Hergé’s Multi-Layered Worlds

By Sultana Raza: On May 10, 2021 Moulinsart, which manages the Tintin franchise, lost a case to French artist Xavier Marabout. The reason? Marabout had placed Tintin in Hopper-like landscapes with scantily clothed women, a situation not to be found in any of the Tintin albums. The Rennes Court in France deemed Marabout’s art-works to be parodies, thus not violating copyright. Moulinsart is supposed to pay 10,000 euros as compensation to Marabout, unless it decides to appeal against this decision. Moulinsart has announced on its website, that it intends to appeal against this judgement.

If Marabout ultimately wins this case, then it could open the flood-gates to many contemporary and future artists recycling works in their own way from well-known writers/artists, to profit from the exposure of the original art-works. This is a case (no pun intended) in point about the continuing popularity of Tintin and his cronies. However, even in parody, how far away from the creator’s original vision should a recycling artist be allowed to wander away? After making it in international headlines, is Marabout hoping to exploit the shock value of his art-works? Commenting on another artist’s work is one thing, but exploiting it, is another thing altogether.

***

Considered to be a genius by many, not only was Hergé skilled at drawing, he was also good at fascinating his readers with mysteries, and intriguing situations. For example, why was Prof. Calculus going into the heart of a volcano, following the agitated movements of his pendulum, instead of running away, like all the others? Perhaps he was so oblivious to his real surroundings, and was so desperate to find the cause of the wild swinging of his pendulum for the sake of science, that inadvertently, he was willing to risk his very life. Or was he running away from mundane reality? And why did Tintin rush back to save his friend from going deeper in the maze of the mountain? Possibly because that was Tintin’s nature, to rescue not just the innocent people of the world, but it also showed his deep friendship with the absent-minded professor.

What pushes writers/artists to create entirely new worlds, with original characters, who nevertheless manage to creep into the hearts and minds of millions around the world? Could Snowy hold one clue to Tintin’s worldwide popularity? Why spend hours and hours of one’s life bringing these worlds, and characters to life? Possibly because the real world is either too daunting with its myriad of problems, or too boring to lead a humdrum life in it. And one can more or less control the interacting spheres one is creating, unless some characters decide to do the unexpected, such as rushing towards the heart of a volcano, following a pendulum.

This short essay explores the mysteries surrounding Hergé life and works. Are there any correlations between certain aspects of his life and works? Were his main characters influenced by his own life, and people he may have known, who may have escaped in another guise onto the pages of his albums? Various biographers and scholars have expressed their points of view through books, and videos, which are given in the lists at the end of this essay.

The current conditions of partial self-isolation are forcing us to explore various kinds of loneliness. While watching videos related to Georges Prosper Remi, or Hergé, as he’s popularly known, I started exploring the emotional loneliness of Tintin and his friends. They are an assorted bunch, brought together by circumstances. While they may complement each other in various ways, and even get on well with each other, their personal lives seem to be barren emotionally, as they have few family or romantic ties. Sometimes the loneliness of the writer flows into his characters. According to Serge Tisseron, that may have been the case with Hergé.

***

Was this brilliant body of work as a result of escapism on Hergé’s part? Perhaps his emotional life was a bit difficult to handle, and he sought refuge in his own stories. The huge amount of research that he did on various countries and cultures voluntarily must have required hours of absorption, wherein he could have forgotten his quotidian. Also, blowing up bubbles of stories in his mind probably allowed him to escape the daily grind.

Specially, as he paid so much attention to detail, while leaving a judicious amount of blank spaces to be filled in with the reader’s imagination. It’s a fine balancing act between creating enough details to make a fictitious world believable, and not to overcrowd the panels with too many details. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why these albums are still popular, as every generation can interpret them anew. Hergé didn’t just build his worlds through his images, but also via recurring characters, jokes, and spoofs. For example, Marlinspike Hall often got calls intended for the local butcher, due to errors of the phone company. Though this can be interpreted as a general mix-up of communications, with Thompson and Thomson being the masters of misinterpreting everything repeatedly. In the end, however, either their mistakes were cute, or inadvertently led to further discoveries by the good guys. Though Hergé was supposed to be a workaholic, perhaps like a lot of writers/artists, his fictitious world was more attractive to him than the real one.

***

Not much is known about the early life or the family background of Hergé, the creator of Tintin. In his 2009 book, Tintin et le secret d’Hergé (or Tintin and the Secret of Hergé), Serge Tisseron explores Hergé’s family secrets which permeate the latter’s graphic novels. There is speculation that Hergé himself may have descended from the illegitimate children of a nobleman. Is that why nothing much is known about Tintin’s parents? Also, Captain Haddock, a major character discovers that he is indeed descended from a noble line, which is outlined in The Secret of the Unicorn.

***

In fact, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941) and to a smaller extent from Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944) were adapted into a film, The Adventures of Tintin in 2011, produced by Peter Jackson, and directed by Steven Spielberg. A lot of hard work went into the making of this film, with Peter Jackson keeping his online appointments with Spielberg in the wee hours of the morning (due to the time difference) instead of delegating these meetings to other staff members. Unfortunately, this 3D computer-animated film didn’t do as well at the box office as could have been expected. Perhaps the fans didn’t care too much for the differences from the source material, or about computer-animated films in general. While the action sequences were quite spectacular, perhaps their length could have been shortened, because the appeal of these stories lies not just in action, but in the relationships, which are at the heart of all the stories.

***

For example, with Tintin’s help Captain Haddock manages to regain his inheritance in the form of Marlinspike Hall. He lives there with Tintin, Nestor the Butler, and Prof. Calculus, not to mention the nosy Snowy. This anchorage of Captain Haddock in a place he can call his own brings him some emotional stability, and his drinking goes down, even if he remains somewhat prone to irascibility. Perhaps he used to drink to forget his own practical difficulties, and the bleakness of his emotional landscape. Though their friendship helps them get through many escapades, they’re content to remain single, escaping complicated emotional attachments.

***

Funnily enough, unlike the humans inhabiting Tintin’s world, Snowy doesn’t just want to escape into his own world, but is forever ready and eager to engage with any situation and characters he happens to encounter. However, just once, when he got drunk, Snowy did have a good and bad angel in his own image, who were trying to urge him to do the right/wrong thing. No need to guess as to which dog angel won. But it was a hilarious, unique and entertaining concept, nevertheless.

Bothering Captain Haddock is one Biance Castafiore, a famous opera singer, who off-handedly shows Captain Haddock that she wouldn’t be averse to his affections. But he has no inclination of showing them. Possibly Bianca Castafiore’s constant tendency to fuss over her fripperies, and to surround herself with the fluff of flurried borders on elaborate gowns adorned with laces, with an assortment of furs, and scarves are a sort of refuge from any meaningful relationship. Why has her heart become as hard as her famous jewels?

Poor Prof. Calculus has no luck with her, since he’s as maladroit in courting, as he is in everything else in real life, beyond the spheres of his studies and research. Is he secretly relieved that his love for the self-centred Castafiore remains unrequited. Does that push him further into his inner world, which he can control? Though a nerd, almost autistic, he’s endearing as well, with his absent-mindedness and altruistic outlook on life. Perhaps he’s interested in science not just because he has a brilliant mind, but also perhaps drowning himself in theories, diagrams, and formulas enables him to escape to his own domain which is more fun to puzzle out than strange creatures called human beings.

Castafiore’s voice is capable of breaking glass. One can speculate that she is capable of breaking the wall of silence surrounding family secrets (perhaps regarding the nobleman’s name who fathered the illegitimate children of a maid-servant who was Hergé’s ancestor). There is a confusion over the names of Thompson with or without a ‘p.’ Which is strange to say the least, as all twins have the same last name. Therefore, could their names have been fabricated to hide their real names? Though they tend to knock about ineffectually, it’s their good intentions that count.

***

Whether these musings are based on reality or not, these graphic novels, with an adolescent as the main character, have layers of psychological mysteries that go beyond most YA fiction. Serge Tisseron’s speculations on different aspects of Hergé’s life that he may have projected onto his fictitious personages, seem to fit the characters of these graphic novels. Being a brilliant artist and writer, maybe Hergé did feel lonely, for it’s lonely at the top. Is that why his main characters are content to exist in their own emotional bubbles, even as they go run around saving the world? In those days when the visual media was not as extensive as now, his graphic novels went a long way to illustrate faraway places such as China, Tibet, or South America. Not only did his impeccable research bring these cultures to life, but also showed that the values of decent folks were the same all around the world.

Of course, it’s a different question as to why Hergé was so concerned with world problems, and with righting wrongs in his graphic novels. Perhaps some unfair things had been done to the author’s family, and Tintin was forever fighting for truth and justice, supporting the rightful rulers (who’d been overthrown) of various fictitious countries. These graphic novels continue to be popular even today because their messages are about common human decency, which is as relevant today as it was when they were first created in 1929. The world may have changed quite a bit since then, but Tintin and friends continue to delight and inspire a worldwide readership.

For example, a new exhibition, Tintin and Hergé will be hosted at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai from 6 Aug. 2021 till 30 Oct. 2021. It will showcase hitherto unseen photos and drawings by the Belgian master of comic books.

Poster for The Power Station exhibit

LIST OF RESOURCES TO FURTHER EXPLORE THE DIFFERENT LAYERS OF HERGÉ’S WORK.

(Since the resources in this list are in French, a good knowledge of French (B2.2) would be required to understand the videos).

Books

While hundreds of books have been written on Hergé and Tintin, here are four that explore the psychological aspects of Hergé’s creations:

1/ Tintin chez le psychanalyste: Essai sur la création graphique et la mise en scène de ses enjeux dans l’œuvre d’Hergé (Ecrit sur parole) (French Edition) (French) Paperback – 1985

2/ Tintin et le secret d’Hergé (French) Paperback – 4 June 2009 by Serge Tisseron  (Author) points out how Hergé’s family secrets were played out in his graphic novels, giving greater insights into his characters. This has led to speculation on the significance of la Castafiore’s voice breaking the glass (wall of silence).

3/ Tintin And The Secret Of Literature by Tom McCarthy seems to be very interesting as well, and gives an overview of many recurring patterns and their subtexts in Tintin’s tales.

4/ Hergé, le pere de Tintin se raconte, edited by Nicolas Tellop is a collection of essays by and interviews of various experts, including Hergé’s biographers. Published in 2020 as a Hors Serie edition by Vagatour Productions (Paris), it also features lots of photos, and excerpts from graphic novels and films, while exploring Hergé’s influences, career, philosophy, and controversial stance during WWII.

Internet article:

Bianca Castafiore:

https://fr.tintin.com/personnages/show/id/4/page/0/0/bianca-castafiore

Tintin Catalogue:

https://www.tintin.com/tintin/actus/actus/001066/Piasa_fr.pdf

The catalogue was prepared by Piasa (an auction house) in cooperation with Moulinsart (the company managing Hergé’s estate,). In it are also Hergé’s b&w sketches, and sometimes plates without any dialogue in it. This could help provide insights into his creative process, and perhaps into how his mind worked, and what his vision was meant to be. I suppose unfolding the creative process of the source material could be interesting to any researcher, future artist, or readers wishing to delve more deeply into Tintin’s world. The catalogue is in French, and some parts are also in English.

Videos:

Quite a few videos in French give further insights into Hergé’s psychological make-up.

This is a non-exhaustive list of interesting videos on Hergé and Tintin:

-22 septembre 2016 – Integrale – Spéciale Tintin et Hergé, avec Michel Serres

-Serge Tisseron “La Castafiore et la psychanalyse de Hergé” | Archive INA

-13h15 le samedi: Hergé : une étoile si mystérieuse

-Hergé chez les initiés: La réalisation du Moi (a bit wonky, but shows the depths of Hergé’s work)

Conclusion

Due to his bubbling creativity, mysterious background, and incalculable talent, Hergé and his work continue to intrigue readers and researchers alike. These graphic novels illustrate (no pun intended) how art can help people bridge the cultural gap, and identify common humane values. Long before the Black Lives Matter exploded on the scene, and expanded into how all lives of ‘colored’ people matter, Hergé had already showed us a more compassionate approach to multi-cultural encounters in some of his works. As the world shrinks to become a global village, perhaps it’s time we learned how to get on with each other, instead of countries wasting huge budgets on funding weapons for (the prevention of) war. Diplomacy could achieve more, given the chance. Perhaps the biggest lesson given by Tintin are his humanitarian values, and his never-ending quest for justice (according to his worldview) in all aspects of life. Hopefully, he’ll continue to inspire new generations to come.

Postscript

I was wandering around in Brugges, Belgium and I came upon this shop by chance, where some of our friends were prominently displayed. Here is a slideshow of my photos taken there.

BIO: Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in 90+ journals, with SFF work in Entropy, Columbia Journal, Star*line, Bewildering Stories, spillwords, Unlikely Stories Mark V, The Peacock Journal, Antipodean SF and impspired.

Her fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, and Entropy. She’s read her fiction/poems in Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the USA, and at WorldCon 2018, and CoNZealand 2019.

Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Literary Yard, Litro, impspired, etc. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences.

Pixel Scroll 9/6/20 Pfiltriggi Longstocking

(1) NEVER GIVE UP HOPE. That’s Sultana Raza’s advice in an “Essay on writing life” at Facebook.

If people see someone giggling away on a bus for no apparent reason, they tend to back away, wondering how crazy that person might be. Unless that person happens to be typing away on their tiny mobile. Depending on the flow of words coming, I can type my stories in buses, trams or trains. Sometimes even in crowded cafes where no one knows me, which is the case right now, with a 90s song blaring away in the background. Usually though, I tend to type away at night, when I have the impression I have unlimited time, and no interruptions. However, as soon as I go on the internet to research something, it’s easily an hour or so before I notice I’ve been page surfing, reading up related trivia. So I wait till I have a few points to research before I jump in the whirlpool of research.

Though I’ve been writing from school days, my very first note-book got lost when I moved away from India….

(2) KGB. Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series hosts Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel present Livia Llewellyn and Craig Laurance Gidney in a YouTube livestream event on Wednesday, September 16 at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over 80 anthologies and magazines. Her collections, Engines of Desire and Furnace have both received Shirley Jackson Award nominations for Best Collection, and her short story “One of These Nights” won the Edgar Award for Best Short Story. She lives in Jersey City.

Craig Laurance Gidney

Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me and Skin Deep Magic; the novels Bereft and A Spectral Hue and numerous short stories. Both his collections and A Spectral Hue were finalists for the Lambda Literary Award and Bereft won both the Bronze Moonbeam and Silver IPPY Awards. Hairsbreadth, a fairy tale novel, is currently serialized on Broken Eye Books. Craig is a lifelong resident of Washington, DC.

(3) CURSES. Stephanie Merry and Steven Johnson have a piece in the Washington Post about readers commenting on the books they read this summer: “What the country is reading during the pandemic: Dystopias, social justice and steamy romance” T. Andrew Wahl of Stanwood, Washington read Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers.

“I read this epic pandemic tome when it came out last summer, and it scared the hell out of me.  At the time, it was just a well-crafted sci-fi thriller.  Now it feels prophetic as we’re living through just about every plot twist in the book…Damn you, Chuck Wendig:  It’s time to write a happy book about the world recovering and everything being all right!”

(4) BLACK PANTHER FREE. The Verge spread the word that “Black Panther titles are free right now on Comixology”. (I made this screencap an hour ago.)

Amazon-owned cloud-based comic book platform Comixology appears to be offering a wide selection of Marvel’s Black Panther comics for free this weekend. The unannounced sale was noticed by tweeters and Redditors; many Marvel comics related to the fictional African country Wakanda, where Black Panther is set, are available for free.

It’s not clear how long the “sale” will last, however; there doesn’t appear to have been any official announcement.

(5) TODAY’S DAY.

From memoirs to sci-fi; there are so many different types of books out there today, so use Read a Book Day to find the perfect book for you to really get stuck into. Read on to discover everything that you need to know about Read a Book Day and the different ways that you can celebrate this date…. 

(6) MEDIA BIRTHDAYS.

  • September 6, 1953 — The Hugo awards are first presented in 1953 at the 11th Worldcon in Philadelphia. (According to its Program Book the con had no official nickname, however, The Long List calls it Philcon II.) Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man won Best Novel and Best Professional Magazine  jointly went to  Astounding Science Fiction as edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. and  Galaxy as edited by H. L. Gold.  Best Cover Artist (Hannes Bok and Ed Emshwiller), Best Interior Illustrator (Virgil Finlay), Excellence in Fact Articles (Willy Ley), Best New SF Author or Artist (Philip José Farmer) and  #1 Fan Personality (Forrest J Ackerman) rounded out the Hugos. Toastmaster was Isaac Asimov. The Convention guide is here.
  • September 6 , 1989 — On this day in 1989, Doctor Who began  its twenty-sixth and final season of the original run on BBC. The Seventh Doctor was portrayed by Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy, here in his third season. That was the same time as his two predecessors but not nearly as long as the Fourth Doctor who went seven seasons, the longest to date. It began with Ben Aaronovitch‘s Battlefield“ story and ended with Rona Munro‘s “Survival” story. (She would write the Twelfth Doctor story, “The Eaters of Light”, making her the only writer to date to have worked on the old and new eras of the show.) BBC would not aired another Doctor Who story until the “Rose” aired on the 26th of March, 2005 with actor Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. 

(7) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.

[Compiled by Cat Eldridge and John Hertz.]

  • Born September 6, 1904 – Groff Conklin.  One of our first and finest anthologists; also poetry, nonfiction, outside our field.  The Best of SF appeared months before Healy & McComas’ great Adventures in Time and Space; forty more; also the monthly 5-Star Shelf in Galaxy 1950-1955.  Perhaps his best, besides The Best, are A Treasury of SFThe Big Book of SFPossible Worlds of SFOmnibus of SFSF Adventures in Dimension.  Barry Malzberg said “the most important science fiction anthologist through the years [when] its previously magazine-bound masterpieces were being systematically located….  all our postwar history exists in the penumbra of his work.”  (Died 1968) [JH]
  • Born September 6, 1936 – James Odbert, 84.  Half a dozen covers, a hundred thirty interiors.  Here is Home From the Shore.  Here is the Spring 94 Fractal.  Here is the Minicon 10 Program Book.  Here is an illustration for Sturgeon’s “Talent”.  Here is his Three of Swords in Bruce Pelz’ Fantasy Showcase Tarot Deck (each card done by a different artist in that artist’s own manner).  Artist Guest of Honor at Empiricon V, Balticon 46.  [JH]
  • Born September 6, 1943 Roger Waters, 77. Ok, I might well be stretching it in saying that Pink Floyd genre.  The Wallis maybe. And quite possibly also The Division Bell with its themes of communication. Or maybe I just wanted to say Happy Birthday Roger! (CE)
  • Born September 6, 1946 – Halmer Haag.  Chair of Balticon 25, 35; Balticon’s Gaming Czar; Ghost of Honor at Balticon 44.  Instigator of the Baltimore in ’98 Worldcon bid, which succeeded and became BucCONeer (56th Worldcon).  BSFS (Baltimore SF Soc.) Board of Directors.  (Died 2009) [JH]
  • Born September 6, 1951 – Val Lakey Lindahn, 69.  Thirty covers, two hundred ten interiors; two short stories; many with co-artists e.g. Artifact, John Lakey, Ron Lindahn; more outside our field.  Here is the Sep 83 Analog.  Here is The Asimov Chronicles.  Here is “Time On My Hands”.  Here is Fire from the Wine-Dark Sea.  One Gaughan, one Chesley.  [JH]
  • Born September 6, 1953 Elizabeth Massie, 67. Ellen Datlow who’s now doing the most excellent Year’s Best Horror anthology series was the horror editor for Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror where she selected Massie’s “Stephen” for the fourth edition. A horror writer by trade, she’s also dipped deeper into the genre by writing a female Phantom graphic novel, Julie Walker is The Phantom in Race Against Death! and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Power of Persuasion novel. (CE) 
  • Born September 6, 1953 Patti Yasutake, 67. She’s best remembered for her portrayal of Nurse Alyssa Ogawa in the Trek universe where she had a recurring role on Next Generation and showed up in Star Trek Generations and Star Trek First Contact. In doing these Birthdays, I consulted a number of sites. Several of them declared that her character ended her time as a Doctor. Not true but it made for a nice if fictional coda on her story. (CE) 
  • Born September 6, 1966 – Ellen Key Harris-Braun.  Yale summa cum laude.  Certified professional midwife.  Editor at Del Rey; started DR Internet Newsletter.  After DR, independent On-line Writing Workshop.  “Some of what is great about Ellen … believing in things, making them happen with grace and perseverance”.  (Died 2016) [JH]
  • Born September 6, 1972 — Idris Elba, 48. He was Heimdall in the Thor franchise, as well as the Avengers franchise as well. First genre role was as Captain Janek in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and later he was in Pacific Rim as Stacker Pentecost. And let’s not forget him as the Big Bad as Krall in Star Trek: Beyond. (CE)
  • Born September 6, 1972 China Miéville, 48. My favorite novels by him? The City & The City which won a Hugo at Aussiecon 4 is the one I’ve re-read the most followed closely by Kraken. Scariest by him? Oh, that’d King Rat by a long shot. And I’ll admit the dialect he used in Un Lun Dun frustrated me enough that I gave up on it. I’ll hold strongly that theNew Crobuzon series doesn’t date as well as some of his other fiction does. Now his writing on the Dial H sort of horror series for DC was fantastic in all ways that word means. (CE)
  • Born September 6, 1976 Robin Atkin Downes, 44. Though he’s made his living being a voice actor in myriad video games and animated series, one of his first acting roles was as the rogue telepath Byron on Babylon 5. He later show up as the Demon of Illusion in the “Chick Flick” episode of Charmed and he’s got an uncredited though apparently known role as Pockla in the “Dead End” episiode of Angel. He does the voice of Edward in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and he‘s Angelo on Suicide Squad. (CE) 
  • Born September 6, 1979 – Anna Sheehan, 41.  Young Shakespeare Players of Madison.  Technical degree in commercial goldsmithing.  A Long, Long, Sleep winning a Golden Duck, it and sequel No Life But This, based on Sleeping BeautySpinning Thorns a re-telling.  Ranks Harold and the Purple Crayon above The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.  [JH]

(8) SPIN ME A YARN. The Raksura Colony Tree hosts “The Yarnbomb@CoNZealand Gallery”.

Organized by Jan Bass and Monique Lubberink, CoNZealand had a lovely community craft project planned: Yarnbombing along the routes connecting the different venues in Wellington. I posted about this earlier this year. Then 2020 happened, and CoNZealand had to go virtual. The project pivoted to yarnbombing wherever the contributors lived and sending in pictures and/or video of the results. We certainly could do with a bit more colour in our lives this year!

We ended up with a lovely display of everybody’s contributions in the Virtual Exhibits Hall at CoNZealand. With the kind permission of the contributors involved, I’d like to share the fun with all of you. Click on the pictures to see a close-up and title!

(9) THE DYING OF ART. Eater Los Angeles mourns the loss of another famous place with art on the walls: “Moore’s Deli, Hollywood Animator Hangout and Burbank Staple, Closes After Ten Years”.

Ten-year-old Valley restaurant Moore’s Delicatessen has closed permanently, just shy of its October anniversary. The longtime restaurant was a haven for Hollywood animators in the Burbank area, and featured a ton of hand-drawn artwork on the walls of a back room.

(10) CHECK YOUR DRAWERS. The Guardian asks“Are aliens hiding in plain sight?”

In July, three unmanned missions blasted off to Mars – from China (Tianwen-1), the US (Nasa’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover) and the United Arab Emirates (Hope). The Chinese and American missions have lander craft that will seek signs of current or past life on Mars. Nasa is also planning to send its Europa Clipper probe to survey Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the robotic lander Dragonfly to Saturn’s moon Titan. Both moons are widely thought to be promising hunting grounds for life in our solar system – as are the underground oceans of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

Meanwhile, we can now glimpse the chemical makeup of atmospheres of planets that orbit other stars (exoplanets), of which more than 4,000 are now known. Some hope these studies might disclose possible signatures of life.

But can any of these searches do their job properly unless we have a clear idea of what “life” is? Nasa’s unofficial working definition is “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. “Nasa needs a definition of life so it knows how to build detectors and what kinds of instruments to use on its missions,” says zoologist Arik Kershenbaum of the University of Cambridge. But not everyone thinks it is using the right one.

Astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild of Nasa’s Ames research centre in California sees a cautionary tale in AA Milne’s story from Winnie-the-Pooh, in which Pooh and Piglet hunt a Woozle without knowing what it looks like and mistake their own footprints for its tracks. “You can’t hunt for something if you have no idea what it is,” she says.

(11) MULAN’S SCREEN HISTORY. In the Washington Post, Martin Tsai gives a backgrounder on non-Disney versions of the Mulan legend, including the fourteen other films about Mulan, with the most recent Chinese version, with the most recent Chinese version being Jingle Ma’s Mulan: Rise Of A Warrior (2009). “The live-action ‘Mulan’ is not the first retelling of the legend. Or the second. Or the sixth.”

…Since her story first graced the big screen in 1926, the folk heroine has, under different interpretations over the course of a century, come to variously emblematize filial piety, patriotism, feminism and, perhaps inadvertently, cultural commodification. Given that Hua Mulan may not be an actual historical figure, faithfulness has seldom been a point of contention in the reworkings of “The Ballad of Mulan” in every form and medium — including literature, music, dance, theater, martial arts and television, as well as film — as expanding on those 330 words necessitates artistic license.

(12) UNPUTDOWNABLE. If Popsugar is right that these are “12 Sci-Fi Books About Pandemics That You Won’t Be Able to Put Down”, you’ll need to learn to do a lot of things with your feet.

For some people, the scariest science-fiction books involve alien attacks, rebellious robots, and malevolent technology. For others, sci-fi is truly at its best when it introduces an unseen killer: a deadly disease. While fictitious, pandemic novels hit a little bit closer to home than tales of time travel and parallel universes because — unlike most anything written by Nnedi Okorafor or Octavia Butler — they reflect a very possible reality, even if the stories are a little more fantastical. Novels about inexplicable viruses and devastating pathogens definitely shouldn’t be overlooked by sci-fi-lovers (or really anyone), and these 12 books about pandemics are some of the best out there….

(13) FACE ART. The worldwide mask industry now boasts two for fans of the Inklings, a Narnia map mask and a Hobbit book cover mask.

[Thanks to JJ, John King Tarpinian, Mike Kennedy, Michael Toman, Andrew Porter, Martin Morse Wooster, John Hertz, and Cat Eldridge for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Daniel Dern.]