Now that the holiday season is running in earnest, it’s time to talk about books. 2020 has been a kidney stone of a year, and my wife regularly tells an anecdote related to her about how the best way to dislodge a kidney stone is by riding rollercoasters. While I’m suspect of the medical accuracy, there’s something to be said about giving unorthodox treatments a try.
When visitors to the gallery ask “where did you come up with this?”, I can’t really point to any one thing and say “This one thing caused this one thing to pop out of my head and make a big mess on the floor.” The advantage of starting the gallery this late in life means that I had 40-odd years to pick up little things and roll them around before starting. The influences on the backstories behind each new enclosure? That’s easy: that’s what a sordid youth spent reading everything I could find from Harlan Ellison, John Shirley, Ernest Hogan, and Saladin Ahmed will get you. Everything else, though, comes from dribs and drabs from any number of sources, some of which has been rattling around in the old brainmeats since the early 1970s. The enclosure One Giant Leap, pictured above? That came from a dream right after watching the landing of Apollo 17, which is the only lunar I still remember. And that’s the one where I can point out the specific inspiration.
If any particular good has come from 2020, it’s been the opportunity to read, and a lot of really good volumes collecting past inspirations and influences hit bookstores this year. Among many others:
Just about 30 years ago, at the beginning of my dubious writing career, I came across a singular book on a much more realistic exploration of an alien world than had been presented in most fiction. No capture, no bringing back, no killing and stuffing of alien life forms; no beaming down a ship’s entire command staff and one lone hapless organ donor. Instead, we all got a singular look at an alien ecosystem with essential rules (none of the animals ever evolved eyes, so their main senses were sonar and heat sensors across their bodies) and a backstory that the exploration of that world by humans would take nothing but paintings and leave nothing but perceptions. Nearly three decades later, Wayne Barlowe’s book Expedition ” is finally back in print, with a glorious cover (the painting in the original edition was printed so the painting in question was split by the binding) and a very high-quality reproduction of the original 1990 edition. Even better, this one comes in both hardcover and paperback, meaning that those searching for a copy for decades can snag a hardcover for considerably less than collectors and speculators were offering on eBay.
It’s hard to state how much of an influence Ray Harryhausen was on so many aspects of the fantastic these days: so artists, writers, filmmakers, and academics point to at least one of his films, and sometimes many, as saving them from the life of a meth dealer or weekly newspaper music critic. (To this day, Valley of Gwangi is one of the two films that makes me unapologetically weep at the end, the other being Alien.) The National Galleries of Scotland definitely felt that his filmography was worthy of a full exhibition, and the catalog for Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, full of anecdotes from his daughter Vanessa, is available for perusal even for those who can’t consider travel these days. For those who can, the exhibition runs until next September, and a boy can dream.
It’s been a very long strange trip over the last 25 years, when a chance encounter with the first issue of a comic titled Johnny the Homicidal Maniac introduced the general public, or at least the public unfamiliar with the late, lamented goth magazine Carpe Noctem, to Jhonen Vasquez. His most famous creation, the Nickelodeon cartoon series Invader Zim, came out six years later, and the Chris McDonnell book The Art of Invader Zim goes into detail on what probably qualified as simultaneously the oddest series ever released by Nickelodeon and by far one of the most long-lived as far as popular support is concerned. This one has particular personal appeal: friends describe my marriage as especially disturbing Delenn/GIR fan fiction, as my poor long-suffering wife acknowledges every time she asks “So what do you want for dinner?” and I give her the only appropriate answer.
In one aspect of life, kids today really DO have one thing easy: the number of television shows with movie-quality special effects is nothing short of incredible, as fans of The Mandalorian and The Expanse can attest. When I was your age, laser effects were done in-camera, planets were paintings, and spacecraft were built one bit at a time. Martin Bower was and is one of those spacecraft builders, getting notice with such shows as Thunderbirds and Space: 1999 and then moving to film projects such as Alien and Outland. The volume Martin Bower’s World of Models is an essential reference for those looking to return to the retro world of practical effects: because when the server farm seizes up and the software crashes, sometimes the best way to get something to shoot is to build it, one piece of polystyrene at a time.
Finally, it may seem odd to include a coloring book in this collection, but Coloring Space 1 is by the artist Christopher Doll, a longtime friend and fellow troublemaker whose live painting Twitch stream has been a source of great peace through this foul year 2020. Chris continues in a space art tradition with a very long history, and it might behoove a few book editors to look at some of his space and fantastic art, because breweries sure like it.
Next week: reasons to shop in Dallas.