Half A Millennium / Alien Surfaces

With merry inevitability, Festival season has descended upon Edinburgh once more. A month or so of arty (and not so arty) madness is underway. (And lo, with almost equal inevitability, the heavens did open and they did rain at considerable, if intermittent, length upon all the multitudes of tourists. I suspect no one benefits more from the Festival than Edinburgh’s umbrella sellers.)

My sole dipping of toe into Festival waters so far has been two bookish things:

At the National Library of Scotland, they’re marking the 500th anniversary of the first book to be printed in Scotland. It’s an interesting little exhibition, but it took a little while for the causative fact to really sink in. Half a millennium of printing books.

And they actually have that first book sitting there in a glass case: someone speaking to you through the printed word from 500 years ago. It’s not all that easy to read, since the language has changed a fair bit since then and, funnily enough, legibility doesn’t seem to have been the most immediate priority of the first font designers. But even so, it’s a nice moment to lean over and read something printed that long ago. Kind of wonderful, even. In the most literal sense of wonderful.

And that transformative, revolutionary technology of 1508 connects beautifully to our very own current transformative revolution-in-progress, because anyone anywhere in the world can, if they can access the internet, also read the very first book to be printed in Scotland, because it’s online, every single page of it, here. Might not make much sense to most, since it’s in pretty heavily Scottished and archaic English, but even so: that is also kind of wonderful, still in the literal sense, when you stop to think about it.

And at Edinburgh’s specialist sf bookshop, Transreal Fiction, they do Festival stuff too: a rather cool little exhibition of semi-abstract images by Madeleine Shepherd, each one inspired by an sf book. The series is called ‘Alien Surfaces’, and there’s an online gallery where you can see (and buy, for that matter) most of them. Click on an individual image there to see the passage of text that inspired it.

It’s good fun. They’re pleasing on the eye, particularly when paired with the relevant quotation:

‘…a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of litter.’ – HP Lovecraft, At The Mountains of Madness.


That Lovercraft text made me think three things, by the way:

1. the guy really was remarkably good at what he did;
2. is it actually possible for a tunnel to be evilly free of litter?; and
3. if I was thinking of starting a blog about 20th century horror fiction I would totally call it ‘Crushing the Frantic Penguins’.

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