Kage Baker loved photographs from space.
She wasn’t a science fiction fan growing up – not like I was, passionately reading anything with rockets or aliens on the cover. Kage found the science fictional art puerile and misogynistic; worse, it was badly drawn. The classic naked girl in a transparent space suit, menaced by an anatomically vague but leering tentacled alien: Kage was filled with scorn. She said half of the covers looked like globs of mucous full of glitter and machine parts … which, I must admit, is a fair cop.
Shiny penile rockets were aerodynamically absurd for repeated take-offs and landings. Robots were clumsy rip-offs of Robbie from Forbidden Planet. Kage liked Robbie, thought he had a cute design: once. As an archetype for robots in general, he was no more logical than George Pal’s Screwball Army. Architecture looked like dried linguine thrown against the wall. And why were so many of the stalwart space explorers naked in their space suits?
When fantasy hit the paperback market and began to compete with science fiction, the art got – in Kage’s opinion – even worse. Now naked girls in cellophane could be found clinging to bronzed adventurers’ thighs while the hero waved a goofy ray gun instead of a sword. In the most shameless cases, even a guy in a NASA-correct space suit might find himself brandishing some unholy hybrid of a sabre and a cutlass. Mind you, I don’t think most readers looked at the art (or at least no closer than registering the naked chicks) but Kage said that was irresponsible readership: they should have cared. The art should have been realistic.
There should at least have been less mucous.
Nothing really rang any bells for Kage until photographs began coming back – of other planets, of distant galaxies, of unusual stars. She fell in love with the actual faces of the Moon, of Mars, of Titan; the close-ups of the flying gems of Saturn’s rings; the discovery of Jupiter’s rings at all! There were real places out there, and suddenly it was possible to see them. Dawn on Mars. The tidal zone of a beach on Titan, unmistakeable in shape though the slow fat waves were liquid hydrocarbons and the gleaming beach rocks were solid oxygen. Hurricanes on Saturn, big enough to hurl the entire Earth to Oz, let alone the dooryard of a farm in Kansas. Dustdevils whirling over red dunes below the rim wall of Olympus Mons.
That’s what thrilled Kage. That’s what finally led her to write about Mars – avid tourist that she was, she fell in love with the light on that landscape of a thousand shades of red. She never got a chance to explore the surface with Google Mars. She read the rumours of it and longed to explore, but a country even farther away won the bid for her attention …
Photos of nebulae from the Hubble Telescope were like chests full of pirate booty to Kage. Especially the weird ones: the Horsehead Nebula – it rises out of dust clouds off Orion’s belt, a single misplaced chess knight. The Pillars of Creation, enormous stellar nurseries in the Eagle Nebula, full of infant protostars glowing like pearls wrapped in pink silk. The Cat’s Eye – more demented cat than coloured marble. The Ant Nebula, a cosmic bug made of blown glass. The Helix Nebula, that looks like the Eye of Sauron.
Kage’s favourite was the Sombrero Galaxy. It looks like the Diskworld, with the elephants Photoshopped out for the religious tourist trade.
And what utterly enchanted Kage was that all these wonders were real. So were the pictures of them; not the dreaded artist’s conception of the Sunday supplements, but honest to God photos taken by the most finely crafted cameras ever made. The fact that the cameras themselves were works of art pleased her as well – that they took their photos by strange lights, in exotic colours, on plates of precious metals and esoteric glass. Kage loved the Hubble Telescope.
This afternoon was taken up with a frantic house cleaning – we had to make sure the Sears deliverymen could get in with the magnificent new, ruby-red washing machine I ordered two days ago. The old one finally croaked it, and I was able to get the mate to the beautiful red dryer I got a couple of years ago. Oh, the wonder of them! The gorgeous colour, the gleaming lights, the silent motors! I am in ecstacy.
And in one of the moments of catching my breath, I came across a news item of a new stellar oddity found by the telescope at Kitts Peak Observatory: The Flaming Skull.
The Flaming Skull! Who could resist something like that? Just take a look at the thing:
It’s a little blurry, a tad sketchy: but even so, you can almost see the Skull vibrating from a good thwack from Captain America’s shield. Or imagine it as the celestially preserved head of some Celtic shaman, for whom the power of visions was called a fire in the head …
Kage certainly had a fire in the head. And this one would have made her grimace and giggle; and then maybe get that distant look in her eyes that meant a story was trying to be heard. And really, why is there a skull with its hair on fire out there in the Serpent’s Tail?
It’s got nothing to do with Nicholas Cage, that’s for damn sure. Kage Baker would have known that in a single glance.