Saturday, July 25, 2015

For the Love of Flammarion

Flammarion in his observatory in Juvisy.

The scientist, astronomer, spiritualist, and psychic researcher Camille Flammarion, a contemporary of Jules Verne, came of age in mid-nineteenth century France at a time when young men quickened to the new life that technology and science offered, and steam-age France was a center of technical expertise and romantic thought. Flammarion would eventually become a key figure in encouraging Mars mania, but throughout his life he spread enthusiasm for astronomy, education, and imagination.
Born in rural France in 1842, at age five he became enamored of astronomy after witnessing an eclipse of the sun—his fascination intensified at eleven when he carefully tracked the movement of a comet. A local priest helped his early education, but after the family lost their land, Flammarion became an apprentice to an engraver in Paris—continuing his studies in night school. A physician treating him for exhaustion discovered the teenager’s lengthy manuscript, Cosmogonie Universelle, was impressed, and with his recommendation, Flammarion, at age sixteen became a “pupil astronomer” at the Paris observatory. His career as an astronomer, meteorologist, popular author, and cosmic visionary ensued.

At age twenty Flammarion jumped into a centuries-old debate and published The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds (1862) that made a case for life on different planets and even speculated what forms such life might take. His position was based on the argument from design—that is, God created planets for a purpose, and the obvious purpose was to harbor lifeever since Copernicus established the earth was not the center of the universe, this argument had appealed to leading philosophers.

Flammarion’s notions of extraterrestrial life, however, which included species of sentient plants, were more sophisticated than the usual assumption that all inhabitants of space would be virtually identical to human beings. In this and later books he endowed his extraterrestrials with the ability to sense in infrared or ultraviolet, and gave them spectroscopic abilities (to analyze chemicals), and an “electric” sense. Flammarion’s further catalog of intelligent species—which could be from a 1940s science fiction novel—included the plant-like, star-fish footed men of Theta Orionis, and the floating beings of Delta Andromedae who have no need to eat, but must frantically breathe nutrients from their planet’s dense atmosphere; all were adapted uniquely to unique worlds. Flammerion’s book was wildly popular; it went through thirty-three editions by 1880 and remained in print until 1921.

By age twenty-three, while continuing to work in observatories, Flammarion, an avid balloonist, had become president of the French Aerostatic Society. He made numerous ascensions while conducting meteorological experiments. These ballooning outings included his honeymoon, a flight in 1874 with his new wife Sylvie Petiaux-Hugo Flammarion (a grand-niece of Victor Hugo), and culminated in a work about the earth’s atmosphere.

From Flammarion's L'Atmosphere.

Flammarion was also intensely interested in the field of psychic research and wrote a book about the afterlife, relying on the pen-name Hermès. He alternated books on popular astronomy with books on psychic research as well as fiction that fused both realms. In 1877 Flammarion published his Catalog of Double Stars that became a critical tool for astronomers, and followed this with a lavishly illustrated book called Popular Astronomy (1880)—which argued there was likely life not only on Mars but also the Moon.  

 In 1877, Flammarion founded the French Society of Astronomy and in 1882 the magazine L’Astronomie. He also organized France’s first observatory open to the public. Central to the science of astronomy in the late nineteenth century, he was forgiven his outsized speculations.

Flammarion’s cosmology—which sought to fuse the physical and spiritual universes, offered a view in which the planets of this solar system and other star systems might be “heavens” or new Earths that humans went to after death where they were reincarnated. He offered this vision in Lumen (1872), and later in Uranie (1891), in which the muse of astronomy takes Flammarion on a tour of the universe, and Flammarion recounts meeting on Mars a friend who had died young in a ballooning accident only to be reborn on the Red Planet.  He also proposed that by traveling at a speed faster than that of light, one could move backwards in time, catching up with old light rays and so witness earlier events.

In Flammarion's Omega: The Last Days of the World (1894), scientists gather in 25th century Paris (this, even though the world's capital has become Chicago), amid airships and communiques from (friendly) Martians, to discuss the likely end of the world as a comet approaches the earth. While it misses, wreaking only mild havoc, the narrator continues to explore scenarios for the future evolution of humanity and eventual death of the planet.  

With his ballooning adventures, séances, impassioned writing, public lectures, ample energy, large furrowed brow, and handsome looks, Flammarion gained wealthy admirers.  A young and consumptive French countess, obsessed with Flammarion, had a picture of him tattooed on her skin, and ordered her physician to send Flammarion this portion of her skin after her death so that with it he could bind a volume of one of his books. He duly (hesitantly, gladly?) agreed and used it to bind a copy of Terres du Ciel in 1882. In 1882, another admirer gave Flammarion a mansion that he converted into an observatory in Juvisy-sur-Orge to the southeast of Paris. It was inaugurated in 1887 with the Emperor of Brazil in attendance.

 It wasn’t until after the opening of his own observatory that Flammarion fixed his interest on Mars. Flammarion’s La Planete Mars (1892) marshaled all the available knowledge about Mars, including the planet’s two moons, the waxing and waning of the planet’s polar ice caps, the seasonal color changes that suggested vegetation covered some of the planet’s surface (an idea that originated with Flammarion and maintained credence well into the twentieth century), its length of day (24 hours, 37 minutes) that closely paralleled that of the Earth, and the probably existence of Martian canals. Flammarion affirmed that Mars included “streams” and “seas,” but suggested that its age, greater than that of the Earth, explained its relative lack of water and great deserts. 

 While Flammarion could only confirm one of the numerous canals that the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, infamously, had mapped in 1877, Flammarion believed this indicated some engineering on the part of a sentient species on the planet. As he wrote, "the actual habitation of Mars by a race superior to our own is in our opinion very probable.” The wealthy Boston dilettante Percival Lowell, fascinated with Flammarion’s book, left his study of trances in Japan to open his own observatory in Arizona to establish the reality of life on Mars. 

Lowell relished a good argument. With data he supplied, the debate over the canals of Mars raged on and the "dying planet" became a staple of science fiction, spurring H.G. Wells's Martian octopii to invade the Earth and start the War of the Worlds (1898), while in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Under the Moon of Mars (1911)renamed A Princess of Mars, U.S. Civil War veteran John Carter bounds around Mars's quasi-orientalist cities, located along the canals, using super powers to gain prominence among its inhabitants and woo their princess. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Interview with Doctor N. about The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey

Hello Space Cadets,
Please listen to the in-depth RADIO INTERVIEW taped yesterday (September 16, 2014) on the Jefferson Exchange, Jefferson Public Radio, with me about the life and times of science fiction editor/paranormal impresario Ray Palmer. This 40-minute interview celebrates the paperback release of my book, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey.  Thanks to interviewer Geoffrey Riley, for some great questions. 
Doctor N

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Today's Exhibit at Vanity Fair Online: "What Happens When Society Decides That Nerds Are Dangerous?"

In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman plays an ineffectual intellectual, a mathematician, indeed, a nerd, who moves with his alluring wife to her hometown, in England. Local rowdies continually harass them, until Hoffman’s character executes a violent revenge.

The words “nerd” and “violent” do not usually go hand in hand, but the harmlessness of nerds is hardly a settled formula. 

[To read full article please visit: Vanity Fair online.]

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Man from Mars" is 2014 Locus Award Finalist

I'm pleased to announce that my book, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013) has been named a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Award in nonfiction. You can find some great books on the list of finalists. My book on Ray Palmer, an overlooked editor from early SF who was at the helm of Amazing Stories from 1938 until 1949, gets to take a place close to books about Margaret Brundage (the Weird Tales cover artist who enjoyed envisioning damsels in peril) and another stellar SF&F artist Hannes Bok, one of Ray Palmer's pals. Thanks to all who participated in the voting! 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Good Cop, Bad Cop

I dislike the frequent ironic use of the word “porn” when referring to other mediums; for example “food porn” or “home toiletries porn.” And yet, I’m guilty, of late, of becoming addicted to “cop porn.” More specifically the Michael Connelly novels that feature LAPD detective, Harry Bosch, aka Hieronymous Bosch. I have a prejudice against paperbacks from the 1990s that come with shiny covers, and dismiss most popular police procedural books as likely the work of a hack. Connelly, however, who began writing the Bosch books in 1992, and has not yet ended the series, has won me over. I’ve been gobbling up his books, one after another, with titles such as The Drop, Trunk Music, The Concrete Blonde, The Closers, The Last Coyote and Black Ice. He’s the best L.A. crime novelist since Raymond Chandler. You’ll notice I’m avoiding the usual champion, James Ellroy, whose writing, however “gritty” and “incandescent” in its energy, is overwrought and self-congratulatory.  
Connelly’s books aren’t perfect. The prose is not particularly lyrical. (I suspect Connelly is not as popular in France as was David Goodis.) The plots are overly-dramatic, and Bosch, on occasion, losing his understated cool, revels in his own macho doings. Connelly offers up too many books that involve serial killers. And his hero, Bosch, also sometimes is unsympathetic. Yet he is just about perfect as the reincarnation of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s private eye.  Like Marlowe he loves his sordid city, Los Angeles. He screws up and bends the rules. He nevertheless has a “code” and the respect of others. He does not “get the girl” or, at least, not for long. He is, as Pee Wee Herman once memorably said, “A loner, Dottie.” And while Chandler’s novels were full of racist and homophobic allusions, Bosch, as is appropriate to our times, is culturally aware, and somewhat politically correct. Bosch works with African-American partners, is not judgmental about homosexuality, and has sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. “Everyone counts, or no one counts,” is his repeated mantra. He, also, though, can be brutal. Willing to trick and coerce confessions, illegally break and enter, and so on. As the back covers say, Bosch walks a tightrope between heroism and villainy.
It is almost impossible to write a detective novel these days that involves a private investigator. That romance is over. Everyone knows private detectives don’t get the good cases or have the muscle to solve them. So, if you are not going to focus on the criminals, as did Elmore Leonard, then “embedding” your hero or antihero into a police force makes sense. I fear Bosch, after a long career, has no choice but to soon retire, and I only have fifteen more novels (so far Bosch has appeared in twenty-one) to plow through. I ran into the same wall when reading my other favorite police procedural series, Henning Mankell’s books about Kurt Wallander. Perhaps an even greater creation, Wallander is a sullen, forlorn antihero—overwrought in his angst, inner turmoil, and drunkenness, yet a good if plodding detective, capable of insight, and content working in a provincial town. The last of that (seven novel) series ended with Mankell coolly announcing Wallander’s retirement, slow plunge into the darkness of dementia, and death. I’ll be sad to see Bosch go. It’s hard to find a hero these days. 
I believe I’ve discovered a pun hidden in the Bosch series: the full name of his mother, a whore, was MARjorie PHILLIPs LOWE. Coincidence?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Big Hands

 I once saw a blurred black and white photograph of an Amerindian tribal dance, I believe of the Northwest—the dancers, depicting spirits, were dressed in masks and wore big hands, hands that reduced the dancers to puppet size. The big hands represent the enormous reach required to contact the spirits—or was it the great power of those spirits? I can’t say. It’s possible the caption writer made it all up. Maybe for that dance someone came by and said, “Try it with big hands.” “Why? Last week you wanted us to wear false eyelashes.” “I don’t know. Just try.”  It should be obvious—I have big hands on my mind. They have a nightmare aspect. An apocalyptic element. Like the Oscar Mayer weiner mobile, say.
Keep away from this truck, they're up to no good, believe me.

(Why am I always disturbed and disgusted by the Bread and Puppet Theater and their solemn promenades?  Is it their frozen display of virtue? Those puppets definitely have big hands.) Then consider, if you will, the guys on corners holding up foam hands, orange or green, to encourage us, usually, to look at real estate—a whole new subdivision or small crop of townhouses.  Are these guys, perhaps, agents of a hearth goddess? If I went into street advertising and had a choice, I’d prefer waving big hands to that other attention-getter, the gigantic foam sombrero. Imagine, if you will, this scenario: you are a young pop singer in search of a media moment – why not use a foam hand to make lewd gestures in a micro-outfit while singing on an awards show? That’ll grab ‘em. Said pop singer would be on to something. Thanks to their presence in the media’s illusion apparatus, celebrities are granted big hands, but they usually don’t have a clue how to use them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Manifesto 117B, The Starmaker in Shmoo-ville

1. Seek out weird cosmologies, wherever they lurk: a treasured tome of natural philosophy, the small advertisements in comic books, or a worn blue velvet Cutty Sark sack.
2. Reread at least a few panels of 'Lil Abner the daily strip that  intrigued me most of my childhood--and which I far preferred to the overly-subtle Pogo. "He [Al Capp] was a very angry man" -- rough quote from a Capp biography. 

Too many subtexts, not enough time, just enjoy the cereal.
 3. Do something with the etched ribs I bought on a whim at a temple flea market in Kyoto. At least find out if they are genuine Edo-period erotica or just crass imitations of delicate yet crass originals. (I don’t currently have a den in which to bring my guests--male or cigar-smoking new women of the 1920s--pour tumblers of scotch, and say, ‘ah yes, something I picked up whilst in the Orient.’)
4. Uphold my vow never to learn a single magic trick, particularly one involving playing cards or small tongue depressors.
5. Continue to “enjoy my publishing journey” as one children's books agent suggested in a brush-off line.
6. Never purchase a shrunken head—even if Walmart starts to stock them at discount in its ‘weird yet lively accessories’ aisle.
7. Sign daily at least three on-line petitions that are at cross purposes. 
8. Never trouble over ways to conclude an essay involving a list as structuring device.   
9. Someday finish one of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels (not the kids' books, I've read those), and, while I’m at it, one of Olaf Stapledon’s idea heavy yet narrative light essay-novels (I've made it at least halfway through one). It is about time we all learn who the Starmaker is.