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August 08 2012

Curiosity rover: why does sci-fi always look more marvellous than reality? | Jonathan Jones

These ordinary looking views of Mars sent by Nasa's rover are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary

The landscape of Mars glows in a dust-rich sunset. The sky is yellow. The rocks are red. It is a place of – literally – unearthly beauty. But have we already ruined it? In the week that Nasa landed its latest robot explorer Curiosity on the surface of Mars, this picture reveals the wreckage of earlier landers cluttering up the Martian desert, reducing its pristine strangeness to a dumping ground of human space dreams. How typical of the earthlings to make a wasteland of Mars.

No, wait, I misread the caption. This is not a picture taken by Curiosity in its first week on Mars. It is a digitally created image by artist Kelly Richardson. It imagines what Mars might look like in 200 years if we keep sending probes there. It is, in other words, science fiction.

Why does science fiction always look more marvellous than the real landscapes of alien worlds? The pictures that have so far come from Curiosity are nothing like as grabbing as this fantastic image. The first photograph it sent showed a skewed vista of dust and heat with just the misty outline of a horizon. Nasa had to patch it into previous images of the planet to make sense of it. It's all very well scientists saying these first pictures from Curiosity are the most beautiful things they have ever seen – the red planet is far more spectacular in art and other fantastic images.

Richardson is in a very long line of artists who have pictured Mars. Long, long ago, Mars was a god. Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars depicts the god of war lulled to sleep and invokes the magical influence of his planet.

This might seem like ancient baloney but it is no more far fetched than the Mars of sci-fi. A lurid painting of Martians disporting themselves under the planet's glorious sky in a landscape of pyramids, towers and blue canals epitomises the image of Mars that was dreamed up in 20th science fiction before Viking, the first unmanned Nasa lander, started to reveal Martian realities in 1976. Mars was for a long time the favourite planet for imagined alien life. It seemed utterly alien and the "canals" visible on its surface from Earth were held to be the work of some grand civilisation. Even today, science fiction images of Mars outdo mere reality. A 2008 Doctor Who special pictured Mars as the home of a base where the first human explorers are attacked by watery beings from below. A base – there's always a base. Bases are so much more glamorous than unmanned computerised buggies with cameras on front.

Enough. The scientists are right of course. The comparative dullness of Curiosity's first pictures from Mars is the point (and their vagueness will be forgotten when it starts sending back high-definition images). These ordinary looking views of Mars are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary.

The ordinariness of Mars is its magic. It looks like a red desert on Earth because it is the mirror of Earth – as are all planets everywhere. Everything in the universe is made of the same elements, according to the same physical laws. The discovery that nothing in space is truly "alien" and every object out there (or rather out here – we're just another thing in space) started when Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. From one point of view the history of astronomy and space exploration is the story of how the universe became banal. But this banality is more glorious than any imaginary spectacle of an alien world where little green men drive motorboats up and down their glittering canals. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 08 2011

Hardware: The Definitive SF Works Of Chris Foss – in pictures

Ahead of his book Hardware, view selected images by the definitive 70s sci-fi book jacket illustrator

March 08 2011

George Lucas strikes back over stormtrooper copyright

Director takes long-running battle with British prop designer over replica Star Wars costumes to UK supreme court

Star Wars creator George Lucas's long-running battle with a British prop designer who sells replica stormtrooper outfits has reached the UK supreme court.

Twickenham-based Andrew Ainsworth, who built the original costumes from 2D drawings while working at Shepperton studios on 1977's Star Wars, has been selling the outfits online for a number of years based on his original moulds. In 2004 he sold two original stormtrooper helmets at auction for £60,000 and has since created replicas that he sells as fancy dress for up to £1,500.

Lucas maintains the designer does not own the copyright, and has taken the case before a succession of judges to halt Ainsworth's work. Jonathan Sumption QC yesterday told the supreme court it was an "implied term" of their working agreement that Ainsworth "would not be entitled to retain copyright for the artefacts".

The hearing will make a final decision as the case reaches the highest appeal court in the UK. Lucas successfully sued Ainsworth for $20m in the US when he began selling replicas of the models in 2004, but the film-maker's case was thrown out on appeal at the high court in 2008. Justice Mann concluded the costumes had a "utilitarian purpose", and were industrial props rather than "works of art" so were not covered by British copyright laws. In 2009 the ruling was upheld by Lord Justices Rix, Jacobs and Paten at the court of appeal.

Lucas is expected to cite support from fellow Hollywood behemoths Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson during the case. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 15 2009

Astro Boy is a Japanese superhero whose backside fires bullets. How cool is that? | Sam Leith

Are we ready for Astro Boy? He's a cute little robot with rocket boots, spiky black hair and – winningly – the ability to shoot bullets out of his backside. January sees the UK release of the animated Hollywood film Astro Boy, an all-star production, with voices coming from Donald Sutherland, Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron and Bill Nighy. Their names are all over the movie's website. But where's the name of Astro Boy's creator, Osamu Tezuka? You'd need a magnifying glass to find any mention.

In her lavish new book The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, Helen McCarthy acknowledges that her subject is not exactly well known in the west. The first chapter is titled: "Osamu Who?" The fact that the question needs to be asked is indicative of the enduring bafflement with which we regard Japanese pop culture. And the Japanese are not nearly as insular as us: were you to launch a book about Walt Disney over there, its opening chapter would not have to be titled: "Walt Who?"

Tezuka, who died 20 years ago this year, is a titanic figure in Japanese pop culture. Born into a wealthy family in 1928, he studied to be a doctor, but chose instead the infinitely more rackety and less respectable life of a manga cartoonist. It paid off. By his early 30s, he was Japan's highest earning artist; after his death, a Tezuka museum opened in his hometown of Takarazuka. Tezuka was the top creator of comics in a country where, according to one historian, more paper goes into the production of comics than goes into the creation of toilet roll. Comics remain a relatively niche interest in the west, but manga are thought to account for around a third of Japan's publishing industry.

Created, and then rejected, by a scientist who was seeking to fill the hole left by his dead son, Astro Boy is sometimes ill-used by humans. Nevertheless, he puts his powers, including the machine guns mounted on his buttocks, at the service of "humanity", even if the people around him often don't. And Astro Boy is just the beginning. Tezuka produced more than 150,000 pages of comic strip art: everything from mythic history and literary adaptations, to westerns and science fantasy. There's even a strip, called Black Jack, about the alarming adventures of a struck-off surgeon who does maverick medical work for exorbitant fees.

Manga is not read in the same way as, say, the Beano. The comics are lighter on dialogue, much more visually stylised and far faster paced. You don't linger over the panels – you whip through them. Tezuka's visual style is full of kinetic effects: if the foreground isn't whizzing past, the background will be. And his human figures have that doe-eyed look typical of Japanese cartooning, but with elements of EC Segar, creator of Popeye, in there.

One of the things that might surprise western eyes is the range of registers a single work can contain. Tezuka's eight-volume life of Buddha, for instance, is serious and thoughtful, yet is also interlarded with buffoonish comic business. His 1953 manga version of Crime and Punishment has pages of distinctly non-Dostoyevskian slapstick, and a cameo by a regular Tezuka character who pops up to shout his catchphrase: "Here t'meet ya!"

Tezuka's comics look outward to the world, too: his influences are decisively international. Individual frames, as McCarthy points out, reference Captain Nemo, Frankenstein – and isn't that Mickey Mouse's hat from Fantasia? The backgrounds are pure Fritz Lang, full of hovercars reminiscent of chrome-crusted American cars from the 1950s. Astro Boy himself is a reimagining of Pinocchio (who is, perhaps, a semi-cutesy descendent of the Golem, the creature from Jewish myth made of inanimate matter).

Bizarrely, Tezuka treated his comic creations more as actors than characters. They'd make guest appearances in different comics, playing new roles. Some were even aware they were in comics; Tezuka, already postmodern way back then, would frequently appear as a character, too. That disconcerting blend of seriousness and farce is, perhaps, one reason why manga's penetration into western culture is still somewhat limited. But thematic seriousness and low comedy coexist in Chaucer and Shakespeare, while emotional truth and physical caricature get along just fine in Dickens. So Tezuka might yet take off in Britain, especially if Astro Boy is a hit.

Some of the themes of Astro Boy – what it is to be a robot, what it is to be human – are already there in the likes of I, Robot, AI and Blade Runner. But in none of those does the hero shoot bullets out of his bum. And that, if you ask me, is their loss. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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