Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Function and Use

Shortly before my parents married, while my father worked in a chemical laboratory, he brought home from work a crate used to hold bottles of sulphuric acid. Over the next thirty five years he has used this crate as a stool on which to stand whilst performing jobs around the house, most notably in the hanging of wallpaper.

I have known this item throughout my life not as a crate, but as a stool. Recently upon looking at the object in its typical orientation, i.e. as it was intended to be used, I have struggled to see it as a crate - instead it will always be my fathers stool stood on it’s head, upside-down.

Early this year my mother returned from work with a  new stool. She had asked a technician friend to make a new stool based on the dimensions of my fathers 35 year old one. While retaining many of the characteristics of the old object, this item is now most definitely a stool. Constructed from MDF sheets, the new stool is noticeably much heavier, requiring two hands to lift (the earlier crate, made from thin panels of wood required only one) yet is also much more stable, a design alteration which makes it much more suitable for its function, particularly in the hanging of wallpaper.

Perversely, my father has not yet used the new stool, instead preferring his old, rickety and quite dangerous crate to do the wallpapering. I imagine he feels, as I do, an attachment to the age and character of this crate, which performs its adapted function in an inappropriate manner when compared to the new stool.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Uncanny in Science Fiction

Quatermass and the Pit
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)
The relationship between science fiction and the supernatural provides the basis of Quatermass and the Pit, the 1959 TV series that is one of scriptwriter Nigel Kneale's best-known works. The plot deals with the origins of the human conception of evil and society's creation of the 'horned devil' as the embodiment of that evil. Throughout the story, instances of what can be termed the 'uncanny' are revealed to be simply knowledge hitherto unknown to human understanding.

The definition of the uncanny as that which is 'weird' or 'beyond what is normal' (OED), applies to the story's premise. Quatermass and the Pit begins with the discovery of strange skeletal remains during the construction of a London Underground station. The skeletons are at first assumed to be evidence of the missing link in human evolution, but the further discovery of a large cylindrical object arouses suspicions of an unexploded WWII bomb. However, this theory is soon disregarded once it is found the object is not made of any metal known to man. Kneale shrouds the excavation in a layer of urban folklore: the station is being developed at a place named 'Hobbs Lane', 'hob' being another name for the devil, while the scientist Quatermass's investigations reveal that many of the houses in the area have been empty for years. There is also a long history of ghost sightings, poltergiest activity, and rioting, all connected to disturbances of the ground. 

The use of the pentagram, found inside what is revealed to be a spaceship, further develops this link between the uncanny and the unknown: the human association of the pentagram with evil is ultimately revealed to be a race memory, implanted by the dying Martian race at the beginning of man's evolution - the pentagram being a Martian symbol. The physical appearance of the Martians, after the discovery of some of their remains within the spaceship, shows them to be an insect-like race, complete with horns, thus giving rise to the notion of the horned devil as a figure of evil and fear. Indeed, it is the apparent sighting of such creatures that gave rise to the naming of the area as Hobbs Lane. The revelation that these sightings are the result of genetic intervention in human evolution is ultimately shown to be the cause of the supernatural phenomena, and this accounts for certain humans responding to the psychic power remnant in the spaceship.

The mass psychosis that follows from the excavation is eventually defeated by making a connection between folklore and science: the knowledge that demons have an aversion to iron prompts the protagonists to assume that the way to defeat the mass of energy consuming the populace, the nucleus of which is a giant image of a horned Martian, is to throw an iron chain into the image, thus dispersing the energy into the earth. Consequently, the energy ceases to consume the population. 

Quatermass and the Pit bridges the gap between science fiction and the uncanny by seeking to rationalise the unknown and give a face to nameless fears. In so doing, Kneale seems to be arguing that it is only by facing what is in the 'pit' of our collective fears that we can begin to reason with and overcome that which we regard as uncanny.

Monday, 14 January 2013

A Vision of Future Leeds from 1900

Leeds Beatified is the intriguing title of a publication from the Yorkshire Collection in Special Collections (University of Leeds). I discovered the catalogue entry purely by chance after searching for books about H.G. Wells, since the subtitle reads, ‘with apologies to G.H. Wells [sic] for the use of his time machine’. The anonymous author of the book is named only as ‘a disciple’, which, along with the title, carries the suggestion of the writer being somehow connected with the Church. Alternatively, this could perhaps be a disciple of Wells, who was latterly very critical of the Catholic Church and whose general views on religion were ambivalent. The tone of what follows certainly aligns itself more with developments in science than religion, but the beatification of Leeds (initially misread by me as ‘beautified’) is nevertheless an interesting idea.

So what were the author’s hopes for Leeds, a year into the 20th Century? Since we’re also at the start of a new year, this struck me as an appropriate topic. However, in the Leeds of the story, our first-person narrator has the benefit of a time machine so (after crossing the familiar territory of Headingley Lane and Woodhouse Moore), he very quickly finds himself transported to the year 1930. As one might expect, developments in Leeds are not so extreme at first. Perhaps the most notable event is the inauguration of decimal coinage. Anxious to know more of the future, our narrator hurries on to 1951, arriving in Roundhay at the height of Midsummer. In search of information, he ventures to the offices of the Leeds Mercury (in fact, the real Leeds Mercury had merged with the Yorkshire Post by 1939) to find out what’s been happening in Leeds for the last half century. By this point, the arcades are lit with electricity, and the newspaper helpfully has its own reading room and a librarian to point out issues of interest. It’s from the paper we learn that, in 1912 Manchester and Liverpool had broken away from the Victoria University and left the Yorkshire College derelict. Subsequently the University of Yorkshire was opened. The founding of the University of Leeds actually took place in 1904 so the author’s projection that the counties (or cities) would be interested in forming their own Universities isn’t completely wide of the mark. However, some of the other predictions are less accurate, albeit amusing, and in a few cases possibly wishful thinking. These include:

• A book on Etherspheres (?) is published (by a man from Leeds), demonstrating that the ultimate atoms, must necessarily be 12-sided figures.

• All the back-to-back houses collapse after an earthquake in 1938, triggered by Mt. Vesuvius.

• Old factory chimneys are pulled down and air pollution laws passed sometime after 1902. Although ventilating towers are still needed, any designs require the approval of the Art Committee of the Council.

The most interesting events occur when our traveller reaches the year 1990, arriving in Sheffield to what is the most overtly science fictional scenario in the story. His discovery of the mysterious School of Musical Fragrance is followed by the revelation that the offices of the Yorkshire Post and the Leeds Mercury have been shut down. He finds out from the local ‘boots’ that from 1960 the circulation of newspapers gradually ceased throughout the country, to be replaced by telegraph machines, furnished in every house, on which all news is printed continuously day and night.

This early notion of a system which is very like the Internet is among the most exciting and plausible of the author’s predictions. But the mystery still remains as to who he or she is. The fact that all the events take place in and around Leeds would suggest a local resident. Indeed, just as the traveller begins to read of other historical world events, he realises he must return to 1900 and is ‘constrained to be content with Yorkshire’. So, taking full advantage of this slightly awkward narrative device, he returns home and leaves us guessing as to the state of the world beyond Leeds.