There wasn't much stir in sf circles when the distinguished Scots cartoonist John Glashan (1927-1999) died this June. His pictures tended to be elaborate, impressionist water-colours of landscapes and stately homes, with inked-in cartoon people having extraordinary conversations in the foreground or round the edges. However, he liked playing with sf themes and technological excess ...
(Scene: oppressive Victorian drawing-room containing two aged, white-haired ladies in long dresses, and a computer. 'Surfing the Net, Alice?' 'Yes, Emmeline, I've been downloading snuff pics while dropping E's and chilling out on techno.... Cup of tea?')
Glashan's most science-fictional cartoon sequence was Genius, which appeared in the Observer colour supplement for some years from 1978 and was avidly followed by discriminating sf fans. When his death was reported, I couldn't resist searching out my musty stack of Genius clippings.
This phenomenally dotty series stars long-haired genius inventor Anode Enzyme, who boasts an IQ of 12,794 and requires only seven minutes' sleep per day. 'His impeccable psychic architecture is marred by a single flaw – he has no money ...' Luckily he meets Lord Doberman, the world's richest man in the world's biggest hat, who's instantly impressed by Enzyme's invention of an international language based on numbers ('I got the idea in a Chinese restaurant'), and especially by the fact that the numeral 1, the basic concept from which all else follows, stands for 'money'.
Money looms large in the projects which Anode Enzyme devises for his plutocratic patron. One of these is the most plausible UFO lure yet invented in science fiction – an entire valley filled with a carpet of tempting currency notes, protected from the elements by layers of polythene and neon-lit from beneath. First Contact inevitably follows. A galactic bank manager emerges from the mothership to explain the 2001-like event which brought civilization to his world. Long ago a spacecraft containing money crashed there, and contact with this miraculous substance transformed the pre-human 'Phlegs' into 'real beautiful people'. I knew it all the time.
Other useful inventions in Genius include a device to project an endless series of TV sets far into the sea, a digital watch mill that grinds the hated objects to powder (a little homage to Douglas Adams there?), the high-precision Machine For Firing Credit Cards Into An Antique Harness-Room Stove, and the Philatelic Bomb which can destroy stamp collections while leaving albums unharmed. Then there's the ultimate sport that according to Enzyme 'incorporates the salient features of every ball game ever invented.' The equipment consists of a huge melamine sphere coach-bolted to a billiard table. Every time you hit this with your leather-faced, vanadium-steel hammer, you score one point. There are no other rules. Pure genius.
Unfortunately, when our hero's suitcase is nicked at a major railway terminal, this means the irrecoverable loss of his scientific paper '7000 Years of Limitless Energy from One Teaspoonful of Bread-Crumbs'.
Two notable robots emerge from Anode Enzyme's laboratory. One is the Doom Module, an agile globe on legs which is programmed to flee in terror from anything that moves ('Serve it right,' says Lord Doberman) and will continue to be Doomed for 20 years until its fuel cells are exhausted. The inventor reveals the next step: imagine ten million Doom Modules, all madly running away not only from anything that moves but from each other. His lordship is awestruck by the concept: 'You're a genius.' Enzyme: 'I know.'
The second and more fearsome robot provides a hideous variation on the traditional Frankenstein scenario. Designed as a perfect electronic manservant called Tolbooth, it revolts against menial tasks, changes its name to Lathe Knudson, and rebuilds itself as Glashan's worst nightmare – a mechanical disc jockey bigger than King Kong, terrorizing London with huge blasts of appalling music and worse DJ patter. The superweapon needed to destroy this menace is a massive music centre fed with the entire output of the National Grid, which projects a devastating counterblast of anti-DJ sonic vibrations: 'Land of Hope and Glory ...'
Looking through those old clippings brings it all back. Sometimes I worry that so much of John Glashan's creative, misanthropic daftness has stuck in my mind for so long. Genius even offers the formula for the ultimate meaning of the universe: '60 gallons of egg white ... 25,000 feet of germanium wire ... 40 lbs of thulium granules ...' Alas, at this point our genius is distracted and forgets the rest. Complete the recipe yourself.
David Langford would rather like to be Anode Enzyme when he grows up.