How to Deconstruct a Science Fiction Cover

A post by ABDA member W.H. Chong

Orhan Pamuk remarks that if ‘we catch a glimpse of its cover’ we are returned to the long-ago day when we once entered that book. That’s a fond ambition for any cover designer or illustrator, to create such a Proustian machine.

In an interview with culture site Spook, I talked about my youthful enthusiasm for SF. (The old joke – Q: When was the Golden Age of Science Fiction? A: When you were about 14.) The covers I discussed were not only themselves classic, but for the classics of SF – as io9 (Gawker’s futurist blog) which picked up the piece noted, my choices ‘also happen to be for some of the best books ever written.’ The insides and outsides matched.

I remember the covers as much for the pleasure and excitement of recalling the book as for the cover art. But in truth it is far easier to remember the covers than the characters or plots. The covers have become definitional for me in the way Pamuk describes.



Deconstructing the Art of The Dispossessed

Among the golden names I picked: Clarke, Asimov, Dick, Gibson, a pair of books stuck out – Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant double: The Left Hand of Darkness and her following novel, The Dispossessed:

Looking at these now they are my idea of perfect science fiction covers.…The Dispossessed is a story of rivalry between two planets, one of which claims to be run on socialist grounds but is actually quite authoritarian, the other is capitalist and more overtly totalitarian. [Note: not totalitarian, but patriarchal] The image is a very simple, iconic, memorable image. There is this very neat thing, where the hero, who looks very heroic, is looking at a world. But you can break it down. The figure is very much the same as the man in the famous 1818 painting by Caspar David Friederich, ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’….

All that rambling was to say how clearly the cover image captured the book for me, then as now. It’s a narrative illustration that faithfully serves and dramatises the story. (The typography is understated.) I think it’s a strength that the image is literal rather than subtly allusive. The crude, kitschy style and diagrammatic, trope-mongering composition ticks all the boxes for that period of SF, not only representing the story but also operating as a high impact signifier of SFness.

Here is how I think it works:

Deconstructing the Art of The Dispossessed

Click image to enlarge

Possible source inspirations, or what comes with this territory:

  • Caspar David Friedrich’s famous “Wanderer” — practically the same figure, later used in the Penguin edition of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo;
  • Ayn Rand’s Anthem in pulp paperback (her pre-Fountainhead scifi anti-socialist dystopia about individual liberty) – expressive figure against red sun/planet;
  • and Gary Cooper’s famous pose astride a skyscraper in The Fountainhead – much the same figure, but from the front and below.

Le Guin is on the opposite end of the philosophical pole from Ayn Rand, and probably Nietzsche, but on the cover her physicist Shevek has been cast from the same mould as Rand’s egotist, the architect Howard Roark, and Nietzsche and Friederich’s Übermensch. But maybe Shevek’s anarcho-communitarianism is as much a mystical fantasy as, and the flip side of, Rand-Nietzsche-Friederich’s singularities. The romantic figure is a versatile shell – convertible to philosopher, libertarian and anarchist. The perfect poet cum action hero for a nerdy 14-year-old. In other words, the illustration nails it.



Interpreting the Interpretation

It’s tautological: an illustration illustrates the text. But as we also know, illustration requires interpretation. (A brief is an interpretation.) And interpretation is open to any of these – a poor grasp, a misguided reading, fuzzy comprehension, unintended critique, cynical misleading. Consider the covers of Joan Vinge’s classic The Snow Queen.

Snow Queen

The 1980 first edition is at top left. Probably the most enduring version, from 1988, is the woman in a feathered mask by the celebrated Michael Whelan. Though I have kept the Whelan edition for many years I’ve never read the book, so I can respond to the covers unspoiled.

Unusually, all four cover variations are bravura outings – every artist has made a real effort. The original cover evokes transcendence in a work of considerable artistry by the unique collaborators Leo and Diane Dillon. (See their moodily psychedelic version of The Left Hand of Darkness.) Whelan’s art literalises the title as an ethereal, chilly beauty (it’s anatomically skewiff – examine the distance of her eye to nose and mouth). In temperature contrast is the woman wearing a crown and swathed in ermine; the figure in the antlered head-dress behind, the pink curtains, technicolor sky and hills suggest some very campy, naughty goings on. The last version here is as campy but even more bizarre – it’s hard to say what’s going on. A female mechanic in tight overalls is about to use a grease gun on a metallic egg-shaped transport carrying a haughty woman in spacey medieval headgear, flanked by her muscular guard in an even weirder costume? Or maybe it’s just cosplay?

Which would you read? They seem like books by different authors — a hippie mystic; a romantic fetishist; Joan Collins; and whoever wrote Barbarella. The Whelan cover clearly has the most graphic power (it has the most understated typography). It also provides the least narrative suggestion – the imagery in the others are more information-rich, if elusive. Turned the other way, from a publisher’s view, being the one with the least information leaves it most open to interpretation. “Not too specific” could have been part of the brief. One thing they all share – they are unmistakably genre covers. Anyone averse to SFF (science fiction/fantasy) is forewarned.

Here are the covers of the two most recent winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was her debut novel, and collected a swag of major SFF prizes. The cover is a painterly (so retro!) depiction of military craft viewed from above over a kind of moonscape. It pings the code for fans of space opera. It tells us nothing of the very smart plot or remarkable protagonist or extraordinarily imaginative and complex world within. Even now that it’s a celebrated book it’s an effort to remember this very conventional cover (the type is vertical and straight, even the image orientation is perpendicular).

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is the first winner of the Hugo by an Asian writer and a first for a translation. It’s typographically cluttered but the image is a genuinely considered exposition of the book’s themes and content. If the Leckie is extremely clever, the Liu is mind-blowing – the conceptual trips are far-out. I have no recall of any of the detail except that there are ideas after ideas exploding – fireworks in the starry night. The cold brainy cover will put off a lot of unsuited readers and call to all the likely fans. The brief could have been a publishing dilemma but the result is a success – at the end of the book you look at the cover and think, Yes, that’s the book.



The Vintage and the Contemporary Style

Contemporary SFF illustration is alive and fertile, but we must leave that for another time. If I hanker for the vintage style, it’s not because there isn’t plenty of traditional work still being produced. It’s because of the kind of guilty pleasures one can take from the overwrought and innocent bombast of genre illustrations.

The final example: the brilliant and, in its time, groundbreaking cover art by Chris Foss for William Gibson’s seminal short story collection, Burning Chrome (1982), and the cover for Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral. Now that Gibson has a significant crossover readership, his publishers have attempted to give him a genre-neutral look of cerebral action. It does the job asked and consequently looks blandly reassuring: Pick me up, I’m quite respectable. Well, let the wheels of marketing turn.



W.H. Chong is a founding member of ABDA and currently serves as Secretary. In 2013 Chong was inducted into the Australian Book Designers Hall of Fame.


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