I’ve written before about my love of vintage book covers, especially those to be found in the genre fields of Science-Fiction and Fantasy (see my posts on Bruce Pennington as well as Chris Achilléos). So here is a wonderful in-your-face example from the mid-20th century Irish artist and designer Karl Uhlemann who illustrated some of Ireland’s best-known publications during his long career. The book is “Sladmhargadh” by Donach de Róiste, published in 1968 by the Dublin-based Foilseacháin Náisiúnta Teoranta (FNT), and taken from Hitone, a fascinating blog dedicated to Irish book covers and designs.
Until the phenomenon of fandom engulfed popular culture (thanks to Joss Whedon, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer amongst others) many a hardcore geek like myself found ourselves under much derision for our devotion to all things “genre”. That most of us did not match the thoroughly Americanised stereotypes that were foisted upon us, from Comic Book Guy to Big Bang Theory, mattered not a whit. On several occasions I found girlfriends, actual or potential, perplexed by the contrast between my outward public persona (how I was perceived by others) and what they learned upon getting to know me better. Apparently men who drive fast cars and live fast lives should not read books about alien spaceships and ever-living elves (tell that to the late great Iain M. Banks!). In fairness I always left a clue here or there to the multifaceted nature of who I am. The Converse shoes and Danger Mouse wallet were a dead giveaway, after all (or at least they were until the “mainstream” adopted such visual cues as their own). But then in real life as in drama some people prefer the one-dimensional.
However one thing most Sci-Fi and Fantasy fans could say in the defence of their interests, and rarely with challenge, was the openness of their minds. Not just on fiction or art, or even technology, but on society and humanity itself. Thing is, I’ve never met a racist Sci-Fi fan. No, truly. Nor have I met any homophobic ones. Oh, I’m not saying that such don’t exist. I’m sure they do. We’ve had the debates about Frank Miller and the excoriating of Orson Scott Card (on the latter I’ve always enjoyed the self-delusional rhetoric of “I hate homosexuality but I don’t hate homosexuals”. Which is like saying “I hate the Irish language but I don’t hate those who speak the Irish language”. And we all know what cerebral excrement that is…). However I personally have never encountered discriminatory views on… well, pretty much anything. The laissez faire live-and-let-live attitude of geekdom was one of its greatest merits. No doubt the new-found popularity of all things cult will make it in times to come a more accurate reflection of wider society (as just another consumerist product) but for now I believe tolerant liberalism remains at its core. In Ireland at least. So when it comes to sex and sexuality for instance, well if you’ve read and understood John Varley’s Steel Beach or any of Banks’ Culture series it is a bit hard to become worked up about people’s biological preferences. Honestly, who cares? Or to put it another way, why not?
As always I ramble on but this discursive introduction brings me to a genuinely touching and very personal post by the blogger Aoife Hart which I thought I’d highlight. It’s in the form of an open letter from Aoife to a niece she has never met nor it seems likely will ever do so. The reason for their enforced separation? Aoife is a transsexual woman, a corrective of one of the quirks of nature that her family seem unwilling to accept. To be perfectly honest I find people’s hesitancy with or the inability to accept transgender men and women beyond my comprehension. I wear reading glasses. Should I not do so because my “natural state” is to be myopic? My youngest sister had her tonsils removed because they left her frequently unwell and susceptible to illnesses. Should she have not done so because tonsils are a “natural part” of who she was? Human physicality and physiognomy is constantly subject to artificial change, change to what we want it to be or to what it should be. The female religious fundamentalist who claims that improvements to the human condition are “against nature” is the very one who will dye her hair with caustic chemicals and daub her lips with colours containing fats from a pig’s arse.
I will say no more on the posting for it is a personal matter and it is not my place to do so except to direct you to the letter itself.
The Ard Rí of Irish Sci-Fi and Fantasy fandom, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, has managed to secure a lengthy Q&A with the elusive and frankly legendary British comics writer Alan Moore over on his Slovobooks blog. Even more impressively it has been highlighted by Britain’s Guardian newspaper and others which has probably sent his stats meter into meltdown. I highly recommend a read of something which has stirred up much controversy in the world of genre fiction.
[With thanks to An Lorcánach for the link]
Following the positive reaction to my brief post highlighting the career of the British illustrator Bruce Pennington (notably his artwork for the 1980 book cover of Gene Wolfe’s classic science-fantasy publication “The Shadow of the Torturer”) I thought I’d feature a few more of his best regarded images. These include two more wraparound illustrations for the baroque stories relating to the character of Severian the Torturer (above) as well as his seminal works for the dust jackets of Frank Herbert’s “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” (below). Unfortunately I can only find the former in its published form, complete with title and blurb, but it still displays the exquisite nature of Pennington’s art, the use of one dominant colour in variable shades of pastel highlighted by flashes of brighter colour. For many in European fandom Bruce Pennington along with a handful of other artists very much encapsulated the “look” of Sci-Fi and Fantasy book covers throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. By the last decade of the 20th century the brasher and more workmanlike art styles of the major US publishers gradually came to dominate, particularly with the use of generic “stock images” that frequently bore little relation to the stories they purported to portray, and the era of the “painterly” technique was over.
Thankfully the growth of digital artwork and design has somewhat reversed the restrictions on artistic expression and vision placed by budgetary concerns in the world of publishing and a new body of artists have emerged albeit frequently working in a much more photorealistic style. I shall examine some of the better examples of that later. Meanwhile below is a crop image from another work by Bruce Pennington, the British frontispiece for the cover of the now rarely encountered “Dune Encyclopaedia” edited by Willis E. McNelly with the co-operation of Frank Herbert and published in 1984. Based upon the latter’s Dune series of novels it has long been out of print due to the notoriously litigious nature of the Herbert estate under his son Brian Herbert, who has penned a series of novels with hireling writer Kevin J. Anderson based upon his father’s works that bear little relation to the “in-universe” materials found in the encyclopaedia. While many regard the information created or compiled by McNelly as “canon” (including in part Frank Herbert who wrote an introduction for the publication) others follow Brian Herbert in discounting its importance. Personally I found the 2000s’ Dune sequels and “prequels” by Herbert junior unreadable and prefer the original works, though admittedly by the time of 1981’s “God Emperor of Dune” Herbert senior had certainly lost his artistic way.
I don’t get much time to read works of fiction these days which somewhat pains me since some books have been a more faithful companion through life’s myriad rises and falls than many an erstwhile friend or partner. However reading a vivid opening paragraph like this makes me want to return to my former page-turning ways:
“I knew nothing of the splendour of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbour City, whose lights and colours spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents. I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart; it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.”
So begins Sofia Samatar’s novel “A Stranger in Olondria” and if it reminds one of the writing found in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series or Jack Vance at his most florid that is no bad thing. There is an excellent review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum with a recommendation that has inspired me to make a purchase.
Congratulations to the author Tim Armstrong on his award from the Saltire Society, one of Scotland’s premier cultural organisations, for his Scottish language Sci-Fi novel Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach. From the Scotsman newspaper:
“AN AMERICAN writer has landed one of Scotland’s flagship literary prizes – with the first ever Gaelic science fiction novel.
Tim Armstrong, a former singer in a Gaelic punk rock band, has scooped the Saltire Society’s prestigious “first book” prize with his book “Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach” (On a Glittering Black Sea).
The debut from 46-year-old Armstrong, a trained biologist who is now an academic at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, features two musicians at the centre of the book’s plot.
Unveiled at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow earlier this year, it is billed as a mix of “space-opera adventure, dark cyberpunk, romance and rock-band road-trip drama.”
Armstrong, who was born in New York but brought up in Seattle, moved to Scotland 13 years ago and quickly immersed himself in the music scene in Edinburgh, where he formed a Gaelic punk band “Mill a h-Uile Rud”, which translates as Destroy Everything, while he was studying the language.
Armstrong cites the late Iain M Banks and Frank Herbert as major influences on his writing, which has been championed by the independent Gaelic publishing firm Clar, based in Inverness.
The judging panel for the first new book honour – which was first awarded by the Saltire Society in 1988, said of “Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach”: “Tim Armstrong has brought the counter-culture of his native Seattle to shape the first genuine sci-fi novel in Gaelic.
Armstrong’s novel was one of two Gaelic books on the Saltire Society’s main shortlists for literary honours this year.
One of the contenders for its overall Scottish Book of the Year was Màiri Dhall (Blind Mairi) by Duncan Gillies, who hails from Ness, on the Isle of Lewis.”
Some good news for Irish writers and publishers too in the Irish Times with the announcement of this year’s winners of the Leabhar na Bliana:
“President Michael D Higgins was in attendance to give the top awards to two books from publishers in the west: Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán, which won Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin best book in Irish for adults; and Gráinne Mhaol, which was awarded Gradam Réics Carló for the best publication for young readers.
Connemara-based Cló Iar-Chonnacht have produced a bible of a book in Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán, the big book of songs, with 400 sean-nós songs from the four corners of Ireland brought together under one cover. Collected and edited by Micheál Ó Conghaile, Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg and Peadar Ó Ceannabháin, the book contains the complete text of each song with notes on who composed them and where they originated.
Meanwhile, Mayo’s Cló Mhaigh Eo travelled the high seas themselves in search of Gráinne Mhaol, a full-colour graphic novel which tells the story of the famous pirate queen Granuaile.
The text, written by Brazil-based Gisela Pizzatto and illustrated by Bruno Bull, has been translated into Irish by Donegal native Iarla Mac Aodha Bhuí.”
I thought I’d post this to An Sionnach Fionn since few people will have heard of it let alone seen it outside of its home country. In 1993 the television and radio network Yle, Finland’s public service broadcaster, produced a mini-series loosely based upon a theatre version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” called Hobitit (literally “The Hobbits”). Shown in 30-minute episodes over nine weeks on the channel Yle TV1 the series featured actors shot on studio sets with some questionable costumes and make-up choices not to mention some very early TV video effects (the worse effects of all!). However it is well-regarded by many Finnish fans of Tolkien and Jounin Ensio has posted the entire series to YouTube with the addition of English subtitles:
2. Tie (Road)
3. Vanha metsä (Old Forest)
4. Pomppiva poni (Prancing Pony)
5. Konkari (Strider)
8. Tuomiovuori (Mount Doom)
9. Vapautus (Liberation)
Chris Achilléos is a Cypriot-born British artist who came to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s with illustrations for a large number of books and magazines in the Fantasy and Sword ‘n’ Sorcery genres. Instantly recognisable for his exquisitely rendered female figures, invariably beautiful, frequently belligerent, he became widely known amongst fans through several best-selling art-collections that remain popular to the present day. His obvious delight in painting muscular, female warriors who stared defiantly from the covers of countless publications contrasted at the time with the willowy, weak-limbed princesses favoured by many of his contemporaries. Aside from the stunning and much-loved “Elven Warrior”, a 1983 wrap-around jacket for Michael Moorcock’s seminal high fantasy work “Elric at the End of Time”, his most famous artistic production is “Raven, Swordmistress of Chaos” drawn for the cover of a 1978 book of the same name by Richard Kirk (the shared nom de plume of the authors Robert Holdstock and Angus Wells). However in this particular case the fame came incidentally through the Irish-British musician Kate Bush who along with the designer Pamela Keat chose the illustration as a source of inspiration for the costume she wore in the music video of her 1980 hit “Babooshka”.
For a gallery of more magnificent artworks by Chris Achilléos please visit here.
The name of Frank Frazetta will conjure up for many some of the most luscious and artistically accomplished Fantasy art to have been produced over the last 60 years. From the 1950s to the early ‘90s the American artist established his fame with a host of covers for books, magazines and comics not to mention music albums and movie posters. Working first in pen and ink and then blossoming through the traditional medium of oil paints he defined the look and feel of High Fantasy or fantasy-tinged Sci-Fi art for an entire generation of fans and fellow artists, spawning numerous imitators. His exquisitely rendered images for such classic series as Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom sequence remain seminal examples of the genre. However for many his most iconic work is the 1973 painting “Death Dealer”, a mysterious warrior figure which took on a life of its own.
For more on the works of Frazetta the website “frankfrazetta.org” provides a categorised list of well-stocked galleries while “americanartarchives.com” provides a rather shorter number of images (including this favourite of mine – for obvious reasons).
For lovers of science-fiction and fantasy book art from the 1970s and ’80s the name of Bruce Pennington looms large. He is indelibly associated with some of the greatest writers of the era, his baroque images gracing the covers of such diverse publications as Frank Herbert’s “Dune” or Harry Harrison’s “ Stainless Steel Rat”. However for many his most accomplished professional creation is the atmospheric jacket illustration he produced for the first hardback edition of Gene Wolfe’s 1980 novel “The Shadow of the Torturer”. Frequently copied, rarely matched, it remains a textbook example of book art, technically perfect in almost every respect. Though collections of his work are now long out of print they are certainly deserving of a new compendium. There are more Pennington book covers here.
The 2013 issue of Tolkien Studies, an academic journal dedicated to the works of the English Fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, includes a few references to An Sionnach Fionn and the discussion we had with Michael Everson, the publisher of An Hobad or the Irish language version of The Hobbit. Check it out on the “Book Reviews” section in Voume X, pages 199-213 (thanks to the ever eagle-eyed Méabh in Nua-Eabhrac for the tip).
I’ve always been interested in clandestine military, political or religious groups, be they revolutionary movements, secret societies or arcane cults. Growing up in Ireland one is imbued in a culture where such organisations are integral to the social history of the nation, at least from the 18th century onwards (and arguably much earlier if one were to reach back to the era of the promiscuously exuberant Fianna of Medieval Ireland and Scotland). I was raised in a country where the Buachaillí Bána and the Irish Republican Brotherhood were part and parcel of the education syllabus and the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys part and parcel of the nightly news. How could one escape a fascination for the esoteric in such a milieu?
Even the more outrageous cults hold an interest for me, especially the practitioners of early 1900s “magick”. The kinks in human psychology that led the likes of W.B. Yeats to fall for the allure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or allowed Aleister Crowley to get away with his deviant shenanigans are intriguing. When I was younger I used to read the Fortean Times for fun and I still recommend it, especially when it’s at its most humorously cynical. I suppose that is why I am also prone to the literary and artistic genres of Fantasy and Science-Fiction (though the former also owes an awful lot to growing up with the tales of the Aos Sí – as indeed does J.R.R. Tolkien). One of my favourite Science-Fiction books is Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune and there is plenty there to wet one’s cultic appetite, from the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen. Herbert wasn’t the first author to posit the society of the “witches” but he was certainly one of the more imaginative and convincing (I’ll diplomatically gloss over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, unashamed literary jackdaw that he was – and I won’t mention Terry Brooks!).
All of which rambling serves as an introduction to this article by Jeff Sharlet on the secularist website Killing the Buddha investigating a highly secretive Christian-based society in the United States known simply as the Fellowship. If you have any interest in religion, cults and the power of the Evangelical Right in regions of the US I highly recommend a read.
Another entry in the Cultus Obscuram and this time it is Wes Craven’s TV show “Nightmare Café“, a short-lived supernatural drama from the early 1990s played mainly for dark laughs. At the time the two lead actors, Jack Coleman and Lindsay Frost, were minor US television celebs though the headline billing went to co-star and Craven alumni Robert Englund. Yes, Freddy Krueger himself (not to mention that annoyingly sappy alien from the original incarnation of “V” or virtually every US horror convention since 1984). Each episode was given a sort of redemption of the week theme, like a feel-good “Twilight Zone”, but there is little of interest beyond that. The dialogue is so-so, the acting mixed (male lead Jack Coleman is particularity poor though he went on to bigger and better things as the character Noah Bennet in the 2000′s hit “Heroes“) and after a viewing one can understand why the whole thing lasted for just six episodes before being cancelled. Still, some people like the fairly mild black humour and the interaction between the three lead stars, Lindsay Frost is something of a Fanboy favourite (on that I’d tend to agree), and it could be argued that it has stood the test of time better than many of its contemporaries.
In the oft-played Geek game of “Cultus Obscuram” I’ve yet to be beaten, whether it is in the arena of movies, TV programmes, books or comics. Undoubtedly my winning hand when it comes to contesting a knowledge of cult films is the truly obscure 1981 George A. Romero effort “Knightriders” (note the plural) notable for its leading and only star, a young and frequently stripped-to-the-waste Ed Harris, and the acting appearances of Horror author Stephen King and his wife Tabitha (the former sporting some rather odd-looking facial hair). Hailing from the era when Home VHS was starting to drive the growth of the newish phenomenon of Fandom, the story itself is an overly self-referential Arthurian tale in modern dress, with motorbikes for horses and misfits for knights. This is delivered via the medium of the most inanimate acting and bum-squeezingly awful dialogue you are likely to see outside of a fan-made Star Wars movie.
However its very awfulness does lend it a quaint charm of its own, the portentous mystical musings are fun (and quotable), you can play spot the 1980s’ B-movie actor or actress, and some fans actually see it as a sort of template for life. Which is the very definition of a cult film.
Find your inner adolescent Geek and enjoy.
Because there is far too little Steampunk in Ireland, here are some links:
Talking to a friend a few days ago who is a sean scoil Steampunker I found him frustrated by the way the movement in Ireland is subsumed into the cod-Victoriana of the Pax Britannica, even by Irish adherences, with no distinctive identity of its own. The conversation actually came about as part of a discussion relating to the Fenian fáinne Chladaigh and other 19th century Irish Republican memorabilia. Recently he has moved towards the more welcoming environs of the Belle Époque and his Continental peers and it easy to see why. I’ve written a few unpublished stories in the Steampunk genre myself, using the struggle of the Fenian movement against the British colonial powers in the mid to late 1800s as the background with one Séamas Ó Muircheartaigh as the hero (better known to some as Professor James Moriarty).
So is there a distinctly Irish Steampunk aesthetic? I believe there is – or at least there could be. And what of a name as Gaeilge? The term Gaelpunc is probably another example of Béarlachas (not to mention that some might understandably take it as a reference to Gaelic/Celtic Punk). It would probably be right up there with other poor Gaelicisations like “Fantaisíocht“. Ugh!
So, any suggestions?
UPDATE: So this post is my second mention in a year on the satirical hipster webzine Broadsheet.ie. They will probably hate me for describing them as hipsters, but honestly is there anything more hipsterish than sarcasm? I of course strongly deny being a hipster myself. I’m not sure about the “Gaelster” accusations though (apparently speaking Irish is now considered the very definition of “hipster” in Ireland!). It went under the headline “Fenian Steampunk” which to be honest I sorta like (though that might not have been the intention). There was actually a large market in “Fenian literature” in the late 1800s and early 1900s that has been all but forgotten now. Several authors made a living from it, as did a number of illustrators. There was even some Fenian “scientific romanticism” or Science-Fiction added to the mix (e.g. “A Modern Daedalus” by Tom Greer, 1885). So we certainly have some precedents on our side
UPDATE TWO: It seems I have upset
Portadown Belfast journo Newt Emerson. Oh dear. And when I regularly post articles surely more offensive to Status Quo and Unionist sensibilities than this entirely innocuous one? Its a funny old world. But at least he was kind enough to link to this piece and so help to surge today’s number of visitors. Which was nice…