As someone who has a keen appreciation of old art, I find that many of today’s sci fi book covers lack a certain luster. In the course of forty or fifty years, we’ve moved away from book covers of full illustrations, painstakingly painted by hands by leading artists in the genre. Today, most sci fi book covers have an abstract quality that doesn’t say much about the book.
I know the adage, of course: “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” And yeah, for the most part that’s true. But as attention spans decrease and the flashy effects of TV and video games influence our tastes in science fiction art, book covers had to adapt to draw in new readers. Where there were once detailed oil paintings, there are now abstract, digital designs.
In this article, I want to showcase some of the classic sci fi book covers that helped defined the genre and influenced not just future art, but writing as well.
Darrell K. Sweet’s Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein
Darrell K. Sweet is a big name when it comes to sci fi and fantasy illustration. He’s best known for his fantasy book covers for The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings, and The Shannara Chronicles.
His grasp of fantasy concepts is really quite spectacular. As a kid, rummaging through library book sales and second-hand bookstore shelves, his art stuck out to me as an embodiment of the books themselves. His portrayals of Rand al’Thor, Gandalf, and the Eagles inspired me to not only read those books, but to explore his art as well.
Aside from fantasy masterpieces, Sweet was also known for his covers of Heinlein novels. While simple, the cover for the 1981 edition of Red Planet perfectly embodies the sci fi feel of Mars, while not being so weird it’s inaccessible.
The image of a massive Martian monster striding through a marsh of big frond leaves is serene, isn’t it?
Frank Frazetta’s The Moon Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Frank Frazetta has a very specific style, and he’s gained renown for his work on Conan and Tarzan novels. He pits the classic, muscular heroes against hideous monsters with malicious eyes and sharp teeth.
He did a set of covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Moon Trilogy, which was originally serialized in Argosy magazine from 1923 to 1925. Later, the series was reprinted in a few different editions, and Franzetta did the cover art for the 1978 reprint.
The art for The Moon Men, specifically, gives me a Hercules vibe, crossed with the scene from Star Wars where Luke is facing off against the Rankor. Frazetta does a great job of portraying conflict, and as I looked into more of his work, he has a keen sense of contrast. A lot of his paintings and classic sci fi book covers have a clear delineation from dark to light, making them super interesting.
Chris Foss’ Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
The Foundation series is one of Asimov’s best works, and it was recently adapted for television. But, before it came to Apple TV, it had a lot of different imagery associated with it.
The series has been reprinted multiple times, but the edition that sticks out to me is the 1976 reprint with covers by Chris Foss.
Foss’ paintings usually focus on mechanical things, like spaceships, vehicles, or robots. He’s done designs from the Dune universe, as well as other military science fiction books.
Perhaps the most intriguing part about his illustrations for the 1976 Foundation books is the simplicity of them. The covers place an immense focus on the space ships, which perfectly reflect light and seem almost like a photograph. And the background is almost pure blue, presenting an interesting contrast between the hard light of the ships in the foreground.
Bruce Pennington’s Out of their Minds by Clifford D. Simak
Bruce Pennington is one of those sci fi illustrators that took their game to the next level. He’s worked on over 200 book covers for big-name writers, including Asimov, Heinlein, Aldiss, and Herbert.
However, the classic sci fi book cover that stuck out to me was for the 1973 edition of Clifford D. Simak’s Out of Their Minds.
Now, I’ve never read this book before, but I really want to. The cover Pennington did is fantastic. It’s weird, bright, and unforgettable. It features a huge tower/tree that resembles a brain, set against a barren landscape. It’s eerie. The truck is made of vertebra, and the rocks on the ground resemble molars.
I think this is a great example of how science fiction book covers can entice readers to pick up the book and give it a shot. All the other editions of Simak’s novel don’t stand out to me, but Pennington’s sparks a keen interest in what inspired the art.
At the end of the day, all I wanted to do with this article was talk about some vintage sci fi book covers that stand out more than some modern book covers ever could. I think the golden age of science fiction had a lot of problems – racism, sexism, imperialism, etc.—but it certainly had fantastic art.
What are some classic sci fi book covers that your really love? Let us know in the comments below!