill all raved about it.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is imagination, vision and creativity at work.

I give you an excerpt. As mentioned before, his work reads like remarkable history books of times and places unseen. You need to be able to embrace this instead of a character driven narrative:

One of these submarine worlds was exceptionally interesting. Early in the life of our galaxy, when few of the stars had yet condensed from the “giant” to the solar type, when very few planetary births had yet occurred, a double star and a single star in a congested cluster did actually approach one another, reach fiery filaments toward one another, and spawn a planet brood. Of these worlds, one, an immense and very aqueous sphere, produced in time a dominant race which was not a single species but an intimate symbiotic partnership of two very alien creatures.

The one came of a fish-like stock. The other was in appearance something like a crustacean. In form it was a sort of paddle-footed crab or marine spider. Unlike our crustaceans, it was covered not with a brittle carapace but with a tough pachydermatous hide. In maturity this serviceable jerkin was more or less rigid, save at the joints; but in youth it was very pliant to the still-expanding brain. This creature lived on the coasts and in the coastal waters of the many islands of the planet. Both species were mentally of human rank, though each had specific temperament and ability. In primitive times each had attained by its own route and in its own hemisphere of the great aqueous planet to what might be called the last stage of the subhuman mentality. The two species had then come into contact, and had grappled desperately.

Their battle-ground was the shallow coastal water. The “crustaceans,” though crudely amphibian, could not spend long under the sea; the “fish” could not emerge from it. The two races did not seriously compete with one another in economic life, for the “fish” were mainly vegetarian, the “crustaceans” mainly carnivorous; yet neither could tolerate the presence of the other. Both were sufficiently human to be aware of one another as rival aristocrats in a subhuman world, but neither was human enough to realize that for each race the way of life lay in cooperation with the other. The fish-like creatures, which I shall call “ichthyoids,” had speed and range of travel. They had also the security of bulk. The crab-like or spider-like “crustaceans,” which I shall call “arachnoids,” had greater manual dexterity, and had also access to the dry land. Cooperation would have been very beneficial to both species, for one of the staple foods of the arachnoids was parasitic to the ichthyoids.

In spite of the possibility of mutual aid, the two races strove to exterminate one another, and almost succeeded. After an age of blind mutual slaughter, certain of the less pugnacious and more flexible varieties of the two species gradually discovered profit in fraternization with the enemy.

This was the beginning of a very remarkable partnership. Soon the arachnoids took to riding on the backs of the swift ichthyoids, and thus gained access to more remote hunting grounds.

As the epochs passed, the two species molded one another to form a well-integrated union. The little arachnoid, no bigger than a chimpanzee, rode in a snug hollow behind the great “fish’s” skull, his back being stream-lined with the contours of the larger creature. The tentacles of the ichthyoid were specialized for large-scale manipulation, those of the arachnoid for minute work. A biochemical interdependence also evolved. Through a membrane in the ichthyoid’s pouch an exchange of endocrine products took place. The mechanism enabled the arachnoid to become fully aquatic. So long as it had frequent contact with its host, it could stay under water for any length of time and descend to any depth. A striking mental adaptation also occurred in the two species. The ichthyoids became on the whole more introvert, the arachnoids more extrovert.

Up to puberty the young of both species were free-living individuals; but, as their symbiotic organization developed, each sought out a partner of the opposite species. The union which followed was life-long, and was interrupted only by brief sexual matings. The symbiosis itself constituted a kind of contrapuntal sexuality; but a sexuality that was purely mental, since, of course, for copulation and reproduction each individual had to seek out a partner belonging to his or her own species. We found, however, that even the symbiotic partnership consisted invariably of a male of one species and a female of the other; and the male, whichever his species, behaved with parental devotion to the young of his symbiotic partner.

I have not space to describe the extraordinary mental reciprocity of these strange couples. I can only say that, though in sensory equipment and in temperament the two species were very different, and though in abnormal cases tragic conflicts did occur, the ordinary partnership was at once more intimate than human marriage and far more enlarging to the individual than any friendship between members of distinct human races. At certain stages of the growth of civilization malicious minds had attempted to arouse widespread interspecific conflict, and had met with temporary success; but the trouble seldom went as deep even as our “sex war,” so necessary was each species to the other. Both had contributed equally to the culture of their world, though not equally at all times. In creative work of every kind one of the partners provided most of the originality, the other most of the criticism and restraint. Work in which one partner was entirely passive was rare. Books, or rather scrolls, which were made from pulped seaweed, were nearly always signed by couples. On the whole the arachnoid partners dominated in manual skill, experimental science, the plastic arts, and practical social organization. The ichthyoid partners excelled in theoretical work, in literary arts, in the surprisingly developed music of that submarine world, and in the more mystical kind of religion. This generalization, however, should not be interpreted very strictly.

The symbiotic relationship seems to have given the dual race a far greater mental flexibility than ours, and a quicker aptitude for community. It passed rapidly through the phase of inter-tribal strife, during which the nomadic shoals of symbiotic couples harried one another like hosts of submarine-cavalry; for the arachnoids, riding their ichthyoid mates, attacked the enemy with bone spears and swords, while their mounts wrestled with powerful tentacles. But the phase of tribal warfare was remarkably brief. When a settled mode of life was attained, along with submarine agriculture and coral-built cities, strife between leagues of cities was the exception, not the rule. Aided no doubt by its great mobility and ease of communication, the dual race soon built up a world-wide and unarmed federation of cities. We learned also with wonder that at the height of the premechanical civilization of this planet, when in our worlds the cleavage into masters and economic slaves would already have become serious, the communal spirit of the city triumphed over all individualistic enterprise. Very soon this world became a tissue of interdependent but independent municipal communes.

At this time it seemed that social strife had vanished forever. But the most serious crisis of the race was still to come.

The submarine environment offered the symbiotic race no great possibilities of advancement. All sources of wealth had been tapped and regularized. Population was maintained at an optimum size for the joyful working of the world. The social order was satisfactory to all classes, and seemed unlikely to change. Individual lives were full and varied. Culture, founded on a great tradition, was now concerned entirely with detailed exploration of the great fields of thought that had long ago been pioneered by the revered ancestors, under direct inspiration, it was said, of the symbiotic deity. Our friends in this submarine world, our mental hosts, looked back on this age from their own more turbulent epoch sometimes with yearning, but often with horror; for in retrospect it seemed to them to display the first faint signs of racial decay. So perfectly did the race fit its unchanging environment that intelligence and acuity were already ceasing to be precious, and might soon begin to fade. But presently it appeared that fate had decreed otherwise.

In a submarine world the possibility of obtaining mechanical power was remote. But the arachnoids, it will be remembered, were able to live out of the water. In the epochs before the symbiosis their ancestors had periodically emerged upon the islands, for courtship, parenthood, and the pursuit of prey. Since those days the air-breathing capacity had declined, but it had never been entirely lost. Every arachnoid still emerged for sexual mating, and also for certain ritual gymnastic exercises. It was in this latter connection that the great discovery was made which changed the course of history. At a certain tournament the friction of stone weapons, clashing against one another, produced sparks, and fire among the sun-scorched grasses.

In startlingly quick succession came smelting, the steam engine, the electric current. Power was obtained first from the combustion of a sort of peat formed on the coasts by congested marine vegetation, later from the constant and violent winds, later still from photo-chemical light traps which absorbed the sun’s lavish radiation. These inventions were of course the work of arachnoids. The ichthyoids, though they still played a great part in the systematization of knowledge, were debarred from the great practical work of scientific experiment and mechanical invention above the seas. Soon the arachnoids were running electric cables from the island power-stations to the submarine cities. In this work, at least, the ichthyoids could take part, but their part was necessarily subordinate. Not only in experience of electrical engineering but also in native practical ability, they were eclipsed by their arachnoid partners.

For a couple of centuries or more the two species continued to cooperate, though with increasing strain. Artificial lighting, mechanical transport of goods on the ocean floor, and large-scale manufacture, produced an immense increase in the amenities of life in the submarine cities. The islands were crowded with buildings devoted to science and industry. Physics, chemistry, and biology made great progress. Astronomers began to map the galaxy. They also discovered that a neighboring planet offered wonderful opportunities for settlement by arachnoids, who might without great difficulty, it was hoped, be conditioned to the alien climate, and to divorce from their symbiotic partners. The first attempts at rocket flight were leading to mingled tragedy and success. The directorate of extra-marine activities demanded a much increased arachnoid population.

Inevitably there arose a conflict between the two species, and in the mind of every individual of either species. It was at the height of this conflict, and in the spiritual crisis in virtue of which these beings were accessible to us in our novitiate stage, that we first entered this world. The ichthyoids had not yet succumbed biologically to their inferior position, but psychologically they were already showing signs of deep mental decay. A profound disheartenment and lassitude attacked them, like that which so often undermines our primitive races when they find themselves struggling in the flood of European civilization. But since in the case of the symbiotics the relation between the two races was extremely intimate, far more so than that between the most intimate human beings, the plight of the ichthyoids deeply affected the arachnoids. And in the minds of the ichthyoids the triumph of their partners was for long a source of mingled distress and exultation. Every individual of both species was torn between conflicting motives. While every healthy arachnoid longed to take part in the adventurous new life, he or she longed also, through sheer affection and symbiotic entanglement, to assist his or her ichthyoid mate to have an equal share in that life. Further, all arachnoids were aware of subtle dependence on their mates, a dependence at once physiological and psychological. It was the ichthyoids who mostly contributed to the mental symbiosis the power of self-knowledge and mutual insight, and the contemplation which is so necessary to keep action sweet and sane. That this was so was evident from the fact that already among the arachnoids internecine strife had appeared. Island tended to compete with island, and one great industrial organization with another.

I could not help remarking that if this deep cleavage of interests had occurred on my own planet, say between our two sexes, the favoured sex would have single-mindedly trampled the other into servitude. Such a “victory” on the part of the arachnoids did indeed nearly occur. More and more partnerships were dissolved, each member attempting by means of drugs to supply his or her system with the chemicals normally provided by the symbiosis. For mental dependence, however, there was no substitute, and the divorced partners were subject to serious mental disorders, either subtle or flagrant. Nevertheless, there grew up a large population capable of living after a fashion without the symbiotic intercourse. Strife now took a violent turn. The intransigents of both species attacked one another, and stirred up trouble among the moderates. There followed a period of desperate and confused warfare. On each side a small and hated minority advocated a “modernized symbiosis,” in which each species should be able to contribute to the common life even in a mechanized civilization. Many of these reformers were martyred for their faith.

Victory would in the long run have gone to the arachnoids, for they controlled the sources of power. But it soon appeared that the attempt to break the symbiotic bond was not as successful as it had seemed. Even in actual warfare, commanders were unable to prevent widespread fraternization between the opposed forces. Members of dissolved partnerships would furtively meet to snatch a few hours or moments of each other’s company. Widowed or deserted individuals of each species would timidly but hungrily venture toward the enemy’s camps in search of new mates. Whole companies would surrender for the same purpose. The arachnoids suffered more from the neuroses than from the weapons of the enemy. On the islands, moreover, civil wars and social revolutions made the manufacture of munitions almost impossible.

The most resolute faction of the arachnoids now attempted to bring the struggle to an end by poisoning the ocean. The islands in turn were poisoned by the millions of decaying corpses that rose to the sea’s surface and were cast up on the shores. Poison, plague, and above all neurosis, brought war to a standstill, civilization to ruin, and the two species almost to extinction. The deserted sky-scrapers that crowded the islands began to crumble into heaps of wreckage. The submarine cities were invaded by the submarine jungle and by shark-like sub-human ichthyoids of many species. The delicate tissue of knowledge began to disintegrate into fragments of superstition.

Now at last came the opportunity of those who advocated a modernized symbiosis. With difficulty they had maintained a secret existence and their individual partnerships in the more remote and inhospitable regions of the planet. They now came boldly forth to spread their gospel among the unhappy remnants of the world’s population. There was a rage of interspecific mating and remating. Primitive submarine agriculture and hunting maintained the scattered peoples while a few of the coral cities were cleared and rebuilt, and the instruments of a lean but hopeful civilization were refashioned. This was a temporary civilization, without mechanical power, but one which promised itself great adventures in the “upper world” as soon as it had established the basic principles of the reformed symbiosis.

…………………

This is of course merely one world amongst many as the author joins with other sentient beings to create a cosmic hive mind which travels the universe and time to find its Creator.

So… great fantastic fiction of the Dieselpunk era. Olaf Stapledon.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello

Since the day i began this blog (way back in the ancient days of a month ago), i have intended to feature this video. And as giulas41 pointed out on the Jasper The Dead Guy Guy post,  there is another Jasper in the steampunk mythos (which is no coincidence. I named Jasper in the opera after Jasper Morello in the video as an homage. The character is entirely different, but many will connect the name and get the tip of the hat). Thus, i figure it is high time we get around to showcasing one of the most awesome videos you’re going to see on the net.

I’ll give some more detail after the film. Just watch it. Seriously. It’s long for internet vids, 2o minutes, so make some tea, coffee, grab a beer and relax, because it is WELL worth it.

Please tell me you watched it. Drop dead awesome, right?

This is actually the first of 4 planned films, the other 3 of which are up and coming. It’s written by Mark Shirrefs and directed by Anthony  Lucas.

The animation style is that of Indonesian Shadow Puppetry, or Wayang (which is Indonesian for both shadow and theater). I could and should do an entire post on just Wayang, but here’s an awesome factoid:

Developed during the first millenium in Indonesia, it featured static puppets and was used heavily by Hindus to spread their religious stories across the land. When the Muslims came, they forbid themselves from watching it as it showed  God and gods in human form which is forbidden to see.

King Raden Patah of Java, however, really wanted to watch a performance. When the Muslim religious leaders refused him, a compromise was suggested, in which he could view the shadows of the figures. Viewing the shadows of the figures instead of the actual figures was acceptable. He watched it, loved it, and a genre was birthed.

Jasper Morello is of course a little more modern. All the objects are made out of various materials, including and especially cardboard, then scanned into a computer and manipulated in Photoshop.

All of the backgrounds are 2D. The 3D effect is made by combining numerous 2D backgrounds and then using variations of blurring to achieve illusions of depth.

As you can see for yourself, this is an extraordinary work of animation, and i am dying to see the next 3 sequels in the quartet.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Jules Verne, 10 Interesting Facts

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post (which was probably going to being Character Background 3: Jasper, The Dead Guy) because today is Jules Verne’s birthday, and as he is considered to be the father of both steampunk and science fiction in general, he is well worth a post on.

The guy wrote 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, and Around The World In 80 Days. These stories in which  he blends fantastical places and voyages with a numerous scientific and geographic details, are the first science fiction stories, predating even HG Wells by 2 to 3 decades. Since he wrote sci-fi in the midst of the Victorian era, he is TRULY the first steampunk.

Here are 10 rather interesting facts about the man.

1. Before he wrote stories he wrote libretti (lyrics) for operas.

2. His father, upon finding out Jules was involved with the theater, cut him off and Verne became a stockbroker. He was actually quite good at it although he despised it.

3. He hung out with both Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas, who gave him writing advice.

4. Around The World In 80 Days was actually based on a true story. In 1870, US railroad magnate George Francis Train (what are the odds on that name?) declared in the middle of his Presidential candidacy that he would travel around the world in 80 days or less. (It ended up taking him almost double the time.  He tried twice more and finally, 20 years later in 1890 he managed to do it in under 80 days. 67 to be precise)

5. His submarine The Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues predated actual powered submarines by 25 years. In 1886, the first electric powered submarine was name The Nautilus after Verne’s creation.

6. Verne began as very optimistic about how technical possibilities could influence the future of mankind. Over his career he began more and more pessimistic about the future of civilization. Some say his good friend and publisher Peirre-Jules Hetzel edited out some of the more pessimistic aspects that were creeping in to Verne’s works, but after his death, Hetzel’s son who took over the business did far less editing and left them in

7. In 1863 he wrote a novel based in the 20th century which featured glass skyscrapers, high speed trains, calculators and even a worldwide communications network. Called Paris In The 20th Century, it was eerily accurate. However, despite the wonders of 20th century life, the protagonist cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end. Verne’s publisher (you know, Hetzel Sr.) thought the book too pessimistic and held off publishing it. It wasn’t discovered until 1989 by Verne’s great grandson.

8. He published at least 1 book a year for over 40 years on a wide range of subjects.

9. He actually traveled very little. His only time riding in a balloon lasted 24 minutes.

10. He was shot in 1886 by his mentally ill nephew, Gaston. Two shots were fired, one missing and the other hitting his left leg.  Gaston spent the remainder of his life in a mental asylum and Verne had a limp for the rest of his life, which ended in 1905 of diabetes.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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