Wednesday, 28 July 2010

'Yes' to Catastrophe: Roger Dean, Prog and SF

I saw an excellent BBC documentary on Progressive Rock recently. Titled Prog Rock Britannia, it told the story of that shunned and often hated musical movement, Progressive Rock, forming part of a twosome of docs on British music, Synth Britannia being the other. Both can be found now on YouTube, and I wholeheartedly recommend watching them: Prog Rock Britannia in particular being one of those one-and-a-half hour, well-made pop cultural histories that the Beeb does so well.

So why mention it here? Certainly I won’t be looking here at the way in which Prog took SF as an inspiration for its fantastical concept albums. I don’t know the movement well enough to do that. That’s not to say however, in the loudmouth manner of a critic, I haven’t slighted Progressive Rock before when writing about SF.

I once wrote a piece for the HG Wells Society about the many adaptations of The War of the Worlds. Inevitably, I wrote about the popular album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978). There I made a couple of throwaway comments about the merits of Wayne’s record. I declared that the only compelling elements of the album I could find were Richard Burton’s sonorous voiceover and the pulpy illustrations found on the gatefold sleeve. “Wayne’s Worlds” however, I sniffed, was Prog, and therefore the result of a misguided attempt to self-consciously graft ‘high art’ onto pop— and I didn’t like it.
I got some friendly feedback about the article from one reader who felt that I was too dismissive about Prog. After speaking in heartening tones about my piece, he wrote that he did have one objection. “Some of us feel that there is no barrier between pop and high art”, he argued. I confess I never wrote back to the Society paper to continue the correspondence, or answer his letter to the contrary. This was partly because I wasn’t interested in arguing with someone who had been so encouraging to me, and partly because, of course, I agreed with him. There is no barrier between pop and high art. No, where I disagreed with that reader— and so decided it would be churlish to bicker— was that I felt that I could never find high art in Progressive Rock. In a sense, this post is tackling that thought from another angle. How good was the art of Prog Rock? 

For what Prog Rock Britannia did remind me of was of the contribution of the movement’s artists to the visualization of SF tropes and themes, and especially the contribution of one particular artist, Roger Dean. By happy co-incidence, Dean’s work has itself been thrust once more to prominence with the release of Avatar, which has shamelessly rifled Dean’s imaginative lumber-room. I’d like here to look again at Prog, Dean, and the historical roots of this influential vision of the fantastic worlds of SF. It’s a very partial investigation that I propose: I’m not interested so much in Dean’s later artwork, but in the beginnings of his imaginative output, which coincided with the pomp of Prog. It’s there, I think, that we find most plainly a strand of romantic SF that has reinjected itself, via Cameron’s film, into the mainstream culture of today.  

Prog Rock Britannia took a surprising and creditably serious look at progressive rock.  It’s not over-exaggerating to say that Prog still inspires in many music critics and fans a visceral repulsion. The Prog Rock project was to bring high art virtuosity to a supposedly too-formulaic popular music. Beginning a heroic journey beyond the artistic boundaries of Pop, it made musical ground in the early seventies as an inheritor of self-conscious experimentalism in popular music. Prog produced high-concept albums with symphonic movements, syncopated rhythms and diminished chords. Yet it soon became stale, its crusty take on Pop soon washed away by punk with its aggressively proletarian DIY ethos.

The list of crimes read against Prog’s name are many. Prog was unashamedly elitist, but kitsch: think of Rick Wakeman conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in a cape. It was overblown— E.L.P.’s stainless steel electronic drum kit could collapse stages, weighing in at just over one and a half tons. It was self-consciously mature and ‘credible’: as the young Mike Rutherford of Genesis admitted, “we like audiences that sit down and listen, rather than get drunk and pick up girls”. It was a white, male, middle class rebellion, and a questionable outpost of Science fiction and fantasy to boot— think of all those references to The Lord of the Rings. Finally, it was very, very hairy, but not in a good way. For all these reasons and more, Prog is one of the most scorned pop-musical genres of the past forty years— the hobbit in the woodpile. And yet, watching Prog Rock Britannia, I expected more villains. 

Villains there were, of course. Phil Collins was there, of course, speaking with that self-justifying bitterness that is his one tone— Peter Gabriel, thankfully, was absent. Carl Palmer was perkily annoying, and Mike Rutherford had the morose air of a disappointed headmaster. Pete Sinfield of King Crimson was irritatingly proud of his knuckle-headed elitism: “if it was popular, it was out. It had to complicated,” he boasted. But villainy was very far from the overall effect of Prog Rock Britannia.

For most of the bearded gents on the program had eased into old age with a likeable and even sage air about them. Rick Wakeman was affable, self-effacing. Mont Campbell of Egg even looked like Gandalf. Campbell, as it happened, came out fighting and gave the best defence of Prog heard on the show: “I do think that self-indulgence is a good thing in art, because if you’re trying to please others all the time, you just stick to the same model… nobody hears anything new, so no-one expects anything new”.

Prog’s disregard for its audience was a theme that ran through the documentary, and in the long run that self-imposed isolation and self-indulgence pretty much did for the movement. Yet it did foster an attitude of adventurous modernism that was heard again and again on the program. Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine argued strongly against the Prog stereotype. “I don’t like people to think that we were clever Grammar schooly people who came in and thought we’d do something to pop,” he said: “we were awestruck by pop music”. For all the many sins of Prog, it was an earnest spirit of pop experimentation that shone through in the documentary from many of its aged musicians.

Given this experimental mode, perhaps it should not be surprising that from the very beginning of the documentary— the first act was entitled ‘The Shape of Things to Come’— it was impossible not to be struck by the references to SF and fantasy as important elements of the Progressive Rock aesthetic. Both genres had been important elements of the countercultural imagination in the 60s, and would be a key inspiration for Prog lyrics and visuals: the Progressive rock aesthetic would be, in many ways, an offshoot of the moribund hippie rebellion of the previous generation. 

The documentary picked at this generic knot and the way Prog rejected Bluesy sex, opting for the myths and symbols of SF and fantasy. “We hadn’t experienced much outside education,” Genesis’s Mike Rutherford admitted— “that’s partly why we wrote more about fantasy lyrics”. Bandmate Tony Banks agreed. “Coming from a public school background I was very self-conscious,” he said. “I could never have written [about sex] in those days”. This candour about the public schoolboy’s difficulty in meeting let alone understanding the opposite sex feeds easily enough into a common stereotype about Science Fiction: that it was and remains a genre for nerdy teenage boys, more comfortable with the thrust of rocketry than dancing hips. Yet Wyatt made clear that this was only the experience of a few, more socially isolated Prog rockers: not everyone in the movement was looking to move beyond the lower classes’ dirty songs and dreary.

Science Fiction wasn’t necessarily an imaginary retreat from the opposite sex, but it was one part of the more self-consciously cerebral thrust of Prog. As the narrator of the program declared, “‘My baby done left me’ never did work with complex musical structures. This music didn’t want the blues— it needed fantasy and myth. Cupid meets psyche: not boy meets girl.” Prog favoured the exploration of desire through symbolist narratives, and when not plumbing pagan religions or ancient myths for these stories it was SF and fantasy, those great modern myth-machines, that gave these musicians a lyrical focus. 

It is through the use of SF in the design of the Prog package that the movement can claim to have reinterpreted rather simply retread SF narratives, and the vehicle for this innovation was the album cover and insert, the gatefold sleeve and the giveaway print. Prog Rock Britannia showed flashes of other artists’ work— one of the most arresting being E.L.P.’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, designed by HR Giger in his infamous ‘biomechanical’ style— but focused on the work of Roger Dean, British designer, artist and illustrator. 

Prog Rock’s album covers are routinely cited as one of the movement’s achievements, and Dean’s work is probably exemplary. Prog made much of the interface between its music and the visionary quality of its album illustration. Indeed, the whole idea of the conceptualised album-as-design-package could be said to be a Prog project, from Peter Blake’s design for the Ur-Prog album— Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band— onward. The self-consciously amateur cut-up of punk and the sleek design of subversive eighties pop labels like Factory both owe something to Prog pioneers.

A number of factors mitigate against Dean’s visuals being given credit for such a role in pop culture. First, as we have seen, as an artist working with Prog Rockers like Yes and Asia, his work is deeply unfashionable, and fronts products that relatively few people these days are interested in buying.

Second, Dean works in a similarly unfashionable SF / Fantasy idiom. A thought experiment. You announce at a fashionable party that you really, really like Yes. This is perhaps a slightly dangerous eccentricity, but not, forty years after the fact, a cause of social death. Telling all present, however, that you have a love for SF or fantasy art (particularly those featuring castles and dragons) becomes a little stickier, denoting a fanciful imagination and bad taste to boot. Yet admitting at a fashionable party that you really like Yes and love SF art would be akin to boasting to the room that you clean your teeth with your socks. It just won’t do.

Third, Dean’s medium— the album cover and inlay— is dead. In the early eighties the music video embodied a move from the fixed to the moving image as the central means whereby pop product was shifted to an audience— or, put another way, established a relationship with its audience. From the mid-eighties onward, moreover, the smaller CD format neutered much of the impact of the gatefold sleeve album. Today the digitalization of music almost completely removes the static visual from its once pivotal place in album production and consumption. Prog-influenced bands like the Super Furry Animals or high-concept bands like the Gorillaz may persist in producing a recognizable album-to-album aesthetic, but there is little sense that the album cover is a vital part of a band’s image any more. The significance of album design in contemporary culture has lessened accordingly, and with it— at least, until Avatar— the chances of Dean’s work being reappraised.

British illustrator John Coulthart has written an interesting defence of Dean’s ‘neglected’ artwork. Arguing that the roots of Dean’s work can be found in Romanticism, Coulthart suggests that Dean's SF aesthetic is considered kitsch by mainstream criticism because establishment voices are still in thrall to modernist aesthetics. There is some merit to this argument, and I want to develop Coulthart’s argument by looking at two artists whose work obviously presages or prefigures Dean’s own. For the sake of his argument, Coulthart neglects to mention the obvious debt that Dean owes to a less critically credible artistic heritage, the colourful cover art of early SF pulp magazines, like ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Wonder Stories’ (where the art of Frank R. Paul, for instance, as defined by its portrait frame as Dean is by the landscape projection). Yet Coulthart’s is an interesting proposition, meriting closer inspection. Looking at Dean’s Yes gatefolds, two Romantic artists come to mind. One gives us a clue to the particular tone of Dean’s alien landscapes; the other a prototype for his framing of the Romantic vision.

Dean’s covers are representative of the best of Prog Rock visuals. They are a peculiar mixture of Science Fiction and fantasy, realism and magic. His most recognizable motifs are the hanging rocks that hover in his translucent skies, shaped like inverted teardrops. His ‘houses’ meld fantastically into strange landscapes as bulbous outgrowths, the dreams of speculative architects like Archigram realized in fantasy worlds. What is most striking about his work is the importance of levitation and flight, a kind of aesthetic of anti-gravity. Everything floats; the land itself has become suspended; seemingly not as the result of any explosion or disaster, but rather through some comfy, timeless drift. Even his castles seem ready to rise into the air, moored only by impracticably steep and winding roads.

Where do we find the roots of such a peculiar vision of the future, with its picturesque fusion of imaginative SF speculation, nostalgia and pastoral quietude? We must first return to the romantic visionaries of the nineteenth century to find models for Dean’s SF imagery, and begin with an artist and painting that only superficially strikes a wholly different tone to Dean’s own.  

In many ways, John Martin (1789-1854)— nicknamed by his contemporaries ‘Mad Martin’— comes from central casting for the role of the Romantic discontent. Anti-establishment and nonconformist, he specialized in dramatic and didactic Biblical subjects. His most famous painting today, and the one that best prefigures Dean’s floating islands, is his dramatic image of apocalypse, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (1851-54).

This picture, incredibly popular in its time, shows the instant of tumult as the Earth breaks up and immolates on the day of judgement. It is a genuine product of the fundamentalist imagination, and for devout Victorians captured the fearful and thrilling moment of earthly dissolution with awe-inspiring realism. Continents crack as the abyss opens; lightening smashes mountainous chunks into the void. A tide of rock falls towards boiling chaos. Martin’s painting is a snapshot of one of the last seconds of mortal time, as found in Revelations, “when every mountain and island” will be “moved out of their places”.

In ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, Martin takes the transcendent Romantic landscape and accomplishes a turn we are familiar with in SF. The landscape was at the heart of Romantic art: it was there that the Romantics reclaimed Nature as divine. In Nature the visionary artist and poet found the very forms and expression of God, and ‘sublime’ was the word that expressed the awe-inspiring connection made with this numinous reality. Scale was one part of this sublime language for God: hence the mountains, valley and seas of the Romantic imagination. Indeed, the aggressive representation of sheer massiveness courses through Martin’s picture: if a canvas could inject anabolic steroid, this is what it would look like after three years of reworking.

Martin conducts his own revenge on Romanticism in ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, while remaining a Romantic at heart. He takes the Romantic metaphor (‘God can be found in the very landscape we look upon, and God is great’) and literalises it according to his own devotional ends (‘God can be found in the very landscape we look upon, and He is smashing it to smithereens. God is great!’). As has been observed countless times, SF, especially cinematic SF, often takes this turn; it literalises metaphors. Imaginative speculation becomes materialized in the form of an exuberant realism. Martin is painting the original Death Star, and its name is God.

Dean, of course, also depicts a moment “when every mountain and island” are “moved out of their places”. Martin literally depicts apocalypse; Dean’s imagery, on the other hand, is if anything less materially convincing and more obviously metaphorical, for all its SF trappings. Which is to say that science can today give us evidence for catastrophic events that lend plausibility to the scale of destruction depicted in Martin’s painting: the Yucatan peninsula impact, for example, or the Theia impact event. If we ignore the stylized bluster— a few less divine darts of lighting, involved, perhaps— we can map the imagery of ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ onto scientific theory and, more importantly, the SFnal narratives that grow out of those theories.

On the other hand, by any scientific rule, Dean’s images of floating islands depict the impossible. Where Martin harnesses all the energy of a fundamentalist reading of Christian apocalypse, Dean applies the materialist tropes of SF to a vision of one moment of sublime Otherness. In Dean’s pictures of floating islands, we find an alien landscape in which the apocalypse is similarly suspended as in Martin’s freeze-frame, but instead of noise and destruction we find peace and quiet. The Romantic emotionalism of Martin’s great painting has been absorbed and subdued, tamed for a pastoral vision of sublime beauty. Here, the picturesque has been channeled and chewed through the revolutionary grinder of Romanticism and emerged unscathed on the other side, a safe nirvana of spent energy. The mood of Dean’s ‘floating islands’ paintings are therefore deliberately quiet and meditative, right down to the oriental cliché of the topiary growing on fragments of rock. Sweet isolation and peaceful contemplation for the aloof mind— these yearnings of the Prog imagination are realized in his images of floating, contented worlds.

These obsessions are already there in the artwork for Dean’s first Yes album cover, ‘Fragile’ (1971). A planet roughly the size of a small London park— or is it a tiny planetoid dotted here and there with several stratospheric oak trees?— seems split like an old tennis ball by broad paths and seams of jutting rock. A ship flies over the surface of the planet, noting its cracked peculiarity from a distance. Dean’s leisurely vision here seems logically prior to his floating islands: the shards of rock suggest the arrested beginning of a planetary explosion (in fact, on the reverse, in a less ambiguous and far uglier image, the planet does fragment). Dean was, in a way, prescient: his theme of fragile global beauty anticipates the reaction of the public and ecologists to Apollo 17’s famous picture of the illuminated face of Earth the following year. 

As in much of pop culture at this time, the moon missions hover unconsciously behind the scene as a technological project both inspiring and threatening: ‘Fragile’ is a homely, almost twee image that responds to this perspective-shifting series of events, an image redeemed by the vague sense of repressed threat that the rock formations imply. If Prog Rock was suspicious of sexual thrust, Dean goes further still, and eyes the thrust of spacecraft warily: explosions are deliberately stilled in his work, and Dean’s spaceships and planetoids drift on solar winds. Temperamentally, the artist is drawn to sublime Nature, not technology, and the sedate, epochal pace that he pictures is deliberately opposed to the ever-gathering pace of Capitalism. In this, he finds himself in tune with 70s Environmentalism, with its conflicted attitudes to scientific and technological innovation. 

The environmental theme is an crucial one, especially when understood in the light of Martin’s earlier work. One important strand of Western Environmentalism is concerned precisely with catastrophe as a consequence of tampering with and perverting a greater ‘natural’ balance. Science, of course, has confirmed some of these fears of impending global disaster, most clearly in the science of climate change. The Fall in Christianity leads inexorably to the revelation that Martin depicts. Dean’s art at this time is interested in depicting what is, psychologically and culturally, a closely related rapture of dethronement: the end of what Wells once called in his own homely apocalypse, The War of the Worlds, “the fear and empire of man”.

The following year, the gatefold for Yes’ ‘Close to the Edge’ (1972) saw Dean develop the theme of proggy isolation and disassociation in a fantasy image of a lake atop a high rock formation. As the lake overbrims, waterfalls pour into a mist-filled void. His fantasy world has begun to break up: the paradox of the floating islands, with their odd ecosystems and microclimates, are taking form.

In his Yessongs (1973) sequence, Dean does provide a kind of SF backstory to the appearance of the floating islands: mushroom-like fragments of rock apparently travel the cosmos, eventually caught in the gravity of another world where they settle like dandelion seeds and, bizarrely, evolve flora and even moose-like fauna to chew the cud on them.

It’s almost a shaggy tribute to Panspermia, the idea that life on Earth may have been seeded by bacteria piggybacking on meteors from other worlds: but not quite. The sequence shows an interest in origins, especially the cosmic origins of life, but is essentially a myth of creation. The cosmic-spiritual mood once again predominates, rather than scientific extrapolation: indeed, this is the nature of Dean’s loose interpretation of SF. His mythic imagination predominates and an idiosyncratic brand of SF surrealism, filled with the artist’s own imagistic crotchets and obsessions, is the result. 

A typical Dean motif is the arc of attenuated substance often found sweeping across his paintings: Dean’s landscapes are unashamedly designed topographical constructions. We see this in another floating island picture, the image with which Dean’s own website leads, ‘Flights of Icarus’. Amusingly, in this later picture ‘Yes’ even seems ghostwritten in sirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere, the ‘S’ terminating in the downward twirl of a gnarled tree-trunk.

Curving forms like these lead the eye across Dean’s compositions. They help structure and balance the queer architecture of his works, of course. They are part of Dean’s interest in fragile beauty, symbols of the ecological idealism that runs through his art. Yet, just as the romantic artist saw the divine in Nature, elevating Nature from its traditional place in art as a merely incidental or picturesque setting, Dean’s weird rock formations and tenuous clouds and creepers introduce a note of subdued surrealism.

Surrealism was a favourite of Prog Rock musicians, just as the Dada cut-up was the house style for punk. For a movement that peddled artistic virtuosity with such vim, its quality control department seems to have often taken the day off when it came to selecting many of its cover artists. Some of the most drearily pretentious and badly painted covers in the history of pop result from the meeting of Prog and Surrealism. Consider for a moment Marillion’s ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ (1983), or, a personal favourite, Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ (1971).

Perhaps we should be glad that when Peter Gabriel performed on stage as a fox in a red dress he didn’t sport a pair of fake breasts, such as the vulpine beauty in this picture has. Why is this enigmatic creature so peeved by the whale that sports behind her? Why is she standing on a block of ice? Has a dance been refused by said cetacean? Sadly, we may never know. The beauty of Dean’s SF imagery stands in strong contrast to badly executed visions of self-conscious strangeness like these. Dean’s surrealism is subtler. It can be found in the attractive feeling of frozen time in his work, and in the sweeping, thinned arcs of stone that reach across his landscapes. This spatial structure is similar to the kind of physical attenuation found in Giacometti’s sculptures, of delicate things defying material laws.

Dean is, then, an SF topographer influenced by the surrealist unconscious, a surveyor of imaginary landscapes. The second of the artists whose work I want to say prefigures Dean’s art was, by coincidence, an eighteenth century topographer by profession, before he turned to romantic art. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is German Romanticism’s best-known landscape painter. Friedrich produced a unique and idiosyncratic body of art: he was a speculative and philosophical painter, whose peculiar landscapes and odd spatial arrangements anticipate Dean’s own. It may seem perverse to do it, but it is helpful to begin by identifying a common weakness in Friedrich and Dean’s work, in the hope of moving more gracefully onto their strengths. And it seems to me that these flaws are obvious, and so cleverly circumvented by both artists, that what was a flaw does ultimately become a strength.

The flaw is this: that neither Friedrich nor Dean can draw a satisfactory human being.

This is hardly the end of the world, in artistic terms. A technical difficulty in convincingly representing the human form puts both Dean and Friedrich in honourable company: look at the great achievements of Eastern antiquity, of medieval art, or Edward Hopper’s modern visions of American alienation. But an inability to adequately portray human beings when your style, like Friedrich and Dean’s, is itself predicated on a talent for close attention to detail in painting natural forms is a problem. If in your landscape everyone you paint appears to be a cipher, a pretty central avenue of classical realism has been closed off. Both Dean and Friedrich explore topography and symbolism as alternative forms of expression. For both, just as the human form becomes more peripheral and diminished in their work, the landscape opens up as a means of surpassing limitations— in fact, of exploring the very nature of human and earthly limitations.

Friedrich made his name as a topographical draughtsman and so, in a manner of speaking, did Dean. Certainly the word ‘topographic’ is linked closely with Dean: thanks to his cover art for Yes’ 1973 album, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’. The title is pretentious, and for Dean the artwork is weak, but the album cover does show us something important about role of the landscape in his work.

The gatefold depicts what seems to be a sandy ocean floor without an ocean, replete with gravity defying, bottom-feeding green fishes, ‘swimming’ under a bright night sky. We see a trio of triangular rock formations recalling coastal and, to the far left, desert rocks. In the middle foreground sits one pyramidal mound, running with springwater, set by on one side by a kind of bough or bower. In the far distance— centre front as it would be on the album cover, but far right across the whole landscape— a Mayan-style pyramid squats before the moon. Dean’s distinctive ‘Yes’ typography hovers incongruously above the pyramid. 

The landscape that Dean has painted is in many ways representative of the artist I’ve described earlier. Dean’s work is surrealist, pastoral, and full of yearnings for a world of silent contemplation after the eventual fall of civilizations— of a little quiet time to think to oneself after the world ends. Yet the gentle mystery of his other compositions have here become something more kitsch. There is something a little laughable about this painting— more Foxtrot than Floating Islands— and this does not necessarily come, I think, from a shoal that we might today expect to flex awkwardly towards us, singing “don’t worry, be happy”. It comes from a failure in Dean’s work that is normally his finest asset as an artist: ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ is a mess spatially and compositionally speaking.

What is most striking about this album image when compared to many of his others is the lumpen nature of its composition, enforced in part by the dictates of splitting the landscape in two for front and rear covers. The whole does not hang together at all: the suggestive sense of strange abundance we find in his other pictures is absent. The pyramidal blocks in the picture look ugly and randomly composed, and block rather than lead the eye onto the remote horizon— the place where so often in Romantic works the ambiguous limit between the visible and invisible worlds is found. It is interesting to compare this image to one of Friedrich’s, ‘The Polar Sea’ of 1824.

Here, a topographical image of a remote ocean, similarly expressed through the plotting of pyramidal forms, creates an altogether more dynamic and strange effect. A truly interesting tale begins to be proleptically told here: a ship lies crushed by jagged ice floes. As in Dean’s picture, there are no humans to be found; the drama of the piece is expressed purely through the glimpse of a wrecked deck and the thrilling diagonal thrust of shards of ice. The point is this: though it is humans who tell tales, and though Friedrich has absented humans from his composition, the terrible barrenness of the environment he imaginatively depicts (Friedrich, of course, never actually saw such a scene) speaks of human endings, of nemesis after hubris.

Dean’s picture, on the other hand, screams bathos: a far flung planet that owes more to B&Q than the truly fantastic. The Utopian impulse that underlies all Dean’s work has been reduced, in this instance, to a cross between the kind of snooty bourgeois Englishness that leads prog imagery so often to the grounds of country houses, and a kooky Californian mysticism. Doubtless Prince Charles would find much to admire in Dean’s ‘Tales from Topographical Oceans’.

Friedrich is a painter whose landscapes are speculatively metaphysical when not devoutly Catholic. His landscapes are varied and depict views of the German coast, mountains and countryside. He also painted visions of far-flung and unseen places, though even his works depicting famous tourist spots like the Chalk Cliffs of Rügen (1818) were often imaginative composites of different places and scenes.

The Chalk Cliffs of Rügen is, like most of Friedrich’s work, heavily freighted with symbolism. Three figures respectively sit, kneel and stand before a seascape. Below them, framed by the white of the cliffs and two trees whose foliage bows to cover the indistinct horizon, two small boats sit on the serene sea. The figures, while integral, also seem peripheral, onlookers gazing out over the gap. Art critics tend to read the figures as embodying Christian virtues: the ships are souls making their way to God. By any reading, however, it is the gap that is heart of the image and the object of the onlooker’s contemplation. Beyond the rocks lies a kind of liquid vale within which the blue of the sea rises to a gaseous height. The white walls and pinnacles of the cliffs edge like ice upon the space, bringing the view beyond into two dimensions, presenting an almost abstract field for the viewer of the painting. The central space that it is the speculative core of the painting, then, is at once a gap and substantial. As in other paintings by Friedrich, this gap which the people look upon symbolizes death.

Another of Friedrich’s paintings that rides the much the same metaphysical seas is his late work, The Stages of Life (1835). Again, a group of people, this time a family, rest upon a hillock at the edge of a bay on which sail five ships, at differing stages of departure. The five ships correspond to the five people in the painting, all at different stages of their journey towards death, represented by the horizon beyond.

For Friedrich, human figures or symbols of human endeavor in his works— ships at sail, for example— often merely provide an entry into the broader mystery he is enraptured by, the relationship of man to God. Something similar holds true for Dean: this is why his paintings so often seem to be spatially similar to Friedrich’s work, and employ all the romantic vocabulary of indistinct horizons, glimpsed vistas and serene lakes that Friedrich in his time employed too. Look again at the Chalk Cliffs of Rügen: the gap at the centre of the composition is a negative of a floating island. Look again at the ships that rise towards the horizon in The Stages of Life: each an individual world, pendants of mortality, they hang in the middle of the field like the fragile devices Dean populates his work with. The obscure rock-formations of Tales from Topographic Oceans, in turn, serve the same function as the devotional crosses and mounds found in the German forests that Friedrich began his career painting. But Dean is not simply borrowing or even making clever reference in postmodern fashion. He is reinterpreting romanticism and its numinous longings through the lens of SF, constructing a scene where humanity has been dethroned and become peripheral. The violence of this dethroning is hidden, has happened before or elsewhere, and is never made truly explicit as in Martin’s painting: but it is the precondition for his ecological idealism. With this turn away from catastrophe and death, Dean’s work becomes an interesting and implicit commentary on the submerged longings of a certain kind of misanthropic environmentalism.

As a postscript to my reading of Dean’s influences and themes, it seems clear why James Cameron— who in his latest movie proves to be a Prog SF director— chose Dean as a key influence for Avatar. Never mind, of course, that Cameron’s Na’vi are patronizingly chunked and reimagined out of the diverse cultures of native America, much as the Romantic movement dreamed of the noble savage. Never mind that Cameron’s ‘copters seem to be joyful re-imaginings of Deansian robot flys, lifted from Dean’s bizarre cover to an eighties Motown compilation. It is Cameron’s realization in Avatar that violence is the missing component of the catastrophic strand of Utopian environmentalism that is key: that humans, with their intrusive technology and sin, must be routed and destroyed. Only by removing the human from a world of floating islands and stratospheric trees can a world be created that will once again capture the prelapsarian oneness of Nature and mind. This ecological lesson has no room for the messy desires and necessities of human existence: we humans are all too artificial to exist in true happiness. 

Dean is too interested in the reach of human desire to dwell too much on this matter of necessity, and his work is the better for it. Utopia, as each generation imagines it, does not bear too close examination by the next: but not to imagine it at all— that is the greatest failure. Though Dean’s oevre is uneven, and like prog today, often ignored and scorned, his idiosyncratic vision has created an influential SF imaginary. What did Mont Campbell say, that most proggy of Prog-rockers? “Self-indulgence is a good thing in art, because if you’re trying to please others all the time, you just stick to the same model… nobody hears anything new, so no-one expects anything new”. Dean's art brings news from Nowhere: says 'yes' to that peaceful place beyond the apocalypse.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Getting To Grips With Griffins: HG Wells, The Time Machine (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897)

It was HG Wells and the poise of his prose, its poetic beauty and intellectual rigour, that first brought me to write about Science Fiction, many years ago now. Let’s begin this blog with beginnings, I think, and write about SF’s greatest writer.

More, if I am to start writing about HG Wells, let’s begin with two of his greatest fictions. First, his universally admired 1895 novella, The Time Machine; next, his most adaptable 1897 classic, and a personal favourite: The Invisible Man. A vain enterprise, perhaps. Both books have been picked at and parsed, unpacked and analysed to within an inch of their venerable lives by better names than mine, by eminent Wellsians, the Parrinders and Huntingtons of this world. So, let’s begin by examining small things in both books, and see where that gets us. From small beginnings, interesting ideas may unfold.

Where I begin, then, is with griffins, those fantastical creatures that give name to this blog. So I begin with a riddle, one that has puzzled me since I first read The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. The riddle is disarmingly simple, as all good riddles should be, and the answer may remain an enigma. But what is the question? It is just this. Why do we find griffins in both of these great books?

This riddle may seem inconsequential. After all— what’s brown and sticky? Answer: ‘a stick’. Not much adding to the sum of knowledge there, surely. Yet griffins there are in both Wells’ stories— obviously, in The Invisible Man, where the eponymous character is called Griffin, but so fleeting in The Time Machine that you may well have missed their appearance. It’s that fleeting appearance in Wells’ novella, though, that really intrigues, and where I want to begin.

The time traveller has used his machine to leap forward into the future, and has made his first encounter with the diminutive Eloi. After the slow work of interrogating the little people, the time traveller grows bored and resolves to “mount the summit of a crest, perhaps a mile and a half away, from which I could get a wider view of this our planet in the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One A.D.” As he climbs, he makes some tentative judgements about the world about him, “so entirely different to from the world I had known”. “Later,” the time traveller tells his guests, “I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality”.

“With a strange sense of freedom and adventure” the time traveller climbs and surmounts the crest of the hill. Here we find the scene that I have done my best to approximate as the masthead of my blog, above:

There I found a seat of some yellow metal that I did not recognize, corroded in places with a kind of pinkish rust and half smothered in soft moss, the arm rests cast and filed into the resemblance of griffins’ heads. I sat down on it, and I surveyed the broad view of our old world under the sunset of that long day. It was as sweet and fair a view as I have ever seen. The sun had already gone below the horizon and the west was flaming gold, touched with some horizontal bars of purple and crimson. Below was the valley of the Thames, in which the river lay like a band of burnished steel.

The seat which the time traveller finds is a curious one, quite in keeping with the “oddness” of the “very confusing” world into which he has been thrust. The new alloy and its peculiar rust seem ill-fitted somehow to the bizarre persistence of the ancient figure on the arm rests. It is a strange mixture of the old and the new. Such are the decorations of this world, however. In the valley below the White Sphinx lowers on its bronzed pedestal, “thick with verdigris”. Nearby, broken and weather-worn “old Pheonician decorations” fragment over the entrance to the Eloi dining hall, its geometrically patterned stained glass “broken in many places”. The effect on the time traveller is “rich and picturesque”. For indeed, what threat is there here? Why not approach this remote decline and fall in a contemplative, aesthetic manner— until, that is, he knows better?

At this point we too might stop and leave our riddle be. We might declare that the griffin’s heads belong to Wells’ clever iconography of decay and disease, of decline and fall. This reading is in keeping with the novella’s well-established themes of evolutionary degeneration and entropy. Yet: isn’t the role of the White Sphinx in the novel also understood as something more than this? With its “sightless eyes”, “faint shadow of a smile on its lips” and “unpleasant suggestion of disease”, the statue sitting atop that hidden entrance to the Morlock’s netherworld is grim and haunting, one of the novel’s enigmatic triumphs. It is a man-eating creature at the heart of an anthropophagous tale, a riddler in a story of puzzles, and to Wells’ critics it has symbolized many things. What the example of the Sphinx tells us is that Wells chose his symbols well: he gave them life and depth from out of the common stock, and reshaped them towards his own ends.

So perhaps it is worth persisting, especially if we are to get to the answer of the appearance and reappearance of griffins in his writing. If Wells took his symbols from the common stock, we would do well to know what the griffin has traditionally meant in Western culture.

The griffin is a fantastic creature belonging to ancient myth. Half-lion, half-eagle, the nether parts of its body are leonine, but its head, wings and claws are those of the eagle. It has been part of a stock bestiary since at least archaic Greece, though it has precursors in the holy creatures of earlier cultures such as the homa of the Achaemenid Empire. It has noble characteristics, as lord of both land and air. Traditionally the griffin was associated with transcendent power. In the medieval Christian tradition, it was emblematic both of Christ’s rule and his ascension, blessed with powers of the eagle (the Lord of the Heavens, intelligent and far-sighted) and the lion (the King of the Field, strong, courageous and majestic). Yet in legend the griffin also symbolised superbia or hubris, attributed after Alexander the Great reputedly attempted to ascend to heaven pulled by two griffins.

The strange duality of the griffin also associated it with evil. Milton famously describes Satan’s ascent through Chaos from hell:

Treading with crude conscience, half on foot,
Half flying; behoves him now both oar and sail.
As when a griffin through the wilderness
With winged course, oe’r hill and moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold…”
(Paradise Lost, Book ii, 941-947).

Such an iconography does allow us to pull together— with some effort— the griffins of The Time Machine and Griffin in The Invisible Man. Take the latter: Griffin is one of the great figures in modern literature for a man torn apart by his own duality. He is the image of the invisible God: who finds “unexpected difficulty” because he cannot see his own feet. It is a duality that drives him mad, until he is no stranger to either hubris or evil. Indeed, in an angry letter to the hapless scientist Kemp, he comes to see himself, laughably, as the firstborn over all creation:

The game is only beginning. There is nothing for it, but to start the Terror. This announces the first day of the Terror. Port Burdock is no longer under the Queen, tell your Colonel of Police, and the rest of them; it is under me—the Terror! This is day one of year one of the new epoch—the Epoch of the Invisible Man. I am Invisible Man the First. To begin with the rule will be easy. The first day there will be one execution for the sake of example—a man named Kemp. Death starts for him to-day. He may lock himself away, hide himself away, get guards about him, put on armour if he likes—Death, the unseen Death, is coming. Let him take precautions; it will impress my people. Death starts from the pillar box by midday.

A less noble character than Griffin, however, it is difficult to conceive.

It very difficult to reconcile the appearance of the griffin’s heads in The Time Machine with Griffin in The Invisible Man in anything like the same terms, however. Duality, frustrated transcendence, hubris: we might try to bolt these symbolic meanings onto the text of The Time Machine, but these metal griffins are unlikely to fly. The griffin’s intelligence and far-sightedness tempts comparison: the time traveller possesses both. Yet the moment when he reaches the seat on the hillcrest is, as he repeatedly points out, the moment when his speculative powers fail him.

For, as night begins to fall near the seat on the hill, the time traveller surveys the odd and settled world he has arrived in. “So watching,” he says, “I began to put my interpretation upon the things I had seen, and as it shaped itself to me that evening”. To the riddle that the world presents him, the time traveller reaches a bold and logical answer: though, as he admits to his listeners, “afterwards I found I had got only a half-truth— or only a glimpse of one facet of the truth”.

Looking out over the valley, the time traveller speculates that he has “happened upon humanity on the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind”. The world of the Eloi, he decides, is the result of a perfect civilisation, and of decay caused by that perfection. Once, man ruled the earth so absolutely that all danger and disease was eliminated. With this “perfect conquest of Nature” complete, long ages of comfort free of environmental pressure led to the evolution of a new and weaker humanity, better adapted to an age of Quiet. “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity,” the time traveller declares, “and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!”

As he later ruefully admits to his fireside companions, he is wrong. More of that later, however. My theory of a link between the griffins of The Time Machine and Griffin in The Invisible Man similarly seems to have run into trouble. Etymology might logically provide clues to an answer, but at first there seems little encouraging here. The word ‘griffin’ has its origins in late Latin, adopted from the Greek ‘grypes’ meaning ‘curled, curved, having a hooked nose’: ‘grip’ or ‘handhold’ being a common derivation, for example in the modern German, ‘Griff’. None of which, unfortunately, aids our grip on the riddle of the appearance of griffins in these two early Wells fictions.

If traditional symbolism or the commonly acknowledged roots of the word ‘griffin’ do not lead us towards an answer to our riddle, the beginnings of desperation demand we look elsewhere. The peculiar intellectual concerns and associations of Wells offer themselves as investigative paths. Here, however, is where an interesting tale intervenes, a story that turns on the puzzle presented by a creature that would become representative of the arguments around evolution and the origin of species in the mid-Victorian era. The story turns on etymology too, but strangely, obliquely, via battles over natural history and a palaeontological specimen that once lit up the fevered Darwinian debate of the early 1860s.

The tale is told in full in Paul Chambers’ fascinating book, ‘Bones of Contention: the Fossil that Shook Science’ (2002). Those contentious bones are now familiar to anyone with an interest in dinosaurs or evolution: they provided a crucial piece of evolutionary evidence for HG Wells’ one-time teacher at the Normal School of Science, TH Huxley. The fossilised creature found in a limestone quarry in Solhofen, Bavaria is today known as Archaeopteryx lithographia, Archaeopteryx for short.

Archaeopteryx was so named by a now-forgotten German geologist, Professor Hermann von Meyer. The name means ‘Ancient Wing’, and it belies the furious arguments that the specimen he first described brought to the world of science. For what von Meyer described in September 1861 for the Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie was nothing less than a feathered reptile: a creature that seemed to deserve the Darwinian appellation ‘missing link’ in a way never seen before.

Archaeopteryx: the London Specimen

The fossil had a strange duality, indeed. It was to spark a battle for intellectual possession between Darwinists and Anti-Darwinists that finally culminated in a conclusive scientific victory for TH Huxley— ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’— over his great intellectual enemy, Richard Owen. Yet when Owen sent an envoy from the Natural History Department at the British Museum to persuade the owner of the fossil to part with it (for the princely sum of £450- over £20,000 in today’s money) he was not buying an Archaeopteryx lithographia. He was buying a Griphosaurus.

Griphosaurus. After the first description of the fossil found in Solnhofen, a more prestigious and Anti-Darwinian Professor of Zoology, Johann Andreas Wagner, delivered a talk entitled ‘Reports on a New Reptile, supposedly Furnished with Feathers’ to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. There, he made his own description of the fossil, and rubbished the notion that it was any kind of ‘missing link’. Finally, as he finished his lecture, he made a canny move, beloved of demagogues and advertising executives: he renamed it.

As long as I am not convinced of the contrary… I have no hesitation in declaring it to be a reptile of the order of saurians [dinosaurs, pterosaurs, etc.]. I therefore give it the name Griphosaurus, derived from grifo (sic), enigma.

With that word, enigma, Wagner achieved a triumph of obfuscation that Richard Owen, once in possession of the fossil, was to add to in his own partial description of Archaeopteryx in 1862. For a short while, the neologism stuck: though Owen’s own efforts confirm the name Griphosaurus were frustrated by his more principled staff, who adhered to the established scientific principle of priority in naming.

Perhaps surprisingly, it took some years of intellectual struggle for Huxley to accept the fossil into his own brand of Darwinist thought. When his final rebuttal to Owen came some years later however, in 1868, it was devastating to mainstream Anti-Darwinism. In a talk entitled ‘On the animals which are most nearly intermediate between Birds and Reptiles’, Huxley compared the skeletal structure of Archaeopteryx to that of the dinosaur Compsognathus. The two skeletons were very similar: and the weight of his remarkable argument was that birds were indeed descended from dinosaurs. To his popular audience, Archaeopteryx seemed a triumphant example of one of Darwin’s theorised ‘missing links’. Furthermore, to his academic audience, Huxley proved that Owen had made simple mistakes in his description of the creature. His 1868 lecture to the Royal Institution was understood as a major victory for Darwinist theory.

Wells was born midway through this great controversy, in 1866: and in a real sense he became the conscious inheritor of its struggles. Darwinism, along with socialism, would eventually provide the twin poles of his thought. Wells struggled to escape his lower middle class upbringing in Bromley, where he was born. One of the first generations to benefit from the Education Act of 1870, he was nonetheless forced into work at the age of fourteen. He began a patchy series of jobs, from trainee draper to chemist’s assistant, then teaching assistant. In the latter position he excelled in his part-time studies, and gained a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (today Imperial College, London). It was here, in Kensington in 1887, that Wells began the Zoology course in which he was to achieve a first, and on which Huxley taught. From leaving the School, to teaching, journalism, writing his first novella and beyond: Darwinism and the figure of TH Huxley provided an intellectual touchstone for all his subsequent work.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95)

Huxley would remain a hero to Wells throughout his life. He considered himself one of ‘Huxley’s men’ and in 1901 confessed, “I believed then that he was the greatest man I was ever likely to meet, and I believe that all the more firmly today”. Indeed, in May 1895, a couple of months after The Time Machine was published, Wells sent a signed copy of the story to his one-time teacher. In his note he modestly pointed out that “the central idea— of degeneration following security— was the outcome of a certain amount of biological study.”

My own answer to the riddle of the appearance of griffins in The Time Machine and The Invisible Man argues this, then: that it was “the outcome of a certain amount of biological study”. It is unthinkable that Wells would not be well acquainted with this most famous early victory for Darwinism, led by his hero, Huxley. And it is extremely doubtful that Wells would not have known the murky story of the naming of Archaeopteryx. As a writer, of course he was interested in words: but he was also a thinker deeply interested in nominalism, the act of naming things (his 1901 philosophical lecture, ‘The Scepticism of the Instrument’, was on this very subject). The story of Wagner’s renaming of the Archaeopteryx would have appealed to him intellectually on a number of fronts, and taught him a memorable lesson in the unscrupulousness of a certain kind of scientist. Above all, it will have introduced into his vocabulary a new name, Griphosaurus, and an odd Greek derivation, grifo. It’s meaning: enigma.

It is a short but unexpected leap from Griphosaurus to grifo to griffin. It is all the more unexpected because Wagner’s derivation is somewhat obscure, and difficult to figure. I am not a philologist, knowing no Latin, and less Greek. I cannot precisely identify how Wagner associated this word grifo with enigma: the best association I have found is with the ancient Greek word Griphoi, meaning riddle. Yet the English word Enigma also comes to us from Greek via Latin: its Greek root being ainissesthai, ‘to speak in riddles’, from ainos, ‘fable’ or ‘story’. So Wagner’s derivation for Griphosaurus is a little unclear, though it is tempting to think that in looking at the Archaeoptryx fossil splayed in the limestone— half-lizard, half-bird— he was reminded of the fantastical and mysterious figure of the griffin. It is not so very crucial, however, if Wagner was mistaken, or wilfully obscure. It is the meaning that Wells took from the episode that is crucial. Let us return to The Time Machine, and the time traveller sitting on this strange metal seat, carved with griffins for arm rests, as the sun sets on a future day.

The time traveller believes, prematurely, that he has solved the enigma that the world of the Eloi has presented to him. Evolutionary degeneration— social degeneration— has produced this world and its infantile, happy people. Without war, disease and predation, and with a wholly settled global society, the Eloi have long since relinquished intellect. “For such a life,” the time traveller argues, “what we call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak”. “Languor in decay” has produced the benign landscape he sees from his peculiar throne: “ever”, he confidently notes, “the fate of energy in security”.

As I stood there in the gathering dark I thought that in this simple explanation I had mastered the problem of this world— mastered the secret of this delicious people. Possibly the checks they had devised for the increase of population had succeeded too well, and their numbers had diminished rather than kept stationary. That would account for the abandoned ruins. Very simple was my explanation— and plausible enough— as most wrong theories are!

The dark secret of this new world— the divergence of humanity into two separate species, predatory Morlocks and cattle-like Eloi— is yet to be discovered by the time traveller. In his retelling of this moment, only the grim, as-yet-private joke that the Eloi are a “delicious people” hints to his complacent Richmond audience the dreadful knowledge that is to come. The time traveller’s bleak levity speaks of knowledge dearly bought.

The symbolism Wells created for this fleeting moment in his story becomes a little clearer. Unsuspecting, the time traveller has rested on a throne that presents and represents an enigma. His hands rest easy on the heads of the griffins as night descends. He is satisfied of his scientific shrewdness, his theoretical aplomb; with the tools of observational science he has solved a riddle. Yet the curving handhold beneath his fingertips is the unknown alloy of the griffin’s head itself. The time traveller does not have as firm a grip on the nature of the world around him as he thinks he does: he is in error. Soon he will climb down the hill again and find his time machine stolen by a “hitherto unsuspected power” from the lawn in front of the “white, shining, leprous” Sphinx. This discovery sets him upon altering his previous theory, and a dangerous journey towards discovering the nature of that power— the hidden because subterranean Morlocks. The seat on the hill, with its picturesque griffins, foreshadows the greater Sphinx’s riddle that The Time Machine presents: whose answer the time traveller finally discovers stems from the divergence of species driven by Darwinian natural selection.

The Archaeopteryx provided provocative evidence for Darwin’s theories in the nineteenth century. Wagner and Owen retreated from the complexity of the fossil that was found in Solnhofen and the theory that explained its peculiarity, blind to their own confirmational bias. Settled opinion and fear and loathing of Darwinism and Darwinists established in both minds that this creature was no Darwinian “intermediate creature, engaged in the transition from the reptiles to the birds”. Instead it was, by its very naming, to remain forever an enigma: a transcendental riddle, whose peculiar nature was singular, hardly to be grasped. Naming Archeopteryx Griphosaurus marked a quite conscious retreat from the riddle the fossil presented. These reputable scientists preferred coded mystery, turning away from the worldly explanations that Darwin’s remarkable theory presented.

On the other hand, the error of the time traveller— suitably for a book called The Time Machine— is transitory. The story of the time traveller becomes one of pursuit and involvement in the world. In his quest for the time machine he is forced to hypothesise and pursue dangerous thoughts so that he can comprehend the riddle of 802,701. Intellectual complacency— the great enemy in all of Wells’ early writing— means death. Danger and violence in The Time Machine are, in this sense, metaphors for the test that enigma presents to man: if he does not confront them, then he will face the same end as all those who could not answer the riddle of the original Theban sphinx.

To be able to answer such questions does not mean that comfort or happiness follows. Oedipus’ answer to the Sphinx’s riddle leads, after all, to the darker secret of his own identity. Similarly, Archaeopteryx. The fossil remains a frightening creature to many, especially creationists: its existence threatens a sense of identity and the self, a hard-won understanding of a special place in the world. Reflecting on the grim future awaiting mankind, the narrator of The Time Machine gives scant consolation as he finishes his pessimistic evolutionary tale: “it remains for us to live as though it were not so”, he says. Faced with the fear that attends all paradigmatic shifts in scientific understanding of man’s place in the universe, one option is always denial and retreat. Sometimes it is preferable to live with enigma, even delight in its strange forms, than attempt to answer the riddle it presents: to sit quietly before a sweet and fair view, in the gathering dark. To rest with the griffins on such a seat is dangerous.

Understood in this way, Griffin’s naming in The Invisible Man becomes more comprehensible. Griffin is also a dangerous enigma, a riddle— but the tone of The Invisible Man is quite different to that of The Time Machine. Question: What roars and flies and wears sunglasses? Answer: A griffin in The Invisible Man. The novel is intriguing, charming and funny, and delights in the riddle that Griffin presents to the world about him. Mastering understatement, Mrs Hall describes the bandaged and aggressive Griffin as he arrives at her inn in Iping as a “stranger who was undoubtedly an unusually strange sort of stranger”. In Marvel’s words (another well-named character), Wells’ novel is “Full of secrets… Wonderful secrets!” I think it’s fair to say that The Invisible Man hasn’t been particularly well treated by Wells’ critics: it is a gamesome puzzle-box of a novel, playful yet profoundly serious. I hope to write on it here at a later date. It is a book that revels in the enigma that Griffin and his invention presents: that finds much of its formidable drive in the half-baked theories and farcical mistakes made by its characters.

To finish with the riddle I began with. Why are there griffins in The Time Machine and The Invisible Man? The answer to the question is enigma, and all the peculiar and powerful ideas that people draw forth when confronted by its riddles. In placing enigma at the heart of these two fictions, Wells begins his career as a science fiction writer with a formidable engine for not only his own but all subsequent SF. Out of the back-and-forth between enigma and reflection on its riddles, Wells creates a template for the imaginative quest of modern science fiction. His griffins presage a fantastic yet principled investigation into the enigmatic nature of the universe, and observing in that glass darkly, yet with ever more scientific light, man himself.