Monday, February 16, 2009

Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History

Long-time readers will know that Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History was written during last summer. Well, the book is out now and it looks fantastic, even if I say so myself.

My involvement came about because the original author was unable to do the book (I don't know the details but these things happen); the text was farmed out to a number of different writers and I got the opening couple of chapters—the longest two sections in the book—plus the introduction. As I was writing half the book (the other half being split between five other writers: Alex Sumersby, Steve White, Toby Weidmann, Adrian Faulkner and Tim Murray), I also got to write the introduction and get my name on the cover.

What was originally going to be two months work turned into three thanks to "real life" getting in the way of all my carefully laid plans, namely bits of the house being pulled down and rebuilt, all my reference books disappearing into storage and a constant flow of workmen through the house. One of the real problems was tracking down suitable images—this was, after all, a "graphic" history—and discovering that, when scans turned up, they were pretty dire. I'd say that a good half to three-quarters of the additional time I spent on the books was spent cleaning up pictures. (When I get a chance I'll dig out some of the original scans so you can compare them to the finished product in the book... they're on a hard drive that's buried somewhere in the office.)

I've had a chance to read the book and the whole thing hangs together amazingly well. The two chapters I wrote on SF art cover everything from 18th & 19th century illustration to the current crop of talented artists (Donato Giancola, Stephen Martiniere) via pulps, paperbacks and some incredible talents ranging from Frank R. Paul to Jim Burns and Frank Kelly Freas to Chris Foss. Other chapters cover comic books, concept art, cinema art and various other media, so Dan Dare gets to rub shoulders with David A. Hardy and H. R. Giger with the Halo XBox game, all under the same covers.

The cover, incidentally, is by that master of SF artistry, Vincent di Fate, whose Infinite Worlds was a real inspiration when I was writing up many of the artists. And the book has a thought provoking foreword by Brian Aldiss (who, once upon a time, also wrote a book about SF art called Science Fiction Art) which argues that the standardization of so much science fiction art has damaged the perception of SF, using the example of his novel Non-Stop: of the 20 or so paperback editions and translations, all but one features a spaceship on the cover; but the story takes place inside a spaceship amongst people who believe the ship is their world. Only one cover features a dramatic scene taken from the novel.

Me? I like spaceships. My biggest influence with regards to SF art was the artwork I saw each week as I scoured the shelves for new titles back in the mid- and late-1970s. This was the hey-day of Chris Foss and his followers and, no disrespect to these artists intended, the publishers clearly thought they were interchangeable. Their skilfully-drawn and beautifully air-brushed spacecraft were almost a brand, used willy-nilly on everything from E. E. 'Doc' Smith to Philip K. Dick. They were rarely a window illuminating the contents of the books and, if you weren't careful, you might pick up a Perry Rhodan and miss the latest Robert Silverberg.

On the other hand, I believe those covers opened up quite a few new worlds for me personally. I read an awful lot of SF (nothing but SF, in fact, for about eight years) and the spaceship "brand" led me to authors as diverse as Jack Williamson and Samuel R. Delaney. I didn't distinguish between thirties pulp and classy literature and non-specific covers that grabbed my attention meant that I read a great many more authors and a far broader range of science fiction than I might have done otherwise. (My argument falls down on one point: it meant I read a lot of crap, too. But I was a quick reader so my disappointment was soon dispelled by the next good book and I had an excellent memory for names to avoid.)

Odd that I should be praising uniformity while I'm talking about a book that celebrates the diversity of SF art! I don't think there has been a book out on the subject with this breadth before. Seriously, get yourself a copy of this book and let me know what you think.

Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History. Ilex Books, January 2009.


SFX #180 (March 2009) 4.0 out of 5 stars

"a rare compilation of pop culture images that shaped the way we view the future from HG Wells to Final Fantasy." -- Selling Tomorrows (25 March 2009)

(* SFX © Future Publishing Ltd.)


  1. hello! i see your book with another cover ( collins editor ) : reedition or stranger edition ( me , in france , i have a olms germany edition , with the ilex books cover ) ?
    and i see in amazon " sci fi art pocket history : it's the pocket edition about this book , or it's a book about pocket SF book's ? thank you ( i don't speak english , i try :)

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    The Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History book is a cut-down version of the book you already have, based mostly the first half and elements from other sections. So if you have the first book, you'll have everything that's in the abridged version.

    (Your English is understandable - better than my German!)



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