Right or wrong, book covers set the tone for a novel, determining its marketing niche and its target audience. W.H. Chong is all too aware of this, as he has been designing book covers since 1990 and has won several awards for his designs for books in several different genres, including young adult, classics, and crime novels. But Chong himself has a soft spot for science fiction, and in a new interview with Spook Magazine
, he named the seven best book covers in classic science fiction.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed is a utopian novel which follows twin inhabited planets, one of which runs on a communist economy that paralleled the Soviet Union and other other on a capitalist economy and a patriarchal social system, similar to the United States. It was recognized by the literary community to an unusual degree for a sci-fi novel as a result of its sociopolitical themes, winning Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and garnering a nomination for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
The Dispossessed is a story of rivalry about 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. 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 Friedrick, 'Wanderer [Above the] Sea of Fog.'
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first feminist science fiction novels, and is considered to be the most famous examination of sexless androgyny in science fiction. It takes place on a planet called Winter, on which the inhabitants spend most of their time as ambisexual "potentials" and only take on sexual characteristics once a month. Le Guin referred to the book as a "thought experiment" about what the world would look like without the labels of "men" and "women."
The cover for the The Left Hand of Darkness is cold but also warm at the same time. You are moving into a very cold place, but you know that there is something warm in the guise of the city in the background. That is why it is such an attractive cover. It evokes the same feeling you have when you are at the end of a long journey and you are driving through a dark night and you see that glowing window in the farmhouse.
Nightfall One by Isaac Asimov
Nightfall One is the first volume in a two-part collection of short stories, centered around the eponymous short story, Nightfall. Nightfall takes place on the fictional planet Lagash, which is at the heart of a solar system with six suns, and as a result has never experienced total darkness or seen the other stars in the sky. John W. Campbell asked Asimov to write the story in response to a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation, "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!" Campbell's counterpoint was: "I think men would go mad." The story was voted the best science fiction story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers' Guild of America, and was later adapted into a novel.
It is an amazing piece of work. It's sort of a bar relief collage with painting and clay or plaster scene. It is actually three-dimensional with a painting stuck at the top of the man's head, so you have a vaguely bucolic village night scene and then you have this wild totemic, primitive face. It is part savage, part childlike. It obviously draws from surrealism, but it's got no place in the science fiction camp. It's kind of art really. It seems to me to be more about imagination.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Set in a futuristic dystopia following a Second Civil War, Flow My Tears depicts the United States as a police state that encourages hedonistic behaviors such as recreational drug use and underage sex. It follows a genetically modified television and music star who wakes up in a world in which he has never existed. Unlike his previous choices, Flow My Tears is a much more straightforward sci-fi novel that follows genre conventions, which is reflected by the more prosaic cover:
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is a perfect genre cover. In this case it is also quite literal, most often they aren't. It literally has a policeman on the cover, even though he is not crying. The use of genre conventions is to immediately send you into this space.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
The Man in the High Castle, which is about to become a highly anticipated Amazon web series
, is an alternate history novel in which Germany and the Axis powers won the Second World War. It explores America as ruled by a totalitarian German force, indirectly discussing the political and philosophical ramifications of fascism. This might be my favorite cover, as it's the most elegant, but Chong includes it begrudgingly:
This is an interesting cover because it is Dick being pitched as literature. I guess the publisher wanted to expand the audience or they wanted to raise his class level. I don't entirely approve of it because science fiction is supposed to be about death to the literary world. That said it is a really affective [sic?], simple but clever design. I point it out to you because it is not something that is responding to the genre conventions. It is a science fiction genre book that is not trying to capture the science fiction genre audience.
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
The Fountains of Paradise is a Nebula Award-winning novel about the construction of a space elevator. In addition to its recognition as a superior work of literature, it was also praised for its revolutionary forward-thinking depiction of technology, as scientists are still attempting to build a real-life space elevator
It has a very romantic feeling, which is not dissimilar to the Left Hand of Darkness cover, where you have a dark space and you have some alluring destination, which is inside the head. There is a sense of foreboding. You know that any human figure would be a very small thing. In others words, there is a big cosmic environment, which is what you want science fiction to do with you. And then you turn to the back cover and you think, 'Oh My God', because that is actually the whole point of the story. It is a fictional depiction of a geo stationary elevators, an idea first thought up in real life by a Russian scientist and Arthur C Clarke used it in this book.
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Burning Chrome is a short story collection by William Gibson, most of which take place in his shared cyberpunk setting, Sprawl. It includes acclaimed stories such as Johnny Mnemonic, which was adapted into a film starring Keanu Reeves, The Gernsback Continuum, which was adapted into a short TV movie on Channel 4, and Hinterlands, which inspired a comic book adaptation.
The cover is a painting by Chris Moore, one of the great science fiction illustrators of that period. One of the marvellous things about it is it a science fiction cover that is doing other things in addition to what a science fiction cover usually does, in terms of having space ships and future architecture, etc. What he has done is focus right down onto one single figure, a head, and made it science fictional in itself, which is the kind of reflection of the innovation William Gibson himself brought to his stories. It is a very clear and apt amalgamation of style and content. The figure on the cover, which is not the actual way the woman looks in the story, works in every possible way. And if course you get the whole chrome dome thing. It is quite wonderful.