Thursday, 30 August 2007

... and roads not taken

The Internet Archive, despite its usefulness, seems to be an under-used resource. For the curious or sneaky, its Wayback Machine is a handy tool for finding past versions of defunct or revised websites. But there's also a large collection of open source material, including out-of-copyright texts (which I've cited here before) and even feature films.
      Alexander Korda's Things to Come is one example. I admit I've never particularly liked it - the screenplay, written by HG Wells himself, is very preachy and stylised - but visually it's remarkable for its time. The source book, The Shape of Things to Come, is also online: not a novel but an imaginary historical account from the early 1900s to 2100. It's presented through the device of a diplomat using the then-fashionable techniques of JW Dunne - see An Experiment with Time - dreaming a history book written in 2106.
      The Shape of Things to Come is well worth reading, in parts (I personally find Well's idealistic final section about world recovery through a rational world state tedious and unlikely). But it's remarkable astute in its prediction for the 1930s; Wells was very nearly right in his date for the onset of WW2, and completely right in recognition of the importance of aerial warfare and the submarine missile deterrent.
      He is, however, very influenced by World War 1. His WW2 starts with a similar pivotal killing to that of Archduke Ferdinand: in this case a young Nazi shoots a Jewish rail passenger on the mistaken assumption that the latter is making faces at him (he is really struggling with stuck false teeth). Wells imagines gas warfare, important in WW1, as the most destructive aspect of WW2 (something that, partly through the Geneva Protocol and partly through fortunate circumstance 1, didn't happen in reality).
      Wells' WW2 continues until 1949, followed by a pandemic fever (akin to the post-WW1 influenza pandemic) peaking in the mid-1950s. The resultant Balkanized Europe and an America caught up in ritualistic denial of its collapse, described in the Europe in 1960 and America in Liquidation chapters, are a very dark and modern post-apocalyptic vision, unlike the somewhat idyllic post-civilisation England envisaged by the Victorian pastoralist Richard Jefferies in After London.
The Germans had G-series nerve agents, but didn't use them on the mistaken assumption that the Allies also did.
- Ray


I'm constantly surprised at what Google is doing. If you haven't tried Google Earth, do, especially now that it has Google Sky. Meanwhile, Google Maps continues to increase coverage: Topsham now has high-res throughout. I see also from Google Blogoscoped that Google has begun, for some US locations, to add a Street View option where you can view locations from ground level (more systematically than the Ordnance Survey Geograph project - which is excellent but very much dependent on where the volunteer contributors felt was photogenic; see its Topsham coverage).
      The idea of a ground level photographic map isnn't new: Blogoscoped has an interesting post, Photo-Auto Maps (1907), about a century-old Rand McNally travel guide with images to help drivers recognise important turns. The quoted poster, however, makes a slightly strange assumption that this idea was down to conventional road maps not having yet been developed. Road maps actually long pre-date cars. A few lovely examples: Paterson's British Itinerary, 1785, probably the first pocket-sized road map and gazetteer; the Gough Map, 1306, the oldest surviving road map specifically of Great Britain; and Peutinger's Tabula, aka Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th century copy of a 4th century road map of the Roman Empire.
      Here, at the University of Applied Sciences, Augsburg, is a full scan of the Peutinger map - and here's the British section. In the latter, there are signs of topographical and linguistic garbling: Dorchester isn't east of Southampton. You can identify the locations via the placename index at Thomas G. Ikins' Roman Map of Britain site. - Ray

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Creative alteration

Pardon the absence: busy month, and it's our Town Fayre Week here.

Among those who like books, it's generally sacrilege to cut them up or write on them. It certainly made me wince when I first read of an arts-and-crafts trend in altering books - see Transforming books into objets d'art and Books rebound - but the latter article makes the fair point that many books are trashed by libraries and publishers anyway.
      There are even more honourable exceptions. A thread at the Giornale Nuovo weblog just reminded me of Tom Phillips' remarkable work, A Humument. For this work, which is continually under revision with successive editions, Phillips took William Hurrell Mallock's little known 1892 novel, A Human Document (itself already considerably experimental for its period) and creatively overpainted it, leaving fragments of words and phrases that form a surreal new text.
      The protagonist's surname, for instance, is Toge (obtained when the words "altogether" and "together" appear) and the introductory first page is reduced to "The following sing I a book. / a book of art / of mind and art / that which he hid / reveal I". The official site, contains an introduction, gallery and a number of essays on the project and the original novel. Tom Phillips' website carries a full sets of scans of the first edition in 1970.
      I also encountered at Giornale Nuovo the work of an artist I didn't know about: Brian Dettmer. Like Phillips, Dettmer reworks books, but in three dimensions. Using surgical instriuments, he cuts down through the layers to create intricate carvings revealing words and images at different depths (it recalls the common anecdote about Michelangelo; that he viewed his sculptures as hidden inside the stone, waiting to be cut out). More examples here and here. - Ray