Thursday 15 December 2022

Astrovitae: a magazine about speculative biology

Once upon a time there was so little material about speculative biology that I used to search the internet for speculative biology works. I was looking for works with a fair number of creations, a biology that made sense, and artwork that was a pleasure to look at. Sometimes I found nothing of interest, and at other times I found one or two projects. When I liked the project enough, I contacted the author which usually resulted in a blog post.

As time passed, speculative biology more or less exploded, and my searches began to reveal so many projects that I did not know which ones to pick. Later I gave up, or otherwise I would never get to work on Furaha.

But now, someone had the nice idea to produce a magazine about speculative biology. You will not find printed copies on your local newsstand, but it exists all the same, as an online pdf magazine. I am talking about 'Astrovitae'. The four issues that have been produced so far look very professional, and it wouldn’t hurt to see them in print. You can find those issues here, on the magazine's website. As mentioned on the website, the magazine aims to connect speculative biology artists around the globe. It is produced by the founder and chief editor of the magazine, Domenic Pennetta, whom I asked a few questions. 

Click to enlarge; from #1; Copyright John Meszaros

Because the magazine looked so good, I began by asking Domenic why it was free; I thought it was because you can download the issues without any bother from the site. Domenic was quick to correct me that hosting the site does cost money, and there is also his own time to consider. Right now, there are enough readers and contributors who care enough to help fund web hosting. Domenic points out that he wasn't initially sure how well the magazine would be received, and that played a role in deciding to ask for voluntary contributions only. 

Click to enlarge; from #2. copyright Lorenzo Battilani

My next question was also inspired by the professional look of the magazine: is Domenic a graphic designer by profession? He did not consider himself to be one at the time, but the project helped him hone his designing skills, and he eventually got a job as an assistant designer because Astrovitae looked so good! Domenic added that he hopes to help other artists by publishing their work in Astrovitae.      
I wondered whether publishing Astrovitae was just a hobby or the start of something bigger? Domenic wrote:

"I think this is a great question! It may help to briefly explain the origin of the magazine to fully answer this. When I first became involved in the genre and started my own speculative biology project, I quickly met other artists online who were interested in the same topics. We began forming small gatherings over social media, like Instagram groups or discord servers. All of us would periodically meet to discuss the genre, critique each other's art, and explain or explore scientific concepts with each other. I saw a lot of interaction going on, but despite so many like-minded artists in one space, no one was really collaborating to our fullest extent when it came to art. So, I had an idea to start some sort of publication, likely something small, that would feature work from all amateur artists interested in the genre. I felt that by doing this, I could inspire my fellow artists to work together more closely."

Click to enlarge; from #3. copyright ND Cebula

For Domenic, Astrovitae is a way to bridge a gap between different social media, hoping that artists from every corner of the internet could become familiar with each other’s work. He adds:

"I also have a background in scientific illustration. I love the natural world and learning about the biology of living organisms, depicting how they work or what drives them to behave, and also taking obscure organisms and bringing them alive through art. To me, even though speculative biology is heavily analytical and aligned with science, it is also associated with art. I think most scientific illustrators feel the same as me and believe art and science are indistinguishable from one another—they go hand in hand. Art is a form of communication that is useful in explaining complex ideas, like the concepts found in biology and other sciences. Starting a magazine would allow me to further influence the genre into an art-affiliated direction. This would allow the community to further explore and convey the speculative animals and biology we imagine.

So, in conclusion, I do believe that Astrovitae is something bigger. It is a tool to connect creative minds, facilitate collaboration, get artists published and seen, and better communicate speculative concepts we explore within the genre."

Click to enlarge; from #4. Copyright Paul Drenckhahn

Well said! As someone with a very similar interest in science and art I can only agree, and I hope that Astrovitae magazine will grow to become what Domenic envisioned. 

You can read Astrovitae magazine online here. Additionally , if you are interested in participating in the magazine, feel free to contact Domenic at or see for details.

I hope I whetted readers' appetites enough to go and have a look at the four issues available at present. To help you decide (and make this post more exciting) I used a double page spread from each of the four issues to illustrate this post. I will not discuss the creations on these pages at any length; that's what the magazine is for!

Thursday 8 December 2022

Back from TetZooCon 2022

 TetZooCon is over. It lasted two whole days instead of one and could have lasted longer as far as I am concerned. From what I heard people say, they felt it was a big success.

There were interesting talks or events about a wide variety of subjects, covering zoology, palaeontology, palaeoart, and last, but not least, speculative evolution. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of TetZooCon is that hard science and art are received with equal enthusiasm and humour. For me, that is not only a defining characteristic of TetZooCon but also my main reason for going.

To give you an idea about the zoology content, we were treated to talks about platypuses ('the best animal ever') by Jack Ashby, and a talk by Jennifer Colbourne about tool use and intelligence in birds, touching on the question whether theropod dinosaurs might have been capable of tool use. Probably not.   

Palaeontology was of course well represented, with Dean Lomax showing examples of his book 'Locked in Time' and an excellent pterosaur session with items such as dealing with how to CT-scan a pterosaurs, how to describe a species scientifically, and an insightful roundtable discussion.

John Conway showing how Paolo Uccello painted dinosaurs around 1450

Palaeoart was very well represented, with a talk by Steve White on how to publish a palaeoart book and as well as an extra talk by John Conway about his new tongue-in-cheek book illustrating the history of Western art through selected dinosaur paintings by famous painters. Or at least how John imagined the old masters might have done if they had only bothered to paint the occasional dinosaur. It is a fun book; I showed it to my wife, who is much better at telling painters apart than dinosaurs, and she attributed most paintings correctly at once; recommended!

John, Darren Naish and Memo Kösemen also talked about their book 'All Yesterdays' on the occasion of its tenth birthday. In that book they had fun with the idea that someone (or something) in the far future would come upon remnants of present-day animals, without knowing that mammals had fur or that birds had wings. The resulting 'reconstructions' were deliberately wrong in many ways, making the reader wonder about the accuracy of our present-day reconstructions. That is of course a fair point; you only have to look at how much images of Tyrannosaurus changed over the years to realise how much guesswork they contain. 'All Yesterdays' had fun with exploring shaggy pelts or unexpected behaviour, such as Protoceratops climbing trees. Apparently, the book seems to have led people to conclude for a while that anything goes in reconstructing dinosaur appearance or behaviour.

Speculative biology was represented by a one-hour roundtable discussion, with Darren Naish, Jennifer Colbourne, Joschua Knüppe, Dougal Dixon, Adrian Tschaikovsky and me. I do not think the session was recorded, at least not officially. The discussion could easily have lasted another hour. 

Dougal showing a Greenworld model. Adrian and Joschua are looking on.

Here is Dougal, showing a model of 'Greenworld', still only available in Japanese. Read more about Greenworld here, here and here. There may be a new version of the book with higher production quality, but that one will still be available in Japanese only, I'm afraid.

I spoke with Adrian before the session. It turns out that he was present at the speculative biology sessions at LonCon3 in 2014. Actually, he said that those sessions made him include more speculative evolution in his science fiction novels. That makes me very happy, as I had proposed those sessions, in which Darren, Dougal, Memo, Lewis Dartnell and I spoke about speculative biology. If you do not yet know Adrian's work, but you do like SF with biology in it, have a look. In his 'Children of…' series you will find intelligent cephalopods and spiders. Their biology is not a simple prop to make them look nonhuman, but it shines through in their senses, thought patterns, and even in the way they are aware of self. The books are called Children of Time, Children of Ruin, and Children of Memory is just out.           

A few of my prints at the Art Exhibition

Finally, the Art Exhibition. Many artists participated, and I hope that an Art Exhibition will return in future TetZooCons. I had brought 12 prints of 40x60cm and sold five, even though they were not advertised as being for sale. I think people liked them and think I will bring more at next year's TetZooCon.