Wonders and Visions: A Visual History of Science Fiction

By Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight

A sumptuous history of science fiction told through its iconic covers.

H G Wells's first published novel, The Time Machine (1895), effectively invented the time-travel genre, and remains one of the most famous of all science fiction titles. Of course, when William Heinemann took the project on they had no idea it was going to prove as enduring, and their original cover, with a low-key line drawing (by Ben Hardy) of the ‘sphinx’ Wells's time traveller encounters in the year 802,701 could hardly be more low-key. Since then it has been reprinted in hundreds of different formats, and a wide range of designers and artists have faced the task of covering the story.

Here's a Brazilian edition from c. 1930; artist unknown:

This illustrates the very beginning of the first chapter, where the time traveller is explaining his invention to his friends. Given the exotic wonders the later sections of the tale contain, it's puzzling that the publishers would go for something so mundane.

The success of the 1960 movie adaptation, directed by George Pal, meant that, for many readers, visual imagery from the film tended to overwrite the pictures generated by their own imaginations. It's a perennial problem with film adaptation, and cover artists have the choice of either collaborating with this visual hegemony or challenging it.

It doesn't surprise us that this 1980 sequel, written as it was by director George Pal himself (in collaboration with screenwriter Joe Morhaim), reproduces the machine as visualised in the movie. Indeed, the novel is a treatment of a story-idea Pal and Morhaim had tried, and failed, to get made into a movie: Christopher Jones, an orphan, is born in the Blitz with no knowledge of his parents and raised in the US. You will be no more surprised than I was to discover that his Dad (of course) is Wells's Time Traveller, and his mother Weena; and that they both died under the 1940 bombs. Christopher builds his own upgraded Time Machine and hurries millions of years into the future where father is helping humanity in a war against giant insects. "He knew then he must follow his father into the frightening worlds of the future," the back-cover blurb tells us: "He must warn them not to return. They must not die...though it meant, perhaps, that he might never live!" The resulting novel is best described by the two words very bad. That said, it does not have the worst cover of any unauthorised sequel to Wells's Time Machine ever published. That honour surely belongs to the following Pablo Gomez opus:

That hurts my eyes. Think what it would do to the Morlocks! That said, Burt Libe's 2005 sequel runs it close, cover-design-wise.

Self-publication, and the deprofessionalisation it enables where book design is concerned, has certainly lowered the bar. Commercial presses would never greenlight something so clumsily made.

Well ... not many presses, at any rate. (And to be fair to that Scholastic Press 1969 edition of the novel, there was a higher tolerance for psychedelia in the sixties. Although what's stopping the traveller falling through the hole in the base of his machine, why there's a giant multicoloured spoon behind him, and to whom he is (it seems) surrendering, are questions that could puzzle the best minds. This Bengali translation of the title has a pretty good cover, although the publisher's book-reading yellow smiley logo looks rather out of place in among that angry Morlock mob.

Finally the poster to Robert Lloyd Parry's dramatic adaptation.

A nice design, that; but it also brings out a detail about which the novella is explicit (the diminutive size of the Eloi: they are only four-feet tall) that in turn casts a rather queasy light upon what is implied in Wells' text, and made manifest in many of the sequels: that the Time Traveler has sex with the literally child-sized Weena. Urgh.

John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids manages the impressive task of making vegetables scary. It requires a degree of contrivance, but Wyndham pulls it off. First he posits bioengineered carnivorous plants that can walk about on three stumpy legs and sting their prey with whip-like tentacles. Then he adds-in a second disaster: a spectacular meteor shower, which may actually be an orbiting weapons platform, that blinds all who watch it, leaving whole populations helpless before the perambulating plants. The result is one of the masterpieces of British ‘cosy catastophe’ science fiction. The original Michael Joseph cover by Welsh artist John Griffiths imagines the triffid as a sort of giraffe-shaped artichoke on tuberous legs. Since ‘gigantic artichokes’ rather undersells how tense and scary Wyndham's novel actually is, Griffiths has superimposed spiraling green lines to convey alarm. Still, his conception of triffid was iconic enough for it to be copied across to the 1961 Penguin first paperback edition with only minimal changes:

There's something about the neatness of Penguin's orange-and-white livery that adds menace to the clear-line drawing of the plant in the middle; an effect enhanced by the way the penguin logo itself appears to be giving us an alarmed side-eye at the proximity of the monster. The cover art for the first US edition (1951), by New York artist Whitney Bender, reworks the British cover by adding turmoil in the sky:

The splendour of the rendering of city and sky rather dwarfs the poor little triffid, who looks more like an overgrown lampost than a monster. Bender was in his day a respected painter for whom book illustration was a sideline, and there's something a little too stately about his terror-plants. By way of contrast this Earle Bergey cover for the ‘Popular Library’ paperback of 1959 is much more kinetic and vivid, even if it relies for its effect on the titillation of partially undressing the books' heroine:

‘Revolt ...’ was clearly considered a grabbier title than ‘Day ...’, although that shout line is a little strange. Hard to read it, now, without inserting a tentative pause between the first and second words. ‘An  ... unusual science fiction novel’. Still the triffid itself is painted with impressive force and dynamism.

Quick select rewards