More Swans and Robots


Real Italian fantascienza is an authentic expression of Italian culture, which is brainy, nerdy, gutsy and pulp, it’s far-out but down-home, and raw but civilized. I would not proclaim that it’s the best fantasy writing ever created in the world, but it encourages and motivates me.

Bruce Sterling talking to Paul Semel about his collection of fantascienza stories, Robot Artists and Black Swans. My cover design was posted here last September; the book itself is published this week by Tachyon so I can at finally reveal the interior illustrations. Sterling’s collection presents seven stories written by his Italian alter-ego, Bruno Argento, with several of them appearing in English for the first time. The Italian theme informs the design as well as the content, although the associations aren’t always as obvious as they are in my illustrations for Sterling’s earlier fantascienza book for Tachyon, Pirate Utopia, the art and design for which adapted graphics by the Italian Futurists.


As I mentioned in the earlier post, while searching for more recent Italian graphics I came across the work of Franco Grignani (1908–1999), a designer whose most famous work was the Woolmark logo, one of those international symbols that most people will have seen even if few know who was responsible for its creation. The Woolmark’s black-and-white stripes are typical of Grignani’s designs, many of which work variations on the eye-jangling Op Art style pioneered by Bridget Riley. Grignani’s work seemed at first as though it might offer a suitable model for the cover design but it quickly became apparent that his style wasn’t suitable for this title so I went in another direction. Grignani’s influence is present inside the book, however, in the more abstracted illustrations, and in the parallel lines that provide a connecting thread between the stories and their illustrations. The Eurostile fonts used throughout the book also have an Italian flavour. They’re a little clichéd for science fiction but I liked the way they combined SF associations with more Italian design, being the work of Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese.


The other design influence, and a more identifiable source, is MC Escher, a choice prompted by the black swans in the title. Escher’s tessellated patterns feature a variety of animals, swans included, so I adapted two of the artist’s swan patterns to prevent the illustration from being robot-heavy. Escher also has an Italian side, as it happens; he enjoyed holidaying in Italy, and the vernacular architecture of the country’s small coastal towns may be found in many of his lithographs. The Escher swans led in turn to a self-indulgent illustration that fills two pages at the front of the book, something that came about after I was playing with Penrose triangles in Illustrator. I’d made a group of these impossible shapes into a construction which a little tweaking turned into a piece of equally impossible architecture, rather like those in the Escher-influenced mobile game, Monument Valley. All that was required to flesh things out was to cover the walls in a brick pattern then add a few swans and robots.

Continue reading “More Swans and Robots”

Robot Artists and Black Swans


Four years ago I designed and illustrated a book for Tachyon written by Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia. Robot Artists and Black Swans is a kind of sequel, being the work of the same author for the same publisher, and with a similar geographical focus on southern Europe. The new book differs from the earlier one by being a collection of stories rather than a single piece, many of which are set in or near the city of Turin where Sterling and his wife, Jasmina Tesanovic, spend much of their time. Sterling has been living in Europe for many years, long enough to have cultivated an alter-ego, Bruno Argento, an Italian science-fiction writer who is offered as the real author of the stories in Robot Artists and Black Swans.

Pirate Utopia was an easy book to design because of the Futurist theme which I illustrated by adapting graphics by artist and designer Fortunato Depero. For the cover of the new volume I considered trying something similar with another Italian artist/designer, Franco Grignani (1980–1999). In addition to having studied in Turin, Grignani was commissioned by David Pelham to create cover art for a handful of Penguin science fiction titles in the late 1960s. Much of Grignani’s artwork is heavily indebted to the Op Art style popularised by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, especially the early Riley formula of dazzling arrangements of parallel lines, a formula he made his own after Riley’s work evolved in other directions. Despite these favourable qualities, Grignani’s art proved too abstract for my purposes, and for Tachyon’s who wanted something more illustrative, so I ended up co-opting a very different Italian artist/designer, Leonardo da Vinci. The figure of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man has been parodied and pastiched many times so this isn’t remotely original (I’ve also used the original drawing on a pastiche book cover I designed for the Lambshead Disease Guide), but making the figure a robot was a convenient way of combining the title with Italian history. One of the stories in the collection, Pilgrims of the Round World, concerns the inhabitants of Turin during the Renaissance years, and mentions Leonardo (or “the Vinci boy”) several times, so the figure does have some actual relevance beyond being recognisably Italian. The background is, of course, the city of Turin given a slightly futuristic tweak, although it’s more Turinesque than a match for the place itself.

As usual, I’ll save discussion of the book’s interior until after publication which will be in March, 2021. Watch this spacetime.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling