Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Star Trek

This is a photo of the complete painting, “Oak Park Halloween.” It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.

Rejoicing in Our Differences:

Lucy A. Synk’s Oak Park Halloween

By Jan S. Gephardt

“Rejoicing in our Differences” is a new series of larger-scale paintings by my friend (and frequent XK9-painter) Lucy A. Synk. The theme also could be an unofficial motto for Weird Sisters Publishing. Yes, Lucy, G., and I are all white women of a certain age. You might not look at us and instantly think “diversity!” But all three of us are creative types who both value, and seek to nurture and celebrate, diversity.

Privileged in some ways? Certainly. It comes with the skin, whether we like it or not. Had it easy? Well, we’re all women. We’ve spent decades bumping into patriarchy, in male-dominated creative fields (name one that isn’t), and earning lower wages than men. Make of that what you will. But diversity isn’t a contest. And this isn’t a story about who’s more “oppressed.”

It’s an invitation to celebrate, to ally with others, and to spend a little time rejoicing in our differences. In the spirit of the season, please spend a little time looking at Oak Park Halloween.

This is a photo of the complete painting, "Oak Park Halloween." It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.
The full painting Oak Park Halloween, 2019, by Lucy A. Synk.

Every Painting is a Journey

Lucy’s journey to creating this painting took her through job changes, moves from state to state, and a bout of homesickness for a beloved place she’d had to leave. For a while she had an illustration job in Chicago, and she settled happily into the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. There she found friends, a compatible faith community, and a place of architectural and natural beauty.

Even after she had to relocate, the fond memories lingered. And they fed an idea for a painting. No, a series of paintings. In 2018, before SARS-CoV-2 had even hinted at darkening our horizon, she began to build on her ideas for a series of paintings that explored the many ways in which the United States has ample reason to rejoice in our differences.

As she says in her artist’s statement, “Even more importantly than providing entertainment or decoration, art should also inspire, teach, and encourage people to think, wonder and grow. My work often has symbolic or fantasy elements without fitting any single category but reflects my search for unity in the diversity not only of my own interests, but in the plurality of American culture.”

A Sharp Break with Disunity and Hatred

Oak Park Halloween draws on Lucy’s memories, but it’s not meant to be taken as history. The painting was specifically inspired by one particular Halloween in her diverse, family-friendly neighborhood in Oak Park, IL. But the painting does not portray any specific street or group of people. She was hoping to evoke a feeling of Halloween fun that many can relate to and enjoy.

In today’s political climate, that almost makes it a radical protest painting. “Rejoicing in our Differences,” as a message, cuts sharply counter to the majority of things we see in the media these days.

As I write this, they’re doing jury selection in Georgia, for the trial of three men who are using a fugitive slave law from 1863 as their defense for killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. White supremacists are going on trial in Charlottesville, VA, for civil rights violations stemming from a the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. And hate crimes are at a shocking high.

But just because Americans don’t seem to be rejoicing in our differences right now, that doesn’t mean the message isn’t important. Some (me, for instance!) might say it’s more important now than ever. That said, let’s walk through Oak Park Halloween.

From Lucy’s original drawing through color images and roughs, to a black-and-white tonal study, the painting’s development went through many steps.
You might notice a bunch of changes to details through these varied steps in the development of the painting. The black-and-white tonal study at lower right was done to check contrast and value range. (Images are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

How do you Paint a Crowd Scene?

Of all the things in the world that there are to draw, people are by far the hardest, especially for untrained artists. Even trained ones can have difficulty. We come pre-loaded with a lot of ideas that have nothing to do with how humans (or other things) look in objective reality. Which is why the proportions in kids’ drawings are so frequently distorted.

And if you think one human is hard, just wait till you tackle a crowd scene!

Take another look at Lucy’s painting above. Yes, it is a tour de force. But how does an artist manage a crowd scene? It’s kinda like eating the proverbial elephant “one bite at a time.” Except, in this case it’s drawing (and then painting) one small group at a time.

Five children in costume have arrived on the painting-viewer’s “front porch” for trick-or-treat.
The brother and sister in front portray Marvel’s Black Panther and one of his elite Dora Milaje, the Wakandan royal guards. We have a Vulcan Starfleet Science Officer from the Star Trek Universe to the front girl’s left. The child in the red hoodie portrays Coco, from the movie of the same name, and the girl in the purple witch costume might be portraying Hermione Granger. Since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, in this pre-Covid painting, these children wear face paint, rather than masks. (Image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

The Porch Kids

In the front-center of the composition, a group of five kids appear larger than the others, many of them staring directly at the viewer. They’re there to both center and focus the painting, and to invite you into it. The idea is that they’re standing on the viewer’s porch, awaiting your interaction and generosity.

As the most prominent group, they also are the most diverse, in keeping with the overarching theme of rejoicing in our differences. Since kids normally trick-or-treat in friend groups, how might these kids have met and formed friendships? I bet you’re already imagining a story for them—exactly as the artist hoped you would.

Lucy did a lot of research to create each group in the painting. Many of the costumes are based on DIY (do-it-yourself) outfits she found online, or combinations of them. She also took some important (pre-Covid) safety concepts into consideration. For example, since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, these children wear face paint, rather than masks.

A collection of drawings, a color study, and a tonal study for the “Porch Kids” group.
These are just some of the developmental sketches and studies Lucy worked through for the “Porch Kids” group. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Fantasy and Science Fiction Elements

Lucy and I met at a science fiction convention. A deep, abiding interest in these genres continues to be an important part of our lives, even outside of the field. Oak Park Halloween isn’t meant to be a “fantasy genre” painting in the way that some of Lucy’s work has been. But with fantastical elements dominating popular culture, of course she made sure there was broad representation for many beloved stories.

Thus, you’ll find Star Trek, Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, Dr. Who, and others among the more traditional witches, vampires, fairy princesses, and caped heroes. Lucy also came down rather heavily on the side of DIY costumes. Not only did she want to avoid infringing copyrights, she wanted to celebrate parental ingenuity while “rejoicing in our differences.”

Five different details from the painting show a variety of costumes.
From left to right, (1) The Jedi Knight and his little sister (on the Tauntaun) portray characters from the Star Wars Universe. The child with the pink bag is meant to be a vampire. However, her tiny fangs do not show, since her whole body is only 7” high. (2) A little astronaut, in the actual painting about 3½” tall, wears an orange, NASA-style jumpsuit. The artist is inspired by all the little girls who yearn for such future careers. (3) The child dressed up as the T.A.R.D.I.S. is based on a popular DIY costume concept that proves particularly confusing to her observer—a nod to Dr. Who, as portrayed by “Tenth Doctor” David Tennant. (4) A toddler enjoys a first Halloween, guided by Dad. The DIY costume uses glow sticks to create a light-up “stick man” from a black, hooded onesie. (5) Wonder Woman and her parents Hippolyta and Zeus are based on the artist’s great-niece and her parents, for whom themed family costumes are a tradition. (All images © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Getting the Details Right

Having been an “inside observer” of the two-year development process from early sketches to finished painting, I can tell you a lot of thought went into those houses across the street. Based on architecture in Oak Park IL they might be, but none of them is an exact portrait of an existing house. As with the kids they host, they are “of the general type.” But each one tells its own story.

You might be surprised at the care given to small details, such as placement, size, and color of the moon. The exact moment of twilight, and how to paint it, inspired another spate of thinking and second-guessing.

For an artist, the light has to be just right. If it’s off, or if a shadow falls wrong, the illusion fails. We often hear about the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for a reader to self-immerse into a story. But to appreciate a painting we also need to willingly suspend our disbelief that this collection of light and dark color splotches “is” the frozen moment in time it purports to be. One wrong shadow or highlight can ruin it.

Sketches and color studies of houses and the sky.
Sketches and color studies offer a glimpse of Lucy’s decision-making, and the thorny question of how big and where to position the moon. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Homes that Harbor no Hate

As I noted above, each of the houses “across the street” tells its own story. I like to think of them as the “Hate Has No Home” House, the “Welcome to All” House, and the “Teal Pumpkin” House. Each embodies a sub-thread of the overall “rejoicing in our differences” theme.

The house at upper left in the painting, with a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign at right.
The yellow house at upper left in the painting is haunted by a fairly traditional group. We have several princesses, ghosts and a pumpkin-head. Some might recognize the sign in the window as a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign, shown at right. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. Sign by Hate Has No Home Here).
The house portrayed top-center in the painting. Next to it is a quote from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement: “In this series of paintings, I am expressing my love for America and its wonderful diversity. In these dark times there has been so much negativity, I wanted to express the joys of everyday life. Good memories from happy times and hope for a future that we will not only preserve and protect but grow into a deeper and better people.”
We have Batman, the Cowardly Lion, another witch, and assorted other traditional costumes at the middle house. The host couple in the doorway are a mixed-race pair, typical of a growing number of American families. The group on the sidewalk to the right portray an assortment of Pirates of the Caribbean. The quote is from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement about her “Rejoicing in our Differences” series. (Image © 2019, and words © 2021 by Lucy A. Synk).
The house at upper right in the painting, alongside a poster about non-food treats that are fun.
The children at the house with the orange gables in the painting’s upper right include a portrayal of Princess Leia. Note the Teal Pumpkin on the porch, which indicates that this house gives prizes suitable for children with food allergies. Rejoicing in our differences includes making a happy, accepting place for everyone, even if they face special challenges. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest).

Rejoicing in Our Differences

Lucy certainly recognizes that her “Rejoicing in our Differences” theme asserts an aspirational goal. But then, she’s lived a life of diverse inputs and challenges. She started with a BFA in Drawing, Painting, and Photography from a small college, then pursued an art career that included a stint at Hallmark Cards, freelancing as a fantasy artist, and work as a natural history illustrator and muralist.

“My work has always been very diverse, spanning multiple mediums and subject matters,” she says. As both natural and human history has shown, diversity makes a system stronger, even if not everyone is comfortable embracing differences. The most vibrant, creative, and innovative times and places have come at a crossroads of cultures, when diverse ideas and viewpoints make new ideas possible.

As Lucy wrote in her artist’s statement, “In these dark times, there has been so much negativity.” Perhaps you’ll agree that we’d do better to meditate on what Lucy calls America’s “wonderful diversity.” Based on that, “Rejoicing in Our Differences” may be exactly the medicine we need.

IMAGE CREDITS

Oak Park Halloween, the painting, the studies, the sketches, and the detail images, all are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk, and are used here with her permission. All rights reserved. The “Hate Has No Home Here” poster design is courtesy of Hate Has No Home Here. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.

Creating a calendar for Rana Station

Since our prehistory, humans have focused on creating a calendar, then using it to keep time. We’ve based calendars on the seasons, the sun, and the moon. We’ve scratched symbols into clay, bone or stone, dug sequences of pits, erected poles, or even dragged enormous stones for fabulous distances, all to get a handle on “WHEN are we?

But creating a calendar that’s accurate over a long period of time is a harder thing to do on Earth than one might think it should be. That’s because a year—one revolution of the Earth around the sun—takes approximately 365.242189 days.

That pesky fraction of a day has been driving humans to distraction (and to doing higher math) for millennia. We’ve created intercalary days, weeks, or even months to periodically adjust our calendars and keep them accurate. (It’s enough to give one an embolism—sorry; bad joke: use the hyperlink to look at definitions 2 and 3).

How long is a year—in space?

Of course, Earth is in space, so that’s a silly question. A year is however long it takes to orbit the local star once. That’s different for every planet, planetoid, asteroid, moon, or other space-based object, because all orbit on different paths.

Including Rana Station. At least, up to a point. But when you’re creating a calendar for an exoplanet in a different system, a variety of rules may apply.

I’m certainly not the only sf writer to approach the problem of if—and if so, whatcalendar to use in their stories. Probably one of the best-known science fictional calendars is Star Trek’sStardate” system.

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.
TNG episode screen-capture via Memory Alpha Fandom.

It stands to reason that if you use the “Captain’s Log” as a framing device, you need a login time/date for it to feel authentic. The Stardate sounds futuristic, but what do those numbers really mean? Turns out they have less to do with futuristic dates than they do with episodes and seasons of the show.

Problems to solve, for Rana Station

I haven’t specified an exact future century in which my XK9 stories are set, or in what existing star system. In a time-honored sfnal tradition, I chose to set it “far away, in a different time,” rather than get too specific. Sometimes I tell people it’s set in the “Twenty-Fourth-and-a-Half Century!!

I’m more interested in telling my chosen stories than I am in charting a detailed and inevitably-wrong predictive “history” of future umpty-centuries. Who knows what technologies will have been developed, lost, and then recreated (or not) by then? In a multiverse, does it really matter?

But when we get down to more immediate times and dates, I needed to go into more detail. Year-dates within the Chayko System all begin from the time humans arrived in-system, after they were granted permission by the Alliance to claim the planet. Rana Stationers also often speak of the Ranan year (0-94, as of The Other Side of Fear), meaning how many (Chaykoan) years people have lived there. There are reference sources they can use when they need to cite Alliance-wide dates or Earth dates.

But, as I discussed in last week’s post, Rana Stationers hail from many different Earth origins, and they’ve preserved many of their heritage customs, including religions and holidays.

Celebrating Earth holidays outside the Solar system

Creating a calendar is actually not that hard, if it’s for a fictional time and place “somewhere out there.” And if you aren’t trying to connect it in any way with Earth. Perhaps this is one reason why so many sf writers destroy our Earth in the “history” leading up to their story.

It’s also pretty easy to see how many holidays of Earth origin could be adapted to local conditions on an exoplanet. It’s entirely likely that the new planet would have seasons, and shorter or longer periods of daylight throughout the course of its year. Holidays based on solstices and equinoxes? No problem!

Lunar calendars would be more of a problem, though. Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and other world religions base their holiday timing on phases and cycles of Earth’s moon. But what if your planet has no moon? Or if it has several? What if you live on a moon?

A brown horse looms over a small trail of dots on a wall in Lascaux, France. A mystery for years, scientists now believe those dots may be the oldest lunar calendar ever found. The map at right shows locations of Lascaux and Peche Merle caves in France, plus Altamira in Spain. All contain priceless Paleolithic art.
At L, a line of dots may be a 15,000-year-old lunar calendar inside Lascaux cavern in France. At R, a map shows locations of three caves filled with stunning prehistoric art: Altamira, Lascaux, and Peche Merle. (BBC News/Khan Academy)

Chayko, for instance, is the human-inhabited planet in my XK9 stories. It has two small moons that used to be part of its planetary mass. They orbit closer to the planet than our Earth’s moon, and exert complex influences on Chaykoan oceans, ecosystems, and organisms that only sometimes resemble the effect of our moon on Earth.

Problems timing Earth holidays on Rana Station

Creating a calendar for naturally-occurring planetary bodies and their moons is one thing. What about a space station such as Rana? No moons. Banks of computerized mirrors adjust continually to reflect light from the system’s star into the sky-windows, filtered and directed to provide an optimal light spectrum for crop growth. On-Station, there are no moving shadows to contend with, as there are on Earth, no daily “rotation of the sun” (although the habitat wheels rotate, people can’t really see that from inside).

It’s always “high noon” on Rana Station, except for periods when the light is dimmed to simulate dusk, dawn, or full-on night. My illustrator friends Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk have both complained about this. They’re right: Light and shadow patterns at noon are boring. They’re also unhelpful for creating 3-D visual effects.

But they’re great for delivering consistent light to growing crops. Days on Rana Station are always the same length. The temperature range is always optimal for a variety of agriculture. It’s not exactly “Camelot,” but the effect is something like living in a perpetually-ideal subtropical zone.

Distant crops grow on the terraces of Starboard Hill on Rana Station.
Detail from artwork ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

Planet Chayko is only 23 hours away from Rana. This makes it a far more relevant context-point for Ranans than faraway Earth (two jump-points away). But Chayko has a slightly smaller mass, a slightly faster spin, and a somewhat longer orbit than Earth. No unaltered Earth calendar will work there.

Just coordinating a conference call between Rana and Chayko is hard enough! Setting any kind of Earth-relevant timing for a holiday is an exercise in number-crunching frustration. Clearly, compromises must be made.

Intercalary days to the rescue!

Planet Chayko does have seasons. It does have solstices and equinoxes. Thus, it’s possible to divide the year into twelve, fairly equal periods, named after Earth months. Yes, in the XK9 books, January, February, and all the other months we know as part of Earth’s most widely-used Gregorian Calendar have gone to space.

But the plain fact remains that a slightly faster spin and a slightly longer orbit both mean more days in the year than 365.2425 (or 365.242189, depending on your preferred approach). On Chayko (and consequently on Rana Station), every month contains 6 to 10 intercalary days not found on Earth calendars (Yes, February the 32nd is an actual date on Chayko—and therefore, on Rana Station).

We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year.
We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year. (Digital Illustration by Jan S. Gephardt, with lots of help from 123rf stock images.)

This means that Chaykoan Solstice and Christmas, for instance, don’t happen at the same interval as they do on Earth. In fact, Christmas, which always happens on December 25, often occurs before the Chaykoan northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

Practitioners of several faiths that traditionally have varied their dates according to the lunar calendar have opted to follow the lead of Mahayana Buddhists, and celebrate formerly-variable holidays on fixed dates. Others use dates established on Earth for the closest year to the Chaykoan cycle. As you might imagine, disputes have arisen (dogmatists will be dogmatic, after all).

But somehow, they managed this business of creating a calendar. Somehow, things happen about the same time each year. And at some point, all the holidays get celebrated.

Even if it takes till December the 40th.

IMAGE CREDITS:

VIDEOS: Many thanks to National Geographic on YouTube for the clip from “Stonehenge Decoded,” and to “Jayypeezy” on YouTube for the clip of “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-Half-Century.”

PHOTOS: I’m grateful to Memory Alpha Fandom, for the screen-capture of Jean-Luc Picard’s “Captain’s Log.” Thanks very much to BBC News, for the photo of the world’s oldest known lunar calendar from the Chamber of the Bulls in France’s Lascaux Cavern. The map of caves known for Paleolithic art is ©Google, via Khan Academy.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The partial glimpse of agriculture on the terraces of Starboard Hill in the Sirius River Valley is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; all rights reserved. I created the calendar illustration using images from 123rf. Many thanks to all!

In this photo from the original Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy as “Mr. Spock” sits at the console of what looked in the mid-1960s like a very futuristic computer array. The console has a black frame with readout windows that shows many different-colored, glowing rectangles above a console covered with buttons and toggle-switches. Nimoy’s costume consisted of a blue velour tunic with a black collar and a Starfleet badge. His character’s black hair has straight-line-cut bangs and the pointy ears that became iconic. Photo courtesy of “Subspace Communicator” blog, collected in 2018.

Design fiction and science fiction

Have you ever heard of design fiction? WALDENLABS’ John Robb explains it this way: “Design fiction is a way for designers and artists to visually depict the future in inspiring ways. Typically, design fiction is associated with how technology will change our future.” But in my opinion he misses an important aspect of design fiction with this definition.

What is “design fiction”?

Robb offers examples of companies that are developing products they want to promote. To do that, they’ve put together videos to show how those products might be used in the future. He suggested that one by Corning, “A Day Made of Glass,” is an excellent example (see above).

It was made in 2011, but it still looks pretty futuristic . . . except in a few of the ways that women are portrayed. Did you catch them? Some are subtle, others quite blatant. What struck me most forcibly however, was how old that “art form” of design fiction by companies making products really is, and how it actually misses the mark if you want to think of it as “art.”

In my opinion, Robb conflates corporate design fiction with science fiction wrongly. He points to Star Trek‘s best-known innovations. That show’s  communicators inspired the development of cell phones. Their glass computers later came into reality as touchscreens. Science fiction readers need not look far to point out other innovations first portrayed in sf. But they were made for a different purpose.

In this photo from the original Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy as “Mr. Spock” sits at the console of what looked in the mid-1960s like a very futuristic computer array. The console has a black frame with readout windows that shows many different-colored, glowing rectangles above a console covered with buttons and toggle-switches. Nimoy’s costume consisted of a blue velour tunic with a black collar and a Starfleet badge. His character’s black hair has straight-line-cut bangs and the pointy ears that became iconic. Photo courtesy of “Subspace Communicator” blog, collected in 2018.
Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his shipmates used an inspiring computer unlike anything the 1960s had seen before. But Star Trek wasn’t “design fiction.” That is, it was created to tell engaging stories, not sell computers.

The difference between design fiction and science fiction

Note that corporate design fiction is created for different reasons than science fiction. At recent sf conventions, I participated in programming that showed examples of corporate design fiction from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Those visions focused on kitchens, cars, and houses. They presented fascinating glimpses, but they were made primarily as marketing tools. Companies developed them to create brand identity and to sell the companies’ products of that day. The design fiction imagery associated their products with futuristic visions. It was a way to say “we’re advanced!”

Here’s an example of futuristic design fiction from 1956.

Doesn’t sf have an agenda, too?

Science fiction offers a viewpoint, of course. But each individual science fiction writer develops their own unique viewpoint. An author may represent more than one viewpoint, over a lifetime of work. But science fiction is not primarily designed to preach, teach, or sell products.

Our wheelhouse is different. We shine a light on new thoughts, ideas, and potential problems . . . and also always to entertain, beguile, and if possible, enrich our readers’ lives. If those technological wonders we invent in the course of doing that become real someday, well, that’s icing on the cake.

About the Author

I’m Jan S. Gephardt, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2009. As you might guess from this topic, I write science fiction, as well as make paper sculpture. Learn more about my XK9 series from my publishing company, Weird Sisters Publishing. I originally wrote this post in 2018 and updated it in 2024.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Corning via YouTube, for the “A Day Made of Glass” video. Thank you, CBS Sunday Morning, for the 1956 GM vision of the “car of the future.” And I’m grateful to Subspace Communique for the photo of Mr. Spock and his computer.

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