On the redemption of sf&f cover art

How many times have you bought a book simply because of the cover? How many times have you not bought a book, because of the cover? Even when it’s not the primary consideration, book covers can be a powerful deal breaker (or deal maker) in my read/buy decision-making process.

Unfortunately, bad cover art also meant that I avoided entire genres of fiction as a kid. Yes, science fiction and fantasy, that means you. As a young reader (back in the early 1980s), I was terrified by the images on so-called “pulp” sf and fantasy publications, and quickly formed general assumptions that I applied wholesale to all fiction that fell under these genres.  All science fiction stories were clearly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in outer space by tentacled aliens, and all fantasy stories were unwaveringly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in medieval times by dragons.

Fortunately, sf and fantasy publishing has moved on and now the problem [for me] is that I can be suckered into buying a book almost solely on the basis of its cover.  It becomes a thing I have to own, rather than a book I have to read.  But you know what? This is not a bad thing. Book-as-artefact has legitimacy.

I bought Stephen Baxter’s Evolution almost solely because of the tactile quality of the cover, printed in black felt on a black background. I knew nothing about the story contained within this lovely fuzzy cover (though I was familiar with Stephen Baxter) and to this day, I have not read beyond the first 100 pages or so.  But every once in a while, I will pull the book off the shelf and admire it (and yeah, stroke it too).

Evolution Stephen Baxter

It’s not always the cover design that will inspire me to buy a book. It can also be elements within the book, typography and design elements, a novel with footnotes, or maps and other paraphernalia. Just look at this page from Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts:

Raw shark texts spread

As a reader (and scholar) of fantasy literature, I learned to love a book with appendices, especially maps. Maps are almost genre-identifiers: is a fantasy novel without maps really fantasy? (tongue is in cheek, of course).

Sometimes, though, the very elements that attract me become distractions. The footnotes in House of Leaves drove me mad. The marginalia, drawings, and maps sprinkled liberally throughout The Selected Works of T S Spivet just annoyed me after the first chapter. Alas, ignoring them revealed a lack in the actual narrative, and I never finished the book.

For good or for ill, book design is an integral part of the reading experience. I’m just glad we have moved on from depictions of large-breasted naked women in improbable situations.

Insomnia in dystopian fiction

Black Moon is a new novel by Kenneth Calhoun, and I wonder how it will compare to Charlie Huston’s incredible novel Sleepless?  In both, an insomnia epidemic catalyses radical social disintegration.

Calhoun’s protagonist, Biggs, is one of a few people who has not succumbed to the chronic insomnia ravaging the population. Setting out to find his wife, he has to contend with a world where all around ‘sleep has become an infinitely precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.’

Sleepless is set in a world that is struggling to cope with the global pandemic SLP (aka Sleepless) – a fatal disease that renders the sufferer literally sleepless.  The novel powerfully conveys the dystopian reality of a world that has evolved in response to this disease. It’s dirty, gritty, and corrupt. The characters are themselves dirty, gritty, and corrupt … and painfully engaging. It is at once a dystopian science fiction,a noir detective novel, and a techno-thriller. If you read it, you won’t forget it.

Black Moon is released next week (4 March).

Black Moon - CalhounSleepless UK

Books or artefacts?

Clever people do clever things with the format of books all the time, usually creating something that is as much artefact as book. S., by J J Abrams and Doug Dorst, for instance:

S by Abrams and Dorst

Or the recently published limited edition of Chang-rae Lee’s novel, On Such a Full Sea, which comes in a 3D printed white slipcase (more details, and a video here):

chang-rae-lee-3D-book-cover-slipcase

But such innovation is far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, a book bound in Germany in the 16th century far outclasses anything I have seen produced in the 21st century. Behold! The magical book that opens six ways!

dos a dos book

This book is held by the National Library of Sweden, who have shared their photos of this book and more over on Flickr.

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

Metro 2034 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Metro 2034That’s not a typo – Metro 2034 is the sequel to Metro 2033, and it’s due out in February 2014. (Here’s my review of Metro 2033.)

I’m not entirely convinced that 2034 will offer anything new, but I imagine if you’re a fan of the first book and want more of the same, you’ll probably be satisfied.  According to the blurb from the publisher:

A year after the events of METRO 2033, the last few survivors of the apocalypse, surrounded by mutants and monsters, face a terrifying new danger as they hang on for survival in the tunnels of the Moscow Metro.

Featuring blistering action, vivid and tough characters, claustrophobic tension and dark satire, the Metro books have become bestsellers across Europe.

Self-Reference ENGINE by Toh EnJoe (trans Terry Gallagher), and other PKD Award nominees

selfreferenceENGINEInstructions for Use: Read chapters in order. Contemplate the dreams of twenty-two dead Freuds. Note your position in space-time at all times (and spaces). Keep an eye out for a talking bobby sock named Bobby Socks. Beware the star-man Alpha Centauri. Remember that the chapter entitled “Japanese” is translated from the Japanese, but should be read in Japanese. Warning: if reading this book on the back of a catfish statue, the text may vanish at any moment, and you may forget that it ever existed.

From the mind of Toh EnJoe comes Self-Reference ENGINE, a textual machine that combines the rigor of Stanislaw Lem with the imagination of Jorge Luis Borges. Do not operate heavy machinery for one hour after reading.

This one’s nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, alongside:

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke – surprisingly good! Reminded me a little bit of Tanith Lee’s incredible Silver Metal Lover, but not quite in the same league.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – loved it.

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters – I have just started reading this one, straight after finishing book 1 of this series, The Last Policeman. Yes!

A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock.

Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead.

Solaris Rising 2: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction edited by Ian Whates.

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

This week (by sheer accident) I have come across two books that explore post-apocalyptic themes from fresh perspectives: The Last Policeman is in fact pre-apocalyptic, set six months before an asteroid is due to hit Earth, and (from a review on tor.com) Soft Apocalypse shows society in the early stages of dissolution, unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, which ” show a finished end product, an established dystopia in which the Earth has already been torn apart and people are trying to survive the aftermath. Other stories show the events right before and during the actual earthquake/meteor strike/plague, with people trying to make it through the disaster as it happens. Soft Apocalypse instead happens during a period of gradual but inexorable decline: as the back cover says, the world ends “with a whimper instead of a bang”.”

The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

The Last Policeman Ben H WintersWhat’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.

The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

Pre-apocalyptic fiction –love it! The second book of this trilogy (Countdown City)was published just a few months ago, so if this one is good at least I can move straight onto that–one of the perks of coming into a series late.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

SoftApocalypse Will McIntoshWhat happens when resources become scarce and society starts to crumble? As the competition for resources pulls America’s previously stable society apart, the “New Normal” is a Soft Apocalypse. This is how our world ends; with a whimper instead of a bang.

“It’s so hard to believe,” Colin said as we crossed the steaming, empty parking lot toward the bowling alley.

“What?”

“That we’re poor. That we’re homeless.”

“I know.”

“I mean, we have college degrees,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

There was an ancient miniature golf course choked in weeds alongside the bowling alley. The astroturf had completely rotted away in places. The windmill had one spoke. We looked it over for a minute (both of us had once been avid mini golfers), then continued toward the door.

“By the way,” I added. “We’re not homeless, we’re nomads. Keep your labels straight.”

New social structures and tribal connections spring up across America, as the previous social structures begin to dissolve. Soft Apocalypse follows the journey across the South East of a tribe of formerly middle class Americans as they struggle to find a place for themselves and their children in a new, dangerous world that still carries the ghostly echoes of their previous lives.

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

The Land Across Gene WolfeAn American writer of travel guides in need of a new location chooses to travel to a small and obscure Eastern European country. The moment Grafton crosses the border he is in trouble, much more than he could have imagined. His passport is taken by guards, and then he is detained for not having it. He is released into the custody of a family, but is again detained.

It becomes evident that there are supernatural agencies at work, but they are not in some ways as threatening as the brute forces of bureaucracy and corruption in that country. Is our hero in fact a spy for the CIA? Or is he an innocent citizen caught in a Kafkaesque trap?

The synopsis–and the reference to Kafka–brings to mind similarly Kafka-esque (and brilliant!) novels like the The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro and Ismail Kadare’s The Dream Palace. This one’s due out in about a month.

‘Reboot’ and fore-edge painting

I recently read Reboot by Amy Tintera. Despite the dystopian setting and intriguing premise (see synopsis at end of this post), it was one of those books that just did not make much of an impact on me–it was not amazing, and it was not awful. I suspect if I was a tween I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

But there is one overriding reason I impulse-purchased it, which is the reason I am happy to have it on my shelf:  the edition is edge-printed! In fact, all three “edges” are illustrated, and the image is retained when you fan the pages because the printing sits on the edges of each page as well. Fore-edge printing uses a special process to print on the cut, outside edges of the book block of a publication.

Reboot strip

This is not something you see often on mass-market paperbacks, and it’s not something you would ever notice if you shop online for books, as I do 95% of the time.

Admittedly, this edition of Reboot is not quite in the same artistic league as, for example, the beautiful watercolour fore-edge painting on this 1976 limited edition of Watership Down:

Watership Down fore edge painting

The book experts at AbeBooks summarise the technique of fore-edge painting:

The front page edges of the book are bent back to expose a greater area and a watercolor painting is applied to this surface. After completion the book is closed and the painting cannot be seen. The opposite is also true. The painting is done on the edge of the pages so it can be seen when the book is closed but is not visible when the book was open.

The technique of fore-edge painting dates back to the 17th century (and even earlier, in other forms). I love the gifs of the 19th century “secret” fore-edge paintings from the Special Collections at the University of Iowa (more here):

Summer

________________________

Reboot by Amy Tintera

In this fast-paced dystopian thrill ride, perfect for fans of The Hunger Games, Legend, and Divergent, a seventeen-year-old girl returns from death as a Reboot and is trained as an elite crime-fighting soldier . . . until she is given an order she refuses to obey.

Wren Connolly died five years ago, only to Reboot after 178 minutes. Now she is one of the deadliest Reboots around . . . unlike her newest trainee, Callum 22, who is practically still human. As Wren tries to teach Callum how to be a soldier, his hopeful smile works its way past her defenses. Unfortunately, Callum’s big heart also makes him a liability, and Wren is ordered to eliminate him.

To save Callum, Wren will have to risk it all.