Can we judge books by their covers?
Andy Sawyer from the University of Liverpool's Science Fiction Foundation Collection discusses the art of Sci-Fi book covers
24 March 2014
"What do we see in our imaginations when we hear the words “science fiction”? A buyer for a large bookstore chain in the 1970s is reported to have stated that all science fiction books should have machines on their covers, because that is what sf is all about. Many readers would take issue with this. It’s true that many of the mass-market paperbacks of the 1950s such as the books by “Volsted Gridban” so colourfully illustrated by Ron Tiner, could hardly be mistaken for anything other than gosh-wow entertainment. But if we look at books published over the next few decades, we see changes in the artwork as publishers sought out new audiences and the tastes of readers changed.
By the time of his death in 2009, J. G. Ballard was one of the major figures in British literature – yet his first novel The Wind From Nowhere (1961) was a fairly conventional l “disaster” novel illustrated as such by Richard Powers in a 1966 edition. Later editions, such as the Penguins from 1967 (Alan Aldridge) and 1976 (David Pelham) or the 1965 Drowned World with a detail from Yves Tanguy’s Le Palais aux Rochers, draw attention to surreal elements in his fiction. Is this the same writer whose “Best Science Fiction” collection from Orbit shows a typically science-fictional spaceship (Bob Layzell), or whose 1975 Panther Vermillion Sands (Peter A. Jones) creates a very different atmosphere to the more restrained Grizelda Holderness Dent cover?
Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin’s early novels were published as low-budget Ace paperbacks with fan-favourite Jack Gaughan covers. Later editions either present a much more “literary” impression – or (as with the Polish edition of City of Illusion by Douglas Chaffee) try to fool the reader into thinking that this novel is in fact a genre-fantasy epic.
Fooling the reader was almost certainly the motive for the startling Robert Stanley cover of the 1959 edition Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John. How many teenage male readers continued to the end of this story of political and ethical morality? Cover artists and publishers similarly had problems with Joanna Russ’s feminist classic The Female Man: Peter A Jones’s cover for the first British paperback stressed a fantasy (both senses!) element which was a sidebar to the real message. Judith Clute’s cover for the Women’s Press science fiction series emphasised the parable-like nature of the novel.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is here (nearly) always shown with the emphasis on the “book-burning” theme. But what is told us by the variant covers of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman?
But perhaps the best series of messages can be seen in the variant covers of Philip K. Dick -- from gutter trash to postmodern literary messiah – and John Wyndham – from the glorious pulp art of René Brantonne to the clear announcement that The Day of the Triffids is a “modern classic”.
The words in the novels are the same – but how different are the images the covers slide into our minds! If two people picked up one of these variants at random, would they really be reading the same book?"
See a selection of science fiction book covers curated by Andy Sawyer as part of FACT's latest exhibition Science Fiction: New Death 27 March - 22 June
From the Science Fiction Foundation Collection (Special Collections and Archives, The University of Library). The SFF Collection is Europe’s largest research collection of English-language sf and material about sf; supporting the scholarship and teaching science fiction nationally and internationally. For more details about the Collection and the Science Fiction Foundation, see http://www.sfhub.ac.uk/.