Thursday, November 25, 2010

Intimate Vastness and the Paradox of Space

Art: "Space" by Maliciaroseniore on deviantArt
When I write, I hope to portray two sides of a particular coin. This coin seems to be a paradox. On one side, I want my readers to find the environments in my stories to be awe-inspiring, almost untouchable in their perfection, and utterly fantastical (either in a good way or a horrific one). After all, one of the reasons we are no doubt attracted to speculative genres is that we enjoy the incredible settings. And yet, on the other side of this coin, I want my readers to really identify with that fantastical place. I want them to find emotional resonance and intimacy there. Otherwise, the reader is too distant from the story to care what happens. Creating both images for the reader seems paradoxical, and yet we know when we experience it done effectively.

I see the first ideal expressed in the art "Space" above.  The viewing portal is massive, and shows an utterly stunning view of space, a vista of unknown worlds. The people in the picture are tiny, and the only expression visible is that one is pointing to the amazing spectacle before them.  We do not know what they are feeling, but in us the image engenders a feeling of awe.  Even the ethereal color palette makes one think more of spiritual worlds than real ones. Here, there is so much space in space. We are left appreciating how vast and unreachable it is - beyond mortal minds to understand. I get a bit of that old sci-fi feeling, and think 'wow'.
Photo: Astronaut on ISS Viewing Earth
I have recently spotted a photograph which expresses the second side of the coin. This photograph is making the rounds in geek internet circles, of which I am a member (proud or otherwise) and it depicts an astronaut on the International Space Station. She is contemplating the view of Earth from the ISS cupola. While this image has some similarity in elements to the art above, we feel different when we look at it. The emphasis has shifted from space as 'vast' to space as 'small'. Indeed, in many ways there isn't much space in space after all, since it will be a long time before we can create luxuriously open accommodations on an orbital station. This image feels close, intimate, and touchable.

So in these pieces of art I see two themes I want to accomplish in my writing, and in ways these themes seem antithetical to one another. Vastness versus intimacy. Real versus unreal. Known versus unknowable. And perhaps even clean perfection versus gritty every day life. At least as writers, we have the opportunity to present many chapters to a story, and in each we can offer a different perspective. Taken as a whole in a novel they can offer the reader the chance to eat their cake and have it, too.

Comparing these images underscores a few basic ideas of writing (as well as art). One way to emphasize the untouchable nature of an environment is to turn the focus away from the characters and towards the horizon. If you instead are interested in representing an aspect of your setting that is knowable, then include things that are already known to the reader. I note that the second image above has Earth in the view, while the first image has a foreign vista. We already know that providing information from our senses when we write is a good way to ground the reader, and make our setting more real to them. Art has the advantage of giving us instant information from vision. The color palette in "Space" reminds me of bright clouds and heaven, while the photograph's colors are more varied, if dim in places. Each serves the purpose of emphasizing a different side to this interesting coin.

I could go on, obviously, but I think you probably get my point. What are your thoughts? How do you approach the challenge of giving both perspectives to your reader?

Image Credits:

Image One: "Space" by Maliciaroseniore on deviantArt.

My comments:  Well, you sort of know them because you read the post, but I find this to be a classic image of the 'wow' side of science fiction. The kind of art that makes you feel you've seen into hidden realms, visited unknown shores.

Image Two:  Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson reflects on the view from the ISS's Cupola. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA from Universe Today

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