Monday, May 9, 2011

And the Sky So Full of Clouds

Here in the Lower Mainland, clouds are an unavoidable fact of life. When there's a blue sky outside, it feels as if the roof has been peeled back from over the world. Sure, other areas get a bit more sun, but outside of the burning deserts you won't easily find a place where there's never a cloud in the sky.

Finding depictions of that sort of thing, however, is something else entirely. Artists began putting down their impressions of Earth from space long before we were able to bring back real photographic evidence of it. There's one thing a lot of them tend to have in common - no clouds. At all.

Presumably, the total absence of clouds here is why the greenhouse effect ramped up to such an extent that civilization has retreated to giant buildings on stilts.

You see it in the opening titles to The Jetsons. It's endemic in Looney Tunes shorts that go to space. Star Trek did it when the Enterprise returned to Earth. The Tintin book Explorers on the Moon consistently depicts Earth without a scrap of cloud, and I even found it in the title illustration to H.B. Fyfe's short story "Moonwalk," which appears in the November 1952 issue of Space Science Fiction.

That last story, incidentally, gave me a good break. Originally I had wondered if people honestly didn't think clouds would be visible from space - that the scale of individual clouds would make them as discernible from on high as cities in the daylight; which is to say not easily. However, while the art seems to go that direction, the actual story is explicit at several points about cloud cover being easily seen on Earth from the perspective of the moon.

The whole "cloudless Earth" thing is deprecated now, of course - the Earthrise and Blue Marble photographs took care of that pretty thoroughly, and at least for me it makes all those old cloudless depictions look almost unsettlingly wrong. But I still have to wonder about why it took hold in the first place. Was it the need for easy recognition? I don't know. I think it's safe to argue that when you're seeing Earth from space in a story, a film, or whatever, generally speaking the creators want you to know it's Earth and tend to state it explicitly.

Perhaps, in the end, it was always a stylistic choice that goes back to the issue of mainstream understanding. The average person on the street in the early and middle twentieth century would recognize Earth from maps and globes - clean depictions in which nothing gets in the way of the landforms. Maybe what started as a means to ensure that the audience knew what was going on turned into a standard that was shattered only when photographs showed us what it really looks like from up there.

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