Monday, 25 May 2009

Lurid covers 2: SF

click to enlarge
In response to an ongoing discussion of 60s paperback covers and their surreal/lurid misrepresentation of contents - see Dr C's Front Covers - and Felix Grant's Judging a sardine by its can - here are a few more.

Top: Babel-17, Samuel R Delany, Sphere Books, 1969. This one's at the level being able to see the relevance once you know which book it is. The scenario is one in which the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - "language shapes thought" - turns out to be literally true when the poetess and linguist Rydra Wong is asked to investigate Babel-17, an enemy code which appears linked to acts of sabotage. The linguistic theme explains the A-Z overlay, but Rydra Wong never gets naked.

Middle: Robert Silverberg's Hugo-winning Nightwings (Sphere Books, 1974). This is a superb novel about a group of pilgrims to "Roum" in a far-future world disrupted by a man-made climatic apocalypse. Silverberg skilfully evokes the long passage of time through the erosion of placenames - Roum, Perris, Stralya, Hind, Agupt, Jorslem, and so on. The cover isn't wildly inaccurate; it depicts Avluela, a genetically altered "Flier" who can only fly at night (hence the book's title) and has to divest herself of all weight to do so. This modification, however, is achieved at the expense of being more than anorexically thin, so the cover Avluela is considerably overweight. The cowled character is the Prince of Roum, who has cybernetic eyes after being blinded.

Bottom: Keith Laumer's A Trace of Memory (Mayflower Paperbacks, 1968). This one is just plain surreal, apparently inspired by memories being in the head, but to be fair, I think the book is quite difficult to encapsulate in a single image.

It's one of Laumer's more interesting ones. After a prologue, in which a space traveller is marooned among primitives, it moves to the present and introduces Legion, a typical Laumer hardboiled clever loner, who is hired by a Mr Foster. The latter has two problems, amnesia and being pursued by some kind of sentient ball-lightning. The story takes an epic turn when it turns out that Foster is the marooned traveller, who has been around a long time, long enough to have tried to fast-track human civilisation by modelling it on that of his own planet, Vallon, where the Rthr rules from the Great Ringboard at Okk-Hamiloth. With Legion's help, he manages to call the shuttle of an orbiting starship to its landing ring (Stonehenge - see the cover of the collection Legions of Space) and returns home; but Legion, forced to follow after his marketing of Vallonian technology attracts goverment attention, finds everything on Vallon has changed. Its space-faring civilisation has collapsed to medium-tech feudalism after loss of the technology that kept a continuity of memory across Vallonians' periodic memory-wipe rejuvenations, and Legion finds he has to work his way up from slave status. The scenario doesn't bear terribly close examination: for instance, is Legion really doing the Vallonians a favour? Their society, though feudal, is egalitarian: anyone can work their way by skill/talent up the social pyramid to the highest level. But he has restored a static culture based on a fixed feudal hierarchy and near-immortality (nice for the Rthr and his cronies, but not for the guy who's the permanent stable-sweeper). But it's a good yarn.

- Ray


  1. Rydra comes close: "At least take your shoes and shirt off," Rydra said, slipping off her blouse (p. 34; OCE edition).

    I wonder if the luridity of paperback covers relates to comic book culture?

  2. Ah, yes, the bar where Brass and the Silver Dragon fight.

    I wonder if the luridity of paperback covers relates to comic book culture?Dunno. This was a decade after the Comics Code had stamped on OTT visuals in comics, and the pulp magazines had fizzled out about the same time. But the style was continued by other genres: detective fiction, fantasy/horror magazines such as Weird Tales, True Crime magazines, men's adventure magazines...

  3. PS: and some are less like the pulps, and more influenced by 60s psychedelia.