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Visions of Spaceflight: Images from the Ordway Collection
by Frederick I Ordway III
with Foreword by Arthur C Clarke
(Four Walls Eight Windows, $50, hardback, September 2001.)

When some of us were young, we watched men fly into outer space alone, and then in cover scanpairs, until finally they travelled three at a time on voyages to the Moon. Soon, robots landed on Mars and began sending us snapshots of the far planets. We now take all this as commonplace, with monthly shuttle flights and Hubble pictures of wonders previously available only in the land of dreams.

To the generation before us, such visions were to be found only on the covers of science-fiction pulps and comic books, in Saturday matinees, and in the occasional feature in a popular magazine. To that generation's parents, airplanes, movies, radio and indoor plumbing were technological wonders. And to generations living in the two or three centuries before that, all such things were the stuff of imagination, and the occasional book (illustrated, on occasion).

Frederick I. Ordway III grew up entranced by the sf pulps of the 1930s and 1940s. This led to a lifelong fascination with the idea of space travel, and to his collecting books and images that fed his imagination. He began his professional career as a mining engineer, but soon became a pioneer in the aerospace industry, working alongside Wernher von Braun in the field's early days. Later, he would be technical advisor to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ordway's professional and personal contacts, as well as a penchant for world travel, gave him the opportunity to amass one of the finest existing collections of books on the history of rocketry and spaceflight, and an astounding collection of paintings by the likes of Chesley Bonestell. He shares many of his treasures in Visions of Spaceflight: Images from the Ordway Collection -- an extremely impressive coffee-table book from the publisher Four Walls, Eight Windows.

The book begins with an account of Ordway's personal collecting odyssey and professional career, but the bulk of it consists of exquisite reproductions of images from his massive book collection (which goes back to the 15th century!) and his incredible array of paintings. This is a fascinating look at the way dreamers of past centuries imagined spaceships and the places they might take us (and some of the creatures we might find there, or who might choose to visit us), as well as of how state-of-the-art science viewed the future of space exploration from the vantage of the post-war era.

Those familiar with Bonestell's paintings (marvellously displayed in the recent book The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III, Ordway's long-time friends and colleagues -- recently reviewed for infinity plus by Randy M. Dannenfelser) know the colour and vitality he brought to scenes that seem cold and barren in the hands of others. One of the many revelations to be found in this book, however, is the work of Fred Freeman, another contributor to the milestone series on Spaceflight from Collier's magazine in the 1950s. With the help of the top scientists of the day (such as von Braun and Willy Ley), Freeman depicted spaceships in such realistic detail that it must have made people of the time feel as though they'd be using such machines themselves before too long. The intricately detailed cut-aways of space stations look like blueprints of place that must surely exist. But the real revelation is in the artistry of this truly gifted and overlooked painter. His style is somewhat reminiscent of Wally Wood's, but with an even sharper eye for depth and detail.

Another revelation: Did you know that von Braun wrote fiction? In the late 1950s he produced a few stories for slicks and newspaper supplements about the coming early days of space travel and the first trip to Mars. Apparently, his literary skills weren't too far in advance of Hugo Gernsback's, but the accompanying paintings by Freeman are a previously unknown treasure trove.

Until recently, Four Walls, Eight Windows has been known as a publisher of quirky fiction and sundry other counterculture offerings, but with Visions of Spaceflight they've produced a superb book that will delight anyone interested in sf and space art. It's quite unlike anything previously published in the field and, though quite comprehensive, is made all the more special for being driven by one man's lifelong passion for space. This is a book that won't get a chance to collect much dust on your shelf.

Review by James J.J. Wilson.

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© James JJ Wilson 8 September 2001