Romancing the Telescope with the Heroes of Science

The other day, Terry Gilliam posted a photo on facebook with the caption: 'This is Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known ... and you probably have never heard of him. Without him we wouldn't have AC electricity or the radio. I wouldn't be communicating with you know if it wasn't for him'. Actually, since the film of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, 'you' might very well have heard of Nikola Tesla. He has become a kind of science-hero who is seen to be a neglected genius: see this page from The Oatmeal, for instance. This BBC page even calls him 'the patron saint of geeks': some title, that. And Tesla even has a Wikipedia page that catalogues his appearance in popular culture, mainly in sf. (The title of this piece is lifted from OMD's 'Romance of the Telescope', which featured on their 1983 lp Dazzle Ships; a single the following year was called 'Tesla Girls'.)

The Oatmeal's line on Tesla is that he was done down by Thomas Edison, whose capacities for self-promotion  and the exploitation of the inventions of others are a matter of record. Edison becomes the villain in a zero-sum game narrative, where Tesla's true fame is eclipsed by the fraud Edison. The truth, of course, is more complex than that, but conflict between the two is central to Brian Wegener and Scott Clevinger's comic book Atomic Robo, where the central character, the eponymous atomic-powered Robo, was invented by Tesla, who himself is engaged in a clandestine battle with the malevolent Edison.

Robo, who develops across the comic books (which are narrated non-chronologically) from a gosh-wow college kid, hungry for adventure, in the 1920s, through fighting in Europe (against Nazi wunderwaffe) and the Pacific in WW2, to the head of the 'Tesladyne' corporation in the present day, a mixture of secret agent, superhero and science researcher. While I find Robo enormously entertaining, as he battles Lovecraftian monsters, giant AIs, and other stuff lifted from the history of sf, fantasy and the Weird, there's also a kind of didactic purpose to the series. A side-comic is called Real Science Adventures, and both that and the main series offer Robo as scientist-as-hero (in a half-joky way), although Robo is as often willing to solve things by outre physical violence (Thoom! Clang!) as by the application of reason and science. In a sense, Robo is in the tradition of both Indiana Jones and pulp-sf inventor-geniuses, engaged in the public and secret histories of the 20th century.

I was struck by the scientist as culture-hero while reading Michael Moorcock's 'Kane of Old Mars' trilogy, his mid- to late-1960s homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom narratives. Michael Kane, unlike the Civil War veteran John Carter, is a scientist, whose translation to Mars is the result of an accident during a physics experiment. While on Mars, caught up in the battles between Thark-like 'Argzoons' and the fading cities of the Martian plains. Like Carter, Kane fights, journeys across Mars, and wins the hand of a Martian princess. Kane, however, is much more concerned with logically puzzling through the difficulties he encounters, with inventing machines (such as airships), and ultimately, with the ethics of waging war.

Despite its bad reviews, reading Moorcock's Kane books made me want to see John Carter. The SFX  website, from which this image was taken, provided a good corrective to the received idea of the film as a $200million flop. I missed it at the cinema, but recently got the dvd to check the film out. And I was pleasantly surprised.

I cannot really see what the fuss was about. Yes, it has plot holes (what happens to the '9th Ray' technology McGuffin, for instance?); yes, the backstory about the loss of Carter's wife and children is a bit pat (and would have been much more telling if Carter had evinced qualms about the ethical rightness of the Confederate cause, which would have motivated his unwillingness to fight for the city of Helium more convincingly); the 'present day' 1880s New York sequences unfortunately reminded me of another adaptation, Simon Wells's 2002 The Time Machine, not a flattering comparison; and yes, some of the moments of levity fall a bit flat. But: I thought the film was paced quite nicely, was definitely spectacular with some excellent design (see the ships above), had some decent set-pieces, and in the figures of the malevolent  and eternal Therns, who feed on the destruction of planets and civilizations that they manipulate (with the suggestion that Earth is next) has a soft ethical message. Elements seemed familiar from the Star Wars prequel films (particularly the arena sequence from Attack of the Clones) indicate the indebtedness of Lucas's conception of desert worlds like Tatooine or Geonosis to Barsoom itself, and the indebtedness of the whole Star Wars universe to planetary romance, (light-)sabers and all.

The crucial thing about John Carter is displacement, literal and symbolic, which is why the film is called what it is, rather than 'John Carter of Mars'. We see this title at the very end of the film, but only when Carter has himself chosen to go back to Mars and effected his plan to circumvent the Therns and return to Dejah Thoris's side. (In John Carter, the princess is herself a science-hero, but her invention is sabotaged.) To become John Carter of Mars, he must commit himself, to a cause, to romantic love, to a community (the Tharks as well as Helium). If Carter is problematic as a white colonial male leader of an indigenous people (see Avatar), perhaps Andrew Stanton could have been more subtle in shading the ironies that abound, particularly considering American overseas involvement in desert countries in the last 10 years. I don't think the film is a simple apologia for US adventurism, but the science-hero or the hero of planetary romance (albeit one wounded by loss  in contemporary fashion) helps sweeten the heroic and masculinist narrative. All that said, I liked John Carter, though with Stanton's Pixar background, and the success of the painterly animation of Lucas's The Clone Wars series, I also thought that it could have been a very successful animated film.    


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