Monday, April 30, 2012

Prompt the Muse #29 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Colorful Design  
A civilization chooses to depict their leaders in a form of art.  Do they create a painting, sculpture, mosaic, poem, piece of music, etc.?  Do they include other elements in the work, such as religious, natural, or technical elements?  Describe the work in 150 words.

Image credit: Smithsonian American Art MuseumDesign Made at Airlie Gardens, 1967 Minnie Evans

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wear Your Influences Proudly

We all produce our writing and art from the raw materials within our minds, yet so much of what is in our minds comes from the outside.  What we eat, our means of transportation, the language we speak, major life benchmarks, and so much more are based on the norms for our regional culture.  People within a culture work from a related set of inspirations to produce designs, styles, and imprints.  Whenever a particular design becomes popular, that vision itself becomes a new inspiration that gets stirred back into the mix.

An example is the artwork Gas Walker I by soulburn3d on deviantArt.  Depending on your own influences, you might see something here that reminds you the movie Alien, or the video game Mass Effect.  For me, it looked a little like a shadow ship from the TV series Babylon 5.  But Babylon 5 is hardly the 'prime mover' of influences.  They too took from what was around them to create the overall design scheme of the series.  I like to think the designers said, "Hey, we have to create the spaceship for the creepy bad guys - so what looks really creepy?"  Well, why not pick out things that actually do creep and put them together?  You can't get much more basic in your influences than forms of life that have been around for tens of thousands of years.

Basic math equation for creepy ship
The artist soulburn3d, Neil Blevins, states this in a way that really appeals to me, "... when it comes down to it, it's all just that we were inspired by the same things. And that's how it should be, everyone should take their influences and try to find a unique take on them, and find other contemporary people producing artwork that speaks to you, and incorporate the parts you like into your own style. I'll never say my style is unique, but hopefully it's different enough that it's recognizable. I wear my influences proudly ..."

That one might have crash landed
Yet it remains a difficult question - how do we take our inspirations, on large and small scales, and give them a twist, a strange perspective, or a surprising viewpoint?  Where does "too derivative" stop and "something unique and interesting" start?  It can be very subjective.  After all, once we have flying spider ships on the brain, everything starts to look like a flying spider ship.  No really.  When NASA's Messenger spacecraft took images of Mercury in 2008, it spotted this set of radial grooves.  B5 fans, some of which were science team members, all had the same reaction.  Yep.  The bad guys were hiding on the unexplored side of Mercury all this time ...

As I noted, the idea that we should wear our "influences proudly" really appeals to me.  We all have them, and being conscious of our inspirations allows us to (A) give them proper credit and homage, and (B) see more clearly how we can use our personalities in combination with our inspirations to produce something that carries our own unique fingerprint.  Perhaps the only real way to know if we have generated the next new vision is if we then become inspirations for the generation of artists and writers that follow us.

Pax, All 


Image Credits:  Artwork - Gas Walker I by appears with the generous permission of soulburn3d, Neil Blevins, on deviantArt.  Artist soulburn3d is a professional digital artist.  "I've been an artist for as long as I can remember. Raised in Canada on a healthy dose of scifi and fantasy films, books, and videogames, I began painting and drawing traditionally, and then got into the computer, making 3d graphics and painting in 2d digitally. Professionally, I've created art for animated features, live action, videogames, TV, ride films and album art for companies like Blur Studio, and Pixar, where I currently work as a Technical Director."  Spider image from, J. Coelho on Flikr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0.  Crab image, Dancing with Ghosts on Flikr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0.  Shadow ship, Babylon 5 series promotional image.  Mercury Image, NASA Messenger mission, NASA/JPL/APL.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fact, Fiction, and Fractals

Images: Above - The Fall by Golubaja on deviantArt  Below - Agate Geode
I am enthralled by fractal images.  As I've mentioned previously in the post Art Imitates Life, there is something about the repeating patterns of fractals that I find intriguing (maybe even soothing).  But as I view more of them over time, I'm coming to see how much I enjoy fractal image because they make it easier to perceive certain aspects of the world around us that I may not have fully appreciated.

I never really studied fractals in detail.  I have plenty of math in my background, but things like chaos theory were just getting off the ground when I was in those courses, and so exposure was limited.  My grasp of fractals at this point remains incomplete, since even the people who work on fractal systems for a living do not all agree on the perfect definition for a fractal.  Instead, they point to a set of characteristics of a set or system.  One of these characteristics is self-similarity; the same geometry repeated over and over and smaller and smaller scales.

Fractal images, which make it possible to visualize these mathematical sets and systems, were only appreciated by the general populace for their spacy sci-fi look.  I was (and remain) one of those who thought they looked so cool, and so different from the usual boring geometry of everything in the real world.  Which is painfully ironic, since as it turns out almost anything with a complex, dynamic character can't be expressed with simple, easy geometries and linear equations.  Yet they can, in some ways, be expressed with fractals.  That's most of the real world - not just natural systems like weather - but also human made systems like the stock market.

Any dynamic, complex system is chaotic by nature.  That's chaotic in the "math" sense.  Colloquially, we use chaotic to mean unpredictable, random, and lacking in order.  It looks random to us, but chaos does appear to have a kind of underlying structure - fractals.  Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that examines those complex systems that are very sensitive to starting conditions.  Most people know that as the Butterfly Effect.  It turns out that meteorologists are not just toying with us when they get the weather prediction wrong.  Weather cannot be perfectly predicted, ever.  Sad but true.

But now that chaos theory and an understanding of fractal systems have come along, there are new ways to study these complex systems.  All of this is the setup for a simple observation about crystal growth.  In an idealized world, the growth of crystals can be predicted.  We know the geometry of how those molecules come together, in quartz, say, pretty darn well.  But in the real world, crystals don't grow in a vacuum; there are contaminants, changes in temperature or pressure, changes in pH level, changes in the amount of water in the system, and on and on.  So instead of getting one piece of quartz formed into a perfect point, you end up with an assemblage that looks completely random.

Except it isn't really.  The amazing fractal art at the top, The Fall by Golubaja, exhibits patterns of swirls that appear to form and fade along the boundaries of the image.  When I saw it, it immediately reminded me of a geode, but I couldn't say exactly why.  I went digging for pictures of geodes and looked at them in a way I had not tried to before.  Did they look like fractals?  Definitely.  The picture under the fractal art is that of an agate geode.  I picked this one primarily because the color match was so amazingly close to the fractal art.  In reality, many of the geodes I found could have been used here just as well.

It seems like a simple, small revelation, but I pay attention to these things since they form the basis of how I see the world.  I've always loved visual fractals.  They do look cool and spacy, really.  They continue to inspire my writing.  I always felt they took me out of the mundane world.  It is a wonderful irony that they actually describe the mundane world very well.  It's a connection between my everyday world, and the worlds I choose to create, that I find ... well ... inspiring.

Later, All


Image Credits:  Fractal Art Image The Fall by Golubaja on deviantArt.  Golubaja is a prolific artist who has been on dA for more than eight years, and whose work includes fractals, drawings, photomanipulations, photography and more.  This work of art is used with generous permission by the artist.  Agate geode in the public domain.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Planetary Poetry for National Poetry Month

Image:  Science - Saturn's satellite Titan
Time goes by way, way too fast.  Perhaps that's why the main character in my science fiction universe is a time traveler.  Part of me wishing I had more time, and some device to help me put it all in order.  Not that that is what his life is like ... so I probably should count myself lucky that I am forced into this linear lifestyle.

The linear nature of time has brought me to April, already.  It's been productive off-line, with ongoing edits to two novels that really need them.  But I am glad to find myself in April with an excuse to deviate from the novel-editing and into poetry for a brief while.  As you know, I've been one of those crazy folks who tries to write a poem a day in April to celebrate National Poetry Month.  I don't put my drafts up here on the blog, since I am working towards a specific project that I hope will be published.  But really, I have written poems this month (ahem, cough).  Really.  Okay, not one a day.  I have three, and several pages of notes, but you work with what you have.

Image: Phobos
I do, however, really enjoy going to the sites of other authors and checking out their daily posts.  Scientist and musician Andrew Rivkin continues to impress me with his dedication to the month.  For three years, he has posted a poem a day in April to his blog Imperturbable Music.  First it was a month of baseball poetry, then last year it was elements from the periodic table.  This year the theme seems to be planetary satellites.  Again, he has chosen not to divulge the name of the target, but instead leaves it to the reader to uncover the poem's inspiration like a riddle.

In addition, each poem contains so many references and allusions to topics relating to the satellite that each one of these is a small puzzle in and of itself.  I'm a planetary scientist, and am hard pressed to identify every single reference.  They are drawn from science, history, literature, religion, mythology, and on and on.

Here's a passage from today's poem "One of the Friends."

How many stories she could tell,
and what secrets lurk,
peeking out from inside!
Joining the TNO diaspora,
riding with the Centaurs,
greeting Cassini at the city gates
and consenting to a few pictures
before going on her own way.

Image:  Art's Conception of probing below Europa's Ice
His quirky poetry was noted on the The Planetary Society blog, penned by Emily Lakdawalla.  As always, I enjoy seeing where literature, science, and art come together.  I encourage you to tap into your own favorite speculative fiction topic, and see if the muse strikes you to create a few lines of verse.  Or go ahead and get back to novel writing - that's cool, too.  :)
Pax, All

Images: NASA and NASA/JPL. Titan - Color stretched to show detail. Phobos - Again, color stretched like crazy. Third image is a NASA artist's conception of a probe looking for life under Europa's icy lithosphere. Shown are imagined geothermal vents. My opinion? Ah, life is not too likely, here. But I'd still use it for story-fodder.  Lines from the poem "One of the Friends" are reprinted here with permission from the author, Andrew Rivkin.