Category Archives: artists and books

Book review: The Six-Gun Tarot (R.S. Belcher 2013

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters.

Rating: 4/5

I chose to read The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher for two reasons: one, I’ve read more western-based science fiction since I moved west, and two, I met Rod Belcher and heard him speak about the book twice. Belcher was such a pleasant and interesting person that I made note of his book, even though Six-Gun Tarot is more fantasy than I usually read (my friend Stephanie Hunter called the genre “paranormal western”). I really enjoyed Six-Gun Tarot and want to read more in this universe.

Six-Gun Tarot is set in a small 1880’s mining town in Nevada called Golgotha. The reader sees through the eyes of a dozen characters. The cast is refreshingly diverse for a western tale; we meet a teenage boy fleeing his crimes in West Virginia, an American Indian deputy, a death-defying sheriff, a housewife who’s more than she seems, a German butcher with a terrible burden, a Mormon mayor struggling to accept himself, and more. From the get go, you know that Golgotha is abnormal. The deputy is part coyote, the boy has a Chinese talisman; everybody is magic in their own way, and watching them work together was fun. I sometimes find fantasy snobbish: Harry Potter is special and muggles aren’t; Piers Anthony’s Xanthians are just plain better than the mundanes. I suppose the reader is meant to imagine themselves as one of the special ones, but so far I have not discovered magical acumen. Anyways, I felt that Six-Gun Tarot handled this aspect of fantasy well. The characters cared about action, not a sense of personal destiny or power.

Golgotha is one hell of a place; it was my favorite part of the book. The characters casually mention previous disasters; babies getting drained of blood and people going mad. And there’s something just not right up under the mountain… Golgotha feels wonderfully western and weird. It made me think of Carrizozo, one of the haunts of Billy the Kid, or of Tularosa, stuck between mountains and a desert of gypsum. For me, Golgotha was the protagonist. It draws odd people. We learn about its bars and its neighborhoods and its residents. We learn its geography. Belcher’s language really suits the setting. At one point, he describes the sunset as resembling a bruise. The only parts of the book I enjoyed less are the ones set outside of Golgotha.

Basically, Six-Gun Tarot was a fantastically fun read. If you like paranormal, you’ll probably like it. I almost exclusively don’t like paranormal. But great writing and memorable characters and setting can enliven any story. It was fun to enjoy a read outside my normal wheelhouse.

 

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Book Review: Architects of Emortality (Brian Stableford 1999)

Note: in this review, I mostly limit comments to the intro and  first chapter (65 pages in this case).

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford is the fourth book of the Emortality series and my first Stableford book. I am still unclear on the significance of “emortal” versus “immortal”, but otherwise, the book stood alone without reading the first three books. Architects of Emortality is set in the late 2400s. Life can be extended via technology, but for most, 200 years is roughly the limit. Due to a recent technological advancements, the next generation may be immortal, but only those treated before birth can partake. The book opens with a murder and the subsequent investigation of that murder.

Architects of Emortality had interesting world-building and intriguing ideas, but it had three big flaws: 1) the characters were flat and uninteresting, 2) the language was distracting, and 3) the female roles flat-out sucked. Not every sci-fi reader cares as much about character development as I do; if you enjoy big worlds with far-reaching ideas, this may very well be a book you will enjoy. For me, it felt out-of-date though it’s only from 1999.

The book opens with investigator Charlotte Holmes at the scene of Gabriel King’s murder. His murder is unusual; murders are uncommon in this future, and King has been consumed by flowers clean down to the bone. Video shows that a beautiful young woman visited just before the murder, bearing unusual flowers. Holmes, the protagonist, is a young sergeant and assistant to Hal Watson, who investigates from afar using the resources of the web. A minor spoiler: Holmes does nothing but fret about her limits as an investigator; she travels and observes but never acts. Her uselessness fuels complaints #1 and #3, above. Stableford draws attention to the fact that she is Charlotte Holmes by having a Watson. A famously clever investigator’s name suggests that Holmes will be at the center of solving the murder mystery, and that she will be clever. Neither is true. Most of the insights come from Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant flower designer with ties to the murder who travels with Holmes during the investigation. Holmes is an appendage to whom Wilde muses.

Other than Holmes, the only significant woman in the book is the murderess. We learn little about her; she is beautiful and young and acting on the behalf of someone else. All other significant characters are men; they are mostly experts of various kinds. Where Holmes is insecure and a hard-nosed investigator and little else, Oscar Wilde enjoys 19th century literature, designs flowers, and is beautiful, vain, and eccentric. He has opinions about everything, and he likes to make people uncomfortable with those opinions. He is better characterized than Holmes, but still a bit flat. If I imagined a future botanist version based on my thin knowledge of 19th century Oscar Wilde, this Oscar Wilde is about what I’d imagine. But he is still infinitely more rich than Holmes.

That pretty well covers my first and third complaints about the book. Finally, I found the language in this book excessively self-aware, and at times plain obnoxious. Instead of engaging in the story, I was rolling my eyes at word choice. I dog-eared the worst example from about halfway through the book (not a spoiler):

 “I saw it,” Charlotte said wearily. “Was there something significant I should have taken note of?” She knew that she ought not to end sentences with prepositions, but thought that the stress of the situation made the infelicity forgivable.

This occurs immediately after the characters have had a brush with death. Not only is the preposition rule a garbage grammar rule cribbed from Latinwho cares at such a time? The quote above is just the most egregious example of pompous language undercutting the impact of events in the book. Only one line of dialogue earlier she is described as “profoundly shaken.” Also, to describe near-death as “infelicity”… I had to put the book down for a bit.

On a final positive note, the ideas in the book are rich and passionate, which is why I gave it 1.5 instead of 1 stars. These ideas include longevity technology, artistic expression, bio-engineering, what a far-reaching future might look like, and how people might find identity in a far future. It also explored how people handle death, how the media might look in a distant future, what our current tendencies toward oligarchy might lead to, what a crime might be in the future, and what nature might be in the future. Truly, it covers a lot of bases conceptually. But for me, it was on the back of lackluster characters with distracting language. I felt that the author cared far more about the concepts than his vehicles for breathing life into them. The useless female characters also damaged the sense of futurism; an avid fan of classic scifi learns to forgive empty doe-eyed ladies in 60s novels, but in a novel written in 1999 that’s just too much. I won’t be looking for Stableford in my reading future.

The delightful illustrations of George Barbier

I am two years into a project of science fiction illustration inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 View of Edo. I’m working on 100 views of Vironevaeh. I’ve completed 75 line art drawings, and am satisfied with 44 of them. It’s a project that ebbs and flows, and I constantly seek new sources of inspiration. The floor of my office is littered with books tabbed with post-it notes—a photo essay of the Koreas, French war illustrations from World War I, a Western photo essay, amongst others. This weekend I found art deco master George Barbier.

I’ve written about my interest in art deco and art nouveau before. (see: Victor Horta’s architecture, Alphonse Mucha’s posters and Walter Crane’s childrens books.) When I found a book of George Barbier illustrations on my shelf, purchased over a year ago, but forgotten in a cross-country move, I found inspiration.

The book is the top Barbier hit on Amazon, though it is mostly in Japanese with some original French. Barbier was one of the top artists in France after World War I, but disappeared largely after his death in 1932, a fate that seems to happen to many of the commercial artists of this period. Blissfully, he is in ascendance, even if the most accessible manifestation at the moment is an unreadable rendition in metallic blue. The illustrations are good enough that that doesn’t matter.

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The book has hundreds of illustrations from what seem like a variety of sources. The impenetrable Japanese let my imagination run wild. Below are just three.

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One inspired me rather directly. Can you tell? Time to take my scattered brain back into the world of inspiration.

 

The impermanence of color: the treachery of entropy

Color seems like an easy, marvelous thing when you get that 64 color box of Crayolas as a kid. 64 sticks of pure color. But, of course, color is complicated. It can be impermanent, difficult to obtain, and toxic. To understand the life and chemistry of colors is to peek under the hood. It’s not what catches your eye, but it’s the heart of the drama.

Many paintings are known to be fading; it’s the newer paintings that draw the most concern. To some extent, the older paintings had probably already faded, but the older paintings also used old tried-and-true methods. The works of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) are considered to be about as colorful today as when they were painted. Van Gogh’s daisies are fading. Renoir’s red has been digitally re-envisioned to show its pre-faded look.

The 1800s were a boom time of chemistry and industrialization, and the art world participated in this expansion too. 12 elements, including sodium and potassium, were discovered between 1800 and 1810. As Chemistry exploded, and new colors exploded. Mauve, the first synthetic dye, was produced in 1856 from coal tar. Renaissance painters (or their apprentices) prepared their own dyes and pigments (think of those scenes from “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” where Scarlett Johansson is grinding various things); 19th century painters bought paint from chemists. Like the disintegrating trade paperbacks of the early 1900s, when industrialization took over an old process, it was faster and cheaper, but took a while to match other characteristics. Books from the early 1800s are often far more intact than the wood-pulp books that followed them.

Artists like Van Gogh knew the strengths and limitations of their new tools. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, noting that the Impressionist paints “fade like flowers,” so he used the brightest colors he could, doing what he could to counteract impermanence. Even now, not all paints are equally durable; here’s a table for watercolors including such measures.

Today, scientists are studying the precise chemistry that causes fading using X-rays. So far, nothing can be done to stop or reverse the fading; they can only be kept away from light. At least we have the tools to imagine their former glory.

Further reading: Victoria Finlay’s Color is a great read on the chemistry of color without diving too deep technically. I reviewed it on this blog a couple of years ago. This article about the history of oil colors is also really fascinating. And finally, if you’re a chemistry buff, the scientific article about Van Gogh’s fading yellow is open source, and available to the public here.

 

 

Painting with dark: books of night-themed art to inspire the high ISO photographer

Photography means “painting with light.” But how much light? Today, cameras are more light sensitive than ever, with ISOs up to 400,000 or even 4,000,000. Some have described cameras that can take video by the light of a candle as “painting with dark.” After discussing these advancements at a photo event yesterday, I found myself thinking about how that affects an image. If light is the exception rather than the rule, what kind of images could I create?

So I visited my bookshelf! And I found two art books themed around darkness and nighttime. In a future post, I’ll have to see how these inspiring books guided me. After all, it’s a great time of year to find guidance in darkness.

The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ram Singh Urveti

This book is from Tara Books, a company that does beautiful and imaginative books. I also recommend Waterlife by Rambharos Jha, which I wrote about in a previous post. Both Night Life and Waterlife are silk-screen print books, which gives the colors and ink a life that other printing methods don’t match. Both books also smell amazing. (This sounds weird, but they just do. I don’t know whether it’s the ink, the paper, or both.)

The Night Life of Trees is full of illustrations depicting just that—trees at night and what goes on in them. The images are screen prints on black paper, allowing the book to “paint with darkness” in a way that other books just can’t. Check out the beautiful images below.

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The House in the Night
by Susan Marie Swanson

A children’s book with awesome art. Sometimes kids books have the best art because they keep it simple. This book is literally about light at night. I don’t think that needs too much explanation. Just check out the art, which incidentally mimics the woodcut style that I discussed last week.

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M.C. Escher: revisiting a familiar name

M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí are two of the greatest reality-bending artists. So, fittingly, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida recently hosted a special Escher exhibit. I’ve visited the Dalí collection many times, but I’d never seen Escher in person.

I had many Escher calendars as a kid. When I took crystallography, we studied the symmetries in Escher’s tessellations. I’ve always been interested in design and mathematics, and Escher is the purest intersection of the two. I was ecstatic to see the exhibit.

Before the exhibit, I was most familiar with Escher’s lithographs. Without too much elaboration, lithography is a high-fidelity technique which allows the artist to produce an image that is not directed by the mechanics of printing (I’m sure the method does direct some artistic choices, but as a non-expert, that’s my rough take on it).

The exhibit contained many of Escher’s woodcuts, which were new to me. Woodcuts are make by carving a plate of wood, coating the plate with ink, and pressing the plate to a page. The page will be white where the wood has been cut away and the page will be colored where the wood remained. Woodcuts have a distinctive style–they cannot render colors in between white and ink color. Multiple colors can be achieved with additional pressings, but the technique is inherently color-limited.Additionally, the resolution of the print is limited to the fidelity of the wood. These two aspects give woodcuts a distinctive artistic feeling. If you can’t tell, I’m currently a little in love with woodcuts.

Escher died in 1972, but thanks to Disney, his works remain out of the Creative Commons. However, I am allowed to use low-resolution works for discussion purposes. You’ll have to buy books if you want anything with much detail, though. Below are a few of my favorite Escher images that are available through Wikipedia, as I have linked them under the image.

Some of Escher’s early works were illustrations. There was a beautiful cathedral, half underwater. There were evil-looking creatures in forests. It was such a romantic side to an artist most think of as a master of geometry. Below is an example of one of his illustrations. Even though it’s of a conventional subject, the Tower of Babel, the perspective is beautiful. I love the lines; this work just wouldn’t be whole using a method besides woodcut.

Below was Escher’s first impossible reality. And look, it’s a woodcut! Hooray!

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Still Life and Street: Escher’s first impossible reality

Below is one of Escher’s more famous images. It is a lithograph printing. See how various tones of gray are possible with this technique, as well as high-fidelity. It lends this images a very different tone than the one above. The lizard design is called a tessellation. Tessellations are plane-filling patterns. They occur in nature and area subject of mathematical study. Escher was inspired by the tiling work at the Alhambra in Spain, another example of tessellation.

Below is another Escher woodcut, done with several plates to achieve multiple colors. Even when Escher wasn’t exploring impossible realities of geometry puzzles, he chose interesting perspectives.

Pittsburgh’s transcendent Cathedral of Learning

There is a gothic skyscraper on the University of Pittsburgh campus called the Cathedral of Learning. It’s a beautiful building that does indeed resemble a vertically stretched cathedral. But inside are 29 nationality rooms that are even more astounding. Each one is themed around a different nationality (or culture, in the case of some like the African Heritage Classroom or the Israel Heritage Classroom). The oldest were dedicated in 1938, and the newest was dedicated in 2012. Each room is a highly detailed presentation of the culture of its country, down to the light switch panels, lights, and chair backs. Most are designed by architects of the country and decorated by artists of the country. And they’re all incredibly beautiful.

I visited the cathedral about a year ago now, but I’m still enthralled by it. I wrote about it then too. But recently I was editing my pictures from my visit, which gave me an excuse to post about it again. Check out the photos below, or the hundred full-res images I posted as creative commons works on Flickr.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The tempura painted ceiling in the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940. 

The Hungarian Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Hungarian Classroom door, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

A detail from the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The ceiling in the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.