Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Plotbot
  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
August 2018

Unbelievable Images

“Life is pretty pathetic when even your own hallucinations lie to you.”
- Sarah, The Maxx

As a comic book nerd, one of the beautiful things for me about the field of science fiction & fantasy is its deep connection to the visual arts. This goes all the way back to prehistory, when some of the very best artists spent some important portion of their brief lives imagining hybrid beasts onto the walls of deep caves, sometimes even animating them to make the world’s first cartoons. (Plus, they got the science right.)

The sculptors of antiquity made unbelievably beautiful statues of stone and metal, like this seven-headed hydra. It was filmed 60 meters down on the sea floor, faced off in combat with an equally impressive six-armed, sword-wielding goddess. Of the 86 treasures recovered from the wreck of the legendary Apostis off the east coast of Africa, sunk during or just after the reign of Nero in Rome, my personal favorite is the head of Medusa, cast in solid gold.

After ranting to my wife about how amazing this discovery was, and being all set to compare it to scientific collections of curiosities, or to the disturbing cadaver creations of “the Plastinator” Gunther von Hagens, casual research showed that the whole documentary was an audacious hoax.

I knew the thing I wanted to draw everybody in with was quality — unheard-of quality,” said Hirst. “There’s a real obvious difference between the past and today in the level of effort that people put into each individual object, and that’s something you can do with the time. I wanted it to be believed.
-Damian Hirst

As a quick aside, while a lot of people were pissed off by Hirst’s exhibition, I just dropped it into the same SF tradition as HP Lovecraft’s mythopoetic ramblings in Weird Tales, which he was always at pains to be honest about:

By the way—there is no “Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” That hellish & forbidden volume is an imaginative conception of mine, which others of the W.T. group have also used as a background of allusion.
- HPL, in a letter to Robert Bloch, 1933

In comparison to the legendary collection of Cif Amotan II (“I am fictional”), the Picture Gallery of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction might at first glance seem less impressive. Keep in mind, though, that the Gallery contains over 10,000 book covers, searchable and savable and sorted into themed slide shows, such as this Bestiary, which I have to click away from or I’ll never get this column written. Each image is also linked to entries on the artist, the author, the book, and sometimes to larger themes. Like the colorful fake coral and seashells that appear on many of Hirst’s statues, all of that encrusted information adds value, and even beauty, to the right sort of viewer, one who appreciates the meta-ness of metadata.

But why stop with covers? We have impressive examples of art integrated into the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period, in the engraved plates of famous literary illustrators, in comics, in animation, in film, and now in games. We no longer have to settle for Kurt Vonnegut’s in-text scribbles, charming though they are. Technology now allows us to embed as many images as we want, for very little cost beyond the time of the people involved. In some SF environments, such as the blogging platform Steemit, they are practically required. I haven’t dug into the blockchain database to do a value-added analysis for images, but one could, conceivably.

No, this month I want to push even beyond art for the sake of pure aesthetics or dirty economics, into data as art and education. For instance, maps are quite common in fantasy novels, but much less so in science fiction. Why?

  • Wouldn’t a map of your fictional planet be cool?

  • Or a star map of its galactic neighborhood?

  • Or a timeline of its important historical events?

  • Or a family tree of its rulers?

  • Or, instead of a boring old list, what about a social network diagram of your dramatis personae?

You don’t even have to teach yourself the software for generating such things. There are artists on gig sites like Fiver who will gladly do it for you. Obviously, some will be more scientifically accurate than others, but figuring out which is which can be part of the fun for you and your readers.

There are likewise many stand-alone bestiaries and field guides for fantastic creatures, but only a few in “harder” SF. On the other hand, there are books and even a Facebook group devoted entirely to blueprints of fictional technologies, in addition to the comics tradition of embedding such things here and there into the story (or sometimes as obvious page-fillers). My current favorite, The Flora of Middle-Earth, examines its subject in a uniquely interdisciplinary way. It combines botany, linguistics, art history, and woodcut-style prints in both the natural history and narrative illustration traditions. If it only included role-playing stats for Tolkien’s poisons and herbal medicines, as the old ICE sourcebooks used to do, it would be pretty much perfect.

Getting really crazy here towards the end, scientific papers almost always contain tables, graphs, and diagrams. These commonly inspire stories, thematically, but we can do more with them. They can be content. If you use public domain sources, or modern sources with Creative Commons licensing, you could even include the original object in your story. In such a free-use case, you wouldn’t necessarily have to ask the scientist who produced the object for permission, but doing so might lead to some really interesting discussions about your story. I personally have found most scientists eager to talk about the details of their own work, although occasionally I’ll find someone who refuses to speculate outside that work, for fear of being labeled a kook by the academic community, which can be quite judgmental about such things. You won’t know unless you try it.

Clearly, there’s also an argument for not including visuals, one ol’ HP would undoubtedly agree with. It goes: Leave Something to the Imagination. I am not arguing with that argument. I am not saying: Leave NOTHING to the imagination. I am saying that drawings and diagrams and yes, maybe even equations, can serve as scaffolding for the imagination, just as effectively as the more traditional scraps of poetry or song.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., has never used LaTeX, which makes him pretty lame in certain non-Euclidian circles.

REFERENCES

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112065/

http://wonderbooknow.com

Jeff Vandermeer’s profusely illustrated “guide to creating imaginative fiction.” I’m still on chapter 1, myself.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorcerer_(cave_art)

http://nautil.us/issue/11/light/early-humans-made-animated-art

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/cavemen-were-much-better-at-illustrating-animals-than-artists-today-153292919/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6980988/mediaviewer/rm1019043072

https://bodyworlds.com

These sculptures are necessarily anatomically correct, and so might not be considered PG-13 by some viewers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunther_von_Hagens

TREASURES FROM THE WRECK OF THE UNBELIEVABLE

Documentary

http://www.damienhirst.com/news/2017/treasures-on-netflix
I happily admit to being completely taken in by this.

Exhibit

http://www.palazzograssi.it/en/exhibitions/past/damien-hirst-at-palazzo-grassi-and-punta-della-dogana-in-2017-1/

Commentary

http://www.vulture.com/2017/12/damien-hirst-on-treasures-of-the-wreck-of-the-unbelievable.html
Devouring Culture.” Good tag, and in Comic Sans, to boot.

http://www.hplovecraft.com/creation/necron/letters.aspx

The Mad Arab of Rhode Island would have been delighted by the story of Damian Hirst. Or maybe jealous, since Hirst is rich and HPL was vocally not.

http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/gallery.php?slide&theme=Bestiary

The Va Dinci Cod! The Playtpus of Doom! The Apes of Wrath! I am helpless, mesmerized, pun-struck.

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/slide-show-kurt-vonneguts-whimsical-drawings

https://steemit.com/

http://afantasyreader.blogspot.com/2009/04/index-of-maps.html?m=1

http://www.jonathancrowe.net/projects/maps-in-sf-and-fantasy.php

Crowe has a very long-term blog called “The Map Room,” which covers all things cartographic. Check it out.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barlowe's_Guide_to_Extraterrestrials

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1407313536255114/

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/375346950186390594/

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/flora-of-middle-earth-9780190276317?cc=us&lang=en&

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-earth_Role_Playing

http://titaniumphysicists.brachiolopemedia.com/2012/10/29/ia-ia-cthulhu-fhtagn/

This is a case of the reverse, a paper being inspired by a story.
“I even did some computing and rendered (not drew. RENDERED) a picture of how the island would look bonkers because of gravitational lensing. @_@ ”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formula_editor

Read more by Randall Hayes


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