Jacob Shell

This page gathers together science-fiction and fantasy concept-art, from various artists, showing scenes of a future world co-habitated by humanoids and human-friendly elephants or elephantoid creatures, in evocative (but sometimes dystopian) ways. This chosen visual theme elicits an environmental, biological and techno-social line of inquiry: how, if at all, can intelligent, social megafauna like elephants persist on a planet that becomes, by definition, more "futuristic" in upcoming centuries? Will the future of our terraquan planet have megafauna at all?

I've dubbed this visual theme "mahuto-futurism," after the mahouts, or riders and trainers of elephants, who are the protagonists of my 2019 book "Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants" (WW Norton). That book is an ethnographic and archival study of people who do cross-forest transport and logging work with elephants in the rainforests of northern Burma and northeast India, with particular attention to this dual-species relationship in the 20th and 21st centuries. The artists below were not necessarily thinking about the same topics that I examine in that book, but the way these visual works hone on the juxtaposition of the dual figure of elephant-mahout against the framing device of "the future" suggests to me a kind of visual extension of the book's core explorations of, and occasional proposed solutions to, various crises pertaining to technology, interspecies relations, and the finite planetary biome.

I. FRANK PAUL, "Phantasmagoria of a Venusion [sic] Scene."

Frank Paul. Back cover artwork for April 1961 issue of "Amazing Stories," described on penultimate page as a "phantasmagoria of a Venusion [sic] scene."

The Frank Paul image above, from a 1960s back-cover of "Amazing Stories", has especially caught my eye. The image is full of weirdness, life and wonder -- and, note how Paul has identified the elephant as a unique means of human transportation in the water (and note the elephantoid fin!). My research on trained Asian elephants as a method of human mobility stresses this same, usually overlooked, association. Trained Asian elephants are adept at traversing mud, wading in difficult water, and swimming across deep water courses, all with passengers and cargo on their backs. Hence, in certain zones of the Indo-Burmese borderlands, a unique geography of human settlements accessed and interconnected only on elephant-back persists even through the decade of the 2010s. I've termed this the elephants' "vadological" mobility (from the Latin "vadum", a fording or wading spot).

Paul was a signficant science fiction and fantasy illustrator in the mid-20th century, and his artwork here seems to have been loosely inspired by the stories of author Edgar Rice Burroughs, in particular elements from Burroughs' Tarzan, John Carter, and Venus worlds. Nonetheless, the scene here does not directly refer to material or places described in any of those stories, so in large part it is purely Paul's invention.


Gennady Golobokov, title unknown, 1970s

I don't know as much as I'd like about the 1970s Soviet futurist artwork above. It seems to show future medical technology's ability (provided appropriate political-economic planning) to bring back the woolly mammoths of the Eurasian taiga. The painting is by the artist Gennady Golobokov. The image is not a perfectly "mahuto-futurist" scene, since none of the human figures here are explicitly mahouts, i.e. riders or trainers of the elephantids. We do see two people outdoors, apparently interacting with the parent and juvenile mammoths, but Golobokov leaves ambiguous whether these two human figures are engaging in something more like scientific/veterinary research on two non-domestic (though gentle) mammoths, or whether this is something more like mahoutship: mahout-training of mammoths who will soon help to perform co-species labor in the boreal forest.

Golobokov's image has caught my attention partially because, in the early 21st century, efforts have been underway to splice Asian elephant DNA with recovered woolly mammoth DNA, and thus create a species resembling the latter for possible release into the North American or Eurasian tundra. Some teams associated with these genetic efforts propose the formation of an eventual subarctic "Pleistocene Park" where herds of cloned woolly mammoths could (supposedly) help reverse climate change by consuming vegetation at a massive scale.

(This strand of futuristic thinking might be more aptly described as "mamuto-futurism.")

The subsequent handful of artworks by Julien Gauthier are from his "Bangkok XXIII" series created during the 2010s. The series has a strong high-concept videogame aesthetic, and was inspired by the futuristic bio-punk novel "The Windup Girl" by the American novelist Paolo Bacigalupi (published in 2010 by Night Shade Books).

Bacigalupi's novel is set in 23rd-century Bangkok, in a future where worldwide agricultural and fossil fuel collapses have made genetic engineering the core arena of political conflict and intrigue. A lively detail in the book are the "megadonts", and their human handlers, the mahout union (or "megadont union"). The megadonts are cloned, elephant-like creatures, who are physically strong enough to provide the "joules" needed to power the heavy machinery of this still-partly-industrial society, in absence of fossil fuels. (Other possible sources of non-fossil energy, like nuclear, wind or solar, are also ruled out in Bacigalupi's vision. The author's core idea with the megadonts seems to be that the movers and shakers of a future society organized around genetic engineering would perceive genetically-engineered gargantuan muscle power, reliant for sustenance on cheap, lab-grown fodder, as being a more sensible source of industrial energy than wind or solar.)

Julien Gauthier, Bangkok XXIII concept art: Airship Cargo (2010s)


This reduction of sentient animals to mere "joules" complements the story's interwoven dystopian themes pertaining to the civilizational losses of nature, biodiversity, and individual agency. The visual artist Gauthier stresses this dystopian reduction of megafauno-cognitive experience in the "Springlife Factory" image below in particular. By contrast, in "Mastodonte Street," Gauthier imagines a more intimate and sensitive dimension to this relationship between futuristic mahout and megadont.

In formalistic terms, "Airship Cargo" (above) is perhaps the most arresting image of the three by Gauthier, juxtaposing the tellurian weightiness of the megadonts and blocky shipping containers with the aerial elements of sky and zeppelin (these zeppelins are another detail from Bacigalupi's novel).

Julien Gauthier, Bangkok XXIII concept art: Springlife Factory (2010s)


Julien Gauthier, Bangkok XXIII concept art: Mastodonte Street (2010s)

Raphael Lacoste's cover art below, for Bacigalupi's novel "The Windup Girl," visualizes many of the same themes as the Gauthier images above. Note the "megadont union" members (in somewhat more "traditional" attire than in Gauthier's vision) and more zeppelins. Lacoste also intriguingly adds a portion of a pagoda (left), to get across that this is Southeast Asia, and to hint at a lingering presence of religion in this future.

Raphael Lacoste, cover art (c. 2010?) for Paolo Bacigalupi's bio-punk novel "The Windup Girl"

IV. EDDIE DEL RIO, "Morning Commute."

Eddie del Rio, "Morning Commute" (c. 2010?)

Eddie del Rio's artwork "Morning Commute", above, seems to have been completed around the time of the publication of the "The Windup Girl," and del Rio seems to have provided concept art to the novel's publisher, Night Shade Books. Yet in important ways, del Rio's artwork really presents a different "mahuto-futurist" urban scene than the 23rd century Bangkok of Bacigalupi's novel and its associated visual evocations by Gauthier and Lacoste. Del Rio's city is wetter and darker -- much more like the futuristic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's 1982 "Bladerunner." The cacophony of signs in many different scripts (apparently all turned upside down?) also borrows from the imagery and street-feel of that movie, and so does the pharaonic architecture of the megabuilding in the distance, half-obscured by humidity and smog.

The "howdah" on the elephant's back is an intriguing touch, resembling those worn by tourism elephants in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in the here-and-now of the 21st century. The futuristic elephant-mahout pair seem to be either in a tourism business; or, perhaps they're more like a high-seat, high-end taxi service in this urban district which evidently lacks any motor vehicles (perhaps the elephant's mask is like a GPS device?).
Alternatively, the presence of giraffes in the scene, apparently not for riding, suggests this street may be some kind of open-air animal market; the mahout-elephant pair may be there as something like a centaurian "shepherd" to keep the giraffe hoof-traffic under control. The giraffes, and the elephant's large ears, suggest this is an African elephant and perhaps a city on the African continent, not in Southeast Asia.

The city of "Morning Commute" seems wet, perhaps semi-flooded. This emphasis on water and on associating elephants with wading-transport in a futuristic setting links del Rio's artwork with Frank Paul's image above, even if the connections to Gauthier, Lacoste, and Bacigalupi's novel are in many ways much more obvious.

V. JULES VERNE, Behemoth.
Elephant-like robots or machines have been something of a minor trope throughout the history of the science fiction genre, from Jules Verne's elephant-robot "Behemoth" in the 1880 novel "The Steam House" (see image below), to the Imperial Walkers of the universe of Star Wars. The elephant-like machine is not the main focus of this page, which is rather the gathering-together of artworks which showcase futuristic imagery of human-elephant cohabitation. But, the Verne invention of the steampunk elephant-bot "Behemoth" merits some commentary here. Verne's book is alternately titled "The End of Nana Sahib," in which the main characters, who are British colonists in India, pursue the Sepoy Mutiny leader Nana Sahib by following him on their robotic elephant into the wilderness of Himalayan foothills.

As I discuss in Chapter 2 of my 2015 book "Transportation and Revolt" (MIT Press), during the actual 1857-59 Mutiny, Nana Sahib (i.e. the actual leader of the rebellion) outflanked his British pursuers by fleeing with his troops on elephant-back. Nana utilized his elephant cavalry to time a dramatic ford across the West Rapti River as that water course was flooding, stranding the British forces, who were undersupplied with elephants, at the river bank to Nana's posterior. Another bandit leader of the same revolt, Tantia Topi, made similar "vadological" river escapes on elephant-back. Nana was never apprehended. The setup of Verne's counterfactual adventure story, in which the forces of empire and "civilization" are now able to chase after Nana after all, may have appealed to something in the Victorian industrial and mechanical sensibility: not so much "if only the pursuers had had more elephants" (which likely would have been effective), but rather "if only the pursuers had a machine-elephant, capable of mechanistically wading across those flooding Indian river courses" visualized in the Romanian book cover for "The Steam House" below. Chapter 2 of "Transportation and Revolt" delves into the thesis that during this period, the colonists did not want too many real elephants of their own, because they did not want to have to deal with the elephants' mahouts and the sorts of political problems mahouts could pose. A century later, the sci-fi artist Frank Paul evidently saw in the unique capacities of the mahout-elephant duo not dangers to be eschewed, but rather a foundational bloc for creating an entirely new sort of world.

Cover art for 1979 Romanian translation of Jules Verne's 1880 "The Steam House" (aka "The End of Nana Sahib")

VI. GEORGE LUCAS, Imperial Walkers and Banthas
The Imperial Walkers from Star Wars feature prominently in the 1980 movie "The Empire Strikes Strikes Back", marching menacingly across a snowy plain towards the protagonists' rebel camp. However, I wanted to highlight the more obscure concept art below, for a 2019 videogame called "Jedi: Fallen Order." In this image (and apparently during one of the video game's levels), the vadological mobility of these aggressive elephantoid vehicles is a core spatial and storytelling device (the Walkers appear to have sprung up from underwater to assault the flying craft of the rebels). George Lucas and his creative team have tended to bring elephant-like machines and creatures into their space-fantasy universe to link them optically and narratively with the villainous "Empire" -- making use of a Western aesthetic trope, dating back to the days of Hannibal Barca's assault on Rome, where "war elephants" are associated with a better-armed, invading outsider (this trope receives further discussion in Chapter 4 of "Giants of the Monsoon Forest").

Concept art for 2019 videogame "Jedi: Fallen Order" (hat-tip to Andrew Barron for drawing my attention to this artwork)

Even when Lucas brought an elephant actor -- Mardji the Asian elephant, below -- onto the set of the original "Star Wars," during filming in the late 70s, the idea was to create and film an alien beast of burden for association with the "villains" of the pertinent scene. Mardji was dressed up to be a "bantha", a kind of alien yak or musk-ox (her trunk is concealed in the actual movie scene), ridden by desert raiders, called Tuskens, who harass the story's protagonists. Imagery of futurological elephants as "protagonists," as suggested by Frank Paul's artwork at the beginning of this mini-essay, does not generally make it into sci-fi cinema, or into a wider Western "pop" consciousness -- perhaps because of these conventional Western storytelling tropes, which prefer the elephant as symbol of the alien, and of brute strength, rather than as a sensitive and sympathetic figure in a fruitful partnership.

Mardji the elephant on the set of 1977's "Star Wars."