The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

Finlay 04 Back Cover Weird Tales Sept. 1952

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Back Cover (Weird Tales, Sept. 1952)

III. Weird Tales served as the main venue of baroque science fiction although most critics regard that magazine as something other than and inferior to a science fiction periodical.  To the extent that John W. Campbell’s vision defined the genre then perhaps Weird Tales really was not science-fictional.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft published there, who admitted no supernatural elements in his fiction, along with Smith and Robert E. Howard.  Indiana born Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987), linked to Lovecraft through her correspondence with him, seems however closer to Smith than to H. P. L. in more ways than one, beginning with her interest in intensely visual figuration, often architectural or ornamental, voluntary derangement as an antidote to unbearable ennui, and the emissary protagonist, all of which one can only classify as Symbolist.  Now Symbolist aesthetics is related to baroque aesthetics, both by direct affiliation (Swedenborg to Baudelaire and Mallarmé) and in view of a persistent determination on the part of the individual artist to fill his canvas with detail and to impregnate every detail with meaning.  The non-baroque artist regards his baroque co-practitioner as decadent, extravagant, self-indulgent, illogical, and repetitious – someone who pushes too many adjectives against his nouns.  The baroque artist sees his critic as a Calvinist and a prude.  Moore’s Northwest Smith, like Poe’s narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” fulfills the roles both of pursuer and pursued; he too is fugitive, freethinking, not at all prudish, and never a Calvinist.  He sits in bars viewing the traffic like a Baudelairean flaneur, consumes potions like a shaman, plumbs the depths of despair and ecstasy, and, last but not least, acts a knight-errant in defending victims against the sacrificial madness of crowds, wicked cabals, and cults.

Forest Shambleau (1955)

Jean-Claude Forest (1930 – 1998): Illustrating C. L. Moore’s Shambleau

“Shambleau” (1934), the first of the Northwest Smith stories, is entirely fugal, nearly to the point of being, as Spengler might put it, more a musical composition than a literary text.  But more than that: An extraordinary improvisation in the rhetoric of synesthesia.  And more yet again than that: A moral tale.  A brief discussion from Paul Mark Walker’s Theories of Fugue (2000) seems apposite to “Shambleau”: “The Latin noun fuga, meaning ‘flight’ or ‘fleeing,’ is related to both the Latin verbs fugere, ‘to flee,’ and fugare, ‘to chase.’  The vernacular equivalents are chace and caccia, nouns that likewise designate a chase or hunt.”[i]  “Shambleau” commences with a pursuit, one that could equally well find its context in the Simplicius narrative, with a crowd chasing the eponymous Shambleau the way a posse of Lutheran bullyboys might harass a suspected witch.  “Into [Smith’s] range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street.”[ii]  Commentary on “Shambleau” recognizes it as Moore’s variant of the generic vampire story; no one seems to have noticed that the tale is also a reworking of “A Descent into the Maelström.”  That the mob’s quarry, the Shambleau, initially occupies the position of a victim moves Smith to protect her; she then gradually fascinates him, she drawing him to her despite himself the way the Maelström draws Poe’s narrator, inexorably.

Once the Maelström grips Poe’s narrator in its eddying clutches, panicked anticipation gives way to “the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself” so that the subject “positively felt a wish to explore its depths.”[iii]  Once Smith crosses the threshold of the vampire’s lethal allure, his attitude too alters unexpectedly.  In musical terms, he has come to the stretto of the experience, a gesture regularly repeated in Moore’s tales of her tough-guy character.  While the creature drains Smith of his life-energy, he perceives that “somehow there was beauty in it,” a luster “like the depths of a jewel,” a “blazing darkness,” and a “devouring rapture.”[iv]  Only his partner’s timely intervention saves Smith, who says that being ingested felt inebriating, like the action of a drug; Moore’s prose makes it equally clear that submission to the monstrous hunger provoked in the victim strong erotic pleasure.  In “The Scarlet Dream” (1934), a shimmering swatch of red fabric pulls Smith into an extra-dimensional bubble, where “the sky was a great shawl threaded with lightning that shivered and squirmed as he watched,” and where the twilight was “cloudy… blurred with exquisite patches of green and violet… in a land where the air was suffused with colored mists.”[v]  The ambiance turns sinister, but of such impressions, ambiguous though they are, Smith remains a connoisseur.  He likes to stand, as one might say, on the lip of the volcano spinning on his heel; he likes to drink segir, the Venusian whiskey.

Moore’s colorist penchant derives from her Symbolist sensibility.  A passage like this one from Baudelaire’s “Salon of 1846” would not be out of place in one of Moore’s stories: “Let us imagine a beautiful expanse of nature where the prevailing tones are greens and reds, melting into each other, shimmering in the chaotic freedom where all things, diversely colored as their molecular structure dictates, changing every second through the interplay of light and shade, and stimulated inwardly by latent heat, vibrate perpetually, imparting movement to all the lines and confirming the law of perpetual and universal motion.”[vi]  In Moore’s novel Judgment Night (1943), Juille, the Amazonian warrior-princes of planet Ericon, visits the pleasure-satellite Cyrille, where everything is elaborate trompe-l’oeil.  Juille has recourse to Cyrille in part so that she might “relax… the rigid self-consciousness” of her usual demeanor.[vii]  The relaxation entails some erotic license.  Thus with a companion Juille lulls in the spell of “distant music” while contemplating “great shining rosettes of light, shimmering from red to blue to white again in patternless rhythms” and a vista of “stars [that] blazed like great fiery roses against the dark.”[viii]  Judgment Night concludes in an Armageddon of galactic civilizations with an apocalypse of resurgent gods, who announce a new age.

Northwest Smith of Earth

Andrew Hou (birth date unknown): The Complete Northwest Smith of Earth (2007)

Planet Stories, in publication from 1939 to 1955, also served as a venue for the baroque in science fiction, most especially in the planetary romances that Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) destined for that gorgeous periodical.  The notion of the plurality of worlds, which provides the premise of planetary romance, stems – this fact should by now be unsurprising – from seventeenth century.  Kepler’s Somnium (1610), with its depiction of exotic flora and fauna of the moon, qualifies, in Gale. E. Christianson’s phrase, as “the fons et origo of modern science fiction.”[ix]  Equally antecedent to planetary romance are the Cosmotheoros (1695) of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757).  “Plurality” is as much a theological conviction as it is a scientific principle.  God would never have fashioned the stars and their undoubted planets leaving them untenanted; but rather he will have fashioned them to be the mansions of the plenteous and varied humanities that thrive and proliferate, reflecting His divine reason and dignity, throughout the universe.  Brackett, like Moore and Smith, often employed in her stories long, quasi-archaic periods and psychedelic imagery.

IV. Hindemith’s Kepler opera Die Harmonie der Welt (1957) has the right to be considered under the rubric of the baroque in science fiction. Like Hindemith’s earlier opera Mathis der Maler (1934), Harmonie der Welt takes place during the Reformation in the time of the religious wars, the fanaticism and violence of which threaten the protagonist. Hindemith portrays Kepler as a heroic anti-modern figure whose advocacy of Copernican cosmology entails the preservation of an essentially religious and mystic view of the universe.  The opera’s central metaphor, “The Harmony of the Worlds,” comes from Kepler’s treatise Harmonices Mundi (1619), in which, among other tasks that he set for himself, Kepler tried to reconcile elements of Ptolemaic cosmology with what were by then the certainties of Copernican cosmology, such as Heliocentrism and non-epicyclical orbital relations between the planets and the solar primary.  Kepler sought to preserve the Pythagorean idea, incorporated by Ptolemy, of a celestial harmony or “Music of the Spheres.”  This would be the same “μoυσίχή” to which Poe refers in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una.”  Bruce Stephenson writes, in The Music of the Heavens (1994), how Kepler took for granted that “if God had become man on Earth, then from Earth man should surely be able to detect the outlines of the great design of creation,” even to the point of apperceiving the celestial harmony.[x]  In Kitty Ferguson’s summation in The Music of Pythagoras (2008), Kepler believed in “a mysterious inherent connection between human souls and the underlying pattern of the universe.”[xi]  Die Harmonie der Welt, in which Hindemith has his usual recourse to baroque musical procedures, ends in an extended, magnificent passacaglia in which Kepler, completing Harmonices Mundi, has a mystic vision of the intelligible universe, with the planets and stars wheeling about him.

Some actual baroque, as distinct from neo-baroque, operas have science-fictional qualities.  Jean-Philippe Rameau’s allegorical operas from the middle of the eighteenth century deserve attention in this regard, most notably Castor et Pollux (1733), Zoroastre (1749), and Les Boréades (1763).  These are all re-imaginable as Weird Tales narratives, especially Zoroastre, with its earthly battle between the forces of good and evil (Zoroastre himself and the wicked Abramane) backed up by the cosmic battle of the rival Manichaean deities.  Rameau (1683-1764) published a theory of harmony as metaphysically complex as Kepler’s cosmology and garnered the nickname “The Newton of Music.”  Some science fiction novels have baroque-operatic qualities, outstandingly the five installments of the Demon Princes by the redoubtable Jack Vance (born 1916).  The five separate titles – The Star King (1964), The Killing Machine (1964), The Palace of Love (1967), The Face (1979), and The Book of Dreams (1981) – stage an elaborate revenge drama set against a galactic scene resembling Europe’s patchwork of republics and principalities at the time of the Reformation.  Vance’s protagonist, Kirth Gersen, belongs to the genre of emissary characters.  Gersen when still a child narrowly escaped but also witnessed the murder and enslavement of his parents and siblings.  Raised by his grandfather to be the avenger of the outrage, Gersen exists outside the law.  His existence thus has a fugitive quality; he resembles, among others, Northwest Smith, although he is more a pursuer than pursued.  The Demon Princes is a vast passacaglia in prose, repeating the basic plot five times while varying the details; and when the last evildoer tastes his just desert, the effect is not unlike that in the last act of Rameau’s Zoroastre.  In the extravagant epigraphic apparatus of his novelistic Pentateuch, Vance quotes Spengler: “Everything of which we are conscious… has for us a deeper meaning still, a final meaning.  And the one and only means of rendering this incomprehensible comprehensible must be a kind of metaphysics which regards everything whatsoever as having significance as a symbol.”[xii]

Paul Frank R. City on Neptune Fantastic Adventures March 1941

Frank R. Paul (1884 – 1963): City on Neptune (Fantastic Adventures, March 1941)

Science fiction is not only a large archive of prose narrative; it is also, in the twentieth century, a large archive of the painterly art.  Here too on inspection an identifiable baroque subcategory emerges into view.  The instances of Frank R. Paul (1884-1963) and Virgil Finlay (1914-1971) compel the interpreter, however, to invoke a musical as much as a pictorial vocabulary; their art, like baroque art generally, must be understood, like Symbolist poetry, as synesthesia.  Spengler sees synesthesia as the essence of Western or Faustian Art.  According to Spengler, by the mid-sixteenth century, with music taking the lead, “the great task [of the arts] was to extend to tone-corpus into infinity, or rather to resolve it into an infinite space of tone”; Spengler adds that the trend is visible “in oil painting from Titian onwards.” [xiii]  Leonardo, for example, “reveals aerial secrets with every line,” having been “the first… to set his mind on aviation” and to want “to lose [himself] in the expanse of the universe.”[xiv] Paul’s suites of back-cover illustrations for Amazing, appearing serially in the early 1940s, show their creator working at the highest levels of imagination and execution.  Paul’s “Cities” suite ranks above the others, with “Crystallis, Glass City on Io” (July 1941), “Quartz City on Mercury” (September 1941), and “Golden City on Titan” (November 1941) being especially noteworthy.  Paul does in oils what the prose artists do in words with their detailed invocations of alien and exotic architecture; he continues a painterly tradition of architectural fantasy going back to Alain Maillet and the Brueghel Family in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Virgil Finlay worked almost entirely in chiaroscuro, using the stippling technique; he placed a good deal of his work in Weird Tales.  Finlay’s art while nominally illustrative remained largely independent of any text however much a given item from his hand might complement and elevate its text.  In Finlay, the Faustian aspiration of sounding the infinite becomes infinitely eroticized – as happens also in Poe, Baudelaire, and Moore – under the image of the Eternal Feminine.  It is the Eternal Feminine who, in Goethe’s famous words, zieht uns hinan or “draws us on high.”  In the Faustian world-experience, according to Spengler, “Being appears as pure efficient Space… sensually felt.”[xv]  Spengler’s words describe Finlay’s illustrations for otherwise entirely forgotten stories by Arthur Stringer and Harry Bates.  For Stringer’s “Woman Who Couldn’t Die” (Famous Fantastic Mysteries October 1950), Finlay supplies a transfigured female nude whose subtle body is indistinguishable from starlight; while for Bates’ “Triggered Dimension” (Science Fiction Plus December 1953), he superimposes the upper body of a female nude over the image of a dynamo, in a realization of the chapter on “The Virgin and the Dynamo” from Henry Adams’ Education (1918).  Finlay’s understanding of Western science must have been convergent with Spengler’s, who wrote: “Scientists are wont to assume that myths and God-ideas are creations of primitive man, and that as spiritual culture ‘advances,’ this myth-forming power is shed.  In reality it is the exact opposite.”[xvi]

It would be a shame to take leave of the topic without at least mentioning cinema.  One of the earliest and greatest of all science fiction films fairly begs the description baroque – Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926).  In Lang’s masterpiece, whose final action occurs among the flying buttresses and towers of a Gothic cathedral, science intermingles with alchemy and magic while acts of primitive sacrifice happen among the ornate subterranean engines that power the city.  Metropolis is a study of chiaroscuro in motion.  The aptly named Maria, duplicated by the Faustian scientist-magician Rotwang as the robot, exercises her feminine power to transfix the hero, Freder, and (quite literally) to draw him on high.


[i] Paul Mark Walker, Theories of Fugue from the Age of Josquin to the Age of Bach, Eastman Studies in Music 2000, 7.
[ii] Catherine Louise Moore (Introduction by C. J. Cherryh), Northwest of Earth, Planet Stories 2007, 18.
[iii] The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, 83.
[iv] Northwest of Earth, 36-38.
[v] 92.
[vi] Selected Writings on Art and Literature, 54.
[vii] Catherine L. Moore, Judgment Night, Paperback Library 1965, 22.
[viii] 34-35.
[ix] Gale E. Christianson, “Kepler’s Somnium: Science Fiction and the Renaissance Scientist,” Science Fiction Studies, March 1976.
[x] Stephenson, Bruce, The Music of the Heavens: Kepler’s Harmonic Astronomy, Princeton University Press, 1994, 126..
[xi] Kitty Ferguson, The Music of Pythagoras, Walker and Company 2008, 274.
[xii] In Jack Vance, The Demon Princes, Vol. I, Doherty (Orb) 1997, 73.
[xiii] The Decline, Vol. I., 230, 231.
[xiv] 279.
[xv] 398.
[xvi] 399.

3 thoughts on “The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

  1. Pingback: The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I – The Orthosphere


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