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Symbiosis: X-Artist Steven Sanders on Sci-Fi Worldbuilding and Creative Commons [Interview]

Kansas City-based artist Steven Sanders has for the past few years been working on books for Marvel’s X-Men line: Wolverine and the X-Men, Wolverine, and S.W.O.R.D.; as well as the original alternate history graphic novel The Five Fists of Science and science fiction romance one-shot Our Love Is Real; and the SPECTRUM art book series. Sanders’ work has often depicted vivid, futuristic technology and imagery, albeit sometimes only in passing. An errant ship or one-off robot design hinted at a skill that was not being untapped, exactly, but possibly under-utilized. But in those cursory moments, Sanders demonstrated he had a talent that he wasn’t indulging on regular basis.

That’s all changed now that Sanders is working on a project that is nothing but tech design and sci-fi worldbuilding. His new Kickstarter project, Symbiosis, is a combination universe bible, concept art collection, and visual narrative. Sanders’ first solo publication, the project explores the relationship between humanity and technology, and how that relationship affects every facet of life. Symbiosis also looks astonishingly cool and is being produced in an unusually inventive way. Extending the definition of the title to include the audience itself, Sanders is releasing Symbiosis under a Creative Commons license, giving readers the legal right to create their own stories, games and other works of art based on the Symbiosis world.

In this candid interview, Sanders explained his thoughts behind the Symbiosis project and the endeavor of worldbuilding in general.

Put extremely briefly, the world of Symbiosis is one in which humans have become completely dependent upon bio-technology with which they interact via a Resonance Tooth, a device implanted in their bodies at puberty that is essentially their login to the world. The narrative element follows Katherine Aeneas, young woman who serves as the reader’s guide through the Symbiosis world, which as Sanders explains in his Kickstarter pitch video above, is particularly complex, including ethnic groups, politics, ecology, physics, agriculture, war, medicine and religion.

Symbiosis is budgeted at $50,000, with which Sanders intends to produce a 100+ page book in an 11″x17″ landscape format, with a clamshell box, gold foil and debossed logos, vellum sheets for informational overlays in various parts of the book, and Smyth-sewn pages (the highest quality library binding). The physical book will be available only to Kickstarter backers and will not be sold again, but Symbiosis will also be available digitally.

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ComicsAlliance: I remember you saying once on Twitter that you feel like a concept artist in the body of a comic book artist. Do you feel that still fits?

Steven Sanders: In no small part, yes. I mean, when I get down to it, any medium I work in is basically an excuse for me to engage in world-building. That tends to be the part I enjoy the most, for better or worse. Which isn’t to say I don’t like telling sequential stories, there’s a great amount of joy there. But I have to admit it’s trumped by getting to play god and make up something from whole cloth.

CA: Is Symbiosis the first time you’re getting a chance to create from scratch? I don’t know how much worldbuilding you had the chance to do on Our Love Is Real, but with the X-Office stuff I assume it’s a more of problem solving in the established world?

SS: Yeah, this project is the first time I get to do a major project that is nothing but whatever my brain churns out. I did do a pretty large amount of it with OLiR, though, [writer] Sam [Humphries] gave me a lot of latitude with that book and I took advantage of it to make that world as real as possible. X-Office stuff is more established, but Marvel does give artists a decent amount of leeway. I also get to design new characters from scratch, occasionally. [Writer] Jason Aaron and I just recently made a new character for Wolverine and the X-Men where [editor] Nick Lowe just told me to draw something cool and scary and have Jason make up the character from there. So I did. And he did. And now it’s being drawn in comics that aren’t out yet, I think.

CA: What’s the appeal of worldbuilding for you? I think it and “mythology” get blurred a lot of the time in conversation about science fiction and I know you are actually talking about creating a world more than establishing rules for characters to live in.

SS: Ah. Yeah, I mean, this is basically me getting to be the Tom Swift boy genius I always wanted to be when I was growing up. I have a tendency for seeing everything as a mechanism of some sort, and mechanisms having a life to them. Sort of a techno-animism. Heinlein talked about how his books, and especially characters, were these things that just started taking off in his brain and he just had to work as fast as possible to get them out onto paper. I don’t wish to put too fine of a point on that comparison, I’m not the Heinlein of concept design, but a similar thing does happen with me. I’ll be reading something; technical books, magickal texts, old pulp novels, and suddenly BANG and idea for a person, or a vehicle, or a city or an entire world or a new branch of science will pop up and I’ll need to go get it out as quickly as possible before it fades away. It’s sort of a fireworks show in my head that I need to photograph before it fades away. Where it gets harder is when I have to make it happen according to a schedule, but that can be done with practice.

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CA: Beyond your natural inclination towards developing ideas, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you? It’s always great to hear how people who create it grapple with the genre and what they do in it, there are a lot of people who use it to reflect the present, a lot of people it’s extrapolation or a playground. Wwhy does it click for you?

SS: There’s a number of reasons I love sci-fi, but the strongest is probably because it lets me see what humanity is capable of becoming, for good or bad. The reasons also shift from author to author. With Heinlein it’s very much about him showing off being a mechanical engineer and ballistics expert. His sci-fi is very visceral. Banks in The Algebraist created a galaxy involving a future human diaspora that was intensely compelling. The level of thought that went into the world building was incredible. But I think it always comes back to seeing how we might react in any of these situations. How do people deal with building a rocket to the moon? How do the deal with aliens that live in gas giants and experience time on a vastly different scale than we do? How do we deal with technology that changes us so much that we have to reconsider what it is to be human? Sci-fi is something of a funhouse mirror, one that changes its shape along with our current relationship with technology and our fears or hopes regarding our own future.

CA: So you’ve mentioned Heinlein, but I’ve seen you talk about Gunbuster as well. That’s a pretty wide stylistic gap. What are your big science fiction staples? Either formative things for you, or just what you hold as standards?

SS: It’s funny that you mention that, because in a roundabout way there isn’t a big gap. The creators of Mobile Suit Gundam said they were heavily influenced by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and the Gunbuster series has a lot of similarities to Starship Troopers as well; bug-like aliens vs humans in powered suits, just with less politics and more of the “Gainax bounce.” I grew up on Heinlein’s juvenile series, and Asimov, along with just about every other bit of sci-fi I could get my hands on. That waned after a while, most of my sci-fi consumption anymore is via audio books while working. Been listening to Heinlein again, and Asimov, and Banks’ amazing The Algebraist. Currently listening to the Dune series. Anime and manga became a big influence when I was in middle school, and continues to be one. Anything that Gainax makes (within reason), Shirow’s work is amazing and was a huge influence on my mechanical design, the Berserk series is incredible. Ditto Homonculus. X’amd and the Last Exile series were two anime that had amazing concept design. I think those last two were produced by Bones, which started out as something of a Gainax clone, but is now doing really top notch work.

CA: Well I think we’ve circled around it enough, could you talk about Symbiosis as worldbuilding? Did you start with a unifying concept or did some similar ideas kind of form together to set it up?

SS: Symbiosis all started when I realized that I hadn’t drawn or painted something just for me in… forever. So I sat down and did that thing that most artists do (consciously or not) where they cherry-pick from this visual catalog that they have in their brains, and this painting of a woman in a three legged robot with some kind of sea-beetle-thing stuck to the back of it happened. And that was a lot of fun. I stared at that for a while, and thought about how people and our technology are both symbiotically linked, you know? Take any average person, strip them of the technology of our civilization and they’ll die pretty quickly. We aren’t born with a well developed set of survival skills. Same with our technology. It depends on humans to breathe life into it and to protect it from the wear and tear of entropy. Which lead me into thinking about a world where we never stopped depending on biological “engines” like horses, dogs, etc., for power, but one where we developed biological engines that were made specifically for powering our technology. That is their sole function. And not in a “hamster in a cage is powering a lightbulb” sense, as that has an undercurrent of cruelty I’d rather avoid. What’s being talked about here are living engines. Organs for producing power that don’t have anything beyond an autonomic nervous system. These power generating organs are essentially external muscles for humans to make use of. I wanted to see what and entire planet/civilization would look like based around that concept. That became a very deep rabbit hole.

CA: How far ahead are you on with the book? I know you’ve had pieces with the Symbiosis tag on Tumblr for a few months, are you going design and images first or are you mapping out languages? On the Kickstarter page you talk about going deep with all these elements.

SS: I have everything very roughly laid out. I spent over four months just researching it. Reading up on obsolete aetheric models of gravitation, deep-crust biology, linguistics, macroeconomics, etc., etc., etc. So, at this point, I have enough art to give a general impression of the world and a big notebook with a framework of how I’m going to proceed.

CA: Going through all your books I noticed that along with the worldbuilding, you get called on a lot to do humor and deadpan gags. Is that just because of the writers you were working with? A book like S.W.O.R.D., which has an intensely science fiction setup, plays more like a comedy. Is that an interest for you? Will there be jokes in Symbiosis?

SS: It’s kind of weird. I was pretty much M.I.A. from comics during the ’90′s, and when I came back, I found that so many people were very Serious Business about the medium. There may have already been a great deal of people like that and I just didn’t hang out with them prior to the web coming around, though. Regardless, Comics = SERIOUS. While I definitely respect comics a great deal, I think it’s important to be able to laugh at them and have fun with them as well. That may be why I am drawn toward or tend to inject humor into things I work on when I find it appropriate. I forget who it was that said this at the moment, but there’s a quote along the lines of “The world is so crazy and insane that the only way one can properly deal with it is to laugh.” I find people and things that take themselves so so seriously to be a bit… silly themselves, if that makes sense. Because you know, “I’M DOING THIS IMPORTANT THING THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOREVER AND MY LEGACY WILL LIVE ON UNTO ETERNITY” and then we all die. Or even funnier, turn into doddering old people who forget who we are and what we have done, and then death swallows us whole. Any of our self-importance pales before the scope of all of the “Not I” that has preceded us and will come after us. And what can you do but laugh at that?

I mean, this Kickstarter could be enormously successful and I’m all “YAYAYAYAYAY” and then I’ll get hit by a bus, or have a stroke and never get to draw again. Or it fails and I am revealed to be a charlatan. That’s all rather horrible, isn’t it? YAY WE ALL DIE ALL IS FOR NAUGHT! But! We also get to be these parts of the universe that have, through whatever series of events you choose to subscribe to, formed into these things that we call “people” and look at the world and go “wow.” And laugh. And cry, and do all of that stuff before we go “poof” back into the rest of everything, and, well, who knows what happens after the poof part.

But basically, yes, there’s going to be an entire chapter dedicated to fart jokes.

CA: Traditionally science fiction has a specific departure point, like say “This is 400 years in the future” or “this is what happens if Hitler is assassinated”, etc. Are you starting from a point like that for this?

SS: Yes and no, and this due to what is at the core of Symbiosis. The story I’m telling is one that is going to be mostly visual. The reader always plays a crucial part in imparting meaning to any story, and I’m interested in seeing what readers find in this world where I show more than I tell. So, yeah, I have an idea of what the foundation of the world is, and will suggest that, but I also want to leave that flexible for the reader.

CA: That’s interesting because you’re doing this book as a Creative Commons work, so are you trying to establish as much as you can without making it specific? How or why did you decide on Creative Commons?

SS: Yes, exactly. The fan-bases of various genres have shown themselves to possess a great deal of imagination and creativity when given some base material to work with. I want to create a world to hand over to people, and let them go all out with it. Make tabletop RPGs using engines such as Fate Core, write books or short stories, make comics, make video games, do cosplay, make artifacts from that world. This sounds trite and cloying, but I want to see people shine. That’s why I want this to be Creative Commons, and for as many people as possible who want to do something with it to have full access to it.

CA: Aside from wanting to see what people do with it, if you’re going to spend a lot of time developing this world, are you planning on doing more with it? Or is the guidebook nature of the project going to be it for you? Basically I’m asking why world building project instead of a comic?

SS: It will be part-comic. That’s definitely going to be part of the storytelling process. But the main reason for the focus is that I’ve been wanting to do a big concept design project for quite some time, but I just don’t have the connections at the moment to get into that field. So I’m just striking on my own and seeing who follows. So, yeah. I love comics, and there’s going to be comics in here. Once comics got into my blood I doubt the desire to make them will ever leave. This is a… semi-sabbatical of sorts. A chance to use muscles I don’t get to use that much.

You can learn more about Symbiosis and its rewards for backers at Kickstarter.

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