Earth Visitor’s Passport: ‘Tour of the Universe’, 1980

Exhibit / November 20, 2018

Object Name: Tour of the Universe
Maker and Year: Pierrot Books, 1980 
Object Type: Book
Image Source: SciFi Art, Ski-Ffy, author’s copy
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A collision of imperial phase-Young Artists—the London-based illustration agency whose imagery would dominate and define British science fiction and fantasy art throughout the 1970s and ’80s—and an attention to graphic design detail that bordered on the unhinged, Tour of the Universe was a bold attempt to create an immersive world of science fiction art and prose that still looks as wildly ambitious today, nearly 40 years later, as it did when it was first published.

In a time where simulated realities grow more sophisticated by the day, it is difficult to imagine a world where digital technologies could not and did not supply them. Buoyed by a wave of interest in fantasy and science fiction, lavishly illustrated books that attempted to allow readers to inhabit invented realities began appearing with increasing frequency over the second half of the 1970s: these included Wil Huygen’s 1976 Gnomes, Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority and Galactic Encounters series, David Day’s 1978 Tolkien Bestiary, and Wayne Barlow’s 1979 Guide to Extraterrestrials; Tour of the Universe was perhaps the most ambitious of all of them.

Tour‘s authors were versatile SF and fantasy writer Robert Holdstock, strangely ubiquitous at the time and best known for his 1984 fantasy novel Mythago Wood (video game fans might know him for The Dark Wheel, the novella he wrote to accompany the 1984 computer game Elite), and science fiction editor and critic Malcolm Edwards. The two had previously provided the text for 1979’s Alien Landscapes, a coffee table book featuring Young Artists visions of invented worlds, including Arrakis and Pern.

For Tour of the Universe, the two created a potpourri cosmos of their own invention. Seemingly taking inspiration in part from the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—or more specifically from Hipgnosis’ cover of the 1979 gatefold Hitchhiker’s LP—Tour was published in 1980 by Pierrot Books, a British “packaging-cum-publishing” company that specialized in glossily-illustrated, oversized SF books until it went bankrupt in 1981. Its best known publications were probably the two Harry Harrison/Jim Burns collaborations, Mechanismo and Planet Story (both 1978).

Tour of the Universe tells the story of a couple of inhabitants of a far-future London, Caroline Luranski and Leio Scott, whose entry in an essay-writing competition (which, along with the endless forms filled out by pen and hand-stamped documents, is one of the many un-futuristic anachronisms that dot the book) wins them free seats on the first package tour to the secretive and militaristic Magellan confederation, a thinly disguised (as in, not really disguised at all) Eastern Bloc. Each of the two writes a diary, and gradually, over the course of the book, a backstory is revealed.

Despite being set 500 years in the future, things haven’t changed much, and the plot itself is all fairly standard stuff that could quite easily be removed (or ignored entirely—see below) without any real consequences: it is the artifact itself that is the real point, the accumulated garishly-colored detail—beautifully rendered cutaways of vast spacecraft, guidebook descriptions, alien planet-scapes, lists of starship insignia and bills of sale—gradually unfolding into a wonderfully surreal and evocative vision of a universe that we will never roam or dominate. In hindsight, there’s also something slightly melancholy about the optimism of its vision: a world where the certainties of the book’s present day, right down to the reassuring division of the world into opposed but fundamentally decent blocs, are extended into a future that, despite its problems, remains basically knowable and human—and thus somewhat mundane.

Despite the book’s many inconsistencies, you’d have to be an atrociously miserable bastard not to be at least slightly swept away by the vast, joyous spread of Tour of the Universe. Several of the images it contains (Les Edward‘s Tombworld, for example, or Jim Burns’ Spaceportor Richard Clifton-Dey’s Behemoth’s World, which was used the same year as the cover art for Blue Öyster Cult’s Cultosaurus Erectus LP), have deservedly come to be regarded as classics of science fiction illustration, though to be honest there isn’t really a dud in the whole thing. The design and layout are beautiful, despite some confusing editorial choices—like the decision to print the diary entries (already the weakest part of the concept) over tight blue lines so as to make them practically illegible—and the book responds viscerally to the then-impossible yearning to be totally visually immersed in the surreal realia and atmospheres of other worlds.

Other books in a similar vein followed Tour of the Universe. One of the more unique attempts at brand promotion, Galactic Tours: Thomas Cook Out of This World Vacations (Proteus, 1981), with text by veteran SF author Bob Shaw and artwork by David Hardy, purported to be a brochure for imaginary off-earth tours offered by real-life British travel agent Thomas Cook, and even in 1990, renowned SF artist Chris Foss would release his own immersive combination of illustration and narrative with his Diary of a Spaceperson, which brought together both Foss art modes: the industrial surrealism of his color work and the lusty black and white pen and ink line drawings of his illustrations for The Joy of Sex.

In a peculiar epilogue, the rights for Tour of the Universe were later licensed for a space flight simulator that was housed in the Toronto CN tower between 1985 and 1990. Predating the better-known Star Tours ride at the Disney theme parks, it was created by Showscan—the company founded and owned by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull—and took 40 passengers at a time through a spaceport which featured customs and immigration before departing on a journey to Jupiter (see the storyboards for the launch sequence here). The ride itself used two Boeing 747 simulators, seating 40 passengers each, to represent the spacecraft’s cabins. The Tour ride—an advert for which can be seen here—was the brainchild of Toronto TV mogul Moses Znaimer, who was allegedly the inspiration for the character of Max Renn in David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. Znaimer’s CITY TV channel—which in the film became CIVIC TV—made a name for itself in the late ’70s with its Baby Blue Movies series of softcore porn.

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