The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon

Beyond The Horizon, John Harris

John Harris is hands down my favorite Science Fiction cover artist. I’m a simple man: I see his artwork on a book, I pick it up. Every single time. There’s just something about his work that is instantly recognizable and always draws me in. His covers have become so highly sought after that their inclusion on a book has become a personal indicator for me that a publisher has faith in that book. It’s a certain mark of quality, or almost a seal of approval. It says: “This book lives up to the John Harris cover”.

If you’ve read any Samuel Delany, Frederik Pohl, John Scalzi, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Ben Bova, Jack Vance, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Allen Steele, John Barnes, etc, then you’re most likely familiar with his artwork.

John HarrisHis paintings are absolutely dripping with massive scale, temperature, atmospheric motion, “otherness”, a marriage of the alien and the recognizable, and far future antiquity. He provides a real aged quality to everything he paints. Everything feels old and lived in: ancient ships, xeno-archaeological remnants, etc. He provides just enough detail to spark your imagination, but he leaves the edges blurred, ambiguous and almost out of focus, so you have to fill in the mental blanks yourself. It all has a photographic feel to it, although no one would confuse his painting for photographs. How he manages to do this with a paintbrush is beyond me. It’s like he thinks through a lense and paints it with a brush. Just like reading a story, you meet the artwork halfway with your own imagination and fill in the blanks.

I immensely enjoyed this collection because it not only had most of his gorgeous cover artwork, it also had earlier iterations and sketches of them, as well as sections of writing by John Harris describing his process and a little bit of his own history. John mentions playing as a child in the post-war wreckage around rural England. He guesses that this probably had an effect on his artistic output, and I have to agree. You can see it in his art, the giant fuselages, war machines, airplanes, etc. Pieces that would certain look alien in a rural English landscape.

I was thrilled to discover that for many of his images, he has also written a rough history or story to correspond. He has imagined a whole world that we only glimpse a single moment of. He is able to show us this history and story with just a still image. It’s such perfect art to be paired with novels.

I’d highly recommend picking this up if you’re a fan of SF artwork.

Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

I read this novel almost entirely from a hammock in my backyard, and I’d recommend taking that approach. It’s good and pulpy, a light summer Science Fiction read. A blue collar crime caper set during the closing days of a mobile mining station on an asteroid. Seedy characters, none particularly too bright, almost all involved in some sort of side action, fumbling their way through life with the limited choices left to them. Blackmail, vices, bribes, and lost causes are all welcome here.

Shea writes in a straightforward, no-nonsense style that reads fast and easy. Think a pulpy crime mag from the 40s, but make that 2740, and transplant that magazine onto a virtual rack residing on an illicit local intranet, accessed from portable “CPUs”. There are no lessons learned, no moral philosophies tying everything together. No overall takeaway. Sometimes a gold heist is just a gold heist. I think it works very well here.

The worldbuilding is sparse, but it has a vague feel of existing just on the outside edges of Cyberpunk. There are mega-corporations that demand complete loyalty, drones that watch your every move, and offenses against mega-corporations carry the harshest punishments: medical experimentation, and if you survive, maybe life in prison afterward. It’s a rough life for an asteroid miner, but if a highly illegal once-in-ten-lifetimes capital one corporate offense comes up, you say fuck the odds, grab hold and see how far it might take you. Maybe it’ll be just the right ticket to get out of that life, but you still have to get your loot off rock to have it do you any good. That’s where things might get difficult. Who do you trust? How much should you trust them? Give ‘em just enough rope for them to hang themselves if they fuck you over? Fuck them over first just in case? All pertinent questions if you’re a low life with limited options trying to better your situation.

This is some great sci-fi escapism, read it on a lazy Sunday, or take a copy on vacation, grab a chair by the pool, or chill in a hammock with a highly alcoholic cold drink. Turn off your head and enjoy. It was just what I needed to read between some heavier non-fiction that I’ve been slowly working on over the last month or so. I plan on picking up copies of the Koko books by the same author this summer as well. I’m hoping it’s more of this, but in a more detailed cyberpunk setting. I’ve heard good things.