History Today article by Kate Macdonald

Last week I had an article published in the monthly history magazine, History Today, on some research that I’d done on a peculiar play that I found in a 1917 magazine called The Strand. The play contains the first cyborg in Anglophone literature, and sends an anti-war message, so it’s important for science fiction, for First World War studies, and for the literary history of periodicals. I presented the research at a conference last summer, and the response from the panel when we did an impromptu play-reading, cyborg voice and all, was so good, I thought, this is wasted on a scholarly journal.

Obviously I’ve written up the research for a journal as well, and – fingers crossed –  it’s been accepted, but I really wanted to get this story out to the public. Science fiction is an easy subject to pitch to a mainstream magazine, even one sold in W H Smith, and the First World War is very topical right now, as you’ll have noticed. What was more challenging was getting the illustrations right.

History Today said yes immediately to the article, with barely any revisions, so I didn’t have to source new images to add to those I’d already supplied. I originally sent them a selection of seven: two graphs from my data (to show them the article was based on fact, rather than supposition), and five images taken from Google Images and a website whose owner had already given me permission to use his high-resolution images. I didn’t expect the graphs to be used, and they weren’t.

Kate Macdonald blog post blood and iron

The Google Images were the first problem, as they weren’t from the Creative Commons pages, and thus their copyright was uncertain. One was a standard image of the three wartime Emperors: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, so that could be resourced from a legitimate source. The two covers of contemporary publications were deemed to be safe for copyright, but their resolution was problematic. They looked pretty clear to me, but, apparently, for magazine publication a better camera was needed to photograph the covers again. Since one of the publications only exists as a couple of copies in the National Library of Congress, I declined this task, and cunningly threw it back in the lap of the History Today art editor. From my publishing background I know full well that art editors routinely ask authors for the moon and stars so they can choose one to use at their leisure. Faced with having to do the picture research herself, the art editor decided, pragmatically, to make do with the images I’d already supplied.

The website images were at a high enough resolution but it occurred to me in a 3am moment that I had no idea if their copyright was free. Both were of the two illustrations to the play, by Stephen Spurrier. When had this artist died? On checking, next morning, I found that his work was still within the 70-year rule, and thus I had to find his estate and apply for permission to use the images. Spurrier was a well-known war artist, and, after a little light Googling, I found that some of his paintings had been exhibited several years ago by a London art gallery who seemed to be acting as agents for his work. This was a remarkably convenient short-cut, so after three phone calls to the lackadaisical gallery owner, I eventually received his email assuring me that Spurrier’s son was happy for the images to be used, with no payment required.

The History Today art editor was mildly interested in my triumph of detection, but she had found a new problem: how to illustrate modern cyborgs to catch the casual reader’s eye? I argued forcefully for the inclusion of the Bionic Woman as well as the Six Million Dollar Man, and insisted in Imperator Furiosa as well as The Terminator, because Arnie, though instantly recognisable as a genre as well as a character, is actually an android, not a cyborg. Gender balance was also a concern. It’s too often forgotten in illustrations, so as I had some say with this, I was going to make it happen. I scoured the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction for other screen cyborgs, but Arnie, Charlize, Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors were deemed to be enough. The art editor did the work, and the magazine came out last week.

Kate Macdonald blog post arm



About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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