Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sci-fi Covers From My Youth

There were certain books in the boxes my dad kept in the attic that always caught my eye. These covers still hold places of honor burned deeply in to my hippocampus. Some are realistic, others impressionistic. Whichever they are, they helped form my vision of what sci-fi should look like. The aliens, spaceships, and heroes of my imagination had their roots in cover art as much as in the words behind the covers. Here are some of my favorite.

With barely a hint of what's inside other than something weird and mysterious, these three covers by Don Punchatz for the original Foundation trilogy were more than enough to entice me to pick them up. More than now, as a kid I picked up books based on cover art. The stark two-color schemes and cartoonish characters made these books look strange and alien - exactly what 12-year old me wanted in science fiction. I haven't read these in nearly twenty years, but I remember the clunky dialogue and outdated science did nothing to detract from their appeal. Asimov's idea - history as manipulatable math problems - is still big and just ridiculous enough to be cool. One reason I read so little modern sci-fi is that it just seems small.

Kelly Freas was one of the greatest sci-fi artists of all time. Just follow this link and look at his work to see what I mean. Lots of my dad's books had wilder Freas covers, but these are the ones I remember most.

The austere looking on Soldier, Ask Not with star and starship behind his shoulder still strikes me as the perfect mil-sci-fi picture. Dressed in utilitarian black uniform, dark circles under his eyes, and a brooding look on his face, he seems resigned to whatever calamitous event he's about to suffer. I didn't read the book for ages even though I'd read Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake years earlier. It's been ages, which I suspect haven't been overly kind to the series, but Soldier was the best volume.

There's no doubt the man on the cover of Tactics is a hero, a man of destiny. Dickson's character, Cletus Grahame, is exactly that. A military genius, he lays the groundwork for the mercenaries of the planet Dorsai to become something other than just dedicated fighters, but instead galactic super soldiers, bred from the womb to combat perfection. Even thirty-five years ago, I thought the book was a too pat and Grahame's ideas worked way too well too often. Man, though, Freas' painting is awe-inspiring, like some New Soviet man or Fascist hero from the thirties, daring the future to thwart him. Probably exactly NOT what Dickson wanted you to think.

Dune and Dune Messiah came out in the sixties, so they were already in the attic by the time at eight or nine when I started rooting around for books to read. Children of Dune came out when I was ten and it must have been huge, because I even saw it in the spinners at the A&P. Three different artists, three different styles, all amazing, all etched in my brain.

John Schoenherr's cover of Dune imprinted itself on me only after I read the book. Which I did in a single, long day when I fourteen or so, the first time I'd ever done something like that. From practically the first page, Herbert's eco-themed space opera and its teenaged hero, grabbed and shook me hard. I still hold that it's one of the greatest works of sci-fi and that it didn't need any sequels.

I probably reread it three or four times before reading Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in my thirties. Once I read the book, that's the cover stuck with me. Under a huge outcrop, a small string of Fremen cross the endless desert of Arrakis. There are other covers, even one to by Vincent Di Fate to match Children, but whenever I think of the Arrakis, it looks like that.

Dune Messiah's  cover by Jack Gaughan is just freaky. I think it's supposed to be the tomb where Paul Atreides buried the skull of his father, Duke Leto,  but there was no way for me to know that before reading it. Instead, it was just some bizarre, giant head rising out of the sands for no apparent reason. I guess I just assumed it was some sort of spooky memorial to Paul. It's a tremendously striking cover that would never pass muster with these days.

Taking a much more realistic approach, Vincent Di Fate applied his sharp-edged style for the cover of Children of Dune. Pretty much mimicking the orange tones of Gaughan's art, Di Fate's Arrakis looks even harsher than Shoenherr's vision of Dune. Thinking back, probably because of its ubiquity, this is one of the first sci-fi covers I can really remember seeing. Di Fate's spaceships decorate tons of books I've read over the decades and I love their long, clean lines. While there isn't one of his iconic rockets here, on Children,  the red sky and skyline, composed of razor-sharp lines, feels pure sci-fi to me, and I love it. As much as I like wild cover art like on the Foundation books, I also like sleek realism.

Not only do I not like many modern covers, but reading mostly e-book, I don't even really see covers much anymore. Just for a second after I open the kindle app and before I click open the book file, and then it's gone. New books don't sit on my desk, cover face up burning its artist's impression of them on me. Since I don't have space for more physical books, I guess it's okay. As someone raised on the work of artists like Kelly Freas and Richard Powers it's just one more part of my past lost.


  1. Those Don Punchatz Foundation covers are so rad. It does for big ideas what Frazetta does for romance and action. I go to Barnes & Nobel and everything just looks the same: some fantasy or sci-fi hipster standing around looking cool. It's all pose and image with nothing at stake.

    1. I agree with you about the Foundation covers specifically and on covers in general. When I think Foundation, those covers are what appear in my mental eye.

    2. @jeffro - They really are. The best deviation you get from the photoshop nonsense these days are the graphic designs of someone like Chip Kidd. As to pose/image with nothing at stake, sadly that's appropriate for dull contents.

      @M Po - I wish I still had these, but due to age and use they are no more.