PRINT September 1998


Here is the reason why the gouaches, etchings, and oils of “speculative fiction” are so consistently evocative: they tap into a childhood font that used to be called wonder—now, of course, a frayed, heinous cliché, an Encyclopaedia Brittanica relic.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when scabby-kneed kids could be startled at the sheer size of a particular full moon; while a Bradbury-esque summer breeze seduced hairs of the neck, they’d have the sudden startling sense of themselves as temporal, temporary beings on a wildly moving place (certainly not the only creatures in orbit). Such a child might lie on the ground with his recumbent DNA, staring at the nebulae; an ontological frisson would star them for life. And what would these nebulous children of paradise see? Well, someone has finally put together a wonderbook of those imaginings: at long last, something wickedly gorgeous this way comes—Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art has faithfully, lovingly assembled the transcendently limpid deep-space tempera of the finely executed chimeras that have bedazzled the covers of science-fiction magazines, novels, and storybooks for over sixty years.

If I could, I would dissolve bodily into these epic, witty, bone-numbingly lonesome fantasias abundantly served in Vincent Di Fate’s new catalogue raisonné of celestial musings. Along with picture—perfect reproductions, this utterly essential collection provides terse, literate, well—observed biographical information on the contributors who built thousands of brave new worlds from the ground up. Its author and scholarly editor, Vincent Di Fate, is fortuitously one of the pantheon’s own, a luminous body himself in the cosmology of illustrators. He has dreamed interstellar dreams for clients as diverse (or alike) as IBM, NASA, CBS, and National Geographic.

Fanning through the peacock’s tail of Infinite Worlds is a polymorphously perverse delight: there’s something for everyone. Mr. Di Fate unfolds the varied genres of sci-fi illustration with tender thoroughness. My favorite mise-en-scènes depict the unflagging enormity of the universe and the paltry yet sublime presence of intrepid Man/Woman, whose humble business it is to bear awed and minuscule witness; such paintings usually portray landscapes or moonscapes or scape—scapes of humongous scale, with poignantly lilliputian figures in the foreground watching in stupefied reverence, something akin to Journey to the Center of the Earth’s cavers when they round a corner and find themselves toe-to-toe with a vast subterranean ocean. Michael Whelan’s 1983 Trantorian Dream is an absolute stunner; from the wreckage of an alien civilization, a lone warrior climbs atop a pillar to stare with shredded hope and magisterial dignity into the yawping cosmological eye. (One cannot help but think of Caspar David Friedrich.) Whelan excels in creating dead worlds that are tentatively beginning to flower again. In a companion piece, Armenia, 1990, a cerebral, white-robed beauty stares at us with timeless, petulant ennui. At her feet, fledgling fauna nibble at body-bud flora; behind her, the cockeyed ruins of a once floating city is frozen in a still and sulfurous sea.

Those visions give way to ones of interplanetary war: impossibly enormous weapon—craft hover just above ground, disgorging troops from their maws while the opposing land armies advance like warrior ants. The distant soldiers are always shown running, bodies tilted in armored 45—degree full—gallop, leaning into their fates, death in far space a die already cast. I particularly savor tableaux in which the artist deigns to place a tattered hero—figure in the extreme foreground (say, a Doc Savagc type), running boldly toward and past the reader in escape, the implication being that he is too savvy to want a part of the arcane, titanic, wanton struggles at hand. Di Fate rightfully cites Stanley Meltzoff’s 1952 painting for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel of alien invasion, The Puppet Masters, as a masterpiece of the genre. A regnant, solitary, existential figure—the recurring image in these works—stands on the crown of a just—landed craft as chaos reigns below. One can see the brushstrokes; it looks like a detail from a painting hundreds of years old.1

Other themes are more romantic, i.e., young couples on the run (the women usually half-dressed, and each one a Ripley—believe it or not). Against a backdrop of ivied, Escherian floating cities, the constellatory fugitives hold hands and ogle us with moving nobility. They are in worlds of trouble; they will not need our help. I remember pubescently fusing with these couples—each seemed a galactic embodiment of Sondheim’s Tony and Maria: “and for us, stars will stop where they are.”

The whimsical and ironic: on a busy street of automatons, a robot drops a coin into the helmet of a blind astronaut begging on a sidewalk (the artist was Virgil Finlay). Yet, somehow the latter isn’t “funny,” per se: sci—fi art is always an oddly emotional affair. Further motifs are starships in the shape of dinosaurs or Brobdingnagian yachts—some replete with sails, billowing against infinity’s blackness—explanations always refreshingly unnecessary because it’s a given that these contrarian painters are exhilarated by the inventiveness of their anachronisms, the plain, breakout, nonlinear hot-dogger joy of the super-real juxtaposition. Thus, we find war-painted Indian braves tilling the soil of a rocket-filled field (H.R. Van Dongen); and it is not at all peculiar that a planet of some far system would have a dark, roiling sea where Spanish galleons pitch battle while a vain, sun-kissed fantopolis floats dizzily above the fray.

The art of science fiction is a yeasty, zestful marriage of Dalí, Delacroix, and de Chirico, Homer, Rockwell, and Wyeth. (Christina’s World is vintage sci-fi—just add three moons and stir.) In fact, there’s a haunted painting of Homer’s called A Summer Night, 1890, that, with the mere addition of the aforementioned lunar exotica would do Di Fate and his crew proud. On second thought, the hell with it: please to leave as is. Homer’s women’s unearthly dance, the dark figures bearing witness against a planetary sea, the magnificence and end-of-time loneliness—the loneliness of the light-years runner—well, it’s just about as right as right can be.

Dead on. Let it go straight to Mr. Di Fate’s canon.


1. That carbon dating would discover such a fantasy to be true is itself the speculative stuff of pocketbook novellas.