A website about UK Science Fiction, digging through the past to uncover the future.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Barbican Conservatory: A virtual garden?

Come and explore the Barbican Conservatory in this 360 degree model!

To further illustrate why I love the Barbican Conservatory,
as discussed in this previous post, why not have a virtual look round it by following the link above?

If you can't imagine an episode of popular children's television programme Doctor Who taking place there, we think that maybe we've been talking cross purposes for the last two months...

Photograph from sleekit's collection at Flickr

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Techniques of Escape: John Wyndham's Chocky

Archeology of the Future has been raiding the mouldering piles of paperbacks in the cupboard under the stairs, digging through the accumulated strata to uncover some rich gems.

Chocky by John Wyndham, published in 1968, is the story of a family afflicted, or blessed, with a 'special child'. Rather than dealing with a wider apocalypse or with the world plunged in violent change, Chocky is the exclusive story of one suburban English family. It's a novel of relationships; the relationship between husband and wife, between father and son and between a young boy and an intangible presence that takes up residency in his mind. There is a great change, but not necessarily the one that the reader might expect.

Before we discuss Chocky and the boy who brings him/her to our attention, we’d like to introduce you to another outlandish figure, an almost- contemporary of Chocky:

“Alan Measles was the leader, the benign dictator, of my made-up land, the glamorous, raffish, effortlessly handsome, commanding character… When I was about ten, I worked out the game was set one hundred years in the future in the 2060s and 2070s. There had been a calamitous nuclear war, almost obliterating Planet Earth. Everyone agreed that technology had advanced too far, so an international agreement was forged stating that from now on technology could only move backwards. Armies once again began to use old-fashioned, conventional weapons.”

In the book ‘Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl’, a book of interviews with the 2003 Turner Prize winning artist by Wendy Jones, Perry outlines the content of his childhood fantasy world ruled over as it was by Alan Measles, his teddy bear. A series of rationalisations that allowed him to include whatever toys, and later Lego and Airfix models that came along, the world of Alan Measles, improvised from the topography of Perry’s bedroom, provided both a rich territory for the young Perry’s imagination but also a refuge from his disrupted home life and uneasy, and often violent, relationship with his stepfather. As Perry says:

“Alan Measles was the ultimate male presence. The Germans were the invading force, or at least they were as soon as my stepfather appeared on the scene. Gradually, the Germans occupied Alan Measles’s realm. As the years passed, Alan became more of an underground guerrilla, more a spy. In the beginning it had been open warfare, whereas towards the end it was subterfuge… As I was growing up I progressively bestowed all my noble masculine traits of a high achiever, a winner, a lover even, on to my teddy bear for safe keeping. He was the guardian, the custodian of these qualities. “I lived in Alan Measles’s realm, carrying it around with me like a comfy sleeping bag I could pop into at any time… I no longer had separate games, they were all facets of the one game: everything was linked..”

This retreat into fantasy as defence and the creation of an avatar representing some essential qualities was a key experience for Perry, as they represent a kind of reflexive therapy and playing out of drama that would eventually find expression in his art. For those unfamiliar with his work, Perry works in ceramics, producing glazed vases and other objects with images and photographs that, to us at least, are reminiscent of Pulp songs, with an uneasy mixture of fantasy and ‘kitchen sink’ reality.

In many ways, the realm of Alan Measles seems to have prompted Perry into pursuing certain paths, as if such interior richness, once tasted needs to be returned to repeatedly in different ways.

In Chocky too, there is a figure that exists in the mind of a small boy, but of a small boy with a very different set of problems.

Matthew is the adopted child of the stable Gore family of Hindmere, Surrey, happily undertaking the pursuit of a normal English childhood. His father, David, the narrator of the book, tinkering with a lawnmower in the shed, overhears Matthew one sun kissed suburban afternoon arguing with an unseen 'friend’ about the number days in the week and the number of months in the year. Before he can see who it is that Matthew is arguing with, a child from next door calls and Matthew runs off to meet him.

For David Gore, the narrator and patriarch of the Gore family, this is the beginning of the story of Matthew and his involvement with Chocky.

David and his wife Mary debate the best course of action, reasoning that Matthew may be too old for an imaginary friend, but also intrigued by the ‘unMatthewness’ of the questions that he has taken to asking. Hoping that it is a phase that Matthew is going through, like his younger sister had with her imaginary friend Piff, they agree to keep a benign eye on things.

As the novel progresses, Matthew causes consternation at school with his outlandish questions about matter, space and intelligence. He becomes extremely upset when the family buys a new car, only to have Chocky criticise it as primitive. In art class at school, he finds that Chocky can show him how to do things if he lets his mind go blank, channelling Chocky’s will through him, producing drawings, that while technically proficient, present a certain off kilter air. He manages to save his sister from drowning when they are both deposited into a river when a boat hits a jetty, despite previously being unable to swim. When asked how he did it, he can only answer that Chocky showed him. After coming to national prominence as a boy who was saved from drowning by a guardian angel, as well as winning a prize for his drawings completed under the influence of Chocky, Matthew is finally abducted by the government, which prompts the departure of Chocky.

Despite being a story about a possible alien incursion into the life of a young boy, Wyndham gives the reader no solid confirmation that Chocky is an actual real entity, despite both David and Matthew believing this to be the case. The ways in which Chocky manifests him/herself are resolutely non-physical, and while stretching credibility, are not impossible. People do spontaneously ‘learn to swim’ in extreme circumstances and other people do manage to tap into ways of manufacturing art that produce unsettling or slightly skewed results.

David, the narrator and father of Matthew, is a rational, freethinking man, uncomfortable with ‘common sense’ and questioning of orthodox answers. A self-aware suburbanite, he comments when visited by Mary’s sister and her husband: “Kenneth and I kept mostly to the safe, and only slightly controversial, topic of cars.” The world of the Gore family is comfortable and unremarkable: the world outside of their garden hedge is experienced as being filled with grumpy maths teachers, avuncular policemen, skittish arts teachers and irascible family doctors of English sitcom life.

In the early days of his marriage David decides to move Mary away from her more traditional family, to escape their fecundity, saying of Mary’s family: “There was so many Bosworths that I had a feeling of being engulfed”. Seemingly unable to have children, David wonders at Mary’s need to do so. Rationalising his feelings as despair at the seemingly unending generative powers of the Bosworth family, while revealing an inability for things to be ‘just so’, he tells a friend: “She’s in a circle where it’s kind of a competition in which every married woman is considered ipso facto an entrant – which makes it damned hard on a non-starter.” Ever practical, David and Mary adopt Matthew, and then move the family to Surrey, allowing them to make a fresh start, away from the interfering figures of Mary’s family, soon afterward conceiving Polly.

Both Mary and David, eschewing the traditional, earthy advice of Mary’s sisters, seem insecure in their parenting of Matthew in a way that they don’t of his younger sister, Polly. Throughout the book, Mary and David take it in turns to be dismissive of Polly, telling her to be quiet, or to stop being silly. It is as if they feel comfortable in doing this with a child that they brought into the world themselves, but feel that Matthew is something of an unknown quantity. When Chocky first manifests, Mary says:

“I do wish we knew a little bit more about his parents. That might help. In Polly I can see bits of you and bits of me. It gives one something to go on. But with Matthew there’s no guide at all… there’s nothing to give me any idea what to expect…”

Interestingly, rather than representing a unity, David and Mary are divided in their response to Matthew’s ‘difficultness’. David is more indulgent, at different points instructing Matthew to hide the evidence of Chocky’s presence from his mother. He finds Mary to be too rigid and hard in the face of Matthew’s ‘specialness’. When Matthew informs his parents of Chocky’s departure, completely heartbroken at the loss of this part of himself, David comments after Mary is dismissive of his pain:

“I have been astonished before, and doubtless will be again, how the kindliest and most sympathetic of women can pettify and downgrade the searing anguishes of childhood.”

Both Mary and David refer to the collusion between David and Matthew in supporting the existence of Chocky. Unable to define exactly what gender Chocky is, Matthew eventually decides that she is more female than male. When David tells Mary this, she answers: “You decide she’s feminine because you feel it will help you and Matthew to gang up on her.”

Throughout the book the reader feels that David, in Matthew’s experiences has glimpsed a land that, maybe, once he himself inhabited. It is as if David, for all of suburban sophistication and outward stability, wishes for something else. Remember that, if this book is taken as being set within a few years of its release, Britain is swinging, the Beatles and the Stones are duking it out in the charts, the world is between the tragedy of Apollo 1, exploding on the dry Florida concrete and the live footage of the planet below beamed back by the triumphant Apollo 7. David seems to want something beyond his nine-to-five family existence. Under the guise of distracting one of Mary’s sisters from expounding her opinions on Matthew, David lets slip his distain for ‘normality’. Talking of his nephew, he says:

“Your Tim is so splendidly normal. It’s hard to imagine him saying anything odd. Though I sometimes think… that it’s a pity that thorough normality is scarcely achievable except at some cost to individuality. Still, there it is, that’s what normality means – average.”

Indeed, it is revealing that when Chocky makes his/her final departure, she takes David aside to explain. With Matthew channelling her voice in a way now familiar from many UFO fringe cults, she outlines her reasons for settling on Matthew and then warns David that Matthew must remain out of sight in life and not attempt to make use of the insights she has provided him into science, as this will lead him into being used badly by the powers that be. She tells David:

“If you are wise you will discourage him from taking up physics – or any science, then there will be nothing to feed their suspicions. He is beginning to learn how to look at things, and to have an idea of drawing, As an artist he would be safe…”

It is almost as if the entire book is a justification for David in allowing his son to follow his own path, harnessing his creativity to find a route out of the constraints of orthodox suburban life of which he is acutely aware. We get a feeling of this from David early on in the book when he mentions the demise of Polly’s imaginary friend Piff, forgotten about on a trip to the seaside:

“I was able to feel quite sorry for the deserted Piff, apparently doomed to wander for ever in summer’s traces upon the forlorn beaches of Sussex.”

It seems to us that Chocky almost represents a way for all of the family to accept that, for Matthew, his path will be the path that leads from suburban dreaming into a more uncertain and more creative future.

Certainly, Chocky does seem a convenient way for Matthew to raise some issues that trouble him. At one point he raises the question of loving two parents at once, and how difficult Chocky thinks this must be, underlining the dichotomy that exists in Mary and David’s relations with him:

“She thinks it must be terribly confusing to have two parents, and not a good idea at all. She says it is natural and easy to love one person, but if your parent is divided into two people it must be pretty difficult for your mind not to be upset by trying not to love one more than the other. She thinks it’s very likely its’ the strain of that which accounts for some of the peculiar things about us.”

Chocky allows Matthew to state very baldly both his dilemma and the dilemma that his parents find themselves in regarding him and his sister. This non physical entity that exists only inside Matthew serves to fulfil a similar role to Grayson Perry’s adventures with Alan Measles, providing a safe way of dealing with anxieties.

Unlike Grayson Perry, who found himself chastised by family for the directions that his fantasy world took him in, Matthew finds acceptance. At the climax of the book, once Chocky has departed, it is David that encourages Matthew to continue his drawing as a way of keeping alive the strange sense of otherness that came to their suburban home.

Rather than changing the entire outside world, the events of Chocky only open up for one child of the surburbs the possibility of exploring further his own interior world. A profound upheaval, if not a world changing one.

In many ways, all of us who fall prey to science fiction or to dreams about the way that the future could be different, do the same thing, escaping when we can into another world inside ourselves, peopled with voices and places that don’t really exist.

Like David Gore, we can’t help but feel that somewhere, there’s always an Alan Measles and a Chocky waiting for the children who left them behind to return.

You can read a slightly abridged version of John Wyndham’s Chocky online here:


You can buy ‘Grayson Perry: A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Girl’ by Wendy Jones at Amazon.co.uk here

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Bank Holiday Archeology Part 2

As promised, Archeology of the Future has returned to share the remainder of our bank holiday activities with you...

The Traveller On Returning

Saturday was, of course, the return of a champion, reborn and made anew for each generation. David Tennant, as the latest incarnation of Doctor Who in the popular BBC Television children’s programme of the same name is, on this showing and his first appearance on Christmas day last year, a more disturbing proposition than any of his previous incarnations.

Saturday’s programme, in which The Doctor and Rose, his South east London travelling companion, visit the home of humanity in the far distant future and uncover a conspiracy in its eqivilent of the National Health Service, revealed a Doctor who was by turns beguiling and unsettling. For the first time since childhood, we
found ourselves wildly jealous of the Doctor’s assistant, ready to throw all caution to the wind and join the Doctor in whatever adventure he chose.

This Doctor has the wild eyes and quicksilver emotions of a manic-depressive, one moment
goggle eyed with childish wonder, the next cynical or flip, suddenly moving to righteous anger and then wet eyed emotion. He is also more self consciously dandy-ish, coming across as more mannered, more brittle than his predecessor. Whether through accident or design, this Doctor is far less centred than Chris Ecclestone’s portrayal of his previous regeneration. Despite his energy and his zaniness, Ecclestone’s Doctor exuded solidity and strength, and a quiet kind of reassurance. Tennant’s Doctor is, on these early showings closer to a Harlequin. Witness this description of Harlequin from wikipedia:

“His everlasting high-spirits and cleverness work to save him from several difficult situations his amoral behaviour gets him into during the course of the play. In some Italian forms of the harlequinade, the harlequin is able to perform magic feats. He never holds a grudge or seeks revenge.”

The reason this connection occurs lies in our reading of ‘A Cure fore Cancer’ by Micheal Moorcock as detailed in this previous post. Jerry Cornelius is specifically refered to as a Harlequin, an essentially immoral and clever dandy figure whose appetites get him into trouble. Everything is farce to him and nothing important, making him immoral in the way that a child is. It is the strutting, peacock nature of him and the way in which the tone of him alters dependant on the mood of his times that puts us in mind of the current Doctor. His enthusiasm to explore and adventure is the only thing that precipitated the events of Saturday’s episode. For all of his cleverness, charm and charisma, he was essentially dancing between events he set in motion but could not control.

Watching, Archeology of the Future couldn’t work out whether we wanted to follow him or, more worryingly, be him or be like him. Imagine that, being able to escape into time and the wide
universe at will, to skip where and when you pleased…

The Most Science Fiction Place In London

On Sunday, Archeology of the Future found ourselves in the most Science Fiction place in London. Standing in the wet
artificial heat, surrounded by the sound of birdsong and the fecundity of huge tropical plants climbing and possessing grey concrete walkways, eyes drawn astray by the golden flash of fish in cool water, we thanked whatever powers that exist that the relentless marches of time have overlooked the Barbican Conservatory.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Barbican, it is a huge housing development that brings together flats and houses, amenities, gardens, a huge theatre, cinemas, offices and green spaces in the City of London. Designed originally as social housing, it is the most well realised example of utopian architectural practice in the UK. Everything about it screams out possibilities of new ways of living, new ways of constructing life in a city. It was purposely built so that everyone could feel themselves to be an actor in a great drama of their own. Through a long gestation period, where different pieces of the development were design, modified, scrapped, reinstated and then finally built, The Barbican absorbed all of the new ideas and experimental developments of British architecture, making it like a dream of possible future architectures. It is here that Archeology of the Future has a spiritual home and here that we shall explore in far greater depth in future posts.

The Conservatory, opened in 1984, was a late addition to plans and is like a set for a botanical area onboard a space station. Walkways criss-cross the high vault under the glass exterior. Even the interior doors have rounded corners suggestive of airlocks. There is just something so incongruous, so wondrous about the sheer artificiality of the space, surrounded by tall concrete towers and brown brickwork, looking out beyond to the ever growing office towers of Moorgate. Standing there, Archeology of the Future could see the possible future, the new people meeting there under their artificial canopy, the last generation to have a faith in the possibility of changing the course of the future.

Archeology of the Future wasn’t even aware of the existence of The Conservatory until an afternoon exploring amongst the different levels and structures delivered it to us as we rounded a corner. It was like a homecoming. All of the beautiful dreams of bringing nature and artifice together in way that it can be enjoyed at the leisure of the participant come together for us under the glass. The nearest that we can think of is the kind of thing that you get in some large corporate buildings or shopping developments, but this so radically different that the similarity is only fleeting. The Barbican Conservatory is no less than a stab at an artificial Eden, a place to play without being directed or moved on…

The Conservatory is being run with a skeleton staff now, and is ever having its opening times reduced. Only open on Sundays now, the popular consensus is that it is being run into the ground before it is closed. This enhances the charm, because there is a sense of the working future, where people patch thing up and things evolve rather than being pristine.

If you have the opportunity, we advise you to visit this beautiful glass bubble outside of time while
you can. If Archeology of the Future were ever to meet any of you, our audience, it would be among the green fronds of the Conservatory

Designing a New World

On Monday, Archeology of the Future made it to the wide, spy haunted streets of South Kensington to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum to see the Modernism 1914-1939: Designing a New World exhibition. It was an exhibition that we’d been waiting for since our teens, bringing together as it does the largest collection of modernist objects ever in one exhibition in the UK. The effect was like sherbet fizzing in our brains, or more correctly, finding that other people shared the dreams you’d nursed inside of you since childhood too.

Exhausted by the First World War and energised in one way or another by the Russian Revolution, a generation of artists and designers worked to literally remake the world and bring about a future where the division between art and everyday life was dissolved and where the terrible weight of the past could be escaped. At this exhibition, everything in one-way or another, was Science Fiction.

We point this out, because as we said in a previous post, Archeology of the Future is about Science Fiction as a practice of looking or a way of interrogating the world. Too often Science Fiction is limited and inward looking, happy to exist on its own as a genre. In an essay on Philip K. Dick, the late Stanislaw Lem recognised this. Comparing genre fiction to a situation where natural selection is frustrated or interrupted he states:

“In culture an analogous situation leads to the emergence of enclaves shut up in ghettos, where intellectual production likewise stagnates because of inbreeding in the form of incessant repetition of the selfsame patterns and techniques. The internal dynamics of the ghetto may appear intense, but with the passage of years it becomes evident that this is only a semblance of motion, since it leads nowhere, since it feeds into nor is fed by the open domain of culture, since it does not generate new patterns or trends, and since, finally, it nurses the falsest of notions about itself, for lack of any honest evaluation of its activities from outside.”

Walking around the Modernism exhibition, it was clear to us that for the men and women involved in creating the artefacts on show, the division between Science Fiction and the real world would have seemed laughable, as they were actively engaged in a process of trying to build a new future. Everything was geared toward making the future happen in the present, to changing and making anew.

We advise anyone with even a passing interest in the idea that it possible to find new ways of organising or living human existence to get along there. It’s on until 23 June 2006, and worth travelling for.

It was too much for us to take in, so we bought a badge that says ‘UTOPIA’ from the shop on our way out of the exhibition and began plotting ways to skive off work and visit again.

For Archeology of the Future, it was like finding a home.

For more information on Modernism 1914-1939 visit the V&A minisite here.

The essay 'Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among Charlatans' by Stanislaw Lem appears in the anthology 'Microworlds'. Buy it from amazon.co.uk here.

Doctor Who is broadcast on Saturday nights in the UK, as it should be. It is best watched whilst eating beans on toast.

More excellent photographs of the Barbican can be found here, here and also here. The conservatory photograph was taken by sleekit, the waterfall by will survive.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Bank Holiday Archeology

Archeology of the future had a smashing time this bank holiday weekend, undertaking a variety of activities that relate very strongly to the purpose of this blog.

The practice of the archaeology of the future, by its very nature, involves sifting through the remains of the past to look for hints of the future, picking through the dustbins of history to find the glittering jewels of hope or apprehension. This means casting a wide net and making investigations far beyond the boundaries of genre.

Talking about the testimonies of those who had been involved in revolutions, uprisings, strikes and other attempts to alter the direction that the river of history seemed, in retrospect, to be bound to take, Greil Marcus writes:

“…If one reads in the right frame of mind, the leavings of those stories stir with a truly strange power. Suddenly they are not ephemeral, not extraneous to real history. But plainly, obviously, the true story the events of the past years have been straining towards all along.”

It is this right frame of mind that Archeology of the Future seeks to apply to a world littered with the remnants of attempts to build, create, imagine or explore possible futures. There are, then, many ‘jumping off points’, both fictional and actual, where it is possible to see efforts to imagine a present very different from our own, or a different course that events could have taken given different conditions.

For Archeology of the Future Science Fiction is more a way of seeing than it is a strictly policed exercise in genre exploration. Anything that is suggestive of an attempt to build an alternate future, or that shows a direction that history could of taken, but did not, is an object for interrogation.

On Friday, Archeology of the Future spent a pleasant day exploring the expanses of Greenwich Park, the man made expanse of recreation ground surrounding the Royal Observatory and, incidentally, the place where the measurement of time begins. We especially enjoyed our pilgrimage to the Henry Moore sculpture ‘Standing Figure Knife Edge’ which sits on one of the three hills of the park and resembles nothing less than one of those distorted figures that would grace sixties science fiction paperback covers. One of a few monuments in the park, it is like a memorial of some transfiguring event that has yet to occur, a marker of a visitation or a transmogrification.

Looking down from the base of the statue you see the Royal Navel College, the centre of the naval might of the British Empire and as such a strong presence suffused with power and might, and then over to its distant descendant at Canary Wharf across the Thames, an arrogant series of exclamations shouting out their monetary power to all London.

The Royal Observatory itself has a working telescope, and has the globular dome that you would expect. It is sometimes possible to see a green laser beam coming from the Observatory and arcing into the dark night.

We were excited to find that Greenwich was the mooring point for The Pierrot, Jerry Cornelius’ cruiser in Michael Moorcock’s “A Cure for Cancer”, which we read over the weekend. In a UK over-run and under siege by the US for no clear reason, Jerry is his usual immoral, swinging London self, shagging, shooting and rollicking through the landscape. Sitting in the park, the spirit of this infused our afternoon:

“The white hovertruck sang onwards into the ruined roads of South London that were full of columbine, ragged robin, foxglove, golden rain, dog rose, danewort, ivy, creeping cinquefoil, Venus’s Comb, deadnettle, shepherd’s purse and dandelion, then turned towards Greenwich where Jerry’s cruiser, The Pierrot, was moored. As Jerry directed his patients up the gangplank Karen von Krupp pointed to a battered, broken looking building in the distance. ‘What is that, Jerry?’

‘Greenwich Observatory,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit redundant now, I suppose…’

The banks of the river and the fields and ruins beyond them were carpeted with flowers of every description… they sailed between fields and old ruined farmhouses, deserted villages and abandoned pubs.”

As we have noted previously, Greenwich has a strange ambience and is an odd spot for entropic chaos, with various versions of the future winding down and lying to rust. In the novel, Jerry is the spirit of the age, an embodiment of the late sixties. As the initial utopian lust for change dissipates and becomes mired in the actual heavier events of the seventies, Jerry himself begins to run out of energy with it. Entropy is the point at which no movement is possible because all energy has been expended, so it seems fitting that Jerry should find himself in a Greenwich returned to wilderness, with all cultural energy expended. As we never tire of saying: There’s nothing better than an apocalypse on your doorstep.

We’ll tell you about the rest of our weekend later today, but to give a couple of hints, including the picture a the head of this post, it involved the return of a traveller; the most science fiction place in London and the designing of a whole new world…

The Greil Marcus quote in this post comes from the essay "The Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh" which features in the collection "The Dustbin of History".

Buy The Dustbin of History by Greil Marcus from amazon.co.uk here.

Buy A Cure For Cancer by Michael Moorcock, as featured in this Jerry Cornelius Anthology, from amazon.co.uk here.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Save The Devil Girl From Limbo

The above embedded video clip is from the much maligned 1954 film 'Devil Girl from Mars', starring Patricia Laffan as the titular extraterrestrial female. Going on this clip it doesn't look half as bad as it's made out to be, with the robot, Chani, having a fair degree of charm and a quite imposing bulk.

The problem is that Archeology of the Future only has this clip to go on. Whilst the American films of the same period are well documented and widely available for the most part, the British science fiction cinema that was its parallel has all but disappeared. To the best of Archeology of the Future's knowledge, 'Devil Girl from Mars' is not commercially available anywhere at the moment. Currently, there are very few available British Science Fiction films, or at least very few that are currently 'in print'. Lacking the budgets, charm or allure of their more canonical American counterparts, and falling into the gap between commercial viability and archivists objective, they seem to be consigned to the limbo of small viewership satellite channels and charity shop shelves. Like most things, something has to be considered either of overwhelming historical importance or of salable value to be saved from limbo.

Reading through some histories of British Science Fiction, Archeology of the Future has come across a long list of 'missing presumed dead' films that read like a litany of possibilities, frustratingly just out of reach. Some of them Archeology of the Future remembers seeing as a child, others we know only through stills and articles where they appear almost as footnotes to the 'real' business of science fiction on the big screen.

Each one represents a possible excavation of a known site that we don't, as yet, have access to, like a rumour of something untoward happening on the moors just out of town, waiting to be investigated.

These remote and exciting possible future digs, misty and indistinct, known only through snapshots and third person accounts include:

High Treason (1928)
The Tunnel (1935)
The Perfect Woman (1949)
Mr Drake's Duck (1950)
Dick Barton at Bay (1950)
The Four-Sided triangle (1953)
Immediate Disaster (1954)
Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1956)
Satellite in the Sky (1956)
Strange World of Planet X (1957)
Man Without A Body (1957)
First Man Into Space (1958)
Fiend Without A Face (1958)
Behemoth, the Sea Monster (1959)
Womaneater (1959)
Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)
Konga (1960)
Gorgo (1960)
Village of the Damned (1960)
The Damned (1963)
Unearthly Stranger (1963)
Children of the Damned (1963)
The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
The Night Caller (1965)
The Projected Man (1966)
Invasion (1966)
Night of the Big Heat (1967)
Priviledge (1967)
The Body Stealers (1969)
Moon Zero Two (1969)
The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
No Blade of Grass (1970)
Percy (1971)
The Final Programme (1973)

Each film, regardless of its place in the overall pantheon of cinema history represents something which we wish to interrogate, question and explore... They really are some of the lost worlds of British Science Fiction. As we've said before, there's something deeply cherishable about an apocalypse on your own doorstep, no matter how small or marginal.

Archeology of the Future asks all of you to consider us in our task. If you have a copy of any of these films, taped off late night television or boxed inappropriately for the 1980s video shop boom, we'll happily pay costs if you can let us have them for a while.

It'd really help us, if for no other reason, to save from obscurity the history of British futures.

Come on, look at the Devil Girl... There's no way she should be consigned to oblivion...

For more about the history of British Science Fiction Cinema, read the superb Kim Newman introduction to SF:UK: How British Science Fiction Changed The World.

Buy SF:UK from amazon.co.uk here

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Prospero: The Little Satellite That Could

Above us, travelling at 17,000 miles per hour, a tiny piece of British Science Fiction orbits the Earth every one hundred minutes. The final child of the British Space Programme, a satellite launched from a rocket called Black Arrow in the parched heat of the Austrailian desert in 1971, Prospero is a tiny refugee, a little ball of metal and electronics, an orphan of a future that never happened. A future where, to quote Stephen Baxter, “one day an old Spitfire pilot would fly into orbit… pipe clutched inside his space suit helmet.” A future where Britain would extend itself beyond this planet and take its place amongst the stars.

It’s a little remembered fact that, up until October 1971 the UK had its own, independent, space programme. As Francis Spufford puts it in his excellent book “Backroom Boys: The secret return of the British Boffin”:

“In the geography of the Space Age, Cape Canaveral and the Baikonur Cosmodrome were joined for a while by the faint presence of Woomera, on the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia… Big Rocket motors were test-fired at Spadeadam in Cumbria; polite MOD policemen would step out of the heath and turn you back if you tried to motor towards the installation on days when the ground was shaking. Smaller engines filled the air with the sound of ripping linen, titanically magnified, at a converted gun emplacement on the coast of the Isle of Wight. Men in tweed
jackets with leather elbow patches sat in control rooms watching bakelite consoles. The countdown was heard in regional accents.”

This is familiar territory for Archeology of the Future, a land where, looking back, we can see the direction that things could have taken, a land where possible futures never materialised, forever suspended tantalisingly out of reach.

The British Space Programme was much as you would imagine it to have been. No golden heroes, no huge research establishments, no races for glory. As many have observed, the American / Soviet space race was an exercise in mythology as much as it was an exercise in technological advancement. As much as the control of an actual new territory was important as an objective, the rush to space can be seen as the culmination or climax of belief in technology as ideology with two systems trying to claim their position as the victors of a battle for possession of the future.

For a while, Britain sat at this table, dutifully taking the minimum stake possible to stay in the game. It’s instructive to see just how close to reality the world of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass plots actually are. The real British Space Programme followed a very similar pattern, with quiet, dignified engineers constantly accounting to the Government for every expenditure, constantly worrying and regretting their work being put to military aims, dreaming of the possibility of finally firing an inhabitant of the British Isles beyond the chimney smoke and grey skies and up into the emptiness above.

Prospero’s parents are varied. His first ancestor is Blue Streak. The bastard offspring of American technology and the British workshop pride of De Havilland of Stevenage, Blue Streak was an intermediate range ballistic missile developed as part of a treaty with the US. Commissioned in 1954, it had cost £60 million by 1960, and would have needed another £440 million to be installed in its concrete home in East Anglia. A stillborn, the world moved on while it was crafted and tinkered with, a good rocket but a poor missile. In a race to fire destruction at the enemy, Blue Streak was too dignified and stately, the next generation already threatening to arrive in the time it took Roger Bannister to run a mile.

The knowledge developed during the building of Blue Streak would eventually find it’s way into a joint project between France, Italy, Great Britain and West Germany. Naming itself The European Launcher Development Organisation, it would build Europa, a three-stage European satellite launcher, with Blue Streak as the brute force that would punch it into the blackness above. After a change to a Labour Government in October 1964, and a growing sense of economic crisis, British will reduced to carry on such costly activities. Leaving behind some test firings of Europa, and, according to this site, in the jungles of Guiana, one rocket abandoned, lying in the South American jungle, being used as a chicken coop, the British Space Programme again returned to solely British hands.

In 1965, The Labour government of Harold Wilson made a great commitment to modernisation through technology and creating a Ministry of Technology on it’s arrival in office, commissioned the Royal Aircraft Establishment to begin work on a new project: Black Arrow. This was almost fact following fiction. The RAE was a place where ideas and concepts were toyed with before being commission and put out to private contractors for production, almost an analogue of Quatermass’s British Rocket Group. Just look at the photographs on this page and tell us that they you can't imagine, just out of shot the sleek shape of the Quatermass 2 rocket. Whilst a military establishment, the RAE had a remit to explore any technologies that might deliver a future strategic advantage, so it is easy to imagine that it became home to people committed to science who tried, where possible, to shoehorn in research into matters lass aggressive and more wondrous. It was charged with the development of an all British Satellite Launcher, but only on the condition that it cost next to nothing. Black Arrow would be funded with the scraps from the table of ELDO and any budget leftovers for the UK’s purchase of Polaris missiles. Eventually, the entire budget for the project would come to £9 million pounds, a drop in the ocean of NASA spending.

It was this programme that would finally fire Prospero into history rather than the future. Designed and built in the small workshops of the British Aerospace industry, Black Arrow gradually took shape. Finally, on October 28th 1971, this precision engineered hunk of machinery manufactured and designed in the Midlands and the Home Counties posthumously blasted off from the flat plain at Woomera in Australia, three months after the Minister for Aerospace in Edward Heath’s Conservative government Frederick Corfield told the House of Commons that Black Arrow was cancelled. Spinning off from Black Arrow and on into orbit unobserved even by a camera; as a final hurrah, little Prospero proved that we could do it after all, just as the axe finally fell and consigned British Space research once more to realm of the amateur in their garden shed.

While it was the military that dreamed up the scheme and ran it, it was the men who worked at place like Armstrong Siddeley Rocket Motors at Ansty that made it happen. As Francis Spufford explains:

“Many of the rocktmen themselves were attracted to Black Arrow precisely because it was not a weapon… They were conscientious men, committed to the defence of Britain, who were going to be relieved to find at the end of the cold War that they had not spent their lives procuring the end of the world. They preferred working on space to working on nuclear weapons because space was more innocent.

“John Scott-Scott remembers the lectures in the plant at Ansty by invited space gurus. ‘It kept us very fired up. Getting into real space one day had to be the better thing to do than just sending something to the enemy’s county, if it had to be done.’”

What is interesting about the British Space Programme is that it is unclear what exactly the reason behind it was. From as early as 1957, NASA was offering free rides into space for experimental payloads. When questioned later, Sir Morien Morgan, director of the RAE stated that he “regard(ed) these small rockets in very much the same way I regard simulators and wind tunnels”. Black Arrow, for him, was an experimental tool, a way stage on the path toward Britain’s space future. It’s possible that there was a military purpose, as an independent method of launching satellites may have conferred some advantage in negotiations with the US. What is most interesting to Archeology of the Future, though, is the possibility held out by historian David Wright as quoted by Spufford:

“I would not underestimate the romantic reasons why we got into Black Arrow. Even people who worked in the Ministry went home and read science fiction, saw science fiction stuff on the television; they dreamed too.”

In the 1950s, there had been no question that the UK would go into space. Technological advance was all around; everything seemed, in one way or another to be on an upward trajectory, pushing at the very boundaries of the possible. By the time that Black Arrow was commissioned, the focus for the space dream had already moved to the US space missions, to the race to the moon. The British Programme was already out of date and parochial. It wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t being pushed forward by a collective yearning, but by the fantasies and dreams of a small group of engineers who, raised on the very stuff of space, had sustained their wonder with the dreams of science fiction.

Francis Spufford points out that, to have spent the money to develop a proper space programme in the 1960s, the UK would have had to jettison some of its other achievements. The example that Spufford gives is all of the new universities of the 1960s. It is tempting to think that the collective yearning for space and the future that was lost or refocused found its way into the utopian architectural and cultural ideas that developed in the 1960s. Rather than trying to build the future in space, Britain tried to build the future in Britain.

As Spufford puts it, the space dream continued in hearts and dreams of those engineers and science fiction fans:

“So long as something was still happening, no matter how modest, a path could still be imagined that led from the present by many obscure twists and turns to the future in which a squadron leader drank tea on the moon… All possible futures depended on a starting-point in the present. To sustain the work of the engineers was to prevent the whole fan of futures from disappearing.”

The ghost of this dream still orbits above us now, sucking in energy from the sun. According to this article, amateur satellite trackers heard the last tiny cries of Prospero as late as 2000, a phantom voice from an aborted future…

As a postscript to this post, it seems that there is some real Archeology of the Future to be carried out on the remnants of the British Space Programme. According to this Department of Trade and Industry Committee of HM Government Report published in 2000 great hunks of Britain’s Space History are lying forgotten and overlooked including “The Spadeadam Blue Streak, rotting in a car park in a restricted area hidden from the public.” For more details see:


Real life artefacts from a future that never happened, right here right now. Even in the space of thirty years we seem to have forgotten what might have been...

Check this previous post for more information on the British Space Programme.

Click here to buy the extremely wonderful 'Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of The British Boffin' by Francis Spufford from amazon.co.uk

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