Beyond the Horizon Art Book Review

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Beyond the Horizon by John Harris

John Harris makes an interesting point about science fiction at the beginning of Beyond the Horizon, an art book that collects samples of his work from over the fifty-year span of his career. Of the genre’s origins, he says that it’s actually a relatively new habit for human beings to imagine what the distant future might look like. Outside of satirists like Jonathan Swift and visionaries like William Blake, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that we felt ourselves barrelling towards an unknown land, so to speak, and were forced to reckon with what challenges and wonders may lay ahead. Of course, I think it’s a fairly well-known fact that science fiction as we know it today didn’t really exist until Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, but there’s something in John Harris’s particular outlook that makes you pause to consider what the time before was like when civilisations across the globe would expend all of their creative energies on the question of what life after death might be like rather than what life centuries down the road will actually be. It’s a thought that has a degree of gravitas in that it points to science fiction’s relationship with the mythology of the past, which I think is fitting, given the mysterious qualities that you see in Harris’ paintings. 

If you’re not familiar with the name John Harris, I think that’s only because book cover artists don’t get a big enough credit in the pages of the novels they help to envision. That is to say, if you’re a science fiction fan, there’s a good chance you have one of his paintings sitting on your shelf right now. For my part, I first became familiar with his distinctive style from the Ancillary Justice series by Ann Leckie. The series itself is probably one of the more popular space operas from the past ten years. A pastiche of classics that borrows the best aspects of Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks while adding plenty of mind-blowing concepts of its own. Not that I knew anything about that at the time. I picked up my copies of the books based purely on the quality of their cover art – a sequence of almost impressionistic pictures that captured the weightless velocity of these needlelike spaceships as they sped over moons and other megastructures. Speaking as somebody who isn’t into photorealism when it comes to concept art, it was refreshing to have such visceral imagery represent the genre’s latest sensation. Of course, as I already said, what was refreshing for me might have been something you’d already seen. Over the past few decades, Harris has provided artwork for the likes of Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, John Scalzi and many, many more…

Now, when I describe Harris’s art as impressionistic it’s probably a bit off the mark. In point of fact, as Harris himself says, his style of painting is actually more in line with the romanticists, of whom I know nothing about. Luckily, the entire collection is broken into numerous categories, each of which comes with a descriptive passage of what Harris had in mind. Previously, I reviewed a book that collected the work of background artists from the anime industry and made a point of how insightful the written portions of it were. In Harris’ case though, I felt like he could get a little pretentious at times. He speaks about relying on dream imagery more so than science to accomplish the unusual sense of weight in much of his work. And he has kind of an old fashioned take on the masculine and feminine in his paintings that didn’t particularly click with me. However, while I might roll my eyes at some of the reasoning behind his choices, he pretty much has the perfect rebuttal in the form of the completed pieces of art. Throughout the collection, I was continually impressed with the sense of mystery and myth that he manages to evoke. And as the pages went on I began to appreciate another talent that he seemed to refine over the years – that of a storyteller. Many of the pieces of art that he contributed to science fiction novels showcased his ability to portray a tiny part of the narrative that also manages to hint at the broader story as a whole. But it was in his personal project known as Hidden Suns and the City of Fire that gave me a real feel for how he managed to create narratives from individual paintings. The project, as he describes it, was one he undertook over a period of years.

Essentially, he imagined a city in which the women undergo a rite of passage at night, wherein they have to walk atop a labyrinthine wall, and in which the men undergo a counterpart ritual during the day, wherein they float on parachutes over a pit of lava. The world all of this takes place in feels both ancient and futuristic at once, middle-eastern in its design and utterly fantastical in its scope. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have found the concepts for the world all that compelling if not for the earnestly rendered drawings, though I guess that’s the best compliment I could give. Harris’ rare ability is to take the images out of his head and put them on the page, such that the actual feelings they generated in him are imparted wholesale over to you.

As for the quality of the book itself? At about one-hundred and fifty pages, it’s thin enough that the folds between the larger pieces of art don’t go too deep, making it all the easier to enjoy what’s on show.

The paper is some kind of glossy stock, which makes the ink pop all the better. And the layout never makes the mistake of cramming enormous paintings into small thumbnails in the corner of a page. A fine addition for any art lovers collection, I must say, and a thorough education for this science fiction fan. If you’re a science fiction fan too, then make sure to check out my series on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. If you’re more into art then let me know what other books I should check out in the comments below. And if you’d prefer to get to other points of interest in your day, then make sure to leave a like before you wander away.

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Simon Fay

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