Sunday, December 23, 2007

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

There is no field in publishing more cursed with lame book covers than that of fantasy and science fiction. Even romance novels, for all the lame romance covers in the world, usually succeed in advertising the basics of their contents on their covers with some modicum of dignity (hot, pulsating dignity, but dignity nonetheless). But in the realm of the dreaded fantasy / sci-fi section at Borders, crap is king. And even the best covers are doomed to obsolescence, as they'll only be undone in a few years when the publishers cycle through the backlist and put new covers and trade designs across everything. The "golden age" of sci-fi book covers is undoubtedly the 1960s, but unfortunately you rarely see those classic covers designs used anymore. Big-name authors usually have unified trade-dresses that may look nice spine-out on a shelf but which minimize the effect of art in favor of design. (And, frankly, current series design for authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick is abominable.)

This isn't even touching on the biggest bane of the book-cover world, movie covers . . . for about a decade there the only version of Starship Troopers you could find in the store had the 1997 movie poster on the cover. You still can't find a copy of Solaris without George Clooney on the cover (obviously they overestimated the demand for movie tie-ins for an art-house Stephen Soderbergh remake of a Russian film adaption of a highly cerebral Polish science fiction novel. I hate movie covers on principle, as I think most people do.) Anyway, the following covers have been lovingly filched from this site.

By John Stevens. This is the current paperback cover for Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first volume in the "Riverworld" saga. This is simply dreadful - while it gets points for attempting to accurately the river valley's dimensions (still kind of cramped), the presence of gigantic orange colored corpses floating through the picture is a poor choice. For the record, there are no gigantic floating orange corpses in the book. And the way the lettering of the title is obscured by what appears to be an attempt at a waterfall design . . . less said of that the better. This would look great airbrushed on the side of a van, however.

By Don Ivan Punchatz. This is the image from the unified paperback trade dress used for the 80s printings. Slightly better, because it's at least not incredibly repulsive. But an especially poor transliteration of Riverworld's physical dimensions nonetheless. The fact that the characters on the cover appear in period clothing is distracting, since there was no way to manufacture culture-specific textiles on the planet, and also, the men should not have any facial hair. And the anonymous Greek dude there is apparently chilling with a male prostitute straight out of the Tenderloin circa 1975 - not that Greek dudes didn't love other dudes, but an odd choice for a mass market paperback book cover nonetheless. Probably not what they intended?

By Bob Eggleton. Mucus! Plus, also, things that don't exist in the book, like giant yellow half-dome brain things.

Here, Socrates and Joe Dallesandro seem to be chilling at midnight. You can sort of hear "Everybody's Talking" in the background.

By Keith Scaife. This is probably the best of the bunch, in that it is 1) a competent painting that seems to have been made by someone with functioning eyes, 2) well-designed with an eye towards not crowding out the text elements and 3) a fairly accurate representation of the physical dimensions of the Riverworld. I'd quibble, again, that the mountains would probably need to be at least twice as high to be in proportion with the river, but it could work if the relative sizes of the boat and grailstones are exaggerated. This is pretty much exactly how I've always envisioned the river valley.

By Joe Petagno. A striking central image but, um, just not a very good one, or a particularly accurate representation of the scene in question. Why so much icky green?

By Vincent Di Fate. And this 1980 book cover design succeeds in showing us things that don't exist in any of the Riverworld books. I mean, is this supposed to be the Grail Tower at the north pole (which isn't even described until the second book)? Why is Big Brother watching over bodies as they are inexplicably being levitated into outer space? And what the heck are those other weird buildings?

By Patrick Woodroffe. This seems to be a metaphorical representation of events and settings that, while appearing in the book, do not appear in anything resembling this fashion. This is an incredibly ugly cover and would probably make most people recoil in horror from having anything to do with the contents of this book. Also, while nudity is pretty much omnipresent in thes series, and it's good to see the cover acknowledge that fact, they could have probably picked a much more tactful way of hiding Sir Richard Francis Burton's wang.

Unknown. This is the cover for the British first edition hardcover. Obviously not the American edition. There is a lot of sex in the book, as well as psychoactive drug use, so this at least has the virtue of being a vaguely accurate representation of portraying an event which actually happens between these two covers.

This is the first Berkeley paperback printing of the book, and it is surprisingly very ugly. I say "surprisingly", because it's a Richard Powers cover, and he usually did good work. This? Not so much. There is apparently only so much that can be done with the motif of showing naked hairless bodies floating in featureless space.

By Ira Cohen. Original hardcover dusk jacket. I like the yellow type, but the rest of it just doesn't work. Remarkably dated and just sort of ugly.

As bad as these English-speaking covers are, foreign printings of sci-fi books usually have covers that are orders of magnitude worse. To Your Scattered Bodies Go does not disappoint in this regard, and you can see some of them here - I really wish the scans were bigger, though. My favorite is probably the Corinne Gosset cover to the Danish printing of Genopstandelsen, although the Hebrew one that looks like a Tool video is growing on me. And the Russian cover by Martinenko & Soinov seems to have wandered in off the street from the back of a high-school composition book, which is always a good thing. It gets bonus points for actually illustrating a scene in the book that doesn't involve naked bodies floating in the ether, i.e. Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves kicking some ass with a bow and arrow. Or at least, that's what I think it is, and not some random illo from a Terry Brooks novel.

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