I must have been 8 or 9 at the time. Some crazy German friends of my parents were building (or trying to) some wild amusement ride where you sat in this control chair and, I think, you were going to pilot yourself through projected images of space. Or something like that. Anyway, the chap had a book of spaceship illustrations that he was using as inspiration and I was so besotted with it he let me borrow it for a while. Like all things borrowed though, at some point they have to be returned (unless you’re Homer Simpson of course).
A little while after this came The Great Marzipan Incident. Without going into it, I have never been able to go near the stuff since. I must have been pretty sick though, as I remember one day lying in bed, my mum coming home with a fresh copy of the book. That book was non other than ‘21st Century Foss’, a collection of works by the God of science fiction illustration, Chris Foss.
I spent hours, days, months, pouring over that book taking it all in. Unlike the science fiction on the screen at the time, the visions Foss created were somehow believable, real. On those pages were images of spaceships, beaten and worn, irregular as any ship on the ocean. Bright colours, checker and stripe patterns, strange markings and belching steam, flame and exhaust; the spaceships of Foss were as believable to me as looking out over the ocean and seeing cargo ships on the horizon and in many ways, this single book inspired my imagination like very few did, or have since.
Today I still have that same book on my shelf – it’s one of those possessions you have that goes everywhere with you and it’s resided on my bookshelf on three continents. I still pull it down occasionally to flip through it and while it’s not in the best of condition, I still find it as enchanting now as I did in the early 80’s.
Of course Foss was not the only science fiction illustrator going around, though he is widely regarded as the granddaddy of what we’d call ‘modern science fiction illustration’. Peter Elson is another of my all time greats, though it could easily be argued that he drew a lot of his inspiration from Foss, who was illustrating a good 10 or more years prior and is still doing so (Elson died unexpectedly in the mid 90’s). Chris Moore is yet another.
What though makes Foss’ work so enduring? Today there are more illustrators working in the science fiction space than ever before but Foss’ imagery still stands head and shoulders above most of it (in my mind). Undoubtably Foss’ training in architecture was a foundation for his work, there is an understanding of scale, an eye for perspective and draftsmanship that comes from such training that permeates his work. It’s in reading more about his childhood though, his years spent in Gurnsey amongst the abandoned fortifications and docks that I feel gave him a foundation for how things wear and morph over time. More importantly, spending time in physical spaces like these, one begins to understand that large structures, be they ships or buildings, are not seamlessly smooth or slick, they are itty bitty, full of details and nooks.
And that’s what we see in Foss’ renditions. His spaceships are hulking structures one can actually imagine plowing through space, like the giant ships they are. There are no slick, polished metal, or swoopy, oddly aerodynamic curves; space is a vacuum, you don’t need them. Rather there are large slabs of hard metal and oddly purposeful bulges, pockmarked with vents, parting lines and other details that much of today’s science fiction shuns. What’s more, his craft bellow gasses, their engines blow out wads of flame and smoke and the skies and spaces they float in are turbulent, dark and often forbidding.
Foss’ visions are those of an industrial space and scale, where the craft are purposeful, work is hard, mechanical, and space unfriendly for people. And perhaps most interestingly, the actual artwork itself carries this same feeling. Where illustrations from the likes of Elson and Moore have a smooth, clean and almost pristine feeling to them, Foss’ paintings have a certain grunge to them that add to the overall vision he’s trying to create.
And maybe this is why his work has endured for so long. Foss does not seem to romanticise science fiction visions but somehow makes them real in terms we not only understand but also can see in front of us; just picture the machines working an open cut coal mine, the scale and smallness of the workers, and then think of a Foss painting.
Foss was once asked where he gets his his space craft from, to which he answered he took photographs whenever they flew overhead.
Today looking at his past and more recent work, I still get the feeling that’s how he does it. The sheer scale and brutality of his images, with little or no consolation to making his environments or craft ‘people friendly’, or in human scale are what makes them so real. Like the steam trains of an age past, ocean fairing cargo ships or even the obscene scale of mining machinery, big machines are unfriendly, dangerous and not the sort of things you want to cuddle up to. Foss delivers up this notion unconstrained.