It’s way too late for this to be a “reveal,” but the story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover deserves telling. Because it was not an easy—or short—journey!
Late update: I unfortunately timed this post just when Jody had retired her old website and hadn’t quite gotten her new one ready. If you’re reading this in late 2021, her links may not work.
The Artistry of Jody A. Lee
For most of my adult life it has been my secret fantasy that someday my books would have Jody A. Lee covers. She and I have a rather long history, and through it all, I’ve cherished an abiding love and admiration for both her, and her artwork. From the very beginning, long before it seemed like even the remotest possibility, I harbored a fantasy. I dreamed that one day Jody could illustrate a book I had written. It seemed like a crazy pipe dream, back then.
Jody and I met through ASFA, the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists, back in the 1980s. For quite some time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my husband Pascal and I acted as her agent for sending her fine art prints to science fiction conventions all over North America. I also created a couple of printed promotional brochures for her, in an early effort to help market her work directly to fantasy art lovers.
Even though those markets have changed, and changed, and changed again, We’ve been friends since then. In recent years we’d grown more distracted by family and career issues. But when I went to her and asked if she’d ever be willing to paint a cover for me, she said yes! My crazy-pipe-dream-fantasy actually came true. Twice, so far! How many people get to say that?
A Memorable Moment in the Book
Jody reads the current draft of my book before she conceives the cover illustration. She builds it based on a memorable moment. In our first outing, for the cover for What’s Bred in the Bone we considered several scenes. Jody’s portrayal of Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten worked best. But then came a bunch of those devilish details.
Jody doesn’t normally read a lot of science fiction, especially not “hard” sf. I’d had several readers who were old hands at sf go through the work and have little reported trouble with the descriptions. But Jody was having a devil of a time visualizing some of them. We went round and round on the helmet and background and how to portray them. What did I mean by this or that term? What did one of those things look like?
But eventually we arrived at this characteristic moment for Rex and Shiv, a man who was at that point in the story his SBI “frenemy.” And helping Jody visualize it helped me understand ways to (I hope) make the story more understandable and accessible. I like to think that others are intrigued by the idea of a sapient, talking police dog, even if they primarily read other genres. And maybe they will enjoy the stories more, thanks to my consciousness-raising from Jody.
A Fantasy Painter Tackles Futuristic Tech. Twice.
When you read A Bone to Pick you’ll almost certainly recognize “The Scene” that inspired the cover. That scene unfolded somewhat differently in the early (2019) draft Jody read, but it’s definitely still in there. Many of those who’ve read the manuscript as beta-readers or critique partners also pointed it out as a favorite moment. I was tickled by the idea that it would end up on the cover. And I think she has realized it beautifully.
But that beautiful painting didn’t happen without long, hard effort.
First problem: Jody knew she wanted to show Rex in the car. But what did a futuristic self-driving car on a space station look like? It needed to look sleek and science-fictional. The boring little auto-nav boxes that most people utilize on Rana wouldn’t “read” well on a book cover at all! That’s how the Citron Flash was born. In later drafts, it developed into something of a “character” in its own right. If you enjoy that minor subplot when you read the book, chalk up another “thank you” to Jody.
But this wasn’t the first time Jody had approached science fictional tech with initial trepidation. Remember Shiv’s helmet and his weapon on the first cover? That gun-looking thing is an EStee. It’s a dual-function service weapon used by law enforcement officers on Rana. But for a fantasy artist who specializes in painting swords, a futuristic firearm wasn’t part of the normal toolkit. For the underlying EStee design, she and I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Porter. He helped me with some initial character development artwork, and he reportedly enjoyed designing an EStee for me.
Envisioning the Inside of Rana Station
Unfortunately for Jody, that was not the most daunting science fictional aspect she’d have to tackle. The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover involves a particular, peculiar twist. Or should I say “upward curve”? The infernal perspective of the habitat wheel posed a far steeper challenge. This peculiarity of the toroidal space habitat landscape is so marked, it provided an opening for What’s Bred in the Bone, where it bothered the newly-transplanted, planet-reared Rex:
“Damn it, no horizon should bend upward.
“XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell flinched away from the “scenic overlook.” He clenched his jaws on a quiet whimper, but the shudder down his back made his hackles prickle.
“His human partner, Charlie, met Rex’s eyes. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it. His words flowed through their brain link on a wave of empathy.
“Rex lowered his head, wary of insulting his partner’s beloved home. . . . I guess we’ll see how things work out. He hazarded another look. Ugh. It was freaky-unnatural for a river to run down the wall at one end of the vista, as Wheel Two’s Sirius River did. Even worse for it to run back up the wall at the other.”–Chapter One, “A Walk in the Park,” from What’s Bred in the Bone
The infernal perspective of a habitat wheel
God bless Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They were the first artists to grapple with the technical complexity of painting a landscape as it would appear inside something similar to a massive bicycle wheel in space. They were an essential part of the early NASA Ames Research Center project. In the summer of 1975, they helped a think-tank of genius scientists and engineers develop detailed plans for a habitat in space based on a wheel-like structure, a basic plan first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903.
Drawing the thing from the outside was far easier than drawing or painting images of the inside. But Davis and Guidice brought it memorably to life. You’ll notice that two of the three are cutaway views. As the middle image from 1975 demonstrates (below), it’s really challenging to get such an image to “read” clearly. Bending their brains around the crazy view cannot have been easy. But ever since then we’ve had something of a “cheat sheet” to go by.
And also a challenge for their successors. If they could do it, then it can be done.
An Alien Landscape
Early in the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover, I sent Jody these images from 1975 (she’d already found them for herself, too, I believe). When she sent her first developmental color study, she accounted for the “bent” horizon. Other aspects of Orangeboro’s topography, though? Unfortunately, not so much.
That was my bad. As a writer, it’s easy to airily refer to “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” and go on with whatever is happening in the scene. But an artist has to show it. In considerably more detail than the writer must devote to the subject. No matter how “impressionistic” the artist’s technique may be. And you’ll have noticed already that Jody has a beautiful style, but it’s not notably “impressionistic.”
So, okay, Jan. What do you mean by “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley”?
Rana Station is supposed to be a self-sufficient space habitat that is home to more than eight million souls. Those are eight million souls who need not only room to live and work, but who also need to eat. Self-sufficient means they need to grow it all on-Station. And that means they need to maximize their food-growing space. Don Davis gave us a rolling, but basically single-level landscape that didn’t include nearly enough growing space for what I had in mind. Rana Station needed something different. This led me to agricultural terraces and river meanders.
The Terraces of the Sirius River Valley
I needed a “horizontal space multiplier,” if I was going to feed all those hungry fictional mouths. I also needed to account for some of the natural patterns we know will develop over time, because: physics. Humans have been “making more arable land” for centuries, using agricultural terraces in naturally-steep terrain.
And even from early on, it was pretty clear that there’d be a river running through the torus. If you water the plants in gravity, where does the water go? Check the Don Davis landscape above from 1975.
Moreover, if water flows, it naturally meanders. My Rana Stationers would have to allow for that, too. I also realized that an undulating valley structure, winding in and out, rather than running arrow-straight along the insides of the torus also would be a “horizontal surface multiplier.” For an unscientific example of this, fold a paper fan. Your fan has the same surface as a flat piece of paper, but the flat paper is much longer. The folds condense the surface area.
Thus, I told Jody not only were “The verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” built like giant stair steps. They also rippled in and out. So, is that clear enough?
The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover grew kind of complex at this point. The superb horticulturalists of Rana Station don’t tolerate unproductive weeds in any precious cubic centimeter of Ranan soil. But at this point Jody and I wandered off into the tall, jungle-thick, metaphorical weeds of trying to communicate with each other. No. it was not clear enough. Not at all.
Frustrated, I resorted to the same expedient Davis and Guidice had, back in 1975: I started making pictures. More accurately, I started making models. I created what I thought were interesting simulations of the perspective. But my models still didn’t communicate what Jody needed.
Something Like Wavy Layer Cakes
It’s a good thing we had started working on this project well before I needed it, or the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover might have turned tragic at this point. It took me a long time to produce a drawing that more clearly communicated what I needed to convey to Jody (see below left). It’s not great art, and since my studio was mostly in boxes while we put in a new floor, I wasn’t able to develop any kind of perspective for the buildings beyond “eyeballing” the angles. It was crude. It was stiff. Frankly, it was an embarrassing drawing.
But once I sent it, we were finally on ever-more-synchronized wavelengths. I had begun to fear we’d never get there. That she’d tell me to take my stupid job and shove it. But Jody is a pro, and she stuck to it. And when it comes to visualizing something that is purely hypothetical and may never exist in real life, I guess you can’t beat a fantasy artist.
I was startled and distracted by how much my terraced hills looked like layer cakes, but by now Jody had a firm vision and a much less meandering route to the finish line. She took things masterfully from there. We exchanged a series of sketches, and she got to work on the final painting.
The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover
So that’s the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover. I hope that this collaboration has not only produced a cover to make you smile (and buy my book???). I hope that the whole process of working through questions of “exactly what do you mean by that?” and “what does that look like?” has made A Bone to Pick a better book.
You can find out for yourself it it did, on (or after) the release date, September 15, 2021. If you’re interested, you can pre-order a Kindle version in either the USA or the UK. After release, it’ll be available from a variety of booksellers in a variety of formats.
IMAGE AND OTHER CREDITS:
Of course, the vast majority of the artwork in this post is © by Jody A. Lee. The EStee sketch is © 2016 by Jeff Porter. There also are some sketches that are © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt. And the “head shot” portraits of Rex and Shady are © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.
The book covers at the beginning come from a variety of sources. That first cover, for The Black Gryphon, is courtesy of Amazon. The covers for A Study in Sable and By the Sword are courtesy of Goodreads. And the cover for The Hills Have Spies is from Penguin Random House.
Imagery and all kinds of rich information from the NASA Ames Research Center makes my life as a science fiction writer infinitely easier, and continues to yield more treasure each time I explore it. And I can’t begin to express the impact the artwork of Don Davis and Rick Guidice has had, both on my work, and on the conception of Rana Station. Seriously, guys. It’s a debt I can’t ever repay.
Farther down, the photo of the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines is © by Allyson Tachiki via Flickr. It offers a great example of how humans have learned to “make more land” out of very steep terrain. The satellite photo of an unidentified river meander originated from Google. But I found it on Robert Hodgin’s fascinating exploration of river meanders. Do yourself a favor and check out that web page when you have a minute. It’s pretty amazing.