Worldbuilding avant la lettre in Robert A. Heinlein

“The only mainstream writer to whom Heinlein acknowledges a debt is Sinclair Lewis, and it is not for literary style. Lewis laid out extensive backgrounds for his work which did not directly appear in the story. That way he understood how his characters should react in a given situation, since he knew more about them than the reader did. In Heinlein, this ultimately grew beyond the bounds intended by Sinclair Lewis, whose characters performed against a setting with which the reader might be familiar. The Sinclair Lewis method couldn’t work for science fiction unless an entire history of the future was projected: then individual stories and characters in that series could at least be consistent within the framework of that imaginary never-never land.

“In following just this procedure, Robert A. Heinlein inadvertently struck upon the formula that had proved for successful for Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, and, more recently, J. R. R. Tolkien. He created a reasonably consistent dream world and permitted the reader to enter it. Heinlein’s Future History has, of course, a stronger scientific base than Burroughs’s Mars, Baum’s Oz, or Tolkien’s land of the ‘Rings,’ but is fundamentally the same device.”

— Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (New York: Ballantine, 1967). 194.

Of Katniss E and Jennifer L

I’m about 30% of the way through Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and something that jumped out at me in the first volume is even more apparent in the glare of publicity around the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that comes out March 23: the uncanny precision of the saga’s send-up of media culture and celebrity.

What stands out on first encounter with the story of Katniss Everdeen are, of course, other things. There’s the breathless, adrenalized competition for survival represented by the eponymous games themselves — a mashup of pop-culture nightmares familiar from other sources, primarily Battle Royale and Stephen King’s early novels (written as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk and The Running Man. Even earlier pre-texts include William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Nigel Kneale’s BBC one-off Year of the Sex Olympics (1968); but it took The Hunger Games to reconfigure the basic scenario of people-preying-on-other-people-for-a-mass-audience around the subjectivity of a young female protagonist: final girl as must-see TV.

My own attention is captured more by the trilogy’s portrait of its totalitarian state, the nation of Panem, which arises after the U.S. has been hobbled by a vaguely-defined catastrophe. As dystopian futures go, Panem’s mechanisms of tyranny merge the historical forms of domination mapped by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: there are thugs with guns enforcing martial law, but there are also elaborate, interlocked systems of surveillance and broadcast media in which Panem’s subjects live under a constant scrutiny whose public facets are the garish electronic proscenia of show biz.

Hardly surprising, given author Suzanne Collins’s explanation of the story’s origins; like Raymond Williams in the early 1970s, Collins had her brainstorm while randomly channel-surfing. She noticed a disturbing resonance between reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, influences which lent her resulting work the dual immediacies of contemporary political conflict and an entertainment culture of last-person-standing competitions.

It is the latter portions of the trilogy that fascinate me the most, as Katniss is primped, costumed, and styled into a media star and emblem of Panem’s coercive patriotism. The funniest and most biting scenes involve the team of make-up artists and hairstylists who have been assigned the task of making her over; themselves a tattooed and ornamented bunch with rainbow-hued hair, the entourage gives Collins — via Katniss — a chance to comment mordantly on the fixations of fame, often figured through torturous transformations of Katniss’s face and body, making literal John Updike’s characterization of celebrity as “a mask that eats into the face.”

It’s hard not to think of Katniss’s split between public persona and private space — a space that, in the Hunger Games, is implicitly subversive, even treasonous — when looking at this week’s coverage of the movie’s rollout. “Jennifer Lawrence steals the show at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere,” writes Access Hollywood, in gushing tones that could have come straight from the clown-crayoned mouth of Effie Trinket. “Jennifer Lawrence stuns the crowd in a golden Prabal Gurung gown at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere where she chats with Access’ Shaun Robinson about how her life has changed for better and worse since taking on the role of Katniss.”

Jason Mittell wrote recently about “inferred interiority,” that intersubjective artifact of serial storytelling in which the limitations of visual media to present a character’s inner life are compensated for by the viewer’s store of knowledge accumulated through exposure to and study of previous episodes. Reading this effect transmedially and paratextually — not, that is, along the solitary throughline of a single serialized fiction, but along the perpendicular axes of an actor’s larger intertextual existence, along with that of the characters they play — it’s hard not to infer beneath Lawrence’s smiling face the subtle signs of Katniss’s resistance to her own commodification through beautification.

The critical comparisons that unfold from this odd collision of realities range from the similarities between Panem and current political culture (not exactly a huge leap, given the frightening religiosity and hard-line social conservatism of the Republican presidential candidates) to the relentless spectacularization of young women’s bodies in both fictional and actual frameworks — the disciplinary operations of patriarchy marked in the one and unmarked in the other. The artistic merits of the Hunger Games franchise aside (and for the record, I’m enjoying the books and looking forward to the film), it has succeeded, like all good dystopian SF, in collapsing a certain distance between the reassuring rituals of our daily life and the troubling trends that lurk beneath its painted-on smiles.

What All the Foss Is About

Here’s a smart writeup on a new book collecting the artwork of Chris Foss, the distinctive and influential British artist whose paintings have graced the cover of many a science-fiction novel while circulating independently as quanta of outré visualization on their own. Growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of Foss more through the latter channel: glimpses of futurism in the pages of magazines like Omni and Starlog, often accompanying features on computer games (whose simple 8-bit graphics expanded logarithmically in my imagination thanks to their association with Foss’s billowing, rainbowed vistas and sensuously rounded mechanisma) or SF films then in production: Foss was one of the many artists conscripted to visualize Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark Alien.

Among the same cohort was Ron Cobb, who, like Foss and the great but neglected John Harris, had a knack for visualizing structures of indeterminate purpose and scale, suspended against the clouds of alien worlds, the neon gasfields of nebulae, the onyx depths of outer space. Simultaneously conveying gigantic mass — humans merely implied as unobservable specks — and toylike containment within the filmed frame or printed page, the future machines envisioned by Foss and his peers were both fanciful and functional. Or as Simon Gallagher elegantly puts it:

Foss’s work is defined by that jarring oxymoron: his iconic spaceships are almost biological, and certainly monstrous, and yet, unlike anything that came before them, they are intricate in their mechanical realism. They are the convergence of fantasy and precision, and there is a fundamental contradiction within the designs that suggests both a hopeful futurism and an ominous sense of dread in the sheer size and scale of the machine monsters he creates.

The new Foss book joins a growing section of my shelf devoted to SF illustration as a form of production technology, assisting the transmedial flow of content, bridging the gaps between screenplays and feature films, design docs and finished video games, word and image and object.

Ron Cobb: Initial Thoughts

A spontaneous enthusiasm, eruption of unvoiced nerd-love that has been simmering in my soul since I was twelve or thirteen, prompts this quick reflection on Ron Cobb. As an artist, Cobb contributed plentifully to how I understood and visualized the science fiction with which I grew up; as a concept artist specifically his drawings and paintings played a generative role in films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) — movies we now recognize as classics in part because of their rich, world-creating visual design.

To judge from the catalog of his work featured in Colorvision (1981), Cobb’s influence on the production of these films appears to have been both piecemeal and foundational: a handful of his bizarre creatures populate the Mos Eisley cantina, and his designs for Alien were limited to the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, with H. R. Giger’s biomechanics providing the movie’s black and glistening core. But in another way, Cobb’s work reflects an animating spirit of cinematic science fiction in the 1970s, which increasingly in the wake of Star Trek (1966-1969) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) demanded an engineer’s and architect’s eye to lend their futuristic worlds the fascination of function.

I’ve been studying concept artists like Cobb — Brian Froud is a cognate, as are Syd Mead and in a previous age Chesley Bonestell — as part of a broader research project on illustration. I hope to have more to say about this shortly, but for now I will simply note the archeological pleasure of paging through Cobb’s designs (like the one above, “Tug,” an early version of Alien‘s Nostromo) to find, not the final object as recorded on film, but — like the panda’s thumb — an evolutionary step toward it. The special property of cinematic concept art is not just that it exists prior to the film we later come to know, but that it serves as a “draft,” freezing for our later study a dialogue among director, crew, consultants as they move toward consensus. Cobb’s visualization does not just visualize an artifact of production; it is such an artifact, and as such it offers us, alongside the creation of a beloved film, the genesis of our own imaginary.

More on Cobb and the Nostromo here.