Writing “Ventiforms”

Sean Monaghan’s story “Ventiforms”—on sale now in our current issue—is set in a universe of grandiose art projects and stunning natural beauty. Below he discusses the inspiration behind this.


by Sean Monaghan

I’ve always loved landforms. I studied physical geography and geology at university. (I always preferred the geography.) The face of our planet is decorated with wonderful and often startling results of tectonics and erosion and other factors.

I figure that the faces of more distant planets and moons are similarly decorated. After all, Mars boasts vast canyons and enormous volcanoes. It’s right in our neighborhood.

And with regular frequency now we discover new exoplanets with quite probably even more remarkable features. These planets defy our old “model” of a Solar System—based on our sample of one—with hot Jupiters, Super-Earths, sub-Neptunes and so on. Surely their surfaces will defy our models too.

My previous story in Asimov’s, “The Billows of Sarto,” explored the ecosystem in a vast caldera on a distant world. I’m fascinated by volcanoes and their results—from perfect cones to jagged jumbles to the long tongues of lava flows and tubes, and to calderas.

With my latest story, “Ventiforms,” I’ve visited one of my other favorites: desert canyons. I think it’s wonderful that the relentless passage of water, carrying fine abrasive material, can etch out these sinuous deep valleys across the planet’s surface. If my memory serves from those long ago courses, water doesn’t erode rock; the abrasion is carried out by buoyant fine particles that bounce along, chipping away at the riverbed.

Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Mexico’s Copper Canyon provided some of the inspiration for this story. Their remarkable walls and twists seem to swallow you up.

The other inspiration, perhaps surprisingly, came from Steve Roden’s wonderful artwork “Airforms.” See Roden’s website at www.inbetweennoise.com.

Roden’s piece was originally “inspired by a group of experimental houses designed by Wallace Neff in the 1940s using a process he called airform construction. The houses were built by spraying concrete over an inflated balloon structure, inspired by the nautilus sea shell.”

Roden’s exhibition took this idea into the realms of sound. Smaller versions of Neff’s houses were built from balloons and plaster. Recordings of breath blown through an organ pipe were played back through speakers mounted inside these miniature “airforms.” The exhibition first took place at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, in April 2004.

As a science fiction writer, I’m in the fortunate position that my “exhibitions” can take place on a grand scale, without the restrictions of contemporary budgets, technologies, and building ordinances. My imagination can build these planet-encompassing works that are technically impossible today.

Of course it’s just words, and I hope that my words are enough for readers to be able to carry themselves there and imagine themselves among the ventiforms, able to hear their music and picture their sweeps and curves.

Sean Monaghan’s <seanmonaghan.com> last Shilinka Switalla story, “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles” from our January/February 2017 issue, won the Asimov’s Readers’ Award and New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Short Story. Sean has a BS in physical geography, and he has always loved studying landforms carved by wind action. He writes from a corner of his 110-year-old home in the windiest city in New Zealand. His interests and his living circumstances were part of the inspiration for his latest tale.

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