“On my desk lies an old magazine. It was published in the 1920s and is a grand size (roughly eight and a quarter inches by eleven and a quarter). They don’t make magazines like that anymore. The magazine is Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.
“The cover portrays a number of gigantic machines with caterpillar tracks. They lumber through a ruinous landscape and are propelling a fiery ball of matter into the sky, where it gives every sign of turning into a new sun. The machines are rust-red – baleful but fun.
“Popular science fiction has always catered to the machine-buffs.
“The alliance man once had with his horse or his dog has now shifted to his machines. Chris Foss’ paintings make us think again about that alliance. They sweep us into a universe where the ‘Ho, Silvers’ and ‘Here, Rovers’ have long faded into silence. Instead, computerized instructions are fed into the controls of hurtling engines n times bigger than the largest shire horse, and considerably more lethal.
“Foss rejoices in this new symbiosis with never a backward look. He is in love with the monstrous, with angular momentum, with inertia-free projectiles and irresistible objects. When you catch sight of a human being in one of his paintings, he is a tiny soft creature, generally in overalls, vulnerable, hurried, among the abrasive landscapes of a technological tomorrow. At least the androids have taken over from him. And you can bet he doesn’t have so much as a pet cat aboard his vacuum-busting vehicle.
“The dramatic charge to be got from setting tiny figures in splendid natural settings is a familiar one. Many painters used it. Brueghel, to take a popular instance, used it many times, always to great effect. Chris Foss does not care much for precedents; in his case, it is more fruitful to mention the name of the American artist Chelsey Bonestell. Bonestell’s astronomical paintings were tremendously popular, especially in the years just before the Apollo mission landed on the Moon. Bonestell gave us a glimpse of what it would be like ‘out there’, on the other planets and satellites of our solar system and beyond, using techniques which exceeded all previous ones in their mathematical accuarcy.
“So convincing were Bonestell’s paintings that Arthur C. Clarke suggested that the time would come – probably next century – when photographers might be sent through the system to find actual views which closely matched Bonestell’s imagining.
“It says nothing against Bonestell and a lot for the march of technology that the amazing advances in astronomy of the last decade have presented us with a new set of concepts. Thanks to the near-miraculous functioning of the Mariner and Pioneer probes, we have a far better understanding of many of the planets of our system, an understanding which makes period pieces out of Bonestell’s paintings of Mercury, Venus and Mars.
“Chris Foss confidently believes that the future belongs to man, despite the constant irruption of alien hardware. He regards his outlook as optimistic. Perhaps bracingly optimistic would be a better term; though there is not much doubt that mankind will triumph in the constant conflicts he conjures up, the accent is decidedly on the constant conflict. That conflict is against man’s three reliable antagonists, the Unknown, Nature and Other Tribes. These three antagonists assume apocalyptic shape and size in Foss’s work. When they merge together in one painting, as often happens in this splendid collection of original artwork, they are a sigh to behold.
“Science fiction’s two most enduring symbols are probably the Spaceship and the City. Foss is a spaceship man. His engines generally engage on the wilds of benighted planet where they can kick up the frozen methane undisturbed. Nevertheless, we talked to each other looking down on the centre of a city – in the revolving restaurant on the top of the Post Office Tower in London. Foss mentioned that he had annihilated both the Tower and Centre Point, another prominent London landmark, in his work. In what is one of my favourite pictures here,a monster craft – which clearly would find the Post Office Tower inadequate as an aerial – belts out of mist and twilight, threatening a scudding ground-vehicle. The hunters of phallic symbols can have their fun here, for machine-buffs are not alone in their enjoyment of Foss’ work.
“As a machine-buff myself, I mentioned the name of Terence Cuneo over lunch. It woke an immediate response. Foss, like me, had been strongly moved by Cuneo’s splendid oils of powerful machines, wreathed in smoke and dust. Cuneo is our foremost machine painter; his posters for the railways – often of steam locomotives working at night – are memorable celebrations of the continuing industrial revolution which is transforming our societies.
“The power crisis may appear to have slowed that revolution; in fact it hastens the search for other power-sources, other materials, other planets to ransack. Processes take a lot of killing. The launching of titanic ships, the cosmic junk-yards, the expeditions to other systems which you see here are all part of that same process.
“Chris Foss’ name has become pre-eminent among SF artists in a very short time. He is at the spearhead of a tremendous burst of creativity in this country which has SF at its loose central point: never before have so many interesting talents been at work in England, Ian Miller, Bruce Pennington, David Pelham and Roger Dean, whose work appears mainly on LP record sleeves, among them – but it is invidious to single out a few names among so much promise.
“Foss spared a genial curse or two for the imitators attracted by his success who came swarming after him. I do not feel he was greatly troubled by them. In any case, he is too good – and in too much of a hurry – for them to catch up.
“He spends a lot of time over each pain ting, which is executed in an expensive variety of oil paint obtainable only in the United States, using brush and air-brush to apply it. His architectural training is useful and helps to account for the solidity of his structures. Nevertheless, he is free of all artistic pose. If he had too much trouble from editors and publishers he would go back to one of his old jobs. His last job, after leaving Cambridge, was driving celebrities around in hired cars.
“I think he should stay with his success, The time may come when they drive him around.”
Text: Brian W. Aldiss, “Introduction”, Science Fiction Art. London: Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1976.
Image: [top] Chris Foss, Second Moonbeast, 1974. [middle] Chesley Bonestell. The Surface of Mercury, 1950.