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Science Fiction Of The 20th Century: An Illustrated History
Frank M. Robinson
Horror Of The 20th Century: An Illustrated History
Fantasy Of The 20th Century: An Illustrated History
Collectors Press hardcovers $60 each
reviewed by Steven Hampton and Tony Lee
Winner of a Hugo award in 2000, Frank Robinson's Science Fiction Of The 20th Century is a marvellous art-book which provides a showcase for an often neglected aspect of SF. With accompanying text of an enthusiastic tone by a lifelong fan, this first collection of historically important images reminds us that magazine covers and book jackets have contributed almost as much to the growth and popularity of the genre as have the actual short stories and novels.
By charting the development of SF from its earliest days, through the charming simplicity of the Golden Age of pulp adventures and the postmodern diversification of the New Wave, to the biotech imperatives of our post-cyberpunk present, Robinson demonstrates, with a clarity that only pictures can achieve, how commercial art and graphic design have helped to sustain increasing levels of sophistication in SF literature. By reflecting rapid changes in the real world, and communicating new ideas faster than writing ever could, SF art boasts a vitality that equals the best prose and can often match the startling potency of moving pictures.
Colourful space opera scenes by Frank R. Paul gave way to the techno-realism of Vincent Di Fate - but, whether imagining a worst-case scenario, or celebrating the boundless possibilities of optimistic futurism, this treasure store of fantastical imagery brings together Astounding and Amazing, the weird and the cosmic, the lucid and the surreal, in a fabulous package.
Robert Weinberg's Horror Of The 20th Century makes for an excellent follow-up book. Tracing the origins of tales about the supernatural from gothic romance, mystery chillers and lurid shockers, Weinberg's descriptive text tends to focus on the fiction more than the great wealth of paintings for the covers of paperback novels, magazines and ghost story collections. However, he notes that movies (many posters are featured here) and comics played crucial roles in maintaining horror's viability as a genre during periods when its literary forms became exhausted by cycles of overexposure and exploitation.
Margaret Brundage's lovely female nudes for Weird Tales, contrast strongly with the frequent images of blood and skulls and twisted flesh (many are uncredited) that adorn modern horror books. The likes of H.R. Giger and J.K. Potter may have attracted major cult followings but it's clear that the grisly and fascinating artwork that decorates today's horror novels still has a somewhat disreputable quality.
Notable among the comments by Randy Broecker in Fantasy Of The 20th Century is a timely reminder to all that swords 'n' sorcery certainly didn't begin with Moorcock's Elric, Pratchett's comedic Discworld series, or the Sinbad movies that showcased Ray Harryhausen's animation. Though few would deny the influence of Tolkien's archetypal The Lord Of The Rings, fantasy did not begin with the hobbits of Middle-Earth, either.
Perhaps because they are primarily associated with horror fiction, the significance of fantasy in work by genre grandmasters Poe and Lovecraft is often overlooked, and even Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard, had antecedents. Writers and authors aside, their multiplicity of lost worlds, heroic champions, devilish foes and monstrous dragons, are immortalised here. Frank Frazetta's depiction of Conan, as a mighty yet brutish warrior, has become iconic, while the numerous eroticised cover girls drawn by Virgil Finlay are rightly world famous.
This trio of books are an essential part of any comprehensive genre library, as valuable in the own way as the pair of Orbit encyclopaedias of science fiction and fantasy edited by John Clute, Peter Nicholls and John Grant, or any of the other specialist guides. Honestly, even if you think you have read more than enough about SF/F/H, these superbly designed volumes are worth collecting for the impressive range of genre artwork alone!
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