Arthurian aliens in A Message From Mars. Photo courtesy of BFI Images
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Beware air pirates, be nice to Martians: lessons from the dawn of British sci-fi

Critics Notes by Mark Lawson.

In 1989, Martin Amis published a novel, London Fields, set ten years in the future in a world on the brink of a nuclear war. But the Berlin Wall fell as the book appeared, lessening the terror of millennium Armageddon, while another aspect of Amis’s 1999 – the restriction of mobile phones to a small super-cadre – also suggested an anti-Cassandra. While all art gambles on being overtaken by time, science fiction is most likely to lose the bet. Yet there is a fascination in predictive stories that have become historical period pieces, such as the two futuristic movies, more than a century old, screening in the BFI Southbank’s “The Birth of British Sci-Fi” event this month: Pirates of 1920 by David Aylott and A E Coleby, released nine years before its title date, and Wallett Waller’s A Message from Mars (1913).

Although, in the term “science fiction”, the second word qualifies the first, it’s tempting to tot up the success rate of guesses and Pirates of 1920 scores well. The silent, black-and-white short
imagines “air pirates” who use balloon-driven vessels to bomb ships, with the lofty brigands then sliding down ropes to take hostages. Within three years of the release date, there would be a world war in which the Germans used airships against ships, although this prophecy was not entirely the film-makers’ – H G Wells, the begetter of so much in this genre, had published a novel, The War in the Air, in 1908, anticipating the elevation of the battlefield.

The movie did show its own prescience, though with a longer perspective. The attackers from the earth’s atmosphere are a kind of hijacker and, in this sense, the film foresees a tactic of terrorists between the 1960s and, with a mass-suicidal-homicidal twist, 9/11. Modern viewers may also reflect that, with tighter aviation security in the 21st century, sea piracy and hostage-taking were revived as weapons of terror. The scenes in which the invaders threaten the captain eerily resemble those in a movie released more than a century later, Captain Phillips, with the exception that, whereas Paul Greengrass’s camera rarely stops moving, Aylott’s and Coleby’s hardly starts.

More substantial, at about an hour, A Message from Mars has also drawn on Wells, most obviously his 1897 Martian drama The War of the Worlds, although oddly combining that fantastical line with the social comedy of his earthbound books such as Kipps. Apart from a prologue and a coda set on Mars, where aliens dressed like Arthurian knights scrutinise events on earth through a goldfish bowl, the film takes place almost entirely in Edwardian London, where a Martian, having somehow broken the etiquette of the red planet, has been despatched to redeem himself by persuading Horace, an obnoxious, selfish boor, to be nicer to people.

In this element of an extraterrestrial on a mission of redemption, it combines the tenets of sci-fi and Christianity in an early example of a genre that would later include Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?; Chris de Burgh’s song “A Spaceman Came Travelling”; Steven Spielberg’s ET; L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology; and, according to recent reports, some modern school nativity plays in which aliens and angels are apparently largely interchangeable.

Though few scientists now believe that, if life exists on Mars, it will wear chain mail, capes and veils and be prone to camp hand gestures, A Message from Mars proves – as does Pirates of 1920 – that crystal-ball fiction can still be worth watching once it’s a dot in the rear-view mirror. Both films will be shown at the BFI, as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, on 7 December with a live piano accompaniment, and A Message from Mars will be available to stream from 12 December on the BFI Player and BBC Arts Online.

Curators’ eggs

In most sports, the 30th birthday is a sign that the best years are over. Some have suggested that the same measure might apply to the Turner Prize. Many of the earlier winners – Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George – and even one runner-up, Tracey Emin, have a name or an artwork known even to those with little interest in art. But recent recipients – Susan Philipsz, Martin Boyce – are more of what you might call curators’ eggs, their impact contained within gallery walls.

This is again the case with the 2014 winner, Duncan Campbell. The Turner’s high profile was created by media debate; it helped to have an image (Hirst’s shark, Gormley’s Angel of the North) that was easily reducible to headlines. Campbell’s winning entry is a 54-minute film reworking a 1950s French documentary, with sequences co-created with the choreographer Michael Clark. Few visitors to the Tate Britain exhibition (until 4 January 2015) can be expected to watch it in full.

Like Hollywood, the Turner favoured showbiz-savvy creators with a grabby pitch but struggles to get recognition for art-house films. Channel 4’s live coverage suffered from sound problems but even if it gets the microphones right next year, the Turner is having trouble being heard. There’s no obligation on artists to become popular but, having gone from a period in which they did to one in which they don’t, the trophy named after Mike Leigh’s latest protagonist is in a difficult transition. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.