If I tell you that there’s a very interesting and handsomely produced book on “Sci-Fi Art of the 1970s” just out, a few of you kindred spirits will plan to acquire it immediately; many of you, alas, will proceed to click on something else. Please pause a moment before you do so.
The polymathic British novelist and literary scholar Adam Roberts has for some time been making the case for the preeminence of science fiction and fantasy (so often dismissed by the literati) in the contemporary imagination, as evidenced in the extraordinary influence of Tolkien’s work, Star Wars and its ever-ramifying legacy, and much more. We might also adduce the enormous increase in “horror” (considered as a subset of fantasy) in recent fiction, especially noticeable just in the last five years or so. Some of these are “straight horror,” but more are fictions of various kinds in which “horror” elements play an important part.
So what? Well, even if you are not (as I am) a longtime reader of science fiction and someone who has seen a fair amount of the stuff onscreen, you might want to take in a book such as the one I recently got, Adam Rowe’s Worlds Beyond Time: Sci-Fi Art of the 1970s (really the subtitle should read “of the 1970s and 1980s”). It will give you—via a “visual history of the spaceships, alien landscapes, cryptozoology, and industrial machinery of 1970s sci-fi art”—a sort of cultural anthropology. The book, handsomely produced, features a collection of illustrations and cover art from the sci-fi novels of that era, and is ideally organized for browsing. It consists of discrete thematic subsections, and you can hop around at will without losing the thread. Rowe, whose work I didn’t know about until I encountered this fascinating volume, “curates the popular, multi-platform 70s Sci-Fi Art feed, bringing the best in retro sci-fi art to more than 100,000 Instagram followers @70sscifi. He lives in Seattle.”
Rowe’s knowledge of his subject is encyclopedic, even as he wears his learning lightly. We know from the get-go that we are in the hands of a writer who could have made this book much longer, but at the cost of accessibility. Of course, elements of taste also factor in his selection of images. There are styles of illustration not much represented here. One of my favorite paperback covers from the 1970s and 1980s is Barclay Shaw’s for C. J. Cherryh’s Merchanter’s Luck (published by DAW Books in 1982). In it, a slim, dark-haired young woman in a close-fitting silvery garment, wielding a blaster, stands by the control panel of a spaceship in an action pose, as if confronting an intruder; her face is framed by stars visible through the window behind her. This sort of quasi-realist image on a human scale doesn’t much interest Rowe. (I wish the index had included authors of works represented as well as illustrators, but you can’t have everything.) Rowe tends to emphasize self-consciously “dark” images, and those with a strong absurdist vibe (see, for example, Ray Feibush’s cover for the U.K. edition of Isaac Asimov’s The Rings of Saturn , in which the ringed planet is presented as a gigantic skull with a morbid, toothy grin), alongside the most haunting ones: Vast “spaceships” that give me a shiver of awe even now, in my mid-70s.
I spent a while chewing on the title of this book. These aren’t remotely images of “Worlds Beyond Time.” They are, as the subtitle and the text of the book suggest, images of imagined futures (“imagined” with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness) anchored in a particular time and a particular “industry,” as we can see more clearly with the passing decades and as Rowe’s own immensely knowledgeable text makes clear. It would be fascinating to compare the images gathered here with book-covers and other images from 2010 to today, say.
Readers of science fiction and fantasy who still have a lot of their books from decades past will be pulling books from their shelves, rummaging in stacks, and resorting to online images as well, inspired by Rowe’s account. I’ve already started on that (not least, going through my Philip K. Dick titles). I’ve also had dreams in which covers of old books have appeared—covers which I try in vain to remember when I wake. For some years when we lived in Pasadena, there was a bookshop called Planet Ten, specializing in sci-fi and fantasy. I visited regularly to scan the shelves, and memories of those days were jogged as I was turning the pages of Worlds Beyond Time.
The future quickly becomes the past. As I have observed elsewhere, the action of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner) was set in 1992, following “World War Terminus.” Many years later, reprints of the novel (now billed as Blade Runner) changed the time of the action, moving it to the 2020s. I haven’t looked at a recent reissue to see if the same move has been made again. The “futures” imagined in the newly published science fiction I browsed in Planet Ten, back in the day, would seem out of whack today, even if more caution had been exercised in setting the time frame for the action. “Science fiction” can become, in an odd way, “historical fiction,” not in the way that term is usually deployed.
But now I must get back to the shelves, to rummage among more books from the 1970s and the 1980s, inspired by Adam Rowe’s tour de force.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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