Interview with "History of Science Fiction" artist Ward Shelley

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 14 2011 6:07 PM

Interview with "History of Science Fiction" artist Ward Shelley

Last week on Brow Beat, we wrote about Ward Shelley's infographic, "History of Science Fiction" and we weren'tthe only ones enamored of Shelley's gorgeous, be-tentacled painting. We caught up with the artist byphone today to talk about the piece. What follows is an edited and condensed transcriptof the conversation.

You've done several infographics on the evolution of art movements and artists' careers. Why did you decide totackle science fiction next?

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Passion. It'spersonally important to me. I don't really remember the genesis of the idea,but I did read a book about 15 years ago that opened up my eyes to how sciencefiction works. It's by Tom Disch, and it's called TheDreams Our Stuff is Made Of . The rationale that people have often usedfor science fiction is that it's futurist in its point of view it's trying tospeculate about the future. But Disch's point of view is that it's really moreabout examining different possibilities of what is happening to us now.

Did Disch's work influence the form of"History of Science"?

Not really.The underlying form of my work is a kind of left-to-right reading of time. I dependon conventions, which in our culture means that you start and read left toright. We're used to scanning maps and charts in a way, and things like anarrow show a directionality or causality. But I try to make the conventions interestingby altering the standard rectangular graph format. Sometimes I have the overallmap shaped by a form it's trying to describe almost a visual pun. In this case,it's a monster, but I've also used, for instance, a human body. In this case, Icapitalize on the notion of tentacles, which of course is a real trope insci-fi. This guy is a comical reading of the Martians in H.G. Wells' Warof the Worlds . I guess my first view of War of the Worlds came from a ClassicsIllustrated comic book I read. I'm not sure how close it was to Wells', butit stuck with me.

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(Click here for ahigh-resolution image .)

The tree isused as a metaphor in genealogies: The roots are the sources and the branches arethe descendants. So I used tentacles to reach back to what I think the sourcesof science fiction are, which precede both science and what we think of asfiction. I go back to the earliest ideas of fear and wonder, which must havebeen pre-literary motivations or reactions to the world. Mythology and religionand supernatural, metaphysical stories all come from these sources. Fantasticalideas are also used in political satires by the Greeks The Frogs and The Clouds , they're practically science fiction in some ways. Andthere's also the Age of Exploration. People started sending ships out, which becomesone of the main storylines for sci-fi, whether you're talking about Jules Verneor Star Trek -sending ships out tofind new worlds.

The two mainthings: One, the development of science. You can't have science fiction withoutscience, which is the investigation of the natural world using empiricalevidence. And then you have Gothic fiction, which comes out of what's calledthe Counter-Enlightenment, which eventually became something like Romanticism.Most storytelling forms that preface pop culture really grow out of the Gothicnovel and Gothic literature, and that would include most kinds of genres likescience fiction, from Westerns to horror. It's just this kind of storytellingwhere bad things happen. There's a narrative arc in Gothic literature thatbecomes the mold most plot-driven fiction relies on.

But I'm notan expert. That's worth saying. I'm an expert artist, but I'm a dilettante ineverything else.

What was your research process like?

First, thereare Web sites made by fans that provide incredible amounts of information. Ididn't come up with any new, original research: These guys did. What I do is Idigest it, I edit it, I put in a form you can see all at once. That's what mycharts do: They put things in relation to one another, so you can get a kind oftopology of time. That's the only contribution I'm making. And I'm throwingaway information to keep things simple enough. I do some kind of quantificationand I rely a little bit on my subjectivity, how I feel about things. I tend toprivilege the things I care about.

It would beeasier to do this on a computer than by hand. But the reason I do it by hand isthat one of the important ethical points to make here is that, in the end, thisis one person's point of view. It has no real authority. So I wanted to make itlook like it was just one guy scribbling on paper, and then painting it. Ithink that books have a kind of authority given to them just because of theirmachine-made quality. It's like it's coming from something larger than oneperson. But ultimately you always have to interject the subject, so I alwayswant to keep it so that point is clear to me.

There was abook or two I relied on. Brian Aldiss wrote a book called BillionYear Spree . Every science fiction reader will know him. And also a guycalled Barry Malzberg. He's very passionate. He's kind of disappointed in thescience fiction genre; he feels like it's decayed, so he has a really strongpoint of view. And then there's Asimov. He wrote a lot about dividing the genreup in a cladistic way. A cladogram is a kind of genealogical chart, most often of species. Ittends to branch things out into discrete categories. Asimov did this not somuch by genre but by period. He's the guy who ID's that this is the period ofsocial and psychological interest, this is the period of interest in form, thisis the period of interest in action. And other people come up with the genre:This is the action-adventure part, this is the space opera.

On your Web site you note that this flowchart"sort of went viral." What kind of response have you gotten from sciencefiction fans?

My mailboxis full. The ones who are writing me directly, most of them are just interestedin getting the image. But I've gone to a couple of the blogs, and it's reallygreat to see how annoyed and argumentative people are. You don't really have toworry about sci-fi fans when it comes to keeping the subjective point of viewreally clear, because I think they understand that. The fans are arguing about what'sleft off, their favorites and this is pretty typical. When you read "100 best"lists, there's a lot of, "I can't believe he left off TheCaves of Steel , what was he thinking?" I've gotten a lot of that. Andthen there are a lot of people saying I gave a particular genre short shrift, ormissed it entirely.

Andeveryone, by the way, is right. Because in the end, it's just one person'sviewpoint. When something's about opinions and canonization, everyone's right.They just won't agree. So this is a way to start the discussion, and I feellike it's really successful. I'm glad to be the catalyst for that. And I'm suremost of the people having these arguments know more, on some level, than I do. I'ma casual fan of science fiction.

I've hadother images I did one aboutrock genres that bounces around a lot, but not with the same, passionatecult response that this one has had. There's a Frank Zappachart that bounces around on some of the fan sites for Frank Zappa, but Ireally didn't expect this science fiction thing to hit the ground running. Ihaven't counted the responses, but there are a couple hundred people I actuallyhave to respond to.

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(Click here for ahigh-resolution image .)

What's some of your favorite sciencefiction?

Olaf Stapledonis this Scandinavian guy that wrote really early sci-fi that was sort of mind-expansive,and has huge scale. He wrote one called Lastand First Men . But the beginning for me comes with Asimov, for the thingsI really like and still like and can imagine going back and rereading again. I wouldsay theFoundation trilogy was what really put me on track, so I wasn't just likingrocket ships and ray guns-I saw that sci-fi had a lot more going for it thanthat. And then there was a guy named A. E. van Vogt he was areal complicated, plot-driven writer, just a decade before Philip K. Dick , who wasthe next one I really got into. Dick is moving from sci-fi that's about aliens tosci-fi that has to do with psychology and sociology it's Jung consciousness andhallucinations and paranoia. I think Dick is kind of the beginning of what theycall the new wave of science fiction, in like the second half of the 1960s.He's seminal. But my favorite guy out of that period is Samuel Delaney .

People werewriting seriously about science fiction in the new wave. It was a boomer thingI think. The boomers took themselves so seriously that anything they liked,they wanted to justify in a historical way. It happens for rock music, ithappens for science fiction, it happens for comic books, for movies. They wereall these interlopers into the field of culture that were considered middlebrow.And I was going to college then, so I needed someone to convince me that thiswas really literature, not just kid's stuff.

Thanks to fan interest, Shelley isattempting to publish a poster version of "History of Science Fiction." Ifyou'd like to be updated on that project's development, write to him at mail@wardshelley.com .

Images courtesy of Ward Shelley. He shows at PierogiGallery in Brooklyn.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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