I have always been a sucker for those art books that never seem to surface anymore. Possibly, I’m looking in the wrong place. Amongst my more treasured books and annuals, I have several examples of this phenomenon from the 70s and 80s. Huge, hardback and glossy books packed with pictures of spacecraft or bizarre landscapes. Each image tells a tale and someone decided to take a stab at drafting such stories.
Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books – like SpaceWreck and Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD – represent this kind of work magnificently. I cannot help but occasionally extract these from my shelf and thumb through random pages. They deserve more attention; consumption favours the random turn of a page. Find a page you like the look of and wallow – then, perhaps, see what Cowley made of the image.
I digress even talking about them…
And now I have another example of this phenomenon in the pages of anomaly 1.
anomaly 1 comes in both PDF and physical form, created by Brad J. Murray and Jack Webb. The PDF runs to 41-pages, with Introduction and Afterword. The book features eighteen anomalies, each with a full-page image followed by a full page description.
All the anomalies featured have sprung from a software-generated fractal formation. The image shown will have been teased out through an original, with specific care taken over the cropping, lighting, angle or similar. Reviewing from the PDF I’m left wanting something physical, some to peer at.
If I was to have one (overly) critical thing to say about the format, it would be that the default view in my PDF reader when viewing two pages across the screen places the description on the left with the wrong image on the right. I can get over this by activating the option to ‘Show cover page in two-page viewing’, which inserts a blank to the left of the cover. As I say, it’s overly critical and more a matter of me getting to grips with viewing this book the right way.
anomaly 1 arose from Brad Murray’s love of fractals (herein created with an application called Mandelbulb3d). I can see Brad’s fascination. The endless growth and spiralling recursive patterns have a hypnotic draw upon the eye. Brad – who you may also know from such gaming goodies as diaspora, Hollowpoint and, most recently, Callisto – has been generating fractals with software since the early 80s and a confluence of technology, software and opportunity led to this fresh endeavour.
As outlined above, anomaly 1 presents eighteen anomalies in a two-page spread format. The anomalies appear in colour and effectively represent fractal formations from a molecular through to a stellar scale. On one page spread, you can see a nanite plague that threatens an unwary exploration team; on another you find part of the massive vessel-sized construct ploughing through the atmosphere of a gas giant.
They’re really fantastic images – which I would happily have exploded and framed up on my wall.
For example, Ophiuchi IIa has a Dynamic Landscape that reminds me a little of the rock formations in the Grand Canyon. Swirls, prominences and flakes of red, yellow, gold and brown against a murky grey atmosphere. The planet’s surface continually shifts with an almost fluid geography bar some inexplicable prominences that remain static. The description suggests something artificially regular lies beneath the constantly shifting surface, but the chaotic movement makes it difficult to establish any permanent scientific presence.
On another world, self-replicating machines create an immense continent-spanning scaffold that defies explanation. The structure towers above millions of squares miles of the planet’s surface – and the fractal offers just a glimpse of that gigantic, self-sustaining sprawl.
This is a book about ideas.
The afterword adds a little definition to terms used in the text – like Survey Branch and Planetfall – but there is no system here. Each section references a planet or system, but beyond the description you make up the detail yourself. In my mind there’s something hard sci-fi about these images and descriptions. For me, this is Traveller territory or diaspora, Stars Without Number or Eclipse Phase. This landscape is about exploration and investigation in a future with cutting edge technology, but without the blasters and laser swords of space opera. Mind you, that’s entirely subjective on my part. You could drop Doctor Who, White Star or something less hard sci-fi in here and still get a game going. My childhood visions of the Terran Trade Authority definitely hit me when I read Traveller for the first time – and that same vibe hits me here.
So, this is a coffee table book. A work of creative reference. This is the picture-paints-a-thousand-rolls-on-a-random-table antidote that seeds a session with a potential for exploration or a threat of insidious destruction. You will have to riff off the descriptions, improvise the meat for these bones or do some advanced prep with your preferred system. Certainly, you could use the descriptions themselves as the basis for a handout or a journal entry.
Like the Terran Trade Authority books I collected in my youth, anomaly warrants meditation and quiet consideration. While the text provides a flavourful and in-character insight into each image, the time you spend ruminating upon them yourself might payback with additional potential.
Having seen anomaly 1 in PDF, I feel the need to own a physical book. Like so much of any review, that might just be a quirk of me and your experience might vary! Some of these images and descriptions have got me immediately think about when I might next get a chance to run a sci-fi game suitable. The Chaotic Magnetosphere around Van Maanen’s Star might just be what I need to throw my players in at the deep end – and then watch them fight their way out with science!
Review based on a self-purchased electronic copy. anomaly 1, created by Brad J. Murray and Jack Webb. Published by VSCA. You can pick up a physical copy of anomaly 1 on Lulu for $19.95. DriveThruRPG has a digital copy for $9.95 – but, until November 11, you can grab the PDF of anomaly 1 at a reduced price of $4.95.