Book Review: Days of Fear and Wonder, edited by James Bell

Book Review: <em>Days of Fear and Wonder</em>, edited by James Bell
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“Sci-fi is the world’s most popular film genre, and there’s a simple reason why: at its best it is pure onscreen magic.” — Heather Stewart, BFI Creative Director

DaysofFearDays of Fear and Wonder is a compendium of illustrated essays on sci-fi cinema, published by the BFI to coincide with its sci-fi season of the same name. Split into three strands, as per the films included in the program, the book focuses on futurism (“Tomorrow’s World”), outsider characters (“Contact”) and perceptions of reality (“Altered States”).

In all, the book covers everything you’d hope: robots, aliens, feminism, class, gender, race, the Cold War, anxiety, technology, time travel, virtual reality, evolution, sci-fi TV, space operas, special effects and costumes. The only thing missing was a chapter on music or sound — though the chapter on afro-futurism discusses the connection between sci-fi and black artists.

On the whole, the book’s contributors jump confidently between genres and art forms, covering the link between film and TV, opera, fashion, gaming, and literature — what’s more, their essays reference films as recent as the not-yet-complete Hunger Games trilogy, and Interstellar.

Writers include journalists (Helen Lewis, Adam Rutherford), authors (Mark Fisher), sci-fi authors (Stephen Baxter, John Clute, Simon Ing), academics (Roger Luckhurst, Marketa Uhlirova, Sherryl Vint) and film experts (Laura Adams, Bryony Dixon, Josephine Botting, all BFI), so the essays never lack variety in style and approach.

Uhilrova’s chapter, the last in the book, was a particular highlight. Her notes on the big-name designers cover Jean Paul Gautier’s costumes for The Fifth Element, Fonteray’s for Barbarella and, running right up to the present day, Makovsky and Summerville’s for The Hunger Games trilogy. She selects a handful of iconic examples (all of which depicted and captioned)that back up her premise that fashion and film co-inspire one another.

Like the other best chapters of Days of Wonder, Uhilrova’s is more like a great feature than a chapter in a sci-fi cinema reader. It’s totally accessible without omitting any interest or expertise, and is utterly readable, both in terms of her writing style and the editorial production of the essay.

Other highlights include Mark Fisher’s unmissable essay on dystopia, Helen Lewis’s feminist approach to criticism, and Vic Pratt’s extremely joyful and uplifting celebration of budget sci-fi productions.

“The trailer for Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953) promised “indestructible moon monsters”. What you got was a fellow wearing a flea-bitten gorilla suit and a diving helmet, with a television aerial glued on.” — Vic Pratt, ‘Cheap Thrills’

There remains some room for improvement, however — occasionally, the text is slightly opaque and not particularly readable. For example, the opening to John Clute’s “The Cinema of Catastrophe” essay reads, “It may be a bridge too far to claim that the catastrophe-raddled 20th century and cinema were born for each other, but it might be worth reiterating a truism: that the apocalyptic eventfulness of the 20th century profoundly shaped the most significant artform to have been born within it.” One worries that the book can’t decide whether to commit to pop or academia. In fact, it is both.

Although the inclusion of essays by the likes of John Clute marks Days of Fear and Wonder as a book smart enough for sci-fi nerds, it’s also a brilliant read for any film fan (and would make a generous, gorgeous Christmas present). It’s certainly essential reading for aspiring writers and critics.

If you don’t treat yourself, make sure you mention it to Santa (or Doctor Who — whoever delivers the presents).

Ellie Broughton

About Ellie Broughton

Ellie Broughton is a content producer and writer living in London. Work of hers has previously been published by The Independent, Positive News and Elsewhere Journal.

Ellie Broughton is a content producer and writer living in London. Work of hers has previously been published by The Independent, Positive News and Elsewhere Journal.

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