Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008-9

Never judge a cover by its book.

Cover judgment

James Bacon


I had agreed to meet my wife in Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Rd., in Central London. Foyles is in existence now some one hundred and two years, and is quite a book store, with five floors of books in a substantial building. I have to be honest and say that it is a general bookstore, in the sense that the science fiction section is decent, but not outstanding, although whomever looks after their graphic novels knows their stuff when it comes to independent and odd items, they have a quite the selection, but they lack a comprehensive selection across the board.

It must be hard, as they are the jack of all trades and master of none, well that’s not fair, they actually have some experts hidden away, and the military section is really very impressive, but its a big family run bookstore, but not a speciality shop. This is a pictute of the book cover for "The Man in the High Castle"

I had some time to play with, so I wandered into the science fiction section, just to browse the titles, or should I say, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, movie tie ins, that look a sci-fi, you all know what I mean. I had a purchase in mind and the visit could kill two birds with one stone, the wife wanted to collect a college book, about the mechanics of materials, another Foyle speciality, ordering expensive academic books, and afterwards we were due to be heading to the Hyde Park Christmas Fayre.

Now the person I had in mind for the present, is not a science fiction fan, so I was thinking, given they have showed some interest in the genre, that I could use the present not only as a gift, but to also pass on a recommendation, and I got to looking at books that I actually like.

I first went to D for Dick, and picked up one of my favourite books in the world, The Man in The High Castle. It’s a Penguin book, an oddity in the two shelves of Gollancz titles, or was there one Hodder headline in there, maybe, although there is a variety of cover styles. SF Masterworks from Gollancz, the recent reissue of white covers with zoomed in dot artwork from Gollancz by Sue whose second name was obscured as it was below the cover, a misalignment I reckoned and a modern look cover style with photos and paintings by Chris Moore also from Gollancz. One of my favourite covers, Confessions of a Crap Artist, by Moore was on the shelf, on the cover is a beanie and a Hugo award amongst other items; it’s a really nice cover.

This is a different cover for the same book.So the Penguin is an oddity. It’s also one of the finest covers for the book, I have bought a few of them over the years, and something about the wonderful James P. Keenan version of the Stars and Stripes is just perfect for this book. He has essentially replaced the stars with swastikas.

Penguin have been publishing this book a long time, and now it is their only title in the Dick section, although I know in the seventies, under their purple Penguin imprint they also published Time out of Joint and The Penultimate Truth and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

I suppose it is a book that has always had interesting covers, Max Ernst’s Petrified Forest from the 1965 edition, always struck me as interesting, although, in a way lacking relevance. The 1976 Penguin edition, with the rising sun on the horizon, a swastika in the foreground and some stylistic sixties imagery is nice, also with the purple penguin in the corner. The American edition, not the first with two flags, but rather a later paper back with the US coloured in with the two flags, for me, is a classic alternate history cover, it says it all, very quickly.

There is a ropey edition from the mid eighties, which obviously is trying to capitalise on the Bladerunner market, as it looks like a Ridley Scott scene which Penguin brought out, but I try to forget it.

So I was surprised to find that next to the Penguin 20th Century Classics version from 2001, that I like so much was a huge stack of the Penguin Essentials edition from 1999. Penguin is clever, they reissue books with a certain frequency, that allows them to get sometimes re categorized, or promoted or just refreshed. We don’t see the classic orange cover any more, although some styles once chosen are stuck to, and the Penguin Classics always seem to feature black as a constant, through many reissues and redesigns.

Last year they reissued the range of Penguin Popular classics, in plain green covers at £2 a throw, they didn’t last long at all, and I am unsure how popular they were with actual bookshops. The plain covers seem nicer than the previous tan and artwork ones.

In 2006 Penguin came up with the idea of My Cover, basically they worked with a number of bands and musicians, like Razorlight, and produce a cover that was blank, so that people could design their own. They then set up a website where people could post their covers, and there were some brilliant designs and ideas, and some stunning artwork. Some used current Penguin styles; others just came up with their own concept. I bought Animal Farm, and intend some day, to spring it on comic artists and ask for a sketch as a cover, although REALLY I would have liked Nineteen Eighty Four.

At the moment, one can buy five different version of Nineteen Eighty Four, five very different covers, including the essential Penguin version, and of course there is much more variety available in second hand shops, such is the way with this title. Red,white and blue cover of "The Man in the High Castle"

So it’s no surprise to see a variety of covers for The Man in the High Castle, it’s a revenue-making thing, I expect. What is surprising is just how shockingly crap this cover is in comparison, and how any buyer or marketeer could actually see the value to it.

Allow me to explain. The cover is plain white, with the title in silver, vertically to one side, with the ISBN and a quote about P.K. Dick from the Rolling Stone magazine along the left hand edge. Now there is a raised series of dots, brail like, but much bigger, that badly represent the land masses of the world.

Now, I just looked at this cover and wondered, why. What is being achieved? It’s just such a disappointing design. Where is the reference, the hook, is it the Rolling Stone quote, and a cool look, or is it just the pomposity of a marketeer who reckons the book will sell anyhow. Not so sure, as a stack were here.

I have a few of the books from this Penguin Essentials series, Hunter S Thompson’s Hells Angels, Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. They are OK covers, I prefer all the original versions, or at least earlier versions that I have seen from Penguin, but this Man in the High Castle is just so bland.

I am no art expert, photo manipulation, computer art work, design, painting in gauche or paint shop pro, I just like what I like, and I must admit, I know what I like, although I may not always engage with others about covers. I think this is because sometimes I miss subtle under meanings or just don’t truly understand or see what some people may find aesthetically pleasing. I like a cover to give me an insight into the book, or at least be something that I can say afterwards made sense or is a definite reference.

Yet another version of the same book.I don’t normally get animated about covers.

I went to Joe Haldeman his Forever War is another favourite, so I wondered how that was represented. There were three versions on offer. The first I saw was the really disappointing ‘rounded edge’ version. This seemed like some sort of ersatz edition, feeling cheap, and the plain red cover had grave stone crosses on it. It was a disappointing cover by Marc Adams. Especially compared to what was next to it, Peace and War, which is an omnibus edition, sports a Dominic Harman cover, and is just perfect, a space helmet broken visor, on a futuristic rifle stuck in the ground of some far flung planet. It’s an image that just seems inspired, very simple. Next to that though another good cover, by Chris Moore, of Forever War, under the SF masterworks line, from 1999, again it seems to capture so much that is science fictional, we have a whole scene, a besuited trooper, space craft flyby and futuristic architecture, and a dangerous hint of a smile. Amazingly all three covers emanate from, well Gollancz.

I browsed onward and there were now two whole shelves of Dune books, in a wide variety of styles, so I took my time looking at the covers. First to strike the eye was a hardback version, again part of the Gollancz SF masterworks series, with John Schoenherr cover, this was the cover that was used on Analog, in March 1965, the analog contained what would be the sixth instalment of the novel, and the magazine was no longer digest, but a big glossy and the artwork shows. This edition was hardback as well and just looked really nice.

Hodder had a version of Dune, as part of their great reads series, with DUNE spelled out in stars that had no meaning whatsoever to me at least, and was not by any artist but by a company called isitdesign is it pants I thought. Gollancz had a new trilogy edition, which was quite large, and had a small image in an elliptical shape by Robert Nichols, which wasn’t bad, and was complemented by the rest of the books in a similar style. This is a picture of the book cover for "Confessions of a Crap Artist" by Phillip K. Dick

The Gerry Grace cover, which is in adiamond was available from New English Library, but the old early eighties full wrap around of this version of the cover is long gone, although I felt that it was fairly decent that when the style of cover changed, it was replicated by the House Atreides series, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson also with Gerry Grace artwork in the diamond.

I was also taken again, by some Chris Moore covers; he has amongst others been working on some of the Prelude to Dune books, although some of the ships felt a tiny bit too digital.

In the end, I went back and picked up The Man in the High Castle, with the James P. Keenan cover, and was on my way, to Hyde Park. On the journey though I thought about how sometimes artists can be very prominent, or sometimes not at all.

For instance, I know from a previous search, that there is no mention of cover artists on the Futura editions of James White novels. The more recent Tor editions had artwork by John Berkey, who after a long career, passed away earlier this year, I really liked his covers, and they were a good choice as the final four books that James published in his Sector General series.

Tor also seems to have gotten it right with the omnibus editions of White’s work, with John Harris covers, adorning them. Although different from Berkey they shared a theme, and were spot on, if you do not know the style, Tor also used Harris on John Scalzi’s books.

I suppose that a cover is not essential, sometimes and this may sound really odd, the most unsettling thing can be a poor type print, but I do love it when a cover compliments, or actually reflects what one is about to read.

I wonder how much input the author genuinely has into the cover, and also whether some faceless design company gets paid the same as a well known Science Fiction artist.

I still had a decent book, and with a wonderful cover, so I for one have voted with my pocket.

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