Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Month: April 2022

Lucy’s beautiful, verdant landscape captures the terraced hills with their little farms on either side, the meanders of the Sirius River through the center, and the torus’s perverse upward curve in the distance.

Thinking About Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve been thinking about space stations, lately (sure, doesn’t everyone?). As a regular reader of science fiction, I encounter the fictional kind pretty often. And I’m always interested in news from Earth’s very own space station, the ISS. Technically we Earthlings have two, but it seems like China doesn’t want to share.

I’m particularly interested in Jessica Watkins’ long-duration ISS assignment. She’ll stay in orbit for 6 months, adding valuable insight to our knowledge about the effects of microgravity on humans, by providing data from someone who is not a white male. She’s also breaking new ground (another “first,” –the first Black woman to fly an extended mission).

The information Watkins will gain for us is particularly important to me. That’s because anytime I’m thinking about space stations, the first one that comes to mind is the one I’m working hard to create: Rana Station.

Lucy’s beautiful, verdant landscape captures the terraced hills with their little farms on either side, the meanders of the Sirius River through the center, and the torus’s perverse upward curve in the distance.
The Sirius River Valley: It’s hard to imagine the years of effort by a surprising number of people that lie behind this peaceful-looking landscape. (Painting © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

My Anti-Disbelief Kit

As a writer, my most pressing necessity is to induce rational, intelligent, scientifically-educated readers to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept some patently unreal things. That humans can live together with a non-Terrestrial sapient species in harmony within the same nation, for example. That a government could dedicate itself to the well-being of all citizens. Or law enforcement agencies could fight crime effectively and respect the civil rights of everyone, even criminals. That dogs can be uplifted to an intelligence level on par with humans, for another. And, of course, that they all can exist in an exo-system somewhere else in the Galaxy, inside a human-and-ozzirikkian-made megastructure in space.

I know: that’s a lot of disbelief to suspend! But I have a huge advantage. Decades of popular media have trained people in our culture to recognize such ideas as not totally crazy. Thank you, Star Trek, Star Wars, and of the many, many other “space”-based movies, TV shows, and video games we’ve enjoyed!

The other major tool in my Anti-Disbelief Kit is to follow the science we do know, as closely as possible in my story context. That’s why thinking about space stations is something I do frequently. I keep updating myself, even as I have started publishing my XK9 books. If I can stay up-to-date with current knowledge development about space, as well as the knowledgeable extrapolations of experts, my stories will ring more true to my readers.

Three pictures of humans working inside the International Space Station, the photos are at odd angles, suggesting the very low gravity.
Things float around in microgravity – and there is no “up” or “down” unless it’s relative to one’s own face and hands. (See extensive credits below).

Enough to Eat – In Space

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t planning to set my XK9 stories on a self-contained, self-sufficient space station. It was part of my basic concept “from the git-go.” Part of the appeal for me came from the “closed system” nature of the interior environment. I’ve done a lot of research and given a lot of thought to food production, protein sources, and agricultural infrastructure on a self-sufficient space station.

I think we all know the more familiar idea of a space station as a port of some sort. Sort of a super-sized airport in space. Most fictional space station depictions don’t get into food production questions. They mostly assume there are logistics chains from somewhere (or that magical “replicators” will cover the need). But I’m from farm country, I was born in the Show-Me State, and I’m also a longtime home gardener. I have a real hard time suspending my own disbelief when it comes to replicators or astronomically long logistics chains. How could I ask my readers to do so?

Something we already know about hauling things up from gravity wells into space is that it’s very expensive. And – speaking of thinking about space stations and their resupply issues – on the ISS they’ve been growing experimental food-producing plants for a long time already. NASA and the world’s other space agencies know full well that multi-year space missions or “colonies” on the Moon or Mars can’t afford to rely only on food from Earth.

Clockwise from the beefsteak in the black vacuum-sealed bag velcroed to the blue tray or mat at lower left, other vacuum-sealed food items are candy-coated peanuts, shortbread cookies, cheddar cheese spread, creamed spinach, and at the center some round crackers. At lower right are a pair of medical-style scissors, a fork, and a knife (which look startlingly similar to this blogger’s “Paul Revere” flatware pattern). The utensils appear to be held in place by two magnetic strips.
Taken in the Food Tasting lab in building 17: Bags of International Space Station food and utensils on tray, 2003. (see credits below).

Thinking About How to Build Rana Station

Thinking about space stations in the abstract is all well and good. Having some starting-point ideas about what you think you want to do is essential. But the next step is research. I had seen others’ fictional space stations. As I’ve noted in a previous post, within my lifetime I’ve experienced the progression from a time before we had real-life space stations, till now.

I love research. My sister would tell you that there have been times when I seemed likely to happily delve into research forever, and never resurface to write stories at all. And when it came time to create my own space station, I certainly didn’t need to start from scratch. I had loads of wonderful data, ideas, and extrapolations to build from. I “just” needed to do the research.

In this case, I took my “DIY project” online. The more thinking about space stations that I did, and the more research I piled up, the clearer it became that I had a lot of choices. In part to help me think through each possibility clearly, and in part to make good use of my research time, I created blog posts about several different space station designs. Even though I ultimately decided not to use them for Rana Station, I wanted to consider them. I blogged about Dyson Rings and Spheres, Bernal Spheres, and O’Neill Cylinders. But for several reasons, for Rana Station I settled on a chain of super-sized Stanford Torii.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: a landscape of the interior, and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from the Ames Center in 1975: © NASA; artwork at left by Don Davis. Artwork at right by Rick Guidice.

Always Thinking About Space Stations

The longer my readers and I spend on Rana Station, the more aspects of it will become relevant, and the more ideas I can explore. It’s not enough to do the research and have ideas about how things should be set up. The science fiction novelist’s mission is to both entertain and explore science-based thought experiments. The cool ideas we cook up will only gain traction if they’re smoothly inserted into an engaging story when they become relevant.

The idea of uplifted police dogs on a space station will tend to intrigue the kind of people I’m writing for. But it’s my job to keep then intrigued and engaged once they’ve arrived on-Station. That’s why I’m always working on new story ideas. Always seeking better ways to visualize my characters in greater depth. It’s why I’m interested in new forensic science developments, and new discoveries about dog cognition.

And it’s why I’m nearly always thinking about space stations.


The illustration at the beginning of this post is ©2022 by Lucy A. Synk. This painting was first unveiled on my monthly newsletter. Learn more about how it was developed and why it was painted in my recent post, “A Vision From a Different World.”

Many thanks to NASA and JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, for the photos in the montage of people working inside the ISS. Floating on the left side of the montage, Flight Engineers Shannon Walker and Michael Hopkins put together extra sleeping space for astronauts during a “crew handover.” The sleep unit is the Crew Alternate Sleep Accommodation (CASA). It can be converted to a storage rack when it’s not an emergency bunk. They installed it in the European Space Agency-built Columbus laboratory module. Hopkins later became the first astronaut to transfer to the US Space Force.

The NASA photo at what is to us the top of the image shows Astronaut Kate Rubins working with the Biomolecular Sequencer. Her experiments with it yielded the first DNA sequencing in space. In the third photo (from JAXA), Astronaut Norishige Kanai exercises on the Advanced Resistive Device (ARED). Designed to fight muscle loss in space, it has proven to work much better than the previous unit. The Rubins and Kanai photos came from a NASA story about preparations for a new moon mission.

Two Photos You May Remember

I used the less-than-mouthwatering array of contemporary space food on an earlier blog post, “Growing Rana Station’s Agriculture.” Many thanks to original sources NASA and Wikimedia Commons!

I also used the two vintage views inside a Stanford Torus, in A Vision From a Different World.”  These 1975 paintings are ©1975 by NASA. They were painted by Don Davis (torus interior landscape) and Rick Guidice (cutaway view). I am deeply grateful that NASA has made this resource so freely available.

On a background of plastic straws, a photo of The Ocean Cleanup’s haul of waste plastics after a day’s run, and a mountain of baled plastic waste in Boise, Idaho.


By Jan S. Gephardt

Which eco-dreams will fuel the solutions of tomorrow? The climate change challenge has put fire in many bellies. It’s inspired the imagination of people all over the world. And well it should! Our future depends on those clever ideas and ambitious visions.

But not all eco-dreams work out the way we expect.

“If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Characteristic wisdom from Mrs. Roosevelt. (Many thanks, Be An Inspirer).

A Brilliant Idea

Back around 2009-2010, a Japanese scientist-inventor named Akinori Ito developed what he hoped could be a solution to two problems: the global ballooning of plastic waste, and the fact that petroleum production was controlled by a small number of countries who’d formed into a cartel to collude on prices.

Plastic is made from petroleum. What if he could devise a practical way to use thermochemical decomposition – a process called pyrolysis – to retrieve useable petroleum from waste plastics? The earliest online references to Ito’s process that I could find date to about 2010. He created a “home pyrolysis unit,” which he called the Blest Machine. It could be used on a consumer level, and dreamed of scaling the process up. He formed his Blest company for that purpose.

Ito’s Process

As Michael Luciano described the process in Design World, Feb. 21, 2017, “Plastic waste is placed into a large bucket inside the machine, where the temperature inside slowly rises to melt and eventually turn the plastic into a gas. Upon entering its gaseous form, the plastic passed through a tube into a water-filled container, where it cools and forms the oil. The final product can be burned in this form, or further processed into gasoline, diesel, or kerosene.”

Wow! Talk about an eco-dream with potential! Even if it just stayed on the household level, perhaps people could form co-ops to collect enough gasoline, kerosene, or other petroleum products to create a supplementary resource. Unfortunately, the most recent reference to the Blest Machine or Ito’s process that I could find is from 2017.

Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine, at top in a display, at lower left set up on the floor and ready to work. At right, Ito demonstrates his machine to a group of schoolchildren.
Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine showed up fairly often in news articles, on waste management and engineering websites and in demonstrations by the inventor. I couldn’t find online references newer than 2017, however. (See credits below).

An Eco-Dream of Energy Independence for the USA

Back in 2015, we were still talking about a future in which we might become energy-independent. Hydraulic racking had begun to be deployed widely enough to prove its worth in that respect . . . and to raise a whole bunch of questions about “What is it doing to the groundwater?” And “How can it be a coincidence that we’re having earthquakes in fracking country?”

My focus in the blog post then was the opening of the Bakken Formation, which was experiencing boom times in 2015. Still reeling from the Great Recession, people were flocking there for good-paying jobs – then arriving and discovering there was no place to live and the winters were colder than they could possibly have imagined.

Images of oil fields and two of the mobile-home developments that sprang up all over the Bakken Formation region.
The oil fields of the Bakken Formation extend from North Dakota into Montana. In the early 2010s at the end of the Great Recession, people rushed to the area to work in fields newly opened by hydraulic fracking. Mobile home boomtowns like those above sprang up nearly overnight, to house them. (See credits below).

Eco-Dreams of an Oceanic Application

I first learned of the Blest Machine through an online video in 2014. At first I was dubious. It sounded too good to be true. But I checked into it and discovered that a lot of people were taking it seriously. After I’d originally reposted the video, I wrote an update and posted that on my blog in 2015.

In my blog post, I speculated about scaled-up applications that might help to deal with ecological obscenities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In passing I mentioned that a young engineer (named Boylan Slat) had proposed ideas about how to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other global gyres, which also are collecting plastic waste.

Speculating as Science Fiction Writers are Known to Do

In my post, I asked a question: Could the pyrolysis process of Akinori Ito be combined with cleanup ideas such as those of Boylan Slat, to both supply the need for energy independence from the oil cartel and deal with plastic waste?

“Yes, yes, I know,” I concluded my post back then. “I’m WAY over-simplifying. My idea is impractical for thousands of immediate reasons. But what if they can be overcome? The key to any innovation is first to think of the idea, then solve the problems that currently make it impractical. Simple? Easy? No. Worth considering? We won’t know till we consider the possibilities for a while.”

A world map illustrates the five “Ocean Gyres of the World;” an iconic photo of a baby seahorse clinging to a 2-ended swab with a plastic shaft.
All five ocean gyres of the world contain greater or lesser Garbage Patches. The most famous is the Great Pacific. The iconic “Sewage Surfer” photo © Justin Hofman (used with his permission) shows a baby seahorse in the Indian Ocean Gyre, clinging to an entirely unsuitable “stalk of seaweed,” instead of better-rooted support. The photo won Hofman honors in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2017. (See credits below).

Well, it’s Been a While. Where do the Eco-Dreams Stand?

In my 2015 post, I reported that Boylan Slat was planning to launch his first efforts through his organization called The Ocean Cleanup “next year.” So, then, what’s “the rest of the story”? As far as I can tell, The Ocean Cleanup is going strong. Their objective is to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution. They’re now actively collecting waste plastics from all five major ocean gyres.

Since the first effort, they’ve learned a lot and refined their techniques for tracking, sourcing, and collecting plastic waste. They’d love to tell you all about it (and show you why your generous donations would be put to world-saving use). They’ve also branched into the much knottier problem of river cleanup.

Oceanic Waste Management

Inevitably, of course, there’s a question of “what do we do with it once we collect it?” They most emphatically don’t want to hand it off to irresponsible “recyclers” like those who helped create the problem in the first place. In 2020 they launched a proof-of-concept project, The Ocean Cleanup Sunglasses. This sold-out prototype demonstrated that, “plastic caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . . . can be recycled into high-quality consumer products.”

However, their specialty and strong point is collecting the trash, not recycling it. “In the future, we no longer intend to create our own products; instead, we will work with partners to develop products using The Ocean Cleanup Plastic. This will allow us to focus on our core mission of cleaning up.”

On a background of plastic straws, a photo of The Ocean Cleanup’s haul of waste plastics after a day’s run, and a mountain of baled plastic waste in Boise, Idaho.
By sea or by land, we’ve created literal mountains of plastic waste that we must now deal with sustainably. (See credits below).

How About Energy Independence?

Since 2015, the United States has indeed achieved energy independence on the fossil fuels front. According to Forbes author Robert Rapier, the US has been a net exporter of coal and gas for a while, now. That status does not appear to have changed, even during the Pandemic. Rapier points out that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) determined the US to have been energy independent in 2019 and 2020. So, since before the Pandemic hit. He also offers a primer on what “energy independence” means as he uses it.

The US is able to cut off Russian oil imports, unlike some European countries that are dependent on Russia for gas and oil. Unfortunately, we’ve continued to flirt with other oil-producing autocrats, and our national energy sources still remain all too heavy on the fossil fuels. Mr. Biden recently opened up some federal lands for gas and oil leasing, against future need, which I wish he hadn’t.

The most depressing part is the continued heavy emphasis on fossil fuels – which are causing our problems in the first place!

But What Happened with Pyrolysis?

Those eco-dreams have a murkier story. My 2015 blog post mentioned several startups that seemed to show promise. One was a company in Utah called PK Clean. It later changed its name to Renewology, still making efforts to scale up the chemical recycling of plastic.

Renewology and the City of Boise, Idaho formed a partnership im 2018 to turn waste plastics into fuel. They introduced what they called an “EnergyBag” program to collect consumer plastic waste at people’s homes, and bag it separately so it could be used for the program. By 2019 the “EnergyBags” were piling up, but not being used for fuel. In 2020, Boise renewed its “EnergyBag” program, but with a different destination planned for the plastics collected.

PK Clean/Renewology also launched a partnership in Nova Scotia with a company called Sustane Technologies in 2017. There was a glowing update in 2018 about how they were seeking approval to convert plastic waste to fuel. An update overview from Sustane in 2020 does not mention PK Clean or Renewology, but Sustane does claim to use a pyrolysis system, purchased from a Utah companyto create synthetic diesel fuel. So, maybe it worked, there.

The building and even the signboard are the same. Only the name changed from PK Clean at left to Renewology at right. The two photos, along with an aerial view of the Sustain plant in Nova Scotia, are placed on a background image of a literal wall of “Energy Bags” stockpiled in Boise, Idaho.
Whether they called themselves PK Clean or Renewology, the City of Boise, Idaho (background image is a wall of Boise’s “Energy Bags”) never reached the desired result with them, and they now appear to be out of business. Sustane Technologies in Nova Scotia (see their plant in the aerial view with the local landfill in the background) may have found the key to using pyrolysis, however. (See credits below).

Investigative Reporting Tells (Most of) the Rest

I finally found my answers about PK Clean/Renewology from a Reuters investigative report published in 2021. Pyrolysis, at least as Renewology attempted to implement it, had proved unsustainable. Plastic waste is more easily burned to create energy, but there are toxic byproducts, and burning is still a contributor to the greenhouse effect.

Of the Blest Machine in 2017, Luciano wrote, “there are some relatively unanswered questions regarding the true extent of the Blest Machine’s reduced CO2 emissions and what happens to discarded chemical compounds during the conversion process.” Any inefficiencies an “discarded chemical compounds” would tend to scale up with attempts to use the technology at scale. At a guess, that’s probably what happened with the Boise and Nova Scotia efforts.

Keep on Following Eco-Dreams

The hard truth is that not all promising technologies work out – certainly not immediately, and maybe never. If you’d asked me to bet, in 2015, whether Akinori Ito’s pyrolysis or Boylan Slat’s eco-dreams to clean up the ocean would succeed better, my money would’ve been on the pyrolysis.

Which goes to show that science fiction writers only look like prophets of the future later, if they guess right!

The fact is that either initiative could have failed, depending on luck, management decisions, technical problems or a thousand other things. And either initiative also could have succeeded brilliantly, as it appears The Ocean Cleanup mostly is. Were both worth trying? Absolutely.

Eco-dreams can’t turn into a better future for us and our planet if we don’t even give them a try. No new technology or process is easy at the start, or it would already have been done long ago. And maybe we shouldn’t give up too soon, even on something that looks as if it failed. Sustane Technologies is keeping its cards close to its chest at this point, but there may yet be hope for Akinori Ito’s plastic-to-fuel pyrolysis eco-dreams, too.


Many thanks to Be An Inspirer, for the Eleanor Roosevelt quote. All montages are Jan S. Gephardt’s fault. The upper photo of Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine comes from MB&F, AKA Maximilian Büsser & Friends (on display with a green background). The other two came courtesy of The Civil Engineer. Deepest gratitude to both!

Photos of the Bakken Oil Fields at their height in the early 20-teens came from a variety of sources. I’m indebted to Zack Nelson/AP, The Williston Herald, and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington (where I found it), for the photo of repair work on a pipeline leak near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, ND in 2015. Many thanks to Gregory Bull/AP and NPR for the 2011 photo of the company-owned “man camp” (long, straight, prefab rows), also near Williston. Deepest gratitude to Tim Smith Photography, for the photo of row after row of new mobile homes installed near Watford City, ND. Also to KERA News for the gorgeous, uncredited photo of a pump-jack at sunset near downtown Sidney, Montana in 2015.

Thank you very much to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Their 2018 blog post “The Plastic in our Oceans,” provided the illustration-map of the Earth’s five ocean gyres. And I continue to be grateful to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 competition and to photographer and copyright-holder Justin Hofman, for permission to use his “Sewage Surfer” on my blog, including my original post.

So. Much. Plastic Waste!

Many thanks to Public News Service for the photo of the huge pile of plastics in Boise, Idaho in 2018. At that point they still had faith in Renewology. The Ocean Cleanup provided the photo of their “catch of the day,” a mountain of recovered plastic waste on “System 002’s” deck in October 2021. And I owe The New York Times thanks for the background photo of colorful plastic straws. It originally illustrated a story about their use by hotels and resorts.

Thanks to a whole lot of people for the “Renewology Woes” montage! The background photo, from 2019, is a literal wall of “Energy Bags,” from Reuters and photographer Brian Losness. Thank you! Big piles of “Energy Bags” were still sitting around in Boise, long after the bloom was off the Renewology rose. Eventually, those bags did produce energy, BTW. They even did it through a form of pyrolysis: they were burned to power a cement plant. Yes, burning produces thermochemical changes. Unfortunately, also toxic wastes.

Reuters and photographer George Frey also provided the 2019 photo of the Renewology sign in front of the company’s Utah building. I was somewhat amused to note that there are only two changes in 2019 from the photo of the PK Clean sign in 2017. Thank you, Waste Dive, for that photo. It’s credited to PK Clean, but we know they’re not answering anymore. The only differences in the photo from 2019 were the words on the signboard and the mounds of plastic waste. The building, and even the sign’s support structure, look exactly the same.

And Yet, Possibly an Eco-Dreams Grace Note

Finally, I’m also grateful to Sustane and the CBC for the 2018 photo of the Sustane Technologies plant. It’s located 25 km north of Chester, Nova Scotia, close to the Kaizer Meadow landfill, which supplies it with waste. In a 2020 article it says it turns about 90% of the municipal waste from the landfill into reusable materials. About 50% becomes pelletized biomass. And somehow they’re turning the 20% of their feedstock that’s plastic into synthetic diesel through pyrolysis.

Hildie stands on a balcony at her home. She wears a red and gold saree.

A Vision From a Different World

By Jan S. Gephardt

To a certain extent, every piece of fiction opens a vision from a different world. But in works of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, the idea of “a different world” is often more front-and-center.

But translating that into visual art can be tricky. As I’ve described in the last two blog posts, “Visualizing a Character” and “Portraying Hildie,” this winter my friend Lucy A. Synk and I undertook a multi-painting project. We sought to create what are called “developmental” images of several important characters from my books.

Lucy has the painting skills and the “eye of an illustrator” I am disappointed to report that I lack. But I have a cast of characters I need to portray. I’m continually finding new ways to use them for advertising, my newsletter, on the website, and, of course, here on my blog. For me, they’re well worth the investment to bring Lucy’s talents to bear!

In last week’s post I explained why we chose to start with Hildie Gallagher first. And while I was more focused on Hildie herself, savvy illustrator Lucy knew from the start that these paintings would also have to “read” as science fictional.

Hildie makes her way through a maintenance tunnel toward an emergency patient.
Hildie Gallagher at Work, 2022. Our first glimpse of Hildie (in What’s Bred in the Bone) is in action, on the job, saving lives. Here she goes again. (Painting is © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

A Different World: We’re Not in Kansas (or Kolkata) Anymore

That wasn’t a problem for the “Hildie at Work” painting. Hildie is an experienced paramedic assigned to the Emergency Rescue Team at Rana Station’s “Hub,” a microgravity environment. I’ve relied a lot on studies and videos from the International Space Station to add verisimilitude to my descriptions of that environment. And the first painting, which shows Hildie floating through a maintenance tunnel toward a patient, is clearly in a science fictional setting.

But Hildie’s life is more than her job. And once again, Lucy had a clear idea from the start about how to show another side of this character. The objective was not only to portray Hildie. It also was to show the plantings around her (a big deal on Rana Station) and the toroid geography of the Sirius River Valley behind her.

If you’ve read A Bone to Pick, the second book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, you’ll understand why portraying Hildie in a red-and-gold saree for her “civilian” painting seemed like a no-brainer. But Lucy remained determined that what could be seen as a painting of a pretty Indian woman on a balcony needed a science-fictional element. Thus, that glimpse of the Sirius River Valley that we see over Hildie’s left shoulder is extremely important. It’s clearly a vision from a different world. And it makes it clear that in this painting we are definitely not  in Kansas (or Kolkata) anymore!

From first sketch through photo-collage to partially-painted, partially drawn, partially collaged concept development.
Three steps in the concept-development process for the painting. Yes, that’s even a piece of Jody A. Lee’s cover for A Bone to Pick in the middle collage’s background. (Concept artwork © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

Oh, Those Balcony Plants!

One clear objective, beyond beyond the character herself, was to show the profuse plantings common on Ranan balconies. It’s an important element in this vision from another world. The plants are also one reason why the saree is plainer than most traditional sarees. It’s to give viewers’ eyes something of a break (and also because Lucy hates painting fabrics with repeating patterns on them).

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have strong opinions about feeding people in space – and about agriculture on Rana Station in particular. What you don’t see in the sketches and mock-ups is the conversations we had, sometimes by phone and sometimes via email or text, about the most likely and visually attractive plants to put on that balcony. You may notice in the montage above that the plants on the balcony changed in some way with every step in the visualization process.

A mass of orange and red nasturtium flowers with their rounded green leaves, red cherry tomatoes on the vine, and a white fence, with morning glory vines growing over the top. They have green, heart-shaped leaves and bluish-purple, trumpet-shaped flowers.
L-R: Nasturtiums, cherry tomatoes, and morning glories, our “Balcony Finalists.” (See credits below).

Flowers or Vegetables?

Lucy wanted flowers. She argued strongly for their undeniable aesthetic benefits. I wanted vegetables, mindful of the millions of mouths to be fed on Rana Station’s limited landmass.

But I know the results always turn out better when my illustrators make their own independent contributions to the vision. After all, they’re the ones who ultimately have to make that visual magic happen! And Lucy really, really wanted a flowering vine coming down from above in a certain, strategic spot. She sold me on morning glories when she discovered they’ve been used in herbal teas for centuries.

We eventually settled on two more plant species. Cherry tomatoes are as decorative as they are edible, with their complementary-color contrast of red and green. And nasturtiums, on the railing adjacent to the tomatoes in the final painting, make good salad ingredients. Bonus: they are an outstanding companion plant to match with tomatoes. We spent a chunk of one evening on the phone, mutually researching them. By the end I had become so enthusiastic about nasturtiums that I bought some for my garden this year!

The Saga of the Sirius River Valley

But by far the most challenging aspect of creating this vision from a different world came from a small section in the background. That little corner of the painting became a very big deal. Rex put his nose right on the problem in the first line of What’s Bred in the Bone:

“Damn it, no horizon should bend upward. . . . 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.”

What’s Bred in the Bone

There’s no getting around it. The perspective inside a toroid space habitat is just damn weird (though, to my mind, not as weird as the inside of an O’Neill Cylinder). Add in the “undulating, terraced hills of the Sirius River Valley,” and the portrayal just gets more and more difficult.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: a landscape of the interior, and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from 1975, of the inside of a Stanford Torus. (See credits below).

Most Definitely A Different World

The more I work with illustrators trying to wrestle that “from a different world” perspective into submission, the more admiration I have for Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They’re the two NASA artists who made it look easy to portray the inside of a Stanford Torus in 1975 (hint: it’s way NOT). You can read more about the long, angsty process Jody A. Lee and I went through creating the cover of A Bone to Pick on my blog, if you’re interested.

Lucy respected Jody’s rendition on the cover of A Bone to Pick, but she had a slightly different concept. If the terrace walls are 90-plus years old, she thought, they’ll have had time to weather, grow moss in the night mists, and undergo other changes. Also, why waste all that vertical space when even today we have “green walls” and “green roofs”?

So she set out to create more plausibly green primary terraces in her vision of a different world on Rana Station. She drew some inspiration from paper maquettes I’d made several years ago and photographed on an incline to simulate the torus’s curve. She also used my clumsy attempts to capture the view, Jody’s painting, and other resources to create her mini-painting. Then she isolated the landscape and scanned it, so I could use it as a separate piece of artwork/illustration, before she painted Hildie over part of it.

Lucy’s beautiful, verdant landscape captures the terraced hills with their little farms on either side, the meanders of the Sirius River through the center, and the torus’s perverse upward curve in the distance.
The Sirius River Valley: It’s hard to imagine the years of hard effort by a surprising number of people that lie behind this peaceful-looking landscape. (Painting © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

A Note About the Saree

Some people may think a saree is a startling thing to see anyone wearing on a far-future space station. How could that possibly fit into a vision of a different world? The answer lies in the culture and history of Rana Station. In the universe of the XK9 books, we humans managed to avoid destroying Earth. The Chayko System is two jump-points away from the place Ranans call “Heritage Earth,” but they maintain ties, communications, and some trade.

Moreover, as I’ve noted in past blog posts, Ranan culture is centered on families. It is perhaps natural that family-oriented people might grow curious about their ancestry. During an introspective moment in A Bone to Pick, major character Charlie Morgan reflects on a period in (from his perspective) Rana’s recent past:

“About a generation ago, Rana Station had gone through a period when seemingly everyone was exploring their ethnic backgrounds. The Human Diaspora had drawn people into space from all over Heritage Earth. During the early decades of space expansion, many cultural practices had been lost. But a few generations after its founding, family-oriented Rana Station had collectively decided they must ‘reclaim their roots,’ in an effort to ‘fully embrace the nature of their being.’ Or something like that.

“People all over the Station suddenly yearned for knowledge of the cultures they’d descended from. Religious and cultural festivals, ethnic foods, and traditional clothing all became important preoccupations.”

– “A Bone to Pick
Hildie stands on a balcony at her home. She wears a red and gold saree.
Hildie on a Balcony in a Saree, 2022. Ready for a special event, Hildie poses on an outer balcony of Feliz Tower. (Painting © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

My Multicultural Vision From a Different World

You can also see my fascination with the many and varied cultures of Earth in another passage, from a scene that comes near the end of What’s Bred in the Bone:

“Orangeboro officials began to assemble on the wide flat area at the top of the steps outside OPD Central HQ. The Borough Council emerged first, resplendent in formal attire. There was Rona Peynirci, in a deep red and shimmering gold saree. Charlie spotted Beatriz Chan in green and silver robes, with a matching turban and a stunning emerald necklace. Mayor Idris wore a blue silk wrap. The men, similarly glamorous, wore silken jackets, hanbok, kente, or kilts.”

– “What’s Bred in the Bone

In light of all that, it shouldn’t be surprising to find a saree on this particular space station. As Charlie says to Hildie at one point in A Bone to Pick, “A saree is timeless. It’s always in fashion.” And Hildie’s saree becomes symbolic of larger themes, in that sequence.

Lucy and I are not finished with our projects started this winter. Hildie is the first Ranan human to get character development illustrations. But the XK9s have many human friends. And as Lucy helps me fill out this vision from a different world, I’ll share their stories here (although Newsletter subscribers always get first looks).


Most of the imagery in this post is ©2022 by Lucy A. Synk. There’s a glimpse of a detail from Jody A. Lee‘s cover painting ©2020 for A Bone to Pick in one of Lucy’s “working image” photo-montages, used for her reference.

The photos of garden plants are courtesy of three different online seed and plant sales sites. The nasturtiums photo is courtesy of Bonanza, the cherry tomato shot came from Grow Joy, and the morning glories are courtesy of Park Seed. Many thanks to all! (check out their gardening offers!).

The 1975 visions of the inside of a Stanford Torus are ©1975 by NASA. They were painted by Don Davis (torus interior landscape) and Rick Guidice (cutaway view). I am deeply grateful that NASA has made this resource so freely available.

The excerpts from What’s Bred in the Bone are ©2019 by Jan S. Gephardt. The excerpts from A Bone to Pick are ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. All rights reserved.

Lucy A. Synk’s painting “Hildie Gallagher at Work.”

Portraying Hildie

By Jan S. Gephardt

Portraying Hildie Gallagher has been a rewarding collaboration Lucy A. Synk and I tackled this year. Each winter since 2019, my artist friend and I have combined our visions to create illustrations showing aspects of my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. The books comprise a science fiction mystery series about a pack of extremely intelligent police dogs who live with their humans on Rana Habitat Space Station.

Last week’s post addressed the considerations that go into visualizing a character in general, a process all fiction writers tackle in one way or another. I ended that post with a look at this winter’s two finished paintings. Winter in the Northern Hemisphere may mostly be over, but my 2022 collaboration with Lucy isn’t. I have two paintings portraying Hildie that I plan to talk about – one this week and one next week. Lucy and I also have more works-in-progress, so stay tuned for additional future blog posts later this summer (or get advance views even sooner with a subscription to my newsletter).

Lucy A. Synk’s painting “Hildie Gallagher at Work.”
Hildie Gallagher at Work, 2022 (Painting is © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

Who is Hildie Gallagher?

If you haven’t (yet) read my novels, or if you’ve only just started them, you may be wondering who this Hildie person is. Her name doesn’t come up in the book descriptions, so what’s the point in portraying Hildie? Those book descriptions necessarily focus on the Trilogy’s protagonist, XK9 Pack Leader Rex Dieter-Nell (he’ the big black dog on my book covers). The descriptions mention Charlie, Rex’s human partner, but only in passing. And they barely hint at the rest of their world.

But the ten XK9 members of Rex’s “Orangeboro Pack” all have human partners. Charlie may speak ruefully about being Rex’s “on-call opposable thumbs,” but in truth the humans play important roles in their XK9 partners’ lives. Moreover, these humans and XK9s live embedded in a complex society on Rana Station. They all have families and friends. As any society would, this matrix of associations deeply affects how they live, the work they do, and the influence they are able to gain.

Three Portraits of Rex, a large black dog who looks like a wolf or German Shepherd.
Rex Dieter-Nell, ©2019 and 2020 by Jody A. Lee for the first two book covers in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, and ©2020 Lucy A. Synk. (See complete credits below).

Hildie Gallagher is one of that matrix of associations who becomes very important in the stories. It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say she’s introduced as Charlie’s old friend and becomes his current “love interest.” But she’s much more than just a pretty face or “arm candy.” Indeed, she’d be deeply insulted anybody might think that.

Considering our Options

So, then, how did we decide on portraying Hildie first, out of all the possibilities? Lucy and I finished a long series of XK9 portraits in 2020-2021 (To be clear: she painted, with considerable skill and sophistication. I kibbitzed, and also funded the effort). But that meant twenty different paintings of dogs. After all of those dogs, Lucy – a confirmed animal lover, but at heart a “cat person,” was ready to paint something else!

Head-and shoulders portraits of the ten Orangeboro Pack members.
Top row L-R: Razor, Elle, Crystal, Petunia, and Cinnamon. Bottom Row L-R: Scout, Victor, Tuxedo, Shady, and Rex. (All paintings are ©2020-21 by Lucy A. Synk).

Fortunately, there are lots of other options for things and people to paint on Rana Station. Not only are there humans, there’s also a large population of ozzirikkians. Ozzirikkians are a non-terrestrial species of Ranan citizens, without whom the station couldn’t have been funded and built.

Moreover, there’s a small resident population of Farricainan AIs. They are autonomous, highly intelligent, cybernetic entities. The XK9s become acquainted with one of these entities named Dr. SCISCO-3750, a local professor. The Farricainan AIs use android “focal objects” to interact more comfortably with “corporeal entities.” More comfortably for the humans and XK9s, that is.

We have plans to create paintings of both one of Dr. SCISCO’s androids and at least one ozzirikkian (we’ll possibly start with Vice Premier Kizzitikti Zhokittik) in the future. But portraying either of them presented multiple, time-consuming challenges. A much more obvious next step was to portray some of the humans. We decided to create paired portraits, at least for the main characters. One would show the person in work clothes. The other would portray them in a civilian context. But we immediately ran into problems there, too.

The Uniforms of Law Enforcement on Rana

We are still working on exactly how the uniforms and other official garb of the Orangeboro Police Department and the Station Bureau of Investigation look. In this particular fictional future human bodies have not changed much. But fashions, fabrics, and customs inevitably must have. Lucy correctly points out that in a painting, science fictional elements such as costumes have to read as science fictional.

A collection of ideas for science fictional clothing.
We have a wealth of ideas to use in developing the official law enforcement uniforms on Rana Station. This is a tiny sample. (See credits below).

For instance, will men still wear ties in the Twenty-Fourth-And-A-Half Century? More to the point, will police detectives wear them? Lucy doubts it. I’m still considering the matter, based on all the various permutations of “cloth around the neck” that history has seen. Constructive, on-topic comments are welcome if you’d like to weigh in, in the comments section below!

Other clothing options, such as embedded LEDs and shape-shifting fabrics may be flashy and “futuristic-looking.” But in a society where nearly every family is engaged in agriculture, durability and practicality are likely to prevail. Can those qualities mesh well with any of the futuristic fashions we’ve seen in entertainment media?

With no firm, final decisions yet hammered out about uniforms for Ranan officers, we also weren’t ready for portraits of most of my main characters. Especially for Charlie, who makes several appearances during the Trilogy wearing his OPD dress blues, we needed to know what OPD uniforms look like! Similarly, major characters Pam Gómez, Chief Klein, and Elaine Adeyeme pretty much all needed to be portrayed in uniform or some kind of regulation garb. In the winter of 2021-22, we weren’t ready to pull the trigger on those yet, either.

Portraying Hildie at Work

But portraying Hildie presented none of those challenges. I hate to call her the “low-hanging fruit,” but her work outfit – a universally-practical jumpsuit not unlike those worn by contemporary astronauts – presented far fewer challenges. Finding reference photos for that outfit was not going to be a problem! So we started with her.

As it is for many of us, Hildie’s job is a really important part of her identity. It’s also important in the stories of the Trilogy. She’s a paramedic with Orangeboro’s Emergency Rescue Team at the Hub. Assigned to the Rescue Runner Triumph, she was part of Charlie’s old team, when he drove a MERS-V (Multi-use Emergency Response Space-Vehicle) at the dawn of his career. Hildie’s a specialist in microgravity-based emergency medicine – a demanding and very challenging specialty.

A collection of resource images.
Rock-climbing shoes, paramedic patches and pouches, and NASA astronaut flight suits all factored into our development of the painting. (See credits below).

Consider fluid dynamics in microgravity, and then recall that human bodies are big bags filled with fluid that tend to leak alarmingly when injured. That’ll give you some of the more obvious difficulties a paramedic in microgravity would have to confront and counteract. Our first glimpse of Hildie, in What’s Bred in the Bone, is in action, on the job, saving lives. Specifically, saving Charlie’s life!

Building From Things We Know

Some visual things were clear from the books: Safety Services employees wear blue jumpsuits. Hildie’s uniform includes chevrons on the sleeve. And she has long, dark hair, which she wears tied back at work. Lucy based her jumpsuit on those used by NASA (as had I, when writing about them). We based the patches and insignia on similar items in current international use. It seemed needlessly confusing to come up with a whole new system of symbols that contemporary viewers might find hard to interpret.

We did go around and around some on her emergency medical equipment pouches. For aesthetic reasons, Lucy wanted to show her wearing a backpack. And contemporary, terrestrial paramedics do use backpacks. But when I envisioned the practical realities of trying to access a backpack in microgravity, in potentially a narrow work area somewhat like the Jeffries Tubes of Star Trek, it seemed awkward at best and utterly impractical, especially for a solo paramedic, at worst. When seconds saved can save a life, you don’t want to have to fight with your gear.

Lucy, however, wasn’t real enthusiastic about portraying Hildie with bulky, 21st -Century-style belt pouches around her middle. She wanted something more sleek, compact, and perhaps futuristic-looking. And maybe not something bright red, in the painting’s color scheme. So we negotiated ourselves to a compromise.

Sketch variations test various ideas for the “Hildie at Work” composition.
Between mid-January and mid-February 2022 we tested a lot of ideas. (Artwork ©2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

Lucy’s Ingenuity

Once we’d figured out a set of packs we both could live with, there was still the matter of Hildie’s surroundings in the painting. Here’s where Lucy’s ingenuity and spirit of innovation truly became valuable. She drew on her experience making dioramas for natural history museums, and assembled an array of “found objects” to provide long shapes and textures that she could use to create the dramatic perspective.

Once that had been glued together, she used the last of a can of silver spray paint from her studio. It transformed her impromptu background into a credible simulation of a maintenance passageway. Then she positioned her lights and photographed her posable wooden mannequin in the environment she’d created.

Take a look at the early sketch at the left corner of the illustration below. We went through a world of possibilities and variations for the decision-making on this piece. But the early sketch shows that Lucy’s overall composition concept actually didn’t change much. The idea of portraying Hildie floating in microgravity, making her way through a maintenance passageway toward a patient, never really changed.

The making of a painting: Lucy started with a sketch of her idea, then began to build a diorama to help her visualize it better. She shared photos of her diorama process on her Facebook page: collecting cardboard scraps and “dead ballpoint pen” parts, affixing them to their curved cardboard backing, spray-painting them silver-gray, then posing and lighting the diorama background with a poseable wooden mannequin standing in for Hildie.
An early sketch, and the steps to make and use a diorama background. (Art, diorama, and photos © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this examination of the illustration work that Lucy and I have combined our visions to create. I’m proud and pleased with Lucy’s oil painting of Hildie Gallagher at Work. Next week’s post will explore the more complex process of portraying Hildie in a completely different setting and costume.


The vast majority of the imagery in this post is © 2020-2022 by Lucy A. Synk. However, I also have a handful of other sources to thank as well. They include most notably Jody A. Lee. whose two images of Rex, ©2019 and 2020, are details from the book covers for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick. The detail of Shiva Shimon in a helmet and body armor (in the science fictional clothing collection) also is © 2019 and a detail pulled from the cover of What’s Bred in the Bone.

The other imagery from the science fictional clothing collection, moving clockwise from Shiv in the upper left, includes the following. A pair of highly improbable police uniforms from Daz3D. Genuine Leather Jacket’s design for Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds Leather Trench Coat, discovered via Pinterest (Lucy: note the necktie). Artist Lian Li’s “Shura Hitmen LawBreakers Concept Art” (Whoops! Another tie), also found on Pinterest. A production photo of Lieutenant Anastasia “Dee” Dualla from Battlestar Galactica, via Justin Grays. A page of futuristic fashion designs by gary jamroz-palma on Behance, found via Pinterest. And a police-ish-looking uniform which I also found on Pinterest but was unable to source beyond that.

The montage of resource images includes several pieces of a Google Image Search for “Paramedic Patches,” scattered throughout. The rock-climbing shoe collection at upper left is from “Rock And Ice’s” review of the recommended climbing shoes. The AP photo of the unidentified ISS crew came from a story on Sky News. And I found the red paramedic’s fanny pack on Amazon. Many thanks to all! The montages were created by Jan S. Gephardt.

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