Rifling through a vintage paperback store to see how artists' depictions of the future changed
The phrase "pulp sci-fi" conjures images of rockets and men with ray guns landing on distant planets. That wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but the classic images associated with science fiction literature usually refer to the Golden Age of sci-fi: the magazine-dominated epoch lasting roughly from the 1920s until the 1950s, when graphic artists like Frank R. Paul and Hugo Gernsback set the standard for speculative fiction cover art. Fun, simple, and very literal in its connection to the story that it accompanies, that kind of art was generally intended for a younger audience. But sci-fi cover illustrations evolved after the 1950s in near parallel with the other changes that transformed America in that time.
In New York City, it's became easier to delve into this evolution firsthand ever since the "bookstore at the end of the world," as Singularity & Co. calls itself, opened last year. The shop represents an earnest attempt by a handful of book lovers to preserve science fiction and fantasy novels by tracking down rare physical copies and then digitizing them. I asked them to give me an overview of how sci-fi cover art has morphed over the decades, and they obliged. "To understand a cover that changes, to distill a conceit, you have to ask about its relationship with the time and place," the shop's Jamil Moen told me. Of course, for many of the genre's biggest fans, the appeal of these images isn't entirely in their social and historical implications. As Ash Kalb, a Singularity & Co. co-founder and graduate of Columbia University Law School, said simply when explaining his tastes, "I like spaceships."
In the early days of pulp publication, the artwork provided a literal depiction of the stories' content. Take the famous 1927 Frank R. Paul Amazing Stories "War of the Worlds" cover (it, and many of the other covers I'll mention, is in the slideshow below). The cover for a tale about Martians attacking the Earth shows... well, Martians attacking the Earth. These early sci-fi themes seem easily enough articulated: a general sense of anxiety about technology and space paired with a fear of invasion by The Other. After World War II, the anxiousness and fear remained, magnified by threat of nuclear conflict. Directed towards the Baby Boomers, who were already becoming a formidably large market, material similar to pre-war science fiction was repackaged in a fresh way for its young audiences. As the author and sci-fi expert Robert Horton said in an interview, "...there was a giant new youth culture that emerged in the 1950s, and those kids wanted different kinds of stories, just for them."
The 1960s marked a new, more-mature era for sci-fi novel art. Then-director of Penguin Books' cover art, Germano Facetti, moved away from cartoonish images of rocket ships and space men by using famous modern artists to convey a mood or tone rather than a literal rendering of the plot. In doing so, he helped legitimize a genre that was still struggling for seriousness and opened the door for even further experimentation. By using images by established artists like Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Wassily Kandinsky, Facetti was visually connecting these genre novels to a tradition of Western avant garde and high culture. You might not learn anything about the plot of the book from looking at the cover, but at least you would feel smart. These modernist '60s covers conveyed seriousness but sacrificed earlier eras' humor and sense of juvenile wonder. That sterility wouldn't last past the middle of the decade.
Still as abstract as their High Art predecessors, the late '60s novel covers playfully incorporated counterculture elements that would have been unthinkable even 10 years earlier. Take the Robert Heinlein book The Puppet Masters: In its second, 1963, Signet edition, the cover shows a dark but still cartoonish rendering of what looks like a giant space craft. The image is somewhere between the juvenile magazine illustration of the '50s and the abstractions of the early '60s. But by the third edition, in 1970, the cover consists of a partially nude woman standing jauntily in front of two naked men in the foreground, while the background appears to be a tie-dyed "fabric" looking pattern. It's abstract, artistic, playful, sexual, and edgy. It's also confident, almost to the point of being naive: a perfect cover to encapsulate hippiedom's apex in the moment just before Watergate.
There are obvious parallels between the progression of sci-fi cover art and album cover art. After hitting a crescendo of sorts during the heyday of the counterculture, both became less relevant or at least less experimental in the following years. Digitization eventually pushed cover art closer to irrelevance, and as Betsy Morais has written, possibly killed it altogether. But just because the art isn't on the cover of books anymore doesn't mean that it's dead. As Moen pointed out to me, sci-fi influenced visual art has become so ingrained in our culture that, unlike other types of cover art, we might actually be even more exposed to it now. Think of visually stunning science-fiction movies or high fashion. We might just have to live with the fact that sci-fi cover art has detached itself from the text, surviving by diffusing itself through our entire culture. That seems like an appropriate fate for a genre so preoccupied with big ideas and radical change.