Ho – Silvers, Here – Rovers

“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.

“A sound-wake freezing into a trail of hallucinatory pearls…”

Dune had to be made.

“But what kind of spaceships to use? Certainly not the degenerate and cold offspring of present day American automobiles and submarines, the very antithesis of art, usually seen in science fiction films, including 2001. No! I wanted magical entities, vibrating vehicles, like fish that swim and have their being in the mythological deeps of the surrounding ocean. The ‘galactic’ ships of North American technocracy are a mouse-gray insult to the divine, therefore delirious, chaos of the universe. I wanted jewels, machine-animals, soul-mechanisms. Sublime as snow crystals, myriad-faceted fly eyes, butterfly pinions. Not giant refrigerators, transistorised and riveted hulks; bloated with imperialism, pillage, arrogance and eunuchoid science.

“I affirm that next to the soul the most beautiful object in the galaxy is a spaceship! We all dreamed of womb-ships, antechambers for rebirth into other dimensions; we dreamed of whore-ships driven by the semen of our passionate ejaculations. The invincible and castrating rocket carrying our vengeance to the icy heart of a treacherous sun; humming-bird ornithopters which fly us to sip the ancient nectar of the dwarf stars giving us the juice of eternity. Yes! But far more than that: angelic splendour! We dreamed of caterpillar-tracked hotrods so vast that their tails would disappear behind the horizon. We saw ourselves enmeshed in these huge masses hurtling a dizzy train of planets from a dark world bound for a galaxy drowned in starry milk. We saw ourselves inside minute ether-dwelling sharks crossing seven thousand universes in one Terrene second, leaving a sound-wake freezing into a trail of hallucinatory pearls. Trains to carry away the whole of humanity; machines greater than suns wandering crazed and rusted, whimpering like dogs seeking a master. And great wings sucking the marrow of comets. And thinking wheels hidden behind meteorites, waiting, camouflaged as metallic rocks, for a drop of life to pass through those lost galactic fringes to slake thirsty tanks with psychic secretions. All this and more I wanted for Dune.

“Then, suddenly, in a bookshop in the pages of an English magazine I found splashed in a thousand colours what I had believed impossible to depict. These spaceships that pleased and moved me were Chris Foss. I covered the studio walls where I was preparing the film with his works. All masterpieces. I hired various sleuths to track him down. You see, in those heady days I had power! I had a multi-million dollar commitment behind me: a commitment that remained unfulfilled. I had it in my power to call upon the best brains of our generation to collaborate on a project that was to give a messiah to the world. Not a human being, but a film. A film that would be our master. Dune had made me its apostle; but I needed others, and one of these was Chris Foss.

“What the hell would this mutant be like? Because he had to be a mutant to draw like that! These were not drawings. They were visions! Would he be some neurotic old man’? A maniac drug addict? Would one be able to talk to him? Then Chris Foss turned up, completely English with his tap-dancer’s shoes, his tight suit as worn by Casanovas in sophisticated dives, with a tooth of quick-gold (I thought it was a diamond), with a yellow shirt of imperial silk, the blinding tie of an aesthetic hit-man, with a child’s smile so penetrating he could turn into a hyena. Yes: Chris Foss was a true angel, a being as real and as unreal as his spaceships. A medieval goldsmith of future eons; a being who carried his drawings with the same ultra-maternal care as the Kaitanese Kangarooboos carry the drawing born of their self-insemination.”

“Chris arrived very nervous and mistrustful. He was afraid that we would impose a style on him, that we would limit him. But when he realized that he had total freedom he fell into ecstasy. He bought himself a special glass drawing- board which made his paper transparent, so that the lines seemed to float in space. And he plunged into his work for hours, millennia. He would go for long walks in the small hours to a little plaza where lepidopterous creatures with human skin and prehistoric perfumes would entwine their pink tongues with long, transparent hairs around his British member. I also saw him slake his physicoemotointellectuometaphysical thirst with alcohols seeping like tears from eyes slashed open in the aggressive air of a hotel corridor.”

“And thus were born the mimetic spaceships, the leather and dagger-studded spaceships, and dagger-studded machines of the fascist Sardokker, the pachydermatous geometry of Emperor Padishah’s golden planet; the delicate butterfly plane and so many other incredible machines, which I am sure will one day populate interstellar space. Chris Foss knows that today’s technical reality is tomorrow’s falsehood. Chris also knows that today’s pure art is tomorrow’s reality. Man will conquer space mounted on Foss’ spaceships, never in NASA’s concentration camps of the spirit. I was grateful for the existence of my friend. He brought the colours of the apocalypse to the sad machines of a future without imagination.”

Text: Alejandro Jodorowsky, “Jodorowsky on Foss”, 21st Century Foss. [Haarlem: Dragon’s Dream], 1979. 14-15.