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).

IMAGE and Other CREDITS

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.