The Random Reality of Illusion

I refer to the exciting moment when you glimpse the cover of a pocketbook for the first time. It’s all illusion of course, a depiction of a fictional reality, but some of these images are achingly evocative of the sort of thing my teenage self desperately wanted to be real. Such a cover always screamed “Buy me!” as far as I was concerned. I still come across covers like this now and then.

Recently, however, browsing the shelves of a science fiction book store, I was astonished how many covers featured “Bodice Ripper” voluptuous women in deep cleavage flouncy shirts, some of these well-endowed women wielding swords or ray guns, the rest sitting imperiously on a throne. It appears fantasy romance is exceedingly popular these days. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, at the WCSFA sponsored Fandom Bazaar I picked up 30 pocketbooks dating from the 1950s and 1960s, 20 of which were Ace Doubles, making for 50 covers in all. Books from my formative years! My criteria in selecting these particular books were the authors, as I wanted to fill in gaps in my personal library. Some I chose simply because they were Ace Doubles.

Now, perusing the covers of these books, I will pretend I’m looking at a pocketbook rack in a drugstore circa 1965 or so. Which have books with covers that demand I buy them? Which ones yell “Put me back in the rack!”?

Looking at the overall pattern, 16 covers feature spacecraft flying against a backdrop of an alien planet or star, flying through an alien atmosphere, flying over an alien landscape, or landing/sitting/taking from an alien planetary surface. Virtually every one of these cover images stir my sense of wonder.

All the rest feature the protagonist front and centre, with the backdrop scenery varying wildly, as does the desirability of these books, to judge by the covers.

Samples of covers that would force my hand into my wallet include:

– A gigantic dog-like killer robot for “The Killing Machine” by Jack Vance.

– A typical 1950s finned rocket ship escaping from a barren, crater-strewn  desert crawling with tanks, for “Battle on Venus” by William F. Temple.

– The pilot of a spacecraft staring at the huge galaxy with multiple red giants visible on his view screen. I’m pretty sure the galaxy in question is Andromeda, since the title of the book is “Recruit for Andromeda” by Milton Lesser.

– A frightened man in a spacesuit clutching his newly-ejected ejection seat as his spacecraft explodes behind him, for “The Genetic General” by Gordon. R. Dickson.

– And a cyborg pressed against his giant view screen as his rocket ship plunges into an alien sun, for “Entry to Elsewhen” by John Brunner.

Obviously, futuristic tech in a futuristic or alien setting was a huge turn on for me. Now for some covers that would have turned me off as a young lad and made me put it back on the rack:

– A stunned, puzzled looking man stands behind some sort of Hi-Fi stereo, meant to be a futuristic radio I suppose, which is releasing sparkly stuff reminiscent of the bubbles produced by the “Billion Bubble Machine” masquerading as an alien communication device in the movie “Robot Monster.” Too silly, in other words, unless I was aware of the virtues of the author, John Brunner, for his “Listen! The Stars!”

– Then there’s the shapely lady in a tight-fitting pink body suit plastered in fear against the wall as a pink sphere with eye stalks and tentacles totters on two tiny pink legs down the hall toward her. Also too silly for my taste. However the book is “Wandl the Invader” by Ray Cummings, a famous SF pulp writer of the thirties (and a reprint from that era). Well worth buying. But not if I didn’t know anything about the author.

– And worst of all, a Captain Kirk-like character in a typical Kirk firing-the-stun-gun pose, wearing a tight-fitting pink turtleneck shirt with tight pants, firing at a fleeing man in the foreground who is even more ludicrous in appearance because he sports a shaved head with a shallow Mohawk (for that “futuristic” look I guess), a red shirt, purple pants, and a flowing green cape. In the background stands a woman in a one-piece gold coloured bathing suit. This 1956 cover screams “I’m Stupid!” at me. It was for “Overlords From Space” by Joseph E. Kelleam.

From these three examples alone I deduce that any cover where the artist didn’t put much thought into it and was content to utilize standard or even substandard clichés struck me as shoddy and insulting. As a kid I would have automatically not even bothered picking these out of the rack in the first place.

Nowadays, even though I am 63 years of age with a fixed list of favourite authors and a vague comprehension of literary technique, covers still speak to me.

Covers are important.

As I understand it, in mainstream publishing it is the publisher who choses the artist and the cover. I know personally at least one author who was devastated and embarrassed by the cover placed on his first novel. I admit it is one that would have prevented me from buying the book had I not known the author. As a writer you sign the contract and take your chances.

Self-published authors appear to have the luxury of choosing (and paying) for their covers, but judging from what I’ve seen on the web, the majority of the work is rather generic with very little that is truly eye-catching.

I repeat: covers are important. Good luck with that.


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