Spider Robinson is a science fiction writer living near Vancouver, BC. His 33rd book, VARIABLE STAR, is a posthumous collaboration with Robert A. Heinlein (variablestarbook.com).
Alex Grey’s work is discussed in it at some length– below is an excerpt.
The hardcover is in its third printing; the paperback comes out from Tor at the end of November.
David Crosby wrote a tune for the lyrics I wrote into Chapter One, “On The Way To The Stars.”
Spider and his wife and co-author Jeanne Robinson have visited CoSM twice so far.
“Alex and Allyson Grey’s artwork has helped both my wife and I — healed us, inspired us, and warmed us.” –Spider Robinson
Excerpt . . .
(Young Joel Johnston’s first love affair ended so badly he fled the Solar System, joining a colony on a one-way trip to a star 85 light years away. he Ship’s Healer has prescribed meditation, in the Simulation Room…)
On my way to the Sim Room for my first session, I wondered what sort of exotic locale Dr. Amy had programmed for me to meditate in. The Sheffield’s Sim gear was less perfectly convincing than what I’d experienced at the Conrad enclave back in British Columbia…but not by much. It was one of the few areas Kang/da Costa had splurged on. I guess I expected something grandiose and imposing and sacred—the Eiheiji monastery in Japan, or Jaipur Lake Palace in India, or Vatican City before the Prophet’s Angels got ahold of it. Or possibly some secular but stunning scenic vista: Vancouver Harbour, or Rio de Janeiro in old Brasil, or looking east from Olympus Mons on Mars, or Titan seen from the Rings, or my own favorite, Jupiter from Ganymede, at night, through an aurora. Nor would I have been surprised by a simple flood of sheer kaleidoscopic imagery, like a screensaver display, or the fireworks you can sometimes see behind your closed eyelids.
I got a blank white wall. About half a meter from my nose.
I’ve since learned that several schools of Buddhism do that too: meditate facing a blank wall. It makes a certain amount of sense. Minimal visual distraction, maximal visual canvas for any visualization imagery you may find useful—and a constant, ongoing, gentle reminder that you are doing something not-ordinary, that you are now removed from the conventional world where sensible people do not sit staring at blank walls.
An equal number of Buddhists find this appalling, and instead sit with the blank wall behind them, facing another one across the room…and any co-practitioners in the way. What distinguishes Buddhism from any other faith I’ve studied—from most human beings, really—is that the people who face the wall and the people who face away from it have never fought a war over it. They’re never going to agree…but they feel no need to. Buddha himself is supposed to have said, “People with opinions just go around bothering each other.”
I thought both sides were crazy myself, when I first started, and Dr. Amy too for assigning me that program. My second day I mutinied, and reset the Sim for a Ganymede vista, as close as it could come to my own pasture at night. But at the end of the hour, I realized I had wasted the whole thing thinking. And worse, feeling, which was even less helpful. Nostalgia hurt too much. I tried it her way the rest of the week.
I spent nearly every minute of that first week more than half convinced I was wasting my time, waiting for something to happen and then uncertain whether or not anything had. But at the end of the week, I found that I was looking forward to it. Imagine that you’ve been carrying twenty kilos of sand in a backpack without knowing it, all the days of your life. Then one day somebody shows you how to take it off for a moment. It was that much of a relief, I learned, to be able to set down now and then, for whole minutes at a time, the ongoing burden of thought, to briefly silence the constant chatter of my mind compulsively reassuring itself that I was still alive. For periods measurable in whole long seconds, I could sometimes become transparent to my own feelings and emotions. Occasionally there would be what I can only call moments of clarity, when I seemed able to see without distortion and accept without fear. After a week of staring at that silly blank white wall, I was sorry when the time came to change it.
Until I saw the new Sim.
It was a series of paintings, or rather two serieses, acrylic on canvas, by a PreCollapse artist named Alex Grey, who lived and worked on Terra, in New York, in the 20th and 21st centuries. You sat zazen for awhile, and then you started up the image slideshow and looked at the paintings, and at programmable intervals they changed. That doesn’t sound very dramatic—but I’m talking about the kind of art that ought to be served with a whisk broom, so the customer can brush the sawdust off his shirt when he gets back up. Grey made timeless art that probably would have spoken to a Neanderthal. Indeed, many parts of his vision were at least that old.
All the twenty-one paintings in Grey’s Sacred Mirrors series are at last man tall. First in the sequence is a pale grey human silhouette, facing you, arms slightly apart from its sides, palms outspread, almost as if to say, “Here I am.” Second painting: the background goes to black, and the silhouette is filled by an extremely realistic skeleton, man-tall and detailed. Third painting: the same skeleton is overlaid by an incredibly detailed and accurate rendering of all the nerves in the human body: the complete electrical wiring system for the skeleton, brain at the top, and nothing else. The golden nerves seem to leap off the canvas, rendered with the same sort of gilt that medieval manuscripts used to be illuminated with. Fourth painting: the nerves vanish, replaced by the circulatory system, rendered in blue, heart in the center of the breast—and for the first time the body is recognizably male, with testicles. The fifth painting details the complete lymphatic system—but this body is female. Successive paintings detail male viscera, then a female musculatory system complete with fetus in a cutaway womb. And finally the body grows flesh, becomes a naked Caucasian woman, facing you calmly. The next painting morphs her into a naked Caucasian man; the next an African woman; then an African man; then an Asian woman, and finally an Asian man.
Each of these figures, from the skeleton on up, has been depicted with such exquisite realism that the next painting has more impact than it might have alone. It shows the psychic energy system. The flesh has melted away, leaving bones and organs and nerves and veins and staring eyeballs…but all are shot through now with gleaming shimmering crackling filaments of energy, and the six chakras of so many mythologies are visible at brain, throat, heart, navel, abdomen and groin, glowing with power like white coals, and the entire body is enveloped by a translucent pale blue aura made up of infinitely tiny threads of energy, and it is quite clear that all of it, body, chakras and aura, are all physically connected to the rest of the universe, exchanging energy with it. The next painting takes that even further: the flesh and meat and bone melt away, leaving a human-shaped form composed almost totally of the strings and threads of energy that generate it, extending outward to meet the cosmos at head and feet, wrapped in a great bubble of unimaginable power. And in the next painting, even the vague body shape is gone, leaving only a boiling torrent of loops and circles and lattices of universal fire which Sol later told me was remarkably like the mental picture he had going through his head when he was doing his job.
There were more paintings in the series, but most were topheavy with denominational religious iconography, so I usually chose to fastforward through them. Such imagery was perfectly fine back in those days, indeed laudable…but now of course feels faintly indecent, a reference to a bloody period in history we would all prefer to erase, if it were not that the horrid lessons learned in it must never ever be forgotten. Those images have all joined the swastika: symbols of spirituality perverted, than which there is no greater evil.
After that came a different series of thirty paintings, which Grey called “Progress of the Soul.” Each depicted one or more of his strange, skinless, fleshless glowing people, connected by powerful invisible energies to the world around them, carrying out a variety of utterly basic human activities. A man with bowed head, praying, a halo of golden energy pouring from his head. A man and woman side by side, staring rapt at the heavens together, information flowing in both directions. A man and woman kissing in close embrace—surely the most intimate embrace ever rendered, since you can pick out every sinew, nerve or capillary in their bodies, see the normally-invisible pulsing energy they create being passed back and forth, heterodyning, lighting the world. The same couple, copulating—an almost nuclear explosion of energy indescribable in words. Then the same couple standing, he reaching round from behind her to touch the hugely swollen belly inside which their child can be seen; that particular painting is framed on either side by an ontogeny sequence of ten images, one for each month, starting with sperm meeting egg, and ending with a full-term fetus. Then one I found it easy to stare at forever, called “Promise,” in which the expecting lovers face one another, and promise each other what they will do for this child they’re making together. On the ground between them is a two-year-old…holding a skull.
There are quite a lot more in the series, but I’m going to stop describing them now, because the next one in sequence, “Birth,” is simply so powerful that I’ve never been able to endure looking at it for more than a few seconds; then my eyeballs start to cook and I have to look away.
But near the end of the series is one often considered Grey’s masterpiece, called “Theologue.” It depicts a man doing exactly what I was doing the first time I saw it: sitting zazen, legs folded beneath, hands placed on his lap in the mudra position, head slightly bowed, meditating. A translucent golden round halo surrounds his head, and a transparent blue egg-shaped halo surrounds his whole body. He is seated at least a foot off the ground, on a kind of net made of interwoven strands of energy running in three directions, bright white and so intense flames lick up from them in the vicinity of the seated man, but do not come close enough to burn him. Behind him, through the grid, grey mountains can be seen to recede forever. All six of his chakras shine with universal fire. It is clear that he is engaged in theologue: in a dialogue with God. Who is himself.
Maybe I’ve conveyed nothing at all to you. If so, just take it from me that a few weeks’ exposure to those paintings helped me heal—physically, mentally, psychically, spiritually. Grey himself said one of the specific purposes of his work was to make people healthier. He had seen a study which showed that people who had just seen a frightening, disturbing 2-D movie called “The Exorcist” left the theatre with their immune systems weakened, more vulnerable to disease. He decided if art could do that, it could damn well do the opposite, too, and should—so he devoted his life to learning how to create images that left the viewer healthier. I could not begin to describe how he does it, even if I understood it. Just take it from me that if you are ever mindblown or heartsick, what you want to do is look up the works of Alex Grey, in the best reproduction you can find, and let them work on you.