Saturday, August 08, 2009

Mark Plummer, Croydon, Surrey, U.K.

Ironically, I read James Bacon's somewhat breathless perambulation through the science fiction section of Foyles [Book Store] and the associated paean of praise for The Man in the High Castle shortly after I got back from the British Eastercon (co-chaired by James) where a panel comparing old and new SF found that of the three older titles under consideration TMITHC was the least resilient to a twenty-first century reading.

I never used to be that enthusiastic or troubled by
book cover artwork or design, or at least that's what I would always have said -- but if I think about it for more than a moment I can see that of course cover artwork has been an important influence. Even now, I'm significantly more likely to buy an old fifties paperback with a Richard Powers cover than a comparable edition decorated by some other artist. My perception of science fiction as an adult literary form was absolutely shaped by the Chris Foss spaceships which seemed to dominate UK SF paperback covers in my formative years, long before I ever read any of those books and learned that the covers weren't necessarily even faintly associated with the texts. The Penguin branding was also an important influence on my reading in my late teens -- this would be in the early eighties -- with the simple, clean Ionicus covers for P G Wodehouse and the almost childlike bright colours of Christopher Corr that adorned George Orwell. I could never understand why Penguin abandoned those distinctive orange spines. It seemed such an odd decision given that it was such a strong brand. Penguin books were virtually a genre in themselves, something that I'm sure contributed to my long-standing sense that John Wyndham isn't really an SF writer because he's so obviously a Penguin writer.

The variety of covers on different editions of TMITHC are, as James speculates, "a revenue-making thing" in as much as that's the purpose of all book covers: to sell the book. Presumably if you or I or James want to buy a copy of TMITHC in a real-life bookshop, and so long as that bookshop files its stock in some sort of coherent fashion (which, I should add, once upon a time Foyles didn't, at least from a customer viewpoint), then it doesn't much matter what's on the cover when it comes to getting us to pick the book up. The cover art or design is there to encourage somebody to pick up the book who's never heard of it or possibly even of its author. There's a perception that different
cover designs potentially reach different target audiences, hence the "rounded edge" version of The Forever War that James mentions, which was, I believe, part of an attempt to market a number of solidly genre titles to a mainstream audience by stripping out the external genre trappings in favour of (hopefully striking) simple images and an unconventional profile -- although playing with the shape of the book is itself a quintessentially science-fictional piece of imagery. Gollancz have tried a number of initiatives over here in the last few years, most recently with a series of "Future Classics" which were notable for innovative design and putting neither author nor title on the front cover, and now a series of space operas in monochrome livery which eschew any trace of a space ship. I've no idea whether it works, but the battle seems to be to get the bookshops to file such editions somewhere other than in the "science fiction and fantasy" section and my personal experience is that it's been a lost fight -- setting aside one Croydon bookstore which may be undertaking an experiment of its own by filing Chris Priest's The Separation in its "History" section.

I had a look online at the plain white cover for the Penguin Essentials TMITHC James so decries, and sure, I don't think it's as evocative as the swastikas-and-stripes version of the
Penguin Classic you use to illustrate the article. It is in fact damn near invisible on Penguin's own webpage. But I can see how the minimalist design would stand out in a bookshop and Dick's name combined with a pull quote from Rolling Stone probably does have an appeal for a market segment that wouldn't have bought the Bladerunner-esque edition of the same book from the mid-Eighties or the similarly overtly science-fictional Chris Moore-adorned Roc paperback from the nineties that I have in front of me right now.

The same thing is presumably at play with the various editions of Dune that are currently available. For James, the classic
Schoenherr cover on the Gollancz SF Masterwork clearly works whereas the Hodder paperback by isitdesign doesn't, and if I didn't already have the book and wanted a copy I'd go for the former too. But the Schoenherr does look old-fashioned which isn't a problem for me -- quite the opposite, in fact -- and the more contemporary starry image used by Hodder may work for an audience less immersed in classic genre imagery.

I generally prefer Schoenherr's interior line art to his covers, but his Dune paintings are his best work, all-time. Great artist -- a shame he won but one Hugo, but at least he got that.

And in answer to James question, "I wonder how much input the author genuinely has into the cover," I'd refer him to Charles Stross's blog post at:

which was provoked by the US hardcover edition of
Saturn's Children. If you've seen that book you'll understand why Charlie felt moved to comment on the matter.

I was "moved" by that cover, too -- and by the book itself, which I call "Good Friday".


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