Life on Other Worlds

Life on Other Worlds

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First Contact is always a letdown.

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"Okay, Galactic Standard co-ordinates are 4.71 alpha, 9.32 beta, and 1.01 gamma... that's Right Ascension... uh,,,  Declination... um,,, Carry the two... Oh, Hell! Look, I'm from here, okay?  The teeny star next to the Horse Head nebula on the corner by the Seven Eleven."

Mars in more romantic times.Let's face it, Ugmar of Zeta 12 here was no Klaatu.  All those billions of dollars spent on radio telescopes, SETI screensavers, and space probes with  gold-plated gramophone records and naughty plaques tacked to them and this is what we get: a three-eyed blob of earwax whizzing about on a flying go-kart.  Even the man on the lower right has a "what the Hell?" expression.  But that was the 1920s for you. It was a time when there was just enough knowledge about outer space to make life on other worlds a possibility, but not enough to keep speculation from going completely ga-ga.  Reasoning usually went like this: Mars looks similar to Earth, the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli thought he saw lines on the surface that looked like canals, and before you could say "Orson Welles" you had people running around talking about ancient Martian civilisations bent on conquering the Earth.

Frank R. PaulIn the 1920s and '30s the most influential of science fiction illustrators was Frank R. Paul.  He supplied many of the covers for Hugo Gernsback's magazines such as Amazing Stories and though the people he drew looked like suet poured into clothes, his buildings, machines, and aliens had a complexity, detail, and drama about them that provided artists with the visual vocabulary of science fiction to this day.

In the late '30s, Paul had a chance to let his imagination run for a bit with a series of back-cover pieces depicting cities on other planets and the creatures that inhabit them.  His ideas of what our neighbours in the Solar System and beyond look like were often strikingly beautiful and showed a creativity that put the standard Star Trek man-with-a-lumpy-forehead school to shame.   They were meant as flights of fancy rather than educated theories, but it says a lot about the times that his Martians, Venusians, and Whateverians were taken seriously and not as the product of using paint thinner in an unventilated space.

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