A new book

I will confess to a sin of moral failing, in this case covetousness, on encountering Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art, a 2002 collection from Greenwood Press, edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Kathleen Church Plummer. I should be delighted, and am, by this smart if slender volume on what Slusser in his Introduction calls the “iconology” of SF and fantasy art. It is an area in which I have a building interest, still inchoate but energized by an intuition bordering on zealotry that this tradition of illustration is part of a larger set of visualization practices that do double duty as artwork and as particularly actionable and productive scripts circulating among industrial and fan cultures. Here’s how I rather breathlessly summarized my current thinking in an email to a new professional acquaintance:

I’m coming off a long period of writing about special effects and fantastic-media franchises, along with ongoing pedagogical and scholarly interests in animation and videogames, and so I’m investigating SF and fantasy illustration in relation to media production, e.g. preproduction art and world design in movies, television, and gaming, as well as their function for fans whose investments and activities center less on narrative and character, and more on hardware, technology, terrain, physics, xenobiology, and so on: the content, both given and implied, of fictional universes. Traditions of SF illustration multiply intersect professional and fannish spheres of action (spheres which themselves overlap and diffuse into each other) as a kind of “build code” for branded industrial unrealities whose iteration over time establish highly specific iconographic conventions.

It’s a sprawling concept, one I’m just starting to shape and focus. As context, I’m currently writing a book on material forms of media fictions: object and artifacts produced and circulated around fantastic-media franchises, e.g. superhero statues and collectibles, spaceship and monster model kits, fantasy-wargaming miniatures, and prop replicas and costumes. One chapter looks at reference materials (maps, blueprints, encyclopedias, timelines, concordances) as a textual borderland between officially-authored serialized fantastic media properties and hardware-oriented fan activity; the documents function both as entrypoints to the fictional experience and as fuel for ongoing negotiations over canonicity, and often result in the replication of established objects and coining of new ones at both the official and grassroots production level. Thinking through these histories, Star Trek’s in particular, and relating them to emerging technologies of 3D printing and personal fabrication, led me to build code, which is now the governing figure of the SF illustration project.

I wrote this to Kate Page-Lippsmeyer, a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California, to whom Henry Jenkins was kind enough to introduce me based on our mutual interest in SF/F illustration and shared sense that it is a surprisingly underinvestigated topic. Unearthly Visions, which Kate helpfully put me onto, both proves and disproves the latter premise, as a lone beacon, a vanguard.

Or maybe I am just scratching the surface of a world of scholarship of which I’ve been shamefully oblivious; maybe I have tripped over a node in a robust network and am about to be pulled into a hundred conversations, a thousand citations. Loner that I am — and it’s a bad professional habit I am trying to break — I want to be both the lone astronaut on an endless unbothered voyage, and the wandering traveler welcomed by a friendly solar system.

What All the Foss Is About

Here’s a smart writeup on a new book collecting the artwork of Chris Foss, the distinctive and influential British artist whose paintings have graced the cover of many a science-fiction novel while circulating independently as quanta of outré visualization on their own. Growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of Foss more through the latter channel: glimpses of futurism in the pages of magazines like Omni and Starlog, often accompanying features on computer games (whose simple 8-bit graphics expanded logarithmically in my imagination thanks to their association with Foss’s billowing, rainbowed vistas and sensuously rounded mechanisma) or SF films then in production: Foss was one of the many artists conscripted to visualize Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark Alien.

Among the same cohort was Ron Cobb, who, like Foss and the great but neglected John Harris, had a knack for visualizing structures of indeterminate purpose and scale, suspended against the clouds of alien worlds, the neon gasfields of nebulae, the onyx depths of outer space. Simultaneously conveying gigantic mass — humans merely implied as unobservable specks — and toylike containment within the filmed frame or printed page, the future machines envisioned by Foss and his peers were both fanciful and functional. Or as Simon Gallagher elegantly puts it:

Foss’s work is defined by that jarring oxymoron: his iconic spaceships are almost biological, and certainly monstrous, and yet, unlike anything that came before them, they are intricate in their mechanical realism. They are the convergence of fantasy and precision, and there is a fundamental contradiction within the designs that suggests both a hopeful futurism and an ominous sense of dread in the sheer size and scale of the machine monsters he creates.

The new Foss book joins a growing section of my shelf devoted to SF illustration as a form of production technology, assisting the transmedial flow of content, bridging the gaps between screenplays and feature films, design docs and finished video games, word and image and object.

Ron Cobb: Initial Thoughts

A spontaneous enthusiasm, eruption of unvoiced nerd-love that has been simmering in my soul since I was twelve or thirteen, prompts this quick reflection on Ron Cobb. As an artist, Cobb contributed plentifully to how I understood and visualized the science fiction with which I grew up; as a concept artist specifically his drawings and paintings played a generative role in films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) — movies we now recognize as classics in part because of their rich, world-creating visual design.

To judge from the catalog of his work featured in Colorvision (1981), Cobb’s influence on the production of these films appears to have been both piecemeal and foundational: a handful of his bizarre creatures populate the Mos Eisley cantina, and his designs for Alien were limited to the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, with H. R. Giger’s biomechanics providing the movie’s black and glistening core. But in another way, Cobb’s work reflects an animating spirit of cinematic science fiction in the 1970s, which increasingly in the wake of Star Trek (1966-1969) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) demanded an engineer’s and architect’s eye to lend their futuristic worlds the fascination of function.

I’ve been studying concept artists like Cobb — Brian Froud is a cognate, as are Syd Mead and in a previous age Chesley Bonestell — as part of a broader research project on illustration. I hope to have more to say about this shortly, but for now I will simply note the archeological pleasure of paging through Cobb’s designs (like the one above, “Tug,” an early version of Alien‘s Nostromo) to find, not the final object as recorded on film, but — like the panda’s thumb — an evolutionary step toward it. The special property of cinematic concept art is not just that it exists prior to the film we later come to know, but that it serves as a “draft,” freezing for our later study a dialogue among director, crew, consultants as they move toward consensus. Cobb’s visualization does not just visualize an artifact of production; it is such an artifact, and as such it offers us, alongside the creation of a beloved film, the genesis of our own imaginary.

More on Cobb and the Nostromo here.