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Abstraction in Science Fiction

Check out the original post + discussion here.

There is such a rich edge between abstraction and science fiction. I want to depict exotically complex worlds. But to truly represent that, things must go (at least a little bit) beyond the viewer’s recognition and understanding.
Thought experiment: You are a hunter-gatherer living 100,000 years ago, intimately familiar with the land you grew up on. Then, as an adult, you are suddenly teleported to Times Square, 2017. How would you process this environment? Without anything like this in your library of experiences, you would probably read the your surroundings as mostly abstract, instead perceiving the overall level of complexity. You might notice details ignored by everyone else, simply because you don’t know what should be prioritized. After studying things for a bit, you could still pick up on patterns and form theories of what is going on, but probably without a lot of confidence that you’re right.

I want to evoke that same feeling for people living today! Technologies on the horizon could dramatically change our experience. (There’s that ol’ “Law of Accelerating Returns” if you follow current technofuturebabble.)

Technology can open up the possibility of creating entirely new kinds of language, perhaps starting in the realm of data visualization, perhaps rooted in direct brain interfaces. Augmented reality is a big one for me personally, eclipsing virtual reality in its potential impact on society as a whole.

These themes are not new in sci-fi literature, many of which contains descriptions of complex and fantastic imagery based around virtual life/communication tech/materials science, but I’ve been surprised at the lack of visual artwork depicting them, or deep exploration of cultures and worlds built around them in the mainstream.
I’ve started to view the “visionary art” genre as doing a better job communicating this kind of headspace than traditional scifi/fantasy. Much science fiction art today is TOO understandable to me, too airtight. There are some good reasons for this, though. Films, games, and other media want to tell a story, and often have limited time to do so. If viewers couldn’t immediately tell how the setting worked at a fundamental level (objects, spaces, communication), they would probably not engage with the plot quickly enough.

Authors who plunge into exotically advanced worlds are often subject to criticism for “dumping the reader into their world without a life raft” even when that was often the point! There seems to be a fine line between too much exposition and not enough for many readers. I suspect that line is broader in the realm of visual art… I hope it is, anyway! I personally like being thrown in as the caveman sometimes.

I think 1970’s science fiction art did the best job of addressing this, and it correlates with my favorites from that era. In all of these images, the abstraction doesn’t lie as much in the composition but the content. They evoke wonder, or confusion, but are all charged with energy and emotion.

I would love to hear from some of my friends who were actually making art during this era, and what drove them, what kind of art direction they had, and whether psychedelic art was an influence.

Anyway, here are some 1970’s examples! (Header image by Richard Powers.)

Ian Miller

Ian Miller

Josh Kirby

Richard M Powers

Richard M Powers

Richard M Powers

John Berkey

Frank Frazetta

Paul Lehr

Paul Lehr

John Harris

Roger Dean

Steve Dodd

 

 

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Posted: January 3, 2017

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