Autun Purser – Fantastic Travel Destinations


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I came across the wonderful Fantastic Travel Destination posters of Autun Purser at Dysprosium and immediately bought the complete set of cards and a print for one of my own personal favourite locations – the Lidenbrock Sea from Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He’s very kindly written a post about his art and so I’ll hand it over to Autun to explain how and why he creates such brilliant works:

ftd1400For years, I have been exposed to the 1930s-1950s UK transport posters, advertising the dubious attractions of seaside resorts, bits of countryside etc. I have actually got a facsimile of a ‘Scarborough’ poster hanging in my house. Over these years the formats, fonts, word ratios and limited colour palettes of these designs have seeped into me and have mixed up with my dear love of written science and unusual fiction.

For my work I am actually a deep sea marine biologist, rather than a designer or artist, and spend a number of months each year at sea. In 2011 I was on a research cruise afflicted with bad weather, mechanical failures and various problems, with little real work to do and no marine samples to illustrate- I had the idea to fill my time by attempting a travel poster design, but advertising the location from the book I was currently reading – Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber, rather than some seaside town. With a near autistic approach to detail, I decided to keep the page formats, fonts, limited colour palettes, text sections (name of location, a little ‘joke’, names of similar destinations etc.) laid out as closely as possible to the tall, door advertisments used for a while at train stations. I also decided that the design should be printable at 122 cm x 58 cm at 300 dpi resolution, so as to match the original formats.

ftd_how400I draw all the designs by hand, in black ink directly onto paper. I don’t use any pencil guides or rough markups. I may make some rough sketches in advance to get an idea of layout, but for the actual designs, I just draw them directly out. Sometimes photographs are also used as key references to the designs – such as the ship and the cliff elements in ‘The English Channel’. I usually use a maximum of three line thicknesses in a design, to keep the form as strong as possible. After doing the inking I scan the design in high resolution and colour using photoshop – exclusively using the base internet colours (I think a palette of about 120 colours) – this is a constraint similar to that placed on the initial poster designers (most had less than 60 colours to choose from) and one I think was important to carry forward, especially after it was clear I was going to carry on making design after design…

ftd6400…but that is getting ahead of myself. After doing ‘Lankhmar’ I decided it might be fun to have a crack at a few more , so ‘Solaris’ soon followed, as did ‘Arrakis’ and some of the others on my webpage ( With ‘Solaris’ I started another trend I continue with – if a book has been adapted for screen or TV, I try to illustrate a location not covered by the adaptation, or focus on details ignored by the adaptation. In ‘Solaris’ I really try and show the planet trying to create the giant baby, as discussed stunningly in the book but ignored in all adaptations thus far.

ftd2400I did 14 posters and put an exhibition on in a university library, with the library buying in the books and promoting unusual fiction. I enjoyed that and decided to design 25 and put out a self-published book. This I also did, and by then it was pretty clear I could not stop. I have designed something like 50 posters now in the range, and also invited several guest artists to make contributions (such as ‘City of England’ here). The range has had some nice publicity on IO9 etc, and I have has some interest from publishers in using some of the illustrations, which as a fan I have really enjoyed. I am also enjoying presenting unusual books such as Pincher Martin (‘Ravenous Ego’ in the poster range) and ‘The Aerodrome’, in amongst the more traditional canon books such as Starship Troopers and Dune. The ‘similar destinations include:’ section is also a great place for me to guide the illustrated reader to the more forgotten gems of written unusual fiction.

Most of the range is available as cheap ‘print on demand’ posters, with some also available as traditional, manual screen prints. When a design has only a few colours, such as ‘Los Angeles’ here (from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson), screen prints can be made reasonably affordably. I limit these screen prints to the number of years since the book was written – so 60 for ‘Los Angeles’, more for the output of Verne and Lovecraft, less for that of Christopher Priest. I also sell sets of 40 postcards with many of the designs illustrated within a pack.

I have ~80 more designs lined up for the range, so if you are interested, keep an eye on the website




Autun Purser

Life on Uranus – Frank R. Paul, Fantastic Adventures April 1940


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Life on Uranus, Frank R. Paul, 1940.

I came back from Eastercon 2015 with several pulp magazines, including a couple of copies of Fantastic Adventures carrying Frank R. Paul’s ‘Life on..’ series. This was a wildly optimistic attempt to extrapolate alien life on the planets of our solar system, based on the knowledge of the day. I thought I’d share my particular favourite, the iconic Life on Uranus from Fantastic Adventures, April 1940. The text is by Henry Gade.

On our back cover this month we present the artist’s conception of the inhabitants of the planet Uranus, deduced in imagination from scientific facts about that world as astronomers know them.

Uranus is one of the four major planets and therefore, one of the four upon which the most strange conditions of theoretical life must exist. Before attempting to picture the life form the planet might possess, we must consider the facts, meagre indeed, known about the giant world.

First, it is the seventh planet in distance from the sun, revolving in an orbit at a mean distance of 1,782,800,000 miles. It takes 84 years to complete its voyage over its orbit. Its diameter is 30,900 miles or nearly four times that of earth. However, its mass is only 14,6 times that of earth, which places its density at 0.25 that of our own planet, and 1.36 that of water.

From these facts we must deduce that it has a great proportion of gaseous elements in its makeup, probably indicating a tremendously thick blanket of atmosphere, of many kinds of gases, most of them poisonous. However, its great distance from the sun means it must be a cold world, and we may find the surface of the planet consisting of a great quantity of liquid, frozen to a great depth. There would be some land areas, probably crystalline or metallic (aluminium, bismuth etc.) in formation and rather impracticable as a means of supporting life.

Fantastic Adventures April 1940. Cover by Frank R. Paul.

Fantastic Adventures April 1940. Cover by Frank R. Paul.

Uranus is a pale, sea-green in colour, which may come from its atmospheric blanket entirely, or from its watery surface, visible through the atmosphere. There is no reason to assume we could not observe the surface through the atmosphere even though it were extremely dense, because the cold world would result in clarity through precipitation of foreign and non-gaseous elements in suspension, and in the lack of precipitation of a liquid nature, or even rare snowstorms.

Bearing all these facts in mind, let us voyage to Uranus and land our space ship on the frozen surface, after a perilous journey through an atmosphere that is dense enough to cause us great worry as we cut down our speed to avoid overheating from friction. Finally, however, we land. We find it necessary to wear our space suits, and perhaps we have out anti-gravity shoes on. We’d have trouble carrying our 400 pounds of weight, if we didn’t don them.

We carry a weapon, because we’ve noticed some very peculiar metal domes sticking up out of the icy terrain. It is evident that it never melts, and the structures seem quite permanent. However, we won’t be too sure, because it’s “winter” where we have landed, and these things look as though they would float if the ice melted. No telling what we’ll find inside. Or what will emerge to greet us.

We walk through the thin, powdery snow, and we pass one of the metal domes. It’s hollow, but there’s no answer to our pounding. We pass on. But we’ve been observed. The next dome opens, startling us. Peering at us, we see a queer metal being. No, he’s not metal. It’s a suit he’s wearing. He remains motionless, regarding us with a cold stare. We come closer.

A City on Uranus. Frank R. Paul. Amazing Stories April 1941.

A City on Uranus. Frank R. Paul. Amazing Stories April 1941.

We see a queer, tiny green-furred being. He seems unafraid. But we feel certain that he’ll pop down if we make an overt move and slam his dome down over him again. Reminds us of a ferret, somehow. Approaching, we signify by sign language that we intend no harm, and we descend into the interior of the Uranian’s queer home. We are amazed. We find a veritable little city, all self-contained in metal.

Here is a frozen world with all the elements that would force a living being to develop scientifically in the struggle for existence. He has built himself a home fitted with all the comforts possible. Air-lock, to keep out the poisonous outer atmosphere. Air purifying plants, furnishing an atmosphere much too heavy for us to breathe, although the Uranian now takes off his suit and reveals himself as a squat, little fellow, with webbed legs, short and powerful, and tiny, many-fingered hands, with webbing between them.

Obviously, he is partly amphibian, We learn to our astonishment that he is able to descend below the ice crust of the planet and swim like a seal in the water below, where grows his food supply. These are mostly seaweed, small fishes, and jelly fish. Down below, the water is warm, in fact it becomes hot at great depths, because Uranus’ great bulk retains much of its original heat. It is only the surface that is frozen.

At times, we learn, the heat increases, and the ice melts, allowing steam to escape, and accounting for the strange white bands in the atmosphere noticed by earth astronomers through their telescopes. This also accounts for the snow we find outside.

Frank R. Paul

Frank R. Paul

It is down here that the Uranian really lives, and we find that he can breathe directly in the water with a set of gills. Also it is here that the mating takes place. The eggs are deposited in the warm waters, in clumps of floating weeds, and there hatch, to develop into tadpole-like creatures which develop later into the full-grown quasi-amphibian Uranian

Evolution has driven this being to prepare himself for an ultimate life on a world which will be entirely frozen, and the watery underworld no longer exists as the planet loses its natural heat. Thus, the city we entered is the forerunner of Uranian surface cities built on everlasting ice. At present, they are temporary affairs, capable of floating at the season of melting.

Peculiarly, of all four giant worlds, Uranus is the one most fitted to support an intelligent form of life, and it is a world where we can expect to find such life with more assurance than we would anywhere else in the solar system with the exception of young Venus, and ageing Mars.

Tully Zetford – Hook: Whirlpool of Stars


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Whirlpool of Stars

As I’ve mentioned before, 1974 marked my Looking into Chapman’s Homer moment when on opening Science Fiction Monthly number 2 I had the same feelings as ‘stout Cortez when with eagle eyes, He star’d at the Pacific’. From then on I grabbed any and all SF that took my fancy, usually based on whether it had a Bruce Pennington or Chris Foss cover, and dove in. At first I hadn’t a clue about who wrote what or when, it took a while for me to realise, for example, that Skylark of Space was actually written in 1928 or that Tully Zetford wasn’t perhaps of the same stature as Isaac Asimov or A. E. van Vogt. I hoovered it all up indiscriminately, buying paperbacks by the foot.

Among other things New English Library specialised in mass-produced pulp novels for teenagers. None of your sanitised ‘Young Adult’ nonsense here, this was loads of cheesy, voyeuristic sex and a bit of the old ultra-violence for a generation desperately attempting to look hard despite youth fashion forcing them to wander round in flared trousers, jean jackets piped with tartan and outrageous mullets. Alex in A Clockwork Orange was the role model – not least because he managed to be evil and menacing despite wearing nappies, a bowler hat and false eyelashes.

The Boosted Man

NEL’s lurid hackwork factory inevitably spilled over into their SF catalogue and perhaps the most entertaining manifestation was Tully Zetford’s Hook series which started with Whirlpool of Stars (1974) and The Boosted Man (1974). Big full-page adverts in Science Fiction Monthly pulled me in with promises of mind-spinning sf for 30p and I bought the series. They recount the adventures of loner desperado Ryder Hook as he flees across the galaxy from the other Boosted Men (as well as having super-strong bodies they can speed up and go very fast, like Quicksilver in the X-Men). What I didn’t realise at the time was that Tully Zetford was one of the pen-names of Ken Bulmer who churned out science fiction and fantasy novels at a rate of knots under various pseudonyms, his most famous creation being the fifty-two books in the swords and planets Dray Prescott series.

Star City

The Hook novels are seriously bad but possess a frenetically demented energy that make them (oh, OK, one of them) readable late at night after a few pints, preferably out loud. Whirlpool of Stars gives the impression of a story written in one hysterical amphetamine-fuelled burst. It starts in the middle of the action and never lets up, which means that Bulmer is constantly having to throw in detail, what passes for characterisation and backstory as he goes along. I might be wrong but given that it reads like a first draft hammered down on butcher’s paper for maximum speed and output the result is a constant chaos of asides, shifting points of view and throwaway references to people, places and things hurled into the mix. The style is an odd mix of Chandleresque wise-cracking (‘This man’s face bore the kind of smile Hook had seen on the leading barracuda as it closed in, grinning, on its hunk of bloody meat’) and an oddly florid juvenile prose (‘he’d put the flier on auto, put her over his knees, and spank that flame-pantied bottom’). Foul intergalactic curses like ‘ninny’, ‘poltroon’ and ‘curd’ abound. And then there’s the guns. Bulmer goes overboard with his description of the various weapons at hand in 10,000 AD, each with its own lovingly described effect. A Tonota Eighty will blow big ragged holes in you, Wharton 90s pepper you with needles, the Abdoslit fires blades which razrez you up all horrorshow and then there’s the Delling. Although this has appeared in several anthologies of bad SF it’s still worth quoting the effect of this weapon in full:

Someone had used a Delling on him…
Giffler melted.
His body deliquesced. It oozed. His head flowed and collapsed and sloughed. Still upright, he melted and shrank and collapsed, his body shimmered like a blood-drenched jelly. He shrank and oozed and formed a contracting pool of scum on the yard stones…
A robot vacuum cleaner and scrubber darted out on rubber wheels and began to suck and clean the spot where Giffler had died.

Virility Gene

Sadly by the end of book four, Virility Gene, Ryder Hook had turned out to be a bit of a self-congratulatory nob, even to a gormless and largely uncritical thirteen year old. Ultimately he comes across as a smug louche, an impression not helped by the paperback covers. Even by NEL’s admittedly unambitious standards the artwork is pretty dire. On Whirlpool of Stars he’s less interestingly amoral antihero and more middle-aged lounge lizard suffering from constipation while desperately trying to appear as cool and sexy as Peter Stringfellow, Bob Guccione or the editor of Reader’s Wives. The figure on the pink and puce cover of Star City (Number 3) looks like it was drawn by a ten-year old. The last one has him standing in the kind of blue spandex body stocking that would embarrass even David Bowie’s Goblin King, with what looks like a cathedral strapped to his back and the complexion of someone who’s added chain smoking to his list of health problems.

Although only the first four in the series were published in the UK, Ken Bulmer, like Sally Oldfield, continued to be big in Germany long after his star had waned in Britain. There’d be a further seven books, all in German, coming out between 1987 and 1988. One day it would be fun to see them in English. Despite their faults the books in the Hook series are entertainingly ridiculous and often laugh-out-loud funny. They certainly kept me going on an interminable holiday with my parents in Norway in a cabin by a rainy fjord in 1974.

Angry Ghosts


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The Babadook

The Babadook

Watching Jennifer Kent’s magnificent The Babadook (2014) put me in mind of the spate of Japanese horror films that appeared in Western cinemas at the end of the last century, starting with Hideo Nakata’s Ring in 1998 and rapidly followed by Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (The Grudge) (2002) and Nakata’s Dark Water (2004). Because of the Japanese tendency to milk anything successful to death and then some, the stream of horror films coming out of Tokyo rapidly descended into self parody but the influence of the originals persists, most notably in Kent’s sinister study of mental breakdown based around a demon summoned via the child’s pop-up book Mister Babadook.

Sadako coming out of the telly

Sadako coming out of the telly

The Japanese horror movies were striking as much for their portrayal of a society troubled by its own growing fragmentation as for the eek-scenes and creepy hauntings, and it’s this that also comes across in the Australian movie. Ring and, to a greater extent, Dark Water, focus on children in dysfunctional families, particularly the latter in which the heroine is going through a divorce from an angry and controlling husband. She and her daughter end up living in a rundown apartment which constantly leaks. She gradually comes to suspect that the building is haunted by the ghost of a little girl who disappeared a year ago after being abandoned by her own mother. In the rigidly traditional and patriarchal society of Japan, young women in particular are subject to constant and relentless pressure to conform to tradition, so a single mother in the process of a divorce can easily end up an outsider subjected to considerable mental strain with little support to help her cope. As in The Babadook it grows increasingly difficult to separate reality from hallucination as the main character spirals into a nervous breakdown.


What makes the Japanese movies especially interesting is the way in which they draw upon several traditional themes that go way back to medieval times, finding their first manifestations in folk tales and the Noh theatre. The first is the concept of the demonic woman – that  behind the ideally meek and compliant facade of the ideal wife (pretty much unchanged from the 1600s to the present day) lurks a monster ready to burst forth and destroy the world around her. One of the most famous masks in the Noh theatre is Hannya – which represents a woman driven mad by betrayal or sorrow.

The Noh mask Hannya

The Noh mask Hannya

The second tradition comes directly from Buddhism and concerns angry ghosts. These are the souls of the dead who are unable to achieve enlightenment or pass onto the next stage of existence because they are still consumed with an attachment to the real world, typically the result of some betrayal on earth. One Noh play I saw many years ago, Koi no Omoni (The Burden of Love) tells of a gardener who has fallen in love with a princess. He is told that if he carries an enormously heavy package round the garden a few hundred times she will meet him. No matter how hard he tries he can’t even lift the burden and understandably drops dead from grief and rage. In the second half of the play he reappears as an angry ghost to berate everyone (especially the princess) until he was released from his suffering by her prayers. This plot is repeated hundreds of times in the Noh canon – typically when an itinerant priest meets the angry spirit of a dead warrior who he releases by chanting the sutras.

For Japanese audiences then, Sadako the demon ghost in Ring, the ghost of the little girl in Dark Water and the vengeful spirit Kayako in Ju-On, belong to familiar traditions of demon women and Buddhist angry ghosts who have cropped up in art, films and literature since time immemorial to a) poke holes in the stifling facade of Japanese society and b) remind everyone of the inseparable nature of suffering, attachment and compassion. The Japanese films were remade into pale imitations of themselves by Hollywood. It would be fascinating to see what a Japanese director would do with The Babadook if it was ever remade in Tokyo.


Giordano Bruno and Alessandro Gallenzi’s The Tower


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TheTowerweb2Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) didn’t do himself any favours. Not only did he adhere to a set of particularly extraordinary heresies but he also didn’t know when to shut up. Unlike his predecessor Copernicus who was happy to claim that his model of the universe was a mere mathematical convenience, rather than a description of reality, Bruno wandered around Europe shouting out his contentious beliefs to all and sundry and generally being obnoxious and argumentative. He was a bit like a drunken mate in a pub who when asked to keep it down merely bellows his off-colour remarks all the louder.

Bruno argued that the universe was infinite and filled with stars like our own sun. These had their own orbiting worlds populated by sentient beings and when anything in this limitless manifestation of the divine soul died it was reincarnated. To a beleaguered church battling against the rise of Protestantism and trying to get its head around the idea that the earth might go round the sun instead of vice versa this was turning the heresy knob all the way up to 11 and so they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600.  In the history of science Bruno is generally regarded as a brief diversion away from the more sensible post-Copernican tradition of Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton. His beliefs were too deeply embedded in the alchemical tradition and he spent a lot of his time developing the Memory Systems of classical antiquity into a mystical schema to unify man’s mind with creation.


Giordano Bruno

It’s a commonly held myth that the Vatican was firmly entrenched against the new astronomy. The objections to a heliocentric model were mathematical rather than spiritual. Sending the planets around the sun in perfectly circular orbits is as inaccurate as the old Ptolemaic model – it was only when Kepler realised they follow elliptical paths that the sums fell into place and mirrored what observers saw through their telescopes. What really exercised the authorities was the debate around transubstantiation (i.e. the belief that bread could change its substance and become flesh) because a challenge to that was an attack on the Mass, which was the cornerstone of the Catholic faith. The cardinals quite rightly didn’t care what was going on through Galileo’s telescope, they were more agitated about his theories about the properties of matter. Similar attacks on the idea of the Trinity and the soul had the Inquisition out in force. Bruno’s suggestion that the entire universe was the soul of God and therefore we were all part of the eternal spirit sounded suspiciously Protestant. That and a tendency to make needless enemies by generally being obnoxious made his trip to the stake inevitable.

Bruno’s link with the Hermetical Tradition and the Memory Palaces of antiquity form the core of Alessandro Gallenzi’s tightly plotted thriller The Tower (Alma Books, 2014). The novel switches between the late sixteenth century, following the peripatetic career of Bruno himself, and the near-future Middle East where a Google-esque multinational is building a huge tower in the Jordanian desert to house the digitized archive of all the world’s books and manuscripts. The modern-day hero, a rather dozy investigator called Peter, teams up with the enigmatic Italian literary scholar Giulia to track down a stolen manuscript. The suspicious death of a Jesuit priest sent by the Vatican suggests that the document is another explosive tome ready to rock the foundations of the church. At the same time the tower itself becomes the target of anti-technology guerrillas and Islamic fundamentalists who see its quest for corporate dominance as an impious rerun of the tale of Nimrod, and who are also after the mysterious manuscript.

One of Giordano Bruno's memory images

One of Giordano Bruno’s memory images

Gallenzi’s portrayal of Bruno and his travels through late Renaissance Europe is superb, not only throwing light on the poorly documented chronicle of his life but also providing a great deal of sympathetic insight into the man’s thought processes. The author portrays the philosopher as a visionary committed to his pursuit of divine transcendence to an obsessive and obstinate degree. His unbending commitment to his goal – to create a memory system that will reveal the true nature of reality and allow the human spirit to be absorbed into the universal all – leads him to discount his friends and majorly hack off his enemies. In the end his downfall is less the result of his rather obscure heresies and more the direct result of personal animosity. Gallenzi really gets under the man’s skin and you can’t help but feel sorry for him as he realises that ignoring your enemies and disregarding your friends speeds up the inevitable.

The modern-day story is less assured. It manages to ratchet up the tension with a convincing plot, set against a terrific Babel-esque backdrop, but the characterisation is a pale shadow of the finely realised portrait of Bruno himself. Despite being an investigator the hero, Peter, falls into situations rather than tracking them down and he oscillates between confused, drunk and scared. His companion, the enigmatic Giulia, has potential and is a fun counterpart to Peter’s general uselessness, but neither she nor their odd-couple relationship is fully realised  and all the really interesting action seems to happen off-screen (murder, assault on the tower etc.). There are some very clever and entertaining set pieces – navigating through the Tower during a power cut, getting through Israeli customs – but ultimately it feels like the suggestion  of a very cool hi-tech thriller rather than the story itself.

For anyone interested in Giordano Bruno and his relationship to the Church and the Hermetical Tradition, The Tower is a must-read, primarily for its brilliantly evocative portrait of the man, his times and his arcane philosophy. The modern Tower of Babel story is also enjoyable, if sketchy, but has enough entertaining scenes to keep the attention.

You can get The Tower from Amazon UK here and from Amazon US here.

If you want to read more about Giordano Bruno and the rise of modern astronomy check out

The Copernican Revolution, Thomas Kuhn

The Last Frontier, Karl S. Guthke

and Francis Yates’ classic The Art of Memory.

Alessandro Gallenzi

Alessandro Gallenzi

Ex Machina (2015)


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ex_machina_posterIn many ways Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina treads the same ground as A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), I, Robot (2004) and The Machine (2013) in its portrayal of a robot trying to break out of its pre-programmed existence to become human. Geeky programmer Caleb (Domhall Gleeson – one of the Weasley brothers for Harry Potter fans) wins a competition to spend a week with the CEO of the  ICT company he works for in his retreat in the wilderness. When arrives he finds himself taking part in an experiment to see if reclusive control-freak Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) latest invention – a robot called Ava – can pass the Turing test (i.e. can pass herself off as human in her responses during their conversations). At first the overawed and gormless programmer goes along with the process but very quickly things start to take a sinister turn and he finds himself caught up in an intricate game of feint and counter feint between his boss and the android, watched over by the former’s silent Japanese assistant, Kyoko. The tension is given an extra twist by Nathan’s bizarre house. All the doors are operated by electronic keys allowing Nathan to control Caleb’s access to the rooms – effectively turning him into a rat in a maze, or a prisoner when the power occasionally fails.


What sets the movie apart from its predecessors is that focuses less on the standard ‘Is she human or not?’ question. Garland probably assumes that we’ve seen enough of these kind of films to figure out that the answer’s inevitably yes. Instead he switches his attention to Nathan and Caleb and in doing so turns Ex Machina into a thinly veiled dig at the dehumanising effect of technology on men and their relationships with women and each other. Strip away the aura surrounding Nathan as the founder of the world-changing company (interestingly it’s the biggest search engine corporation – Google rather than Apple) and he turns into a lonely drunk incapable of empathising with anyone or anything. In his opening conversation with Caleb he cheerfully says they should just treat each other as two buddies, rather than as star struck employee and The Man – but it’s the kind of phony dictat familiar to anyone who’s been on one of those godawful corporate bonding weekends. The rest of the time he’s clearly gaming Caleb through an obsessively controlled and highly programmatic master-slave relationship. Caleb, on the other hand, is your archetypal geek loner who has clearly struggled to form any relationship with women. Tellingly when he confronts Nathan at one point he asks whether he assembled Ava based on his online porn viewing profile. He’s also watched Blade Runner one too many times as in one scene he goes through a rather gory experiment to check whether he isn’t a robot as well.


Without giving too much away, as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Ava isn’t the ground breaking next generation of artificial intelligence that Caleb, and we, are initially led to believe. Nathan’s motives are altogether more sinister as he seems to be intent on creating the misogynist geek’s ideal woman – meek, compliant, constantly available and an eternal prisoner in the ultimate designer smart house. At this point it starts to feel like American Psycho with robots – a study in corporate alpha-male control freakery gone barmy. It also reminds me of the Futurama episode I Dated a Robot


Visually the film’s muted, geometric composition echoes the overall lack of empathy between any of the characters. At least one commentator has remarked that it feels very much like a Kubrick movie. It drags in parts – there are perhaps a few too many explanatory conversations where the two programmers tell each other all about the theory behind AI, just in case they’d forgotten – but on the whole it works as a tense thriller. You know there’s only going to be three possible endings, but even so when the final scenes play out they are still gripping. Other deft touches include a completely bizarre disco scene halfway through which merely serves to underscore the self-absorbed and isolated world of the sociopathic IT guru.

I’d definitely recommend watching this back to back with The Machine. Although the earlier movie is more of a B feature Terminator clone it tackles similar ideas and has enough intelligence to bear comparison with Garland’s more considered and slow-paced film.

Some games I’ve played…


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Legend of Grimrock – an old style dungeon crawl.


A Happy New Year! I thought I’d kick off 2015 with a blog post about some of the games I’ve played and enjoyed over the last twelve months. Games are often seen as one of the writer’s deadly enemies. They can be a massive time-soak – an easy distraction when writer’s block kicks in or prevarication takes over – as Iain Banks found to his cost when he became absorbed in Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Yet at the same time well-designed and researched games can actually be helpful as additional fuel for the imagination and, in some cases, a sandbox to work out backstories. A good example of this is Paradox’s series of historical games, centred around their showpiece Europa Universalis (which I’ll talk about below).

I’ve been playing games since the year dot and class myself as a bit of a Grognard (‘grumbler’) – a term used to describe the cantankerous veterans of Napoleon’s Old Guard and which now refers to older gamers who cut their teeth on the classic simulations of SPI and Avalon Hill, with their telephone-book sized rules and coverage of some of the most bizarrely obscure events in world history (inter-dinosaur combat anyone?). I’m not a massive fan of the blockbuster-effects- and cut-scene-heavy epics of today. Grand Theft Auto’s clever extended homage to de Palma, Scorsese and Tarantino quickly got buried under an ugly misogyny that no amount of ‘post-modern irony’ could excuse. I might dip into an FPS once in a while to let off steam but on the whole I prefer games that appeal to my imagination, make me think and, ideally, can be put down and picked up in 10 minute bursts. So here’s some that have fallen into that category:

Papers Please


UK Border Agency training simulation, Papers Please.


OK – you play an immigration official on the border of the totalitarian state Arstotzka whose job it is to stamp passports and decide who can come into the country and who can’t. It sounds about as dull as you could possibly get and yet it’s gripping, addictive and highly entertaining. As each grim day unfolds you are presented with ever-increasingly complex immigration rules and a steady stream of characters and their stories – do you let the refugee wife in after her husband even though her passport has expired? Do you deny entry to the human trafficker even though his papers are in order? And what about the sinister revolutionaries who keep pushing all sorts of weird stuff through the slot in your counter? At the end of each day you return to your Level 8 Apartment hoping you have enough money for food, heating and medicine for your family, and maybe enough put by to move into a Level 7 higher up the Stalinist block in Z sector.

Apparently the designer based it on his experience of getting a visa in Japan, a mind-numbingly bureaucratic exercise I put up with for ten years. I also spend a lot of time travelling to ex-Soviet countries, some of whom still retain the legacy of the Communist attitude to border management – so I can really relate to the game from both sides of the counter. The wonderful retro 8-bit graphics and brutal oompah band that greets each morning adds to the overall ambience. Available on iPad and Steam.

FTL: Faster Than Light


Fire raging through the ship and the oxygen generators are out.


This was one of my favourite games of 2014. It’s basically a resource management game that has you controlling your spaceship as it flees from the advancing Rebel fleet with data crucial to the survival of the Federation. There’s no spectacular Eve Online space battles. Instead you have a top-down schematic of your ship surrounded by an interface of its main systems, allowing you to allocate power, target weapons, open and close doors (very important for extinguishing fires or suffocating boarders) and upgrade. You start with four crew though more may join, or you might just as easily lose them to a variety of on-ship and planet-side mishaps. FTL is a variation on a Rogue dungeon – planets and enemies are spawned randomly and death and ship destruction is permanent – no save points to return to if you’re wiped out. That, and the huge variety of encounters built into the engine, make for a truly nail-biting and addictive game.

In one encounter my ship was drifting in an asteroid belt, severely damaged after a run-in with pirates. I’d opened all the air locks to suffocate the enemy who’d beamed onto my vessel but a stray rock subsequently took out the oxygen generators so there was nothing left to replenish the air. All my crew were barricaded in the sick bay and the only way to survive was to get them to dash through to the other end of the craft and repair the environment systems before they died from lack of oxygen. It was essentially a Star Trek episode (no-one made it in the end). Available on iPad and Steam.

Europa Universalis IV

The stunning interface of Europa Universalis.

The stunning interface of Europa Universalis.

This is the biggy. These days I tend to go for games I can pick up and put down and try to avoid the mammoth time-wasters I used to get distracted by in days of yore. Europa Universalis IV (EU IV) is the exception, simply because it is such an impressive and in-depth attempt to recreate history from the birth of the Renaissance to the end of the Enlightenment. The game is essentially Fernand Braudel’s classic three-volume Civilisation and Capitalism in game form so if you don’t fancy struggling through that worthy but long tome you can fire up EU IV instead and have a crack at governing any nation from the mid 14th century.

Most games of this kind focus on warfare, encouraging players to stamp all over adjacent territories in an ahistorical search for world domination. In EU IV war is, rightly, a difficult, risky and hugely expensive undertaking. Eschewing brainless land grabs the game rewards a slow-burn sandbox approach to politics, culture, religion and economics. The historical detail is staggering as you juggle your relationship with other nations, try to influence the Vatican or the Holy Roman Empire. You can try and model the trade empires of the Hansa or focus on developing a true Renaissance culture. In one game I was Doge of Venice but I made the mistake of bribing myself to re-election, each time eroding the Republican foundations of the state. One morning I woke up to find myself transformed into monarch, the largely republican merchants rebelled and let the Austrians in and the kingdom collapsed. For anyone with an interest in history it’s a fascinating game. Available from Steam and directly from Paradox.

Legend of Grimrock

Legend of Grimrock

Legend of Grimrock

Like a blithering idiot I sold my now-very-rare-an-valuable white box set of Dungeons and Dragons when the second edition came out. For a couple of years I and the other member of the Harrogate SF Society had spent many a Sunday afternoon in a damp basement flat grinding through endless dungeon crawls. These were the early days when playing the game was a simple case of hacking your way through improbably-housed monsters (‘you open the ten foot square room and are immediately attacked by six Ogres wielding halberds’). Nowadays my hard drive is groaning under the weight of many genre-defining PC RPGs – The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age: Origins etc… – but they take so long to play and demand such an investment of imaginative energy, despite the candy graphics, that I often hanker for a simple stomp down a corridor and a quick back and forth with a couple of armoured skeletons.

Legend of Grimrock (and its sequel) fills that niche. You have a party of four dumped in the labyrinth fortress of Grimrock prison and have to fight your way out through levels inhabited by increasingly powerful beings. Movement is across a grid and fighting and spell casting is straightforward. The nicest thing is the old style RPG setting where the auto-map is switched off and you have to make your own on a piece of paper, like in the good old days of grindcore D&D.

Honourable Mentions

The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga

To finish here are a handful of games I’m either still playing through or which didn’t make it into my final four:

South Park: The Stick of Truth.

If you like South Park you know what to expect. Right-click to fart. Canada is in 8-bit. Make sure you get the uncensored version that includes the Anal Probe mini game.

The Banner Saga

At the other end of the spectrum – a beautiful but flawed riff on old Norse sagas with some really lovely artwork and a sombre elegiac narrative of dead gods and a sun standing still over a winter world.

Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager

Play as NASA or the Soviet Space Agency embarking on the space race in the 1950s. This is a management game where you juggle R&D, make strategic decisions (Space Shuttle or Go to Mars?) and hire and motivate experts to bolt your rockets and satellites together.

Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations

Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

Bit of a guilty pleasure this one. This is about as detailed and hardcore a simulation you can get and yet it also makes a gripping game – especially if you are a Tom Clancy fan. Instead of flashy eye-candy you basically get a copy of the kind of display Jack Ryan stands in front of – fluorescent icons on a world map as you conduct hi-tech operations against your enemies. The verisimilitude of Command is second to none, whether you are a Norwegian sub playing cat and mouse with the Russians under the Arctic ice or trying to take out a spy satellite with missiles fired from a stealth drone (I didn’t even know you could do that). Anyone writing about modern or future intel- and cyber-based operations should check this one out.

Midori Traveller’s Notebook


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A couple of years ago I wrote a post on my quest to find the ideal notebook. I’d grown tired of jumping from one PDA to another – first PalmPilot, then a Sony something-or-other and then iPhone/iPad, losing data, notes and contacts along the way. I realised, looking at my shelves, that I had diaries and a Filofax from twenty-five years ago with all my words and doodles intact, yet 95% of the notes I’d tapped out on little screens in the intervening years had disappeared into the ether – so it was back to pen and paper. As I explained last time I’ve been working my way through different notebooks – Moleskine (nice idea but shoddily made), CIAK (you need a brick to keep them flat) and Cartesio (cool diaries but the notebook paper is as suitable for ink pen as an Andrex loo roll).


My Midori complete with 5 yen coin and grumpy monk Daruma.

Two years ago I’d finally come across the Midori Traveller’s Notebook and of all the journals I’d found this seemed the most promising. It was the essence of simplicity – leather binder with a notebook held in place by an elastic band. The book was presented and packaged with that groovy artisanal minimalism that the Japanese do really well. It came in a plain cardboard box along with a muslin sock to keep it in. When you opened the package up it smelt of dried cow and chemicals – and the binder was covered in a suspicious looking white talcum powder which apparently sweats out of the leather – proving how far it is from the plastic ICI-vat composite used on the other ‘leather-bound’ notebooks. The internet was filled with enthusiastic Midori fans posting pictures of their pimped journals, some so elaborate you struggled to see the book itself as the amount of stickers, fabric, pictures, belts, poppers and adornments had transformed it into something that looked like a deranged Laura Ashley sofa. While the journal only came with a single 60-page blank insert you could order a range of add-ons, or make your own simply by cutting paper to size and sticking it through the elastic band.

So have I found the notebook I was looking for? Well I now have three MTNs– two standard size and one passport size which doubles as a wallet, so I guess the answer’s yes. For a brief period I was in two minds – on occasion the Midori felt more like a pack of cards held together by a rubber band than an actual book – but daily use has convinced me that of all the notebooks I’ve used this is by far the best quality and nicest to use. In time-honoured fashion here’s a run-through of why I think the Traveller’s Notebook is great and a description of how I’ve set up my own.

Plastic zip pocket and card pocket insert.

Plastic zip pocket and card pocket insert.

I think there are two things that make the book so pleasant to use. Firstly every component exudes the kind of quality that you only find in Japan. It’s a bit odd using this term in reference to a piece of leather, some string and elastic and blank paper but the design and construction has been carefully thought through to the nth degree. I was brought up to use a fountain pen and to me anything else feels like trying to write on sandpaper with a chisel. Most notebooks these days skimp on paper quality and it doesn’t really matter if you use a biro or ball pen, but the results from an ink pen can truly look miserable. I’ve yet to come across any bleed or feathering on any of the Midori inserts, even on the ones with thinner paper. The leather is thick and ages really well – scuffs, scratches and darkening adding to the whole Book of Forbidden Lore look. Inside I’ve added some clear pockets to the inside cover, a plastic zip sleeve, a card pocket and three notebooks, one for work, one for creative ideas and one as a journal where I make notes about my travels and glue tickets, mementoes and (mainly) restaurant cards. Removing/adding inserts is a doddle, you just strap them in with rubber bands, although realistically the size of the leather cover means you’re limited to three maximum.

Daily journal with cards held in place by nifty pocket seals.

Daily journal with cards held in place by nifty pocket seals.

This is another aspect to the Midori that I really like – I can’t put my finger on it but it encourages you to customise and personalise the book. It lacks the po-faced filing-cabinet constraints of the Filofax, though you can build your own Getting Things Done process around it, if you need to, and the web abounds with different examples. The casual boho feel to the journal encourages scribbles, doodles and random jottings in a way that others don’t. One very nice addition is a pack of clear stickers that create business-card size pockets on the pages so you can add mementoes as you go along (there’s also double-sided stickers and post-its designed to slot into the binder).

The Midori Traveller’s Notebook isn’t for everyone. Look past the starry-eyed hipster mystique and you’re staring at a bit of leather, elastic and paper for around £40 (inserts average at £4 each). But there’s something about it that grows on you – apart from the quality and clever design I think it’s the combination of how quickly you can make the journal uniquely your own, and the fact that you are completely unconstrained in how you put together the book, ideally with inserts you’ve made yourself, thereby saving a bob or two. It’s not a diary for the tidy-minded – mine is scuffed, scribbled and doodled in and stuffed with bits and bobs – but emerging from the walled gardens of Apple or Filofax it feels great to have found a note-taking vehicle that echoes the chaotic mess inside my head.

Someone else's infinitely artier Midori.

Someone else’s infinitely artier Midori.

I get most of my Midori stuff from The Journal Shop. Occasionally they run out of stock but they’re always responsive and the service is great.

AntiHelix, nuts and bolts and a writer’s workflow


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I’ve finished the first draft of the third volume in the Book of the Colossus quadrilogy, AntiHelix, and put it to one side for a month to pickle. It stands at just over 129,000 words which is the  longest piece of work I’ve written so far (though I’ll hack it back to 120,000-ish). I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about the workflow I’ve developed, hoping it might be of some use to other writers, and to mention a couple of the tools I use.

In a previous blog I wrote about Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days, a book that turned me from a generally confused pantser into a planner. As I mentioned at the time the process she details in the book can actually be boiled down to a handful of steps. Over the last three books (and the handful of outlines and ideas I’ve got waiting in the wings) I’ve developed my own version. Now a lot of books on how to write are filled with helpful advice on creating characters, stories, backstory etc. which is all well and good but I think that some of them do have the tendency to over-exaggerate writing as a deeply personal creative art. It’s a modern version of the myth invented by the Romantic poets when they found themselves having to redefine writing as something you did on your own for an invisible audience, instead of work designed to please a patron with whom you had a personal relationship.


For me, at the end of the day producing a novel is a nuts and bolts operation and there are very few well-established writers or editors I’ve come across who think otherwise. To me writing a book is a like an architect designing a house. Ninety percent is precise engineering to make sure it doesn’t fall down and is pleasant to live in. Once you have this skill perfected you can then design amazing Frank Lloyd Wright confections (or Gherkins if you’re so-minded) to your heart’s content – but the main process of building is all about practical stuff like stresses, forces, beams, girders and mixing your concrete right. The kind of fiction I want to write was defined in three words by John Jarrold – Point of View, Clarity and Pace and the building of a book should aim for that. Unless you’re writing a post-modernist masterpiece that radically interrogates such bourgeois notions as ‘plot’, ‘character’ and ‘legibility’ then all else is icing on the cake.

Anyway – here’s my decidedly unpoetic method for writing a book. It won’t be for everyone’s taste but there might be a few useful nuggets for some. One thing I can say is that by following this I haven’t hit writer’s block in three years.

1) I fire up Scrivener, create a document called Synopsis and write out the basic idea of the book in a single sentence.

2) I choose a core of up to eight characters (a hang over from my script writing days when smaller cast meant a smaller budget) and write down a description, backstory and their key drivers. At this point I start thinking about their individual story arcs which will thread through the main narrative.

3) Next a brief description of the main locations where most of the fun will happen.



The above bit is more or less verbatim from Wiesner’s method, distilled down to the three starting points. I focus on character from the beginning so that by the time I’ve started writing the first draft I’ve been living in these people’s minds for at least four months. Occasionally I’ll use a photo as a character prompt but I find these distracting because the person in the photo then takes over the character in my head. I also avoid basing characters on anyone I know, or characters from films/books for the same reason, though some of them are a synthesis of a whole bunch of people I’ve come across over the years.

4) Next I rewrite the synopsis in 120 sentences – each sentence containing a major plot point or something to advance the story. Each of these sentences will eventually become a 1000 word scene. At the end of this process I then create 120 documents in the Draft folder of Scrivener.

5) I revisit the characters’ story arcs, break their individual plots into sentences and add these to the 120 documents where appropriate. I also find it’s a good idea to use the keyword function in Scrivener and add these to the documents. So all the scenes in which, say, Berthold’s story arc plays out I add a keyword Berthold. This way I can use the search function in Scrivener to build collections of scenes around one character. So if I want to check through Berthold’s story I just click on a button and all the scenes where he appears are collated together into one sub-set. It’s a brilliant and very powerful feature of the software.


6) Now it’s synopsis writing time – I turn each scene into (roughly) a 300 word synopsis saying what happens, who interacts with who and how they feel about it. The golden rule (and this is something I learned from Michael Moorcock) is that every scene must advance the plot in someway, no encounter or episode can be wasted or be just a time-filler. At the end of this first run through for AntiHelix I had a 40,000 word outline. What I’ve subsequently found is that here is where the bulk of the work is done in terms of plot, character development, point of view etc.

The great thing is that if I find somethings just aren’t working at this point it’s much easier to reconfigure the story. In the case of AntiHelix I discovered that one new character I’d planned on having throughout the entire story actually became redundant halfway through so I reworked accordingly. In the past I’ve tended to write the synopsis in the present tense, but switched to past when writing the book. Next time I’ll write the synopsis in the past as well, purely to save time as switching tense later is a pain. I’ve also discovered that some scenes are ready to be written in full – in the case of AntiHelix there were a couple of episodes late in the story that I wrote in their entirety, simply because I could see them so clearly in my head. Because I’d planned everything I could drop them in knowing they still fitted the rest of the tale.


7)  After writing the synopsis I put it to one side for a month – this is a must because by the time I’ve finished it I’m too close to the work to have the perspective necessary to be ruthless in making any changes. Four weeks later it’s a lot easier to revise and to make sure everything is water-tight before I actually start writing the story.

8) I’ve now got 120 scenes in a detailed synopsis. In Scrivener I group these into sets of four – each group will be a chapter in the final book. It’s a good idea to do this to make sure that chapters end at suitable break points and not halfway through something important (unless I specifically want a cliff hanger). I also colourise the documents in the outline view – green means that I’ve completed the first draft for that scene, and then I start to write.

ruthcovertest9) I try and set myself a goal of a minimum of 1000 words a day. In reality if I’ve done the synopsis right this ends up being 500 – 700 words to flesh out what’s already there and so, for me, it’s about an hour’s work. When I’ve finished a scene I go to the website and use their online tool to check for repeated and overused words. It’s a very handy utility because no matter how hard you try inevitably you end up repeating yourself, and well worth the subscription. Once I’ve stripped these out I mark the scene as First Draft Complete and compile the whole manuscript to Kindle format to read before I go to sleep. This is a technique I learned from film-making when, at the end of each day’s shoot the director and editors view the day’s rushes. It helps me ensure there’s continuity of atmosphere and voice carried through from earlier scenes.

And that is basically it. It may sound very mechanistic and factory-like to a lot of writers but I’ve found it completely liberating. I can do all my planning at an early stage without fear of having to do massive rewrites, and by the time I come to write the scenes themselves I have a 90% clear view of who’s doing what to whom and why. If I ever struggle with one scene I can jump ahead to any point in the book and write that instead and this can even help me clarify anything I’m struggling with earlier on. It also makes it easier to interweave complex plots and make sure there aren’t any extended periods where the action goes flat or people disappear for no reason (I hope).

I hope this is useful and I’d be very interested to hear from other writers what their nuts and bolts getting words down on the page process is.

Interview with Jim Burns


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Go here for my review of Jim Burns’ latest book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

Can you talk us through one of your paintings from concept to finished image – both in terms of the idea and the practical execution. My choice would be Tea From an Empty Cup or Crucible purely because of the stunning characterisation but please choose another if you prefer.

Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup

The process varies from painting to painting somewhat. It all depends on a bunch of factors from the outset as supplied by either the commercial client, the private client or, indeed myself – should it be a personal piece – the latter two categories becoming an increasingly large proportion of my output. Both the pieces you’ve chosen fit into the first category – were commissioned by publishers as cover images for books. This of course is the way most of my career panned out for the first 40 years but the weighting has shifted in the last few years more towards private commissions and personal pieces…which usually mean a different approach from the word go.

Tea From an Empty Cup was commissioned recently to cover a collection of stories by Pat Cadigan. The fee was modest – as most book jacket work is these days and as a consequence one is obliged to produce the image digitally as this can be turned around much more quickly…there is little commercial sense in spending weeks and sometimes a month or so slogging away at a painting – the economics of it simply don’t work. Also in the case of this particular job the design of the book jacket itself was highly configured before I even started work on it. Neither did I receive any reading material – which in the past was pretty much standard practice. I was simply given the cover template and asked to produce a feisty-looking female future warrior type in an appropriate SF setting. I have a growing reference library from model shoots I’ve had in the past and the woman in this image is based on one such shot. She (‘Teph’ the water gypsy) modelled for a couple of private commissions a few years back (see Planet of Peril, Days of Gloriana and Children of Forgotten Gods) and and I took the opportunity to take a whole bunch of extra shots whilst I had the opportunity. The initial design was passed in sketch form to the client for approval…which it gained  – and then the image itself was created entirely in Photoshop – utilising some Jupiter and  interior background I’d painted years and years ago for a different project altogether, played around with in Photoshop, the figure dropped into the image and her gear and clothing generally altered to fit the concept. In the ref photo her gun is my old Black and Decker changed to a futuristic rifle of some sort.



Crucible was painted a good few years ago for a Nancy Kress novel. This time I had the luxury of being able to read the book and to produce a painting as this was back in the days of ‘good fees’!! In the case of this particular novel the painted ‘moment’ is based pretty precisely on a passage described in the book (the manuscript having been helpfully supplied this time). The characters are all there to be found in the book and are based on a bunch of found, manipulated reference plus some material I shot myself. I have become quite adept at performing the old ‘Frankenstein act’ on found material…although these days I much prefer and almost always paint the main characters from my own photo sessions. Again there was a ‘sketch for approval’ stage – and the painting then, in a fairly ‘verbatim’ way turns that sketch into an acrylic painting. Acrylics have been my paint of choice for most of my career – although I’m currently considering getting back to oils..the medium I used up until the early 1980s. The painting in this case would have been painted on to a piece of previously gessoed board, this sanded to smooth it off but not so smooth that no ‘tooth’ was left. The process of painting for me, back then involved both the use of brushes and, of course the airbrush – which I’ve always found to be a hugely useful tool in my armoury. Finally I would have varnished the piece – although for varnish read ‘medium’ – the satin, matte or Gloss mediums for mixing with the paint working perfectly well as a good flat final varnish-like coat..and also allowing for further work on top should it be necessary.

The methods I use today on my own work and private commissions is diverting away somewhat from the methodology I’ve outlined above.


Majipoor Chronicles

You seem equally at ease with machines, humans and aliens. Which do you prefer to paint/draw and why? What are the challenges of each?

I think I can honestly say that these days I like each equally! It wasn’t always the case. When I was much younger…before I ever became a ‘pro’ – it was the machinery I liked. The Foss approach! When I got my first commissions back in 1972 most of them were for historical romance covers and similar stuff. It was the ‘keep the wolf from the door’ period and work was work. By definition these covers almost always required human characters as their main element – so I gradually improved my figure work capabilities…and then when I started to get a lot more SF work the characters sort of crept into them too! And clients I think started to expect them to feature…and I found that nice niche where the human element always featured largely in my work.

Tertiary Node

Tertiary Node

I don’t find machinery a challenge as such…but I do like to push myself to suggest in the lines of a particular spacecraft for example…the sense of its designers having different species mind-sets – different aesthetics…forms born of alien propulsion systems etc. I like my vessels to look ‘designed’ within whatever bizarre parameters have been thrown up by the story or by my own imagination. I never want this stuff to be easy – that way lies laziness.

Aliens are always fun to do! Much the same ideas are brought to bear as with the machinery. Alien should look alien to my mind. I absolutely hate the idea – mostly here I blame Star Trek and its various spinoffs…of aliens being humans with funny looking foreheads.

You have a very distinctive use of colour – limited palette and high contrast. Can you tell us a little about how and why you choose your colour schemes and design your compositions?

I think I’ve grown towards the idea of the limited palette more and more as time has gone by. Gradually it seemed to me to be a lazy and rather unsophisticated approach to just chuck the entire spectrum of colour at a painting. In recent times I’ve studied the old, old Renaissance technique – that of the old masters – of ‘grisaille’, ‘brunaille’ and in particular ‘verdaille’. I employ it for slightly different reasons than they did but I like the potential richness it can bring through the use of transparent colour glazes laid over a monochromatic underpainting. The three terms reflect in order, grey, brown and green underpaintings…most of the tonal values – the light and the dark created at this time prior to the glazing. This speeds up the process (theoretically!) and also I’m able to fall back on my old airbrush skills for the glazing element…and of course I’m using acrylics for this which would not have been the case in the Renaissance. High contrast is not a deliberate thing with me…it just happens to turn out that way! I shall be endeavouring more and more to inhabit the middle tonal zones…use less Paynes Grey for a start!

Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite

Compositions for book jacket work were often very highly constrained by the format. Depending on whether a piece was a wraparound or front cover only , the main element would either tend to occupy the lower right corner (wraparound) or the bottom two thirds (front cover). Lettering and blurb considerations dictated this. In my own work I think I have a fairly good eye for balanced yet unusual compositions. I have no formal training for anything to do with technique or composition (that was art college for you back in the late 60s/early 70s…and I don’t think it’s any better now!)


His Conquering Sword

I think I see a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence in your own paintings (especially from artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The Pre-Raphaelites were among the first of the manifesto artists. If you were to write an artists’ manifesto/SF artists’ call to arms what would it say? What would you call your movement?

Hmmm …people will start labelling me as ‘pretentious’ if I bite this bullet! What you have to remember is that I came at this business from a very distinctly commercial art perspective. I was never a man driven by artistic inner demons or some high falutin’, soul-searching, personally-driven motive. I had some skills as a painter, learned a few techniques and tricks as I went along, this much helped by a good imagination – and for a long time I was content to be simply that – an illustrator of other peoples’ words for a commercial purpose. Making a living with a young family to feed etc…And at no point did I ever regard illustration as some inferior art form. I always believed the best of it is as being as interesting and accomplished as art created for different purposes. It’s inevitably connected – but the notion of an ‘Illustrators’ manifesto’ is something that has never ever crossed my mind!

A Quantum Murder

A Quantum Murder

However, as time has gone by and illustration..well at least book jacket art within the genres of the fantastical has become more and more catered for by digital art..indeed some of us have moved sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically into territory that one would have to admit aligns itself more with the the accepted baggage of the fine art world…namely gallery representation, private commissions and the time for our own creative juices to start flowing unencumbered by commercial considerations. And you’ll find that for those of us who like to paint our ‘fantastical’ subject matter in the traditional way…then the period dominated by the Pre-Raphaelites and various associated groupings of artists – mostly English and European – still strikes a chord.

So a visit to something like Illuxcon…’The Symposium of Imaginative Realism’ (yes…we are ‘Imaginative Realists now!) will demonstrate that those elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto interested in naturalistic detail, intense colour and busy composition, the natural world and Romanticism…those are still strong themes that thread through our work. Of course it has a modern take in terms of subject matter..although having said that I personally am becoming more and more drawn to mythological subject matter (perhaps with a contemporary twist!) and also Romantic fact a piece I’m about to start on is based on a Keats poem – ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’– frequently the subject of 19th century art…but  I want to give it a darker twist than the usually somewhat bland approach of yesteryear. The poem is after all pretty dark. My version will be called ‘Poor Lorenzo’ (probably) and instead of a wan English lass draped miserably over the pot of basil – will feature a beauteous dark haired Florentine girl caressing the semi-putrescent head of Lorenzo and maybe an empty pot, strewn basil and earth etc. It’s all there in the poem. On holiday last year in Symi I spied a gorgeous half Greek/half Mexican girl who I thought …there’s my Isabella!!..and I should hastily add, at my wife’s prompting..approached her. And got the reference material I needed.


Colonel Kylling (Planet Story)

The term isn’t mine – but more and more it’s becoming associated with the loose ‘fellowship’ I think I identify in the artists who gather at Illuxcon…so maybe ’The Fellowship of Imaginative Realists’ (if you insist!!) might do? Or even more pretentiously ’The Fellowship of the Fantastical’?

If you had the opportunity of working in the school of any artist from history, who would it be and why?

Oh gosh – what hard questions!!! I can’t think of a sensible serious answer to this!!! Of course it would be great to associate with those Pre-Raphaelite part because one would also be knocking around with a whole bunch of other artists associated with them and whose work I often find more interesting. Artists like Collier, Godward, Dicksee, Waterhouse and photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron. One could learn a lot! But there’s no getting away from the often kitschy, corny, sentimental, morbid, gutless aspects of some of the art of that time. I’d love to find a way to reinterpret some of their themes but in contemporary, darker ways and it’s that darker approach I find difficult. I know I have it in me – that darker streak! – but I find it hard to express it adequately in paint.


Artificial Things

So let’s say I’m taking 6 months out to go and stand at the shoulder of a dead painter here…I wouldn’t go very far fact I would go to the Polish studio of Zdzisław Beksiński the ‘Fantastic Realist’ who died in 2005 (horribly murdered actually!). He was apparently a man of generally quiet demeanour, shy but amusing and funny, liked company and good music both classical and rock and always worked with mostly classical stuff playing in the background…sounds like my kind of a man…but who successfully managed to trawl the darkest depths of some zone of his imagination somehow – even though the absolutely horrifying results…brilliantly horrifying results! – in no way reflected the apparently pleasant demeanour of the man himself. I would dearly love to find out if there’s a secret to finding this place within myself!!

What is wrong with contemporary art? Which contemporary artist/movement do you admire? Would you consider yourself to be a Stuckist?

Again – I really can’t feel myself to be strongly connected at all with the world of ‘Contemporary Art’. I’m assuming you are mostly referring to the Brit-Art style of self-indulgent, self-obsessed, largely meaningless (to my mind!), conceptual stuff in which the concepts themselves are usually trite and essentially meaningless?? And change hands for millions??

The Iceni Girl

The Iceni Girl

Well – one can get mired in this messy quicksand very quickly and I’ve tended more recently to acknowledge that this stuff exists, that it only has in common with what I and others like me create, one thing..namely the word ‘art’…that it has every right to exist – and I would always say of any artist trying to make a living in whatever style they choose..’good luck to them’ (although I rather resent the millions they get!!)..But it’s a world unto itself. Self-absorbed, ego-driven, contemptuous of ‘irrelevant’ traditional values, deliberately and contemptuously obscurantist..’If you don’t get it that’s your problem and I don’t need to explain it to you’ (usually meaning that the concept has either no meaning or that the meaning is so shallow and pointless that it is embarrassing to even attempt to define it). Its sense of superiority and entitlement does sicken me I have to say…and the sub-literate claptrap one sometimes has to listen to from its practitioners and adherents is particularly annoying because on the whole I find art that’s informed by intelligence more interesting. And really that’s the thing with me. I simply find contemporary art mind numbingly boring. It rejects technique in favour of trite conceptualisation…I can’t bear to look at most of it. And eventually it will vanish up its own vacuous fundament and – I suspect – something resembling a new Representationalism will find its way back into favour. A return to drawing and painting …indeed there are signs that this happening.

No I’m not a Stuckist per se!! I think there’s room for everything. The idea of demonstrations and the politicising of creativity strikes me as dumb. But I can sympathise with its ideals. And importantly…if you look at a lot of what gets labelled as Stuckist Art…well much of it is really, really horrible!!! A LOT of very bad painters subscribe to Stuckism. No – I’ll happily just keep ploughing my own little furrow and people can compare or associate me with whoever they like! I know so many artists who get constantly pissed off and angry at ‘other art’ – particularly when the dosh is all heading off in that direction! I don’t get angry about any of this. I suppose the words are ‘bored’ and ‘bemused’.

Seasons of Plenty

Seasons of Plenty

Finally – what would your advice to a young artist be?

Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptuous of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. (I’m talking specifically about SF art on book jackets here). I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B! But go on drawing drawing drawing!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

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