Monday 20 October 2008

Paper Space Opera!

The last time I talked about Gollancz rebadging a bunch of books, I wasn't that kind. When I first saw their next attempt at the same, I felt similarly. Over the last few days, though, the covers have grown on me (with some reservations).

They are the 10 titles in Gollancz's 'Totally Space Opera' series, a horrible title for a range bringing together some of the big-ideas/huge-distances/great-swathes-of-time classics of science-fiction. All of the books utilise simple, mostly abstract black-and-white imagery which I assume must be computer-generated. Nicely, they're all variations on objects, structures or patterns made of paper--very old technology representing big, futuristic ideas.

(UPDATE: The designer is Sanda Zahirovic, a painfully young and talented designer who also has a blog here.)

First is Larry Niven's Ringworld, set on a "planet" that's a vast ring. It's been a while since I read it, so maybe this structure does appear in the book, but it does seem a bit of a misfire.

Stapledon's Last and First Men is not a conventional novel, but a survey of the next two billion years of human evolution. This cover is rather nice, though it does also suggest it might be a gay romance.

Harrison's Centauri Device is about a quest for a vastly powerful futuristic weapon. Nice cover idea, well executed.

Anderson's Tau Zero is an adventures set on a spaceship which is stuck going faster and faster and faster towards light speed. Again, a nice and simple cover idea.

I haven't read Century Rain, a time-travel/global-warming tale, nor have I read Eternal Light, so I'm not sure about either of these. The McAuley cover does appeal, though.

Ilium takes its inspiration from Homer, and covers vast eras of time. Another appealing, simple cover.

Bear's Eon is a great, dark book, about the end of the world and a bizarre space artifact containing what may be a tunnel of infinite length. You can see what they were going for here, but it's a bit dull and a little bit like somebody's first attempt at using a Photoshop filter.

I've read Stone, one of Adam Roberts' good books before he pissed away his talent on inferior ideas and endless unfunny parody books (Star Warped, The Va Dinci Cod, The Soddit, The McAtrix, et-fucking-cetera), but I can't remember what this cover might be a reference to. Looks good, though. (As an aside, another Roberts novel, Snow, would have benefited from a cover like these, as the concepts of 'whiteness' and 'blankness' and empty paper are at its core. It was still a dud book, though.)

Finally, the Clarke classic of "big dumb object" science-fiction. Again, you can see what they were going for, and it works when you see all of the books in the range together and you get the paper theme, but on its own it's pretty dull.

So that's a qualified thumbs-up for the covers, and a big one for the idea. It's always nice to see science-fiction covers getting an unusual treatment.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad I found your blog! I'm a firm believer in judging a book by its cover. Is it alright if I post some of these alongside my book reviews?

JRSM said...

Hi, Tuesday: please do. I'm just wandering happily around your blog now--lovely stuff!

Anonymous said...

great blog! great covers!

JRSM said...

Thank you. I'm just now looking at your won site--wow! Some amazing things there.

Anonymous said...

Personal response - ghastly covers, another bad misfire from Gollancz. However, perhaps I ain't the target market. The big question for me is always, always this: What response are these covers trying to generate? That isn't immediately clear.

Yeah, OK, they stop you in your tracks - good job there, very different from most of what's around (albeit similar to some of the b&w designs in the last Gollancz rejacketing - though they didn't have title or author on the front). Get someone to pick the book up and you've a higher chance of making that sale - if they never pick it up, they ain't buying it. Of course, many SF fans know what they are looking for, being *into* their genre, and the cover doesn't make a blind bit of difference to a sale.

Cover impact assumes these books will be face out. After six weeks in store, they won't be, period. Perhaps the publisher only needs them to sell for that long.

So, perhaps they are to attract new readers? Possibly. But who - young or old, new non-sf readers or people familiar with the genre? If they are non-sf fans they might not be perusing the specialist shelves. Perhaps they think that these modern, designed covers will get the books put at the front of the store, and get more pick-up that way? That simply won't happen - bookstore people know these are SF, and will file them accordingly: at the back, next to the painted spaceship covers.

People familiar with the genre? Some of them, I suspect, will be confused by the imagery on the covers, which doesn't represent the content of the books. Ringworld... a paper star? Scratches head... walks away... doesn't buy book.

I think these books are atcually aimed at people who sort of like SF, but are embarrassed by this prediliction, because they don't actually think it is cool to read SF, and cool is important to them.

They want any book they are seen reading to be trendier than garish spaceships and heroic poses. They'll not baulk at buying a computer game with a garish cover, because they don't brandish that package in public. Comicbooks are more of a problem, but in my experience they are consumed in bedrooms rather than the street, often read on arrival and filed, then re-read as a story arc every so often. But these books could be a modern New York-set piece of literature, seriously on-trend edge of current cool. You just hope none of their friends ask them what the book is actually about. Ah.

Is this a big market sector in the UK? Could be, and judging by the snootiness some of the Brit commentators show towards properly in-genre writing they seem truly embarrassed to be seen reading anything SF that might actually involve space, the future, technology, starships, aliens, etc etc. It'll interesting to see if these sell - and if they do, expect plenty of imitations from clueless copycat publishers to follow.

JRSM said...

Stefan: much of what you say is hard to argue with. I haven't seen the spines yet, but you're right about most of the impact relying on the books being seen (1) all together, and (2) face-out for their impact to really work. And I think you're spot-on about the snobbery/embarrassment about being seen in public with "obvious" science-fiction--you only have to see how 'mainstream' writers (and their publishers) who dabble in SF bend over backwards to pretend they haven't dirtied their hands with (the horror!) genre writing (Jeanette Winterson being a particularly egregious recent example). Dave Langford's said all this more articulately than me, but then you seem to work in the field, so I guess you know what I'm talking about better than I do. Thanks, by the way, for such a detailed and thoughtful comment.

Ian Koviak said...

it's a brilliant and elegant idea and execution. If anything, after all that has been said, these are beautiful to behold and presumed cheap to produce.

JRSM said...

They've really grown on me a lot--I still don't know who designed them (they don't come out until Feb), but I really like them now. A subtle, simple idea.

Anonymous said...

The designer is Sanda! Thank you for posting them on your blog. Really interesting comments.

JRSM said...

Hi, Sanda: trhanks for stopping by and letting me know--I'll amend the post to give you your credit!

mc said...

The appeal of the genre is cool ideas, even more than good writing sometimes. A sophisticated cover design rather than a dumb fantasy/romance illustration suggests that there is more to these books than pulp-heroics.

JRSM said...

That's a very good description of why these work. Now that I've finally seen these books in the real world, I like them even more.