Thursday, 15 May 2008

THE BREATH OF ROBOTS

Henry Reuterdahl (1871-1925) painted this lovely illustration for one of the earliest science fiction stories:



Just months after the Wright brothers made the first airplane flight in 1903, Rudyard Kipling wrote "A Story of 2000 AD" predicting a world of huge flying airships. In this scene, a ray of light strikes an airship over the ocean at night: "She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her."





Reuterdahl worked in an era when artists still painted machines as if they were a new kind of flower.


Turner's painting of an early locomotive: " Wind, Rain and Speed"

But the world was changing. The scientific revolution had spawned the industrial revolution, which would soon lead to the technological revolution. The breath of robots was beginning to be felt across the world.

As machines became more familiar and less mystical, they lost much of their organic beauty in the eyes of artists. With a few exceptions (such as the late lamented Stanley Meltzoff or John Berkey) illustrators soon depicted machines with a sharper focus and a harder edge.



Fifty years after Kipling, the great poet Peter Viereck was no longer mistaking machinery for a new kind of flower:

During the fourth and fifth world wars, the tanks
Will still obey, still seem to serve their humans...
The sixth war they will serve more sullenly--
And suddenly will know their day has come,
The birthday of the Prince of all the tanks

And then will humans all be jitterbugs,
Migrate like locusts from their dance-hall doors,
And sing with insect-voices metal-shrill:
"Our god is born!" and roll to him like grapes
Till all their frenzy begs His metal treads:
"Love us to death, love us to death," the day
Creation's final goal, Prince Tank, is born.



Some people will be tempted to look back at Reuterdahl's early concept of science as a naive moment before childhood's end. That would be a mistake. These lyrical images continue to retain an important wisdom of their own.