The Flea: Where Speculative Art and Rocket Science Meet

April 26, 2016 in Hieroglyph

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

Rik Allen is an artist and sculptor who works in glass and metal. We previously talked to Rik in this interview about creating a retrofuturist sculpture, and were thrilled to hear about his recent work at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

I caught up with Rik via phone to talk about his visit to NASA, the sculpture he created there, and his ideas about the intersection of art and engineering.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Welcome back. Was this your first time visiting NASA?

Rik Allen: It was! I was invited by the Chrysler Museum of Art to be visiting artist at their glass studio. While I was there, some friends in the aerospace industry got wind of my visit and suggested I go over to NASA for a tour. The Langley Research Center is about 40 minutes away from the Chrysler Museum; I visited the Advanced Concepts Lab, which was exciting as hell.

BB: Tell me about that.

RA: I met several researchers and engineers who are in charge of planning missions in space, including Pat Troutman, the Human Strategic Analysis Lead. What I like about talking with those guys is that it’s a lot like talking with other artists. They’re just fantastically interested and curious people with a desire to create. They’ll brainstorm a problem over coffee, sketch out their plans on a napkin, and eventually some of these designs end up becoming these incredible, functioning spacefaring vehicles.

BB: While you were there, you were shown a lot of space vehicle concepts – including the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, which you translated into an original sculpture.

Concept Art for NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

Concept Art for NASA’s Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

RA: Yeah, it’s a weird looking vehicle on six legs, planned for a mission to Phobos. Phobos has a rocky terrain with very little gravity, so the idea is that it will land and move across the surface by leaping from place to place. I called it The Flea – you know, if Phobos was a dog, then this vehicle would be the flea on its back.

BB: Of all the concepts you saw at Langley, what was it about that vehicle that inspired you?

RA: It was just so strange looking, really unlike anything else I’d seen, with these six truss-like legs. I’ve been incorporating those types of structures into my own work lately, so I was excited to see it proposed as a functional craft. It’s a pretty difficult structure to realize technically, but definitely worth the challenge.

BB: It’s interesting to see art and engineering in dialogue with one another – especially as we imagine the machines that will venture deeper into space on our behalf. This vehicle, and especially your take on it, seems a little more organic, whereas spacecraft are typically these hermetically sealed and dispassionate machines. What do you make of that?

RA: I’m a guy who dreams up fake rockets and space ships with no responsibility to the laws of physics or aeronautics – I can just dream up whatever I want and not worry about materials science. If it looks cool and I’m interested in making it, it gets made.

While I was there talking to the engineers, I noticed little Star Wars vehicles around their desks. We’re all about the same age and we all have that same interest in fantasy vehicles. It’s just that their responsibility is different. They render their concepts as organically as they can get away with, then scale it back to make it practical. But I feel like we’re coming from the same place of making something exciting and inspiring.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: I think there’s something similar happening with Space X’s commitments to vertical takeoff and landing craft. Part of the reason that these particular functionalities and designs are being pursued is that those are the visions these engineers grew up with, and it’s an exciting challenge to make those a reality.

RA: Yeah, totally. I tend to put a lot of portholes into my pieces – I added a porthole that wasn’t in the original design to The Flea – and the engineers said, “Oh that’s great, the astronauts would love that. They’re always trying to get us to put portholes in, but we can’t because of structural concerns.”

People raised on these images definitely have the desire to make cool looking, beautiful spacecraft that are also functional. As designers and engineers they need to merge the two as much as they can.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: You’ve done work for Blue Origin, an actual rocket factory where smart people go to work each day to create real spacecraft. What do you think is your role in contributing to that collective imagination?

RA: A lot of my work, including the piece at Blue Origin, has this underlying theme of looking outward and being curious as to what lies ahead. The engineers are buried under tons of technical considerations to get a vehicle into space and back down again safely, and I think my work is a reminder of what we’re all excited about.

Going to NASA, I was obviously super thrilled to be there, but also nervous, because I didn’t want to be in their way. What I found though, with the people that I was talking to, is that they were equally excited about what I was doing. Some of the engineers came out with their families and sat for six and a half hours, asking questions and watching me put the sculpture together. When you make this stuff all the time, you can lose sight of what it means to people – and it was exciting to hear that it was important to them.

There seems to be more and more crossover between science and art, which I think is important in addressing the challenge of increasing scientific awareness in the general public. The more people out there telling these stories, the better. So hopefully that’s part of the role I play: getting people to feel excited and curious about science and exploration.



Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Imagining An Alternate History Space Program

March 3, 2016 in Hieroglyph

tumblr_nec2h2L3ff1u0vd4co1_1280“Imagine a world where the Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.”

-The Space That Never Was

Mac Rebisz is a Polish concept designer and illustrator working in the gaming and film industries for studios all over the world. In 2014 he embarked on a personal project, The Space That Never Was, combining his training as an architectural engineer with his lifelong enthusiasm for space. His work, like the Kronos Project, which envisions a manned trip to outer planets, is a unique alternate history with research-based visions for spacecraft that are both speculative and scientifically grounded. I chatted with Mac about this work, his universe, and the importance of getting the science right.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Tell me about your process for creating these images.

Mac Rebisz: First, I always try to capture the scientific data of the project – to get the details technically correct. I visit the NASA archives to get technical documents, and I use for basic information about space hardware. Reading through these sites, I’ll make some initial inferences, and from there I usually correct myself after studying books on the topic – but I do research everywhere I can.

BB: How long do you spend on this part of the work?

MR: For one picture, I spend a week doing research and then a day or two just doing the image. Some of my images are hand painted in Photoshop and some are made in 3D. After doing  my research, I’ll make a detailed 3D model, then render it in Photoshop and overpaint the details, establish the mood and background…all of the artistic considerations.

BB: How much of what you do is a careful reproduction of the designs in the NASA archives, and how much is speculative?


MR: It depends on my mood – but when I find an interesting idea from reality, I think of how I’d like to depict it, then I do the study and research. When I had the idea for the Kronos spacecraft, I started reading NASA studies and documents about large, interplanetary expeditions and it just evolved from there.

BB: The Kronos Project is interesting too – because you’ve taken it a step further. This isn’t just another cool looking spaceship on the Internet: it’s designed to house a crew and a laboratory in an alternate history. Do your drawings also fulfill the technical requirements of these imaginary missions?

I first started thinking about Kronos in 2014 as a large interplanetary ship for exploration, conducting science research around Jupiter and Saturn. My first design wasn’t as big as it is now, because it started from the feasibility studies done by NASA back in the 60s and 70s, when they were actively planning missions like this. That’s why it looks like an Apollo spacecraft attached to a habitat module.  But since then I’ve plotted what I wanted my spacecraft to do, and have sketched and planned and added for what’s actually possible.20151231_kronos_3months_comp_by_macrebisz-d9m39z9

BB: It’s an interesting mash-up of speculation and real science. In your day job working on video games and movies, I imagine you get to take some artistic liberties. How important is it for you to pursue concepts like these and still get the science right?

MR: For this project it’s very important – maybe more so for me than for the audience – because I want to know how things work, and I’m gratified to know that these creations, as I imagine them, could work.

BB: Do you plan to eventually unite these images into a narrative?

MR: Yes, I’d like to make an art book from all the pictures with some background and a narrative throughout. Maybe with technical papers and some incredible cross-sections – to show how the modules would work and how people would live in them.

I’m also in pre-production for a short movie set in the Space That Never Was universe, about a Polish astronaut who goes on a mission to Phobos.

BB: How would you describe your vision for space – both The Space That Never Was as well how you’d like to see humans actually interact with space in the future?

MR: Space has always been very political, but I hope that it will be more humanistic and focused on international collaboration. The Space That Never Was is primarily scientific, of course – but I think it’s also optimistic. I want people to see that space exploration is cool and worthwhile. As an artist though, I just hope that people like my art.

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Kathryn Cramer at Google: Why Hieroglyph is a Verb

September 11, 2014 in Hieroglyph

I’d like to thank Google for having us here today; and Neal Stephenson, Ed Finn, and Jennifer Brehl, for the chance to collaborate on the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.

Google Collage Photo

Photo by D. Simerly

And thank you all for joining us for the first event of our Hieroglyph Roadshow. In July of 2011, Neal asked me if I was interested in working on this book. It only took us three years to get here!

In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback named our genre science fiction and described it as: engaging narrative that contains scientific information and prophetic visions. Debate over whether SF should be technologically optimistic has gone on at least as long as science fiction has had that name.

In broad outline, optimistic SF is associated with the frontier, with — as theSF Encyclopedia colorfully put it — “the Universe waiting voluptuously to be had.” Pessimistic science fiction is associated with the end of Empire, which parenthetically is the source of our preoccupation with dystopia.

Many pairs of opposites have kicked around in discussions of optimism and pessimism. Golden Age SF vs. the New Wave, American SF vs. British, science fiction vs. speculative fiction, cynics vs. Pollyannas, happy endings vs. downers, sympathetic characters vs. unsympathetic, idea-driven stories vs. character-driven, clear journalistic prose as opposed to stylistic sophistication, populism vs. the literary, realism vs. the fantastic, “playing with the net up” rather than more fanciful fabulation, free will vs. predestination, militarism vs. pacifism, activism vs. learned helplessness, utopia vs. dystopia, the influence of Henry James vs. that of H. G. Wells, genre fiction vs. stuff supposedly so good it’s not SF, and what is contrasted with what could be.

This last pair is the one most important to Hieroglyph. Our future is full of possibilities. Hieroglyph invites you to explore them. While as editors, Ed and I want you to have the best possible reading experience, Hieroglyph is not so much aimed at how you feel as what you DO.

In the Gernsbackian tradition, Hieroglyph is a visionary book. But Hieroglyph’s goal is not so much to predict as to inspire, to engage writers and scientists, engineers and other creative thinkers, with science and technology’s utopian potential. The future doesn’t just happen. Moment by moment, we help invent it. Some of us invent futures for a living. If we don’t invent futures we want to live in, who will do it for us? As Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Great artists make the roads.”

There are precursors to Hieroglyph. Geoff Ryman’s anthology When It Changed (2008): Ryman believes SF writers should rely less on what’s called rubber science. He put scientists together with his writers. Jetse DeVries did an anthology of optimistic SF called Shine (2010). There is the Futures column in Nature, founded by Henry Gee, MIT’s Technology Review occasionally publishes SF, and SF short stories sponsored by Intel, a program run by Brian David Johnson. Another precursor is the design fiction movement with which Bruce Sterling is associated. Gregory Benford’s anthology Starship Century focused on space travel — was edited in parellel with Hieroglyph, And there is the discipline of Foresight Studies, which both Madeline Ashby and Karl Schroeder studied in graduate school. And there are individual authors, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, who have been writing this way all along.

In 1978, when I was in high school, my father John Cramer became a science columnist for his favorite science fiction magazine, Analog, formerly known as Astounding back when it was edited by John W. Campbell. Astounding was the flagship magazine of Golden Age SF. When my dad was an undergraduate at Rice, he submitted his first attempts at stories to Campbell. This was very meaningful to him later when he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for his hard SF novel, Twistor.

When I became an editor in the 1980s, that was the job I wanted. But Analog’s editor Stan Schmidt remained its editor until about two years ago. Instead, I have edited about thirty anthologies, including two hard SF books,The Ascent of Wonder and The Hard SF Renaissance.

In August of 1967, my parents threw a farewell party for a man who was leaving Seattle to go to Mars. Yes, to Mars. I remember how the condensation on the glasses of the adults’ gin and tonics bent the light; him leaning against the dishwasher talking about training to become an astronaut. I was five years old.

Joe Allen was leaving the University of Washington’s Nuclear Physics Laboratory, where he was a postdoc, to join NASA as one of the first scientist astronauts. There would be Apollo missions, to be followed by laboratories on the Moon, and then there was to be a mission to Mars!

You know he never got there. Nor did he get his lunar laboratory. But he did get to space.

We are asking science fiction to change. We are asking for a science fiction that won’t hang back arguing with itself, but will instead leap at the possibility that SF can create a better world.

Like all writers who come here, we want you to read our book and tell all your friends. And your enemies, too. But we ask more of you. We want you to participate in the Hieroglyph community and imagine better futures. We want you to think about infrastructure.

Hal Clement, when asked why his stories mostly lack villains, replied that the Universe is antagonist enough. Think long term, think survival, not just for us as individuals, but for humanity, and for the species with which we share our Earth.

We are on the surface of a planet right now. Astronomy teaches us how rare and precious is this Earth. Let us learn how to remain.

Our book is the beginning of the project, not the end. We want to do more books, but also, we aim to broaden the project to reach many more people.

We would like to work further with NASA. We would like to work on subject areas such as climate change, sustainability, and genomics. We would like to expand into novels, graphic novels, TV and film, while producing tangible academic research results and inventions. We hope for your help and your support.

Hieroglyph isn’t just a book. It’s also a project. And it isn’t just a project, it is a process. I will go so far as to say that, for me, Hieroglyph has become a VERB.

To hieroglyph: to refine an idea such that it becomes an icon in a language for solving the problems most in need of solutions. I’ll repeat that: to refine an idea such that it becomes an icon in a language for solving the problems most in need of solutions.

This is what Neal Stephenson does exceptionally well. It is why you are here. You can do it too. Let us all go forth and hieroglyph!

Thank you.

Kathryn Cramer is a writer, critic, and anthologist, and coeditor of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Year’s Best Science Fiction series with David G. Hartwell. She is a winner of the World Fantasy Award and has received numerous nominations and awards for her work as editor. Her fiction has been published by, Asimov’s, and Nature. She lives in Westport, New York.