“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
them to make the world’s first cartoons. (Plus, they got the
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
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
creations of “the Plastinator” Gunther
von Hagens, casual research showed that the whole
was an audacious hoax.
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.
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:
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
they are practically required. I haven’t dug into the
blockchain database to do a value-added analysis for images, but one
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
Wouldn’t a map of your
fictional planet be cool?
Or a star map of its galactic
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
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
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.
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.
Ph.D., has never used LaTeX, which makes him pretty lame in certain
Jeff Vandermeer’s profusely illustrated “guide to creating imaginative fiction.” I’m still on chapter 1, myself.
These sculptures are necessarily anatomically correct, and so might not be considered PG-13 by some viewers.
TREASURES FROM THE WRECK OF THE UNBELIEVABLE
I happily admit to being completely taken in by this.
“Devouring Culture.” Good tag, and in Comic Sans, to boot.
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.
The Va Dinci Cod! The Playtpus of Doom! The Apes of Wrath! I am helpless, mesmerized, pun-struck.
Crowe has a very long-term blog called “The Map Room,” which covers all things cartographic. Check it out.
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. @_@ ”
Read more by Randall Hayes