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A Distant Technology by J.P. Telotte

01/11/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy A Distant Technology in the USA - or Buy A Distant Technology in the UK

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pub: Wesleyan University Press. 218 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: $21.95 (US), GBP 19.50 (UK). ISBN: 0-8195-6346-3.

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The sub-title of ‘A Distant Technology’ is ‘Science Fiction Film And The Machine Age’. Still no wiser? Me neither, actually. Well, not at this stage. Mostly because author J.P. Telotte is looking at the dawn of SF films in association with the rise of SF novels across the world hitting on Russia, Germany and France before even getting to little known places like the USA and UK. If you thought you knew all the early works of SF then you will suddenly find how little you actually know. Indeed, even Telotte himself points out the availability of many of these early books and films is sparse. With the non-English books that might be a bit more understandable because I doubt if they’ve ever had a translation let alone stay in print. Of them, the only one I’ve heard of was ‘The Invisible Ray’ and my Mum told about that one when I was very young and it’s never cropped up since until now.

A lot of the early SF films weren’t actually called Science Fiction, mostly because the term didn’t exist until the mid-1930s. They were classed as horror and even novelty. I’m not sure if I agree with Telotte that they could have been more serious from the start. In the early days of film-making, as is mostly today, the first rule is to entertain to get bums on seats. No wonder that comedies were so popular and when sound came, musicals. Georges Méliès films were more an exercise in playing with camera tricks to fool the eye and fantasy was the best medium for that. Science Fiction depended more on visually doing the fantastic and consider than tossing an adult plot at it, hence the ‘Flash Gordons’ of that time using SF as window-dressing. I suspect also that it was seen that the youth market would have less problems with accepting futuristic-looking material than adults. Even so, a proportion of the population was adult and it persisted or we wouldn’t be here assessing the material today.

The final chapter about the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its depiction of labour-saving gadgets is actually quite illuminating from my perspective more than Telotte’s. I mean, you can see the influence on American culture even today where dish-washing machines are more commonplace in the home than in the UK, as is other labour-saving gadgets. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try them but many of them get left in the drawer after their promotion stage. Oddly, current day SF films don’t really dwell on labour-saving gadgets so it does suggest that as a reflection of the present, such things aren’t seen as being so important.

One of the better bonuses of this book is the variety and quality black and white photographs, especially from the foreign films. The photo on page 127 isn’t from ‘Frankenstein’ but ‘Bride Of Frankenstein’ as next to Karloff is Ernest Thesiger but that’s a minor point.

The extensive notes at the back of the book are interesting but with a smaller book such as this, there is a good argument to have them on the actual pages. This is a point I’ve raised with many books in the past year, mostly because I feel so many readers will have a tendency to ignore them which defeats their objective in the first place.
This is a dense book to read but gives a lot of important information about the early SF films, especially with foreign films which doesn’t always get as much coverage as they should. An outsider would think SF was solely an American and British thing and to be shown that imagination was rife in Europe and Russia but faded over the years indicates what could have happened had they sustained their interest.

GF Willmetts

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