A Shout-out for George Antheil

Reading, earlier this evening, a piece on the upcoming Hedy Lamarr mini-series focussing on the invention of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, I was struck by the author’s use of the phrase ‘Lamarr and a friend invented…’

Evidently, this “friend” could only be the eminent avant-garde composer, George Antheil, co-holder of US Patent No. 2,292,387 (filed June 10th, 1941).  Yet the author of the piece had decided to bleach him out of the picture.  It’s just one more example of the growing practice of downplaying the male side of equal collaborations between men and women, in the interests of a good story.  No doubt some wag out there has already coined a term for this.  Femsplaining anyone?  X-punging?

Clearly any narrative where the so-called ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ demonstrates the intellect to succeed in military engineering, thereby overturning any number of the prejudices of her time, is compelling.  However, that Lamarr’s and Antheil’s work was a collaboration of equals, is beyond doubt.  It’s clear in Richard Rhodes’s 2011 book; it’s equally clear in Elyse Singer’s 2008 play – the last time that this episode in their lives was dramatised.

The pair of them were two loners trapped in the Hollywood system; she as an actress, he as a composer.  This drew them into friendship.  For their work, carried out in the context of a torpedo guidance system for the US Navy that would be immune to jamming, in anticipation of the US war effort, Antheil brought his machine synchronisation expertise to the table, Lamarr the weapons system knowledge acquired during her first marriage to an Austrian arms dealer.

What is particularly sad about the bleaching out of Antheil, is that in the 1920’s he had been as eminent in his field as Lamarr was in hers come the 1940’s – it’s not even as if he were some insignificant boffin.  The height of Antheil’s notoriety came at the US premier, in 1927, of his Ballet Mécanique, at the Carnegie Hall.  Contemporary reports allude to fist fights and riots.  The Carnegie’s own timeline entry for April 10th 1927 records:-

Composer George Antheil, the self-styled “bad boy of music,” presents the US premiere of his Ballet mécanique on April 10.  Conducted by Eugène Goossens, the performance featured xylophones, electric bells, anvils, airplane propellers, sirens, assorted percussion instruments, player pianos, and regular pianos, including one played by a 26-year-old Aaron Copland.  According to The New York Times, some members of the audience cheered, some hissed, and “one beleaguered man” even tied a white handkerchief to his cane, “hoisted it over his head and waved it from side to side in a token of surrender.”

Moreover, it was the synchronisation engineering challenges which Antheil had addressed during the realisation of this piece, that gave him the grounding needed for the later frequency hopping work with Lamarr.  Of course some of Antheil’s solutions for Ballet Mécanique had been crude and cumbersome and it was only in 1999, thanks to modern technology, that a revival of the work was for the first time performed exactly as the composer intended.

Lamarr and Antheil jointly received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.  By then, Antheil had been dead for almost forty years.  Lamarr was still around and was able to quite justifiably remark ‘it’s about time.’  It would be nice to imagine that Lamarr’s longevity is the principal reason why hers is the first name to be associated with the work today; certainly I’d be surprised if one in a thousand who are aware of what she achieved, could name her co-author.  Unfortunately I doubt it; I suspect that poor George just keeps getting X-punged in the interests of a good narrative.

Coda: The More You Dig (added 03/Oct/2017)

I’d made a short foray into Antheil’s music two or three years ago, finding nice recordings of the Ballet Mécanique and some of his avant garde piano music from the same period.  Revisiting him since penning the above, it’s pretty clear that my remarks regarding his stature in the musical world are an underestimation.  During his time in Hollywood, he wrote over thirty film scores and by the mid-1940’s, he was a symphonist of considerable repute, lauded in classical music circles as ‘The American Shostokovitch.’

I found also a few snippets of interest to SF&F fans.  In 1955, Antheil wrote the score for John Parker’s landmark horror fantasy movie Dementia, which anticipated the tone and style of David Lynch’s work by several decades.  It’s widely regarded as one of Antheil’s best scores, in significant part due to the eerie, wordless vocals performed by Marni Nixon.  In 1958, a recording of one of Antheil’s late works Two Odes of John Keats (1950) was made, a year before he died, with the composer himself on piano and Vincent Price as the narrator.


Follycon Redux

One of the nicest things to come out of Mancunicon was the news that Follycon has been revived, thirty years after the original and will be the 2018 Eastercon in Harrogate.

The first Follycon was held in 1988 at the Britannia Adelphi hotel in Liverpool, a relic of empire, much given to trumpeting that its fine ballroom was modelled on the one on the Titanic.

It was a particularly memorable event for me as I was fortunate enough to be one of the team of four (along with Suzanna Raymond, Bill Longley and Darren Newbury) tasked with shooting the con video.  I don’t recall how I got onto this cushy number; maybe it was something to do with the fact that I had, for a few years by then, been a tech assistant to Andy Morris, doing the 16mm projection, which was still a large and important part of con programming at the time.

Anyhow, with Suzanna on camera (brilliant!), me directing and the other two forming a game for anything props/special effects department, we came up with the theme of the con being visited by a small, impressionable alien named H.G. Tripod, played with upright poise by, well by our camera tripod actually.  We filmed establishing shots such as H.G. arriving at the train station, and in various fan situations, such as returning to his (her?) room drunk, canoodling with a fellow fan (played with great aplomb by Linda-Clare Toal) and parading in the masquerade (as a Martian war machine, thanks to a wee mag-lite torch and some gaffer tape).  The last caused quite a stir, as a humourless git involved in running the masquerade felt that H.G.’s entry lacked the required gravitas and initially refused it.  I believe the con committee had to intervene to get this reversed.

Still this paled into insignificance besides the spectacle of an eminent conflict-zone reporter of the time, going nuclear in reception because the hotel had no room available.  I put on my best war reporters’ safari jacket and raced with the team to reception in order to buttonhole her for an exclusive interview but alas we were just too late.

I did do some other things at the first Follycon.  Participation in an excellent writers’ workshop, hosted by Ian Watson, persuaded me to put away my pens for a very long time.  I think I also gave a talk on something, though I’m no longer 100% sure – I still have the Follycon Souvenir book but not the programme book.  It seems as though cons back then used to programme a lot more one person items than they do now.  I’ve always loved holding an audience in the palm of my hand for an hour all by myself but now if you get to do anything at all at a con, it’s almost invariably as part of a panel.  And these days you have to volunteer.  Back then, you never had to volunteer for anything – you’d just get asked.

On the Sunday evening of that Follycon the team did an all-nighter, crash editing the final cut of the video and adding titles, using two tape machines and it received a triumphant reception when shown on the Monday.  The precious tapes were later given over to Darren for safe keeping and I still have the title cards.  I don’t believe the tape ever surfaced for repeat viewing at any future Eastercon but I’ve missed a fair few between then and now so I could be wrong.  Wouldn’t it be great though, if someone reading this (Darren where are you?) joined up the dots and rediscovered those tapes in time for Follycon 2018!

Time for Some E.R. Eddison

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that in a time of big screen Tolkien and Narnia adaptations and quality fantasy all over our TVs, the third corner of England’s big ‘between-the-wars’ trinity should remain so unexplored.

One can understand why E.R. Eddison’s books have had a limited readership over the years; some readers find his faux-archaic prose difficult, others fall asleep within seconds of Doctor Vandermast opening his mouth to deliver another philosophical treatise, still more have a job getting their head around characters that seem to morph into each other.  Well, it seems to me that these are all reasons for adapting his stories for the screen rather than the opposite.  Coupled of course with the fact that they’re amongst the finest fantasies ever written.

The opening of The Worm Ouroboros is famously lame.  A narrator dreams his way to Venus and is quickly forgotten.  Thereafter it is fantasy gold,  describing a glorious war between the witches and the demons, with an ending to die for, all delivered in flawless cod-Elizabethan; a device which after the first fifty or sixty pages, you’d think you’d been reading your whole life.  Don’t believe me?  Try it!

If Worm is Eddison’s masterpiece, then the later Zimiamvian trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) is the most heroic of failures.  A book is hardly the best medium with which to pull off what Eddison is attempting but he almost manages it; maybe if he had lived to complete the third volume, he would have done so.  The plot is simple enough – an early twentieth century English industrialist escapes the tragedy of his own life to live out a second life as an adventurer in a fantasy world that intersects with ours.

The masterful trick that Eddison pulls off is that he makes Lessingham (same name as the narrator of Worm but maybe not the same guy; Zimiamvia is mentioned in Worm as being visible in the distance from the high mountains of Impland but those two links are as far as the connection with the trilogy goes), the hero we’re clearly to root for, into the brilliant, incorruptible and courageous right hand man of one of the principal villains.  For Lessingham to triumph, the good guys have to lose and Eddison finds a classic bittersweet way of resolving this.

What makes the trilogy complicated is that the principal heroes and heroines are archetypes who can become inhabited by the gods.  Thus when Lessingham  notices the similarities between Mary and Fiorinda, he is seeing the common characteristics of the goddess who inhabits them both.  When he sees himself through Barganax’s eyes he is seeing what the god, who can inhabit both of them, is seeing.  It’s a difficult philosophical trick to pull off through the written word – it aches to be filmed.

The Zimiamvian trilogy has a wonderful ready made tag-line – Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey – that alone ought to be enough to get it made.  The Three Kingdoms of Zimiamvia pre-date the seven of Westeros by fifty years as the original low-magic, high political intrigue fantasy world.  Boy-king Derxis of Akkama makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Peter Pan and the Vicar of Rerek could out-Tywin Tywin with one hand tied behind his back.  As for Vandermast, just think Pycelle on acid, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nubile lycanthropes in vintage underwear.

Eddison relates the Zimiamvia story backwards, so a good ploy might be to tell it in straightforward chronological order instead.   And of course any adaptation would have a lot of work to do fleshing out the big parts of the third book that only exist as Eddison’s outlines.  And as for those difficult characters who blur identities with each other from time to time – well just ask David Lynch to direct.  Problem solved.

A Date from Hell

On the face of it, the International Literature Festival (ILF) Dublin’s Date With An Agent event, run by Writing.ie and The Inkwell Group, sounds like a good idea.  You pay a modest entry fee, send off 1500 words and a synopsis of your novel and the lucky winners then pay another fifty quid to attend a a whole day event on getting published with a ten minute ‘one-to-one’ with one of the agents attending thrown in.

I won a spot, along with 64 other lucky souls, but there were immediate alarm bells.  The ‘date’ I had been set up with, specialised in children’s and women’s literary fiction.  Mine was an urban fantasy novel for the adult market.  I queried this with the organisers, who assured me that my date ‘got’ fantasy and could potentially build a relationship with me or else, with luck (the organiser’s words) refer me on if my novel wasn’t for her.

Mollified, I paid my money and went along.  The morning panel of the five attending agents was really excellent and I got a lot of good advice.  The submission basics talk after that was boring, as I knew most of it but I can understand that it needed to be delivered for newcomers, so no issues there.  There were more alarm bells though in how the actual date was now being described – merely as a chance for the participants to get feedback from a real agent (gosh!).  This was definitely a watered down version of what I had understood up to that point based on the blurb for the event and the content of the emails I had received.

Anyhow, the moment of my date arrived.  I presented my lovingly crafted 90-second multimedia pitch and then had a chat with her.  The sum total of the discussion:-

1.  Given my background, she was sure that I understood the demands and publishing requirements of the adult fantasy genre far better than she did;

2.  She had no interest in adult fantasy and nobody else at her agency did either;

3.  A couple of my sentences were too long.

Based on this outcome, I’m now forced to conclude that a big aim of the format is just to ensure there are plenty of attendees at the event on the day.  If you have 60-odd writers and just five agents, it’s unlikely that there can be a fit for everyone. However to be fair to the organisers, at least one person at the event who I talked to, was asked to forward the rest of their manuscript to the agent they met, so that was a great match and a big success for them.  So what’s the truth of it?  I think basically the event is uneven – not everyone gets to play on a level field.  I could have written the best fantasy novel ever and the agent I was fixed up with would neither have asked me to send more of it to her nor have had any ideas for who else I could contact.  The organisers basically matched me with a date from Hell.

What I would say to anyone planning to entertain this event in the future is that if you win, do check the biography of your date (as I did) but if you don’t think you would ever make a submission to that person, don’t waste your time querying the match with the organisers (as I did, to be soothed with empty platitudes), just don’t bother signing up to attend on the day and move on to the next opportunity.