Posted by on Feb 17, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

Here’s my illustration from chapter five of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history novel that imagines how history might have developed if the plague had wiped out 99% of the European population instead of 30-60%.

Chapter five, “Warp and Weft” (a basket-weaving term), is told from the point of view of Hodenosaunee Indians in what we would call the Hudson River valley, in what we would call the early 18th century. The story centers around a mysterious stranger “Fromwest.” Fromwest is actually a ronin (masterless samurai) who fled to the New World from Japan, which has been completely conquered by the Chinese. Determined to preserve the “unspoilt” natives from a similar fate, at the hands of China or the European Muslims (who are simultaneously colonizing the New World from the east), Fromwest tries to convince the Hodenosaunee 0f the importance of industrialization and firearms manufacture to their survival. However, he urges that, while industrializing, the tribe must not abandon their complex but functional system of consensus-based, psuedo-matriarchal government, which is the best form of government he has ever seen. Through such a system, a massive alliance of all New World tribes against the colonizers is an actual possibility.

Robinson is not so naively PC as to suggest that the “American” natives were always fully capable of defending themselves, but neither is he so condescending as to intimate that they could only be defended by an altruistic outsider (what we might call the “Avatar” approach.) Instead, he invents a properly radical-historical narrative, where the “best” of the oppressive outsider (in this case, industry and empirical science) is adopted by the colonized and turned against them. KSR’s dialectical ideas really start to emerge in this chapter, and are further solidified in the next chapter, “Widow Kang.” I think he’s right to point out that often the most productive areas of society are not the central monoliths, but the interces, the points where two cultures intersect on the periphery of either.

I’m still trying to get a handle on this ink-wash thing, trying to keep in mind the principles of atmospheric perspective, with pretty limited success. I feel that if I can learn how to craft pleasing compositions in grays, my black and white illustrations will improve and I might even learn something about color.

Up until the very last minute, I had planned to show Fromwest and the Indian practicing katana stances from a medium close-up point of view, and I’d even done some fairly detailed figure studies based on actual katana positions. But I’m trying to keep myself from falling into a comfortable 2/5 rut, where all my compositions are based on dividing the page into fifths and placing the center of attention two fifths from the left or from the right. That approach is like the minor pentatonic scale – just because it always sounds good, that’s no excuse not to try something else. I woke up yesterday and decided to go for the wide shot, to show tiny figures against the expanse of the American wilderness. My hero James Gurney would be so aghast to see how inconsiderately I’ve treated the Hudson River valley, the site and subject of so much incredible plein air painting.