Michael Joseph editor Emad Ahktar takes a trip to the Penguin archive to rediscover some of the best sci-fi covers from the past 80 years. 

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There may be no clearer way of illuminating how much has changed in the last 80 years than looking at the progression of science fiction.

The last century has been one of unprecedented technological progress, and the content of the stories in this genre and the way in which their cover design has reflected each artistic and cultural phase of the last eighty years might be one of the purer ways of distilling the constant shifts in our culture and preoccupations.

Penguin has published some of the best science fiction from the very beginning of its history, with Samuel Butler’s Victorian Utopian satire Erewhon (anyone good at anagrams?), Olaf Stapledon’s visionary ‘near and far future’ epic Last and First Men and Jack London’s socialist dystopian The Iron Heel all incorporating the now world-famous tri-band design.

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Allow me some sweeping generalisations – and I won’t be surprised if you disagree – that the genre moves through the doomed utopianism of the 1930s and early ’40s, into a decade of well-intentioned paranoia in the ’50s where the year 1999 is shorthand for the unfathomably futuristic, an era of ground-breaking experimentalism in the ’60s and ’70s (even if only by putting ‘bitter coatings on sweet pills’), which gave way to the 1980s where tech-fetishism and corporate or political conspiracies seem to me to be a dominant thread.

The cover art of these (yes, brutally reductive) periods, meanwhile, moved from text-led, grid-locked blocks into the more fluid, integrated design principles of the 1960s and 1970s, which we can all agree are still probably better than most book covers these days. The designs took their inspiration from surrealism, expressionism, psychedelia and pop art, charting science fiction’s emergence as a literary force while embracing the spirit of its pulp excess.

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And of course it wasn’t just art and literature that they were in conversation with. Check out the cover of Software by Rudy Rucker – is it any coincidence this jacket was published two years after David Cronenberg’s Videodrome? And would the possibly ecstatic, possibly terrified monkey on the front of Apeman, Spaceman have even been there if Kubrick hadn’t adapted Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? When so many covers were sticking to the usual visual grammar of book design, it was science fiction that led the way and consistently broke out to start a dialogue between mediums that were telling the same kinds of stories.

The designers, illustrators, painters, artists – Alan Aldridge, David Pelham, Peter Lord, Adrian Chesterman, Franco Grignani, to name just a few of the most prolific – were working these mind-blowing creations up from scratch in the days before Photoshop and digital tools changed the game.

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I mean, imagine sitting in the cover meeting discussing Midnight At The Well Of Souls by Jack L. Chalker. Someone would actually have asked for a drawing of a velociraptor riding a distressed sand-dolphin (which, logistically, needs to have a saddle) through an alien desert while – so far off in the distance that it might as well not be there (and I’m not sure you can even make it out online) – a group of nudists worship what appears to be a giant moose. For example. It’s like someone has removed the canned laughter track from this and I have no idea now, years later, how funny it’s meant to be. It is, I’m reliably informed, very true to the book.

A few more highlights for me:

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​​The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus cover with the eyeball sundae – not many things make me equally disgusted and peckish but this cover strikes that unique balance.​

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​The outer space perfume ad of Search The Sky never fails to remind me how I’ll never be that cool.​

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​And the vibrant, grotesque, so-good-and-downright-weird-I-want-to-hang-it-on-my-wall cover of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!​

There’s too many to really capture all the jaw-dropping, often awe-inspiring, sometimes gloriously silly joy of these old covers. So check out the collection yourself, it’s out now – and we’d love to know which are your favourites.

For more bookish musings follow Emad on Twitter @akhtron. The Penguin Science Fiction postcards are out now.

This piece was first featured on summerofpenguin.com, a month-long celebration of stories and ideas on the London Underground’s WIFI network in partnership with TFL and Virgin Media. So if you happen to be travelling by Tube this summer, be sure to read a story on us.

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