active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Buy it for the cover

Science fiction is notorious for having covers that bear nothing in common with the contents of the book. My best formative experience with SF was because of an unrepresentative cover — and so was my worst.


I’m baffled by the idea of juvenile science fiction. I can understand why those of intermediate reading skill might want to work up gradually to adult fiction, particularly if they’re into genres like war, fantasy or the mainstream. But the kind of kids that will read ‘serious’ SF are by definition bright. They’re almost certainly in the top tier of their classes.

Why bother with dumbed-down fiction when H.G. Wells, John Wyndham, Arthur C. Clarke, Edmund Cooper, and many other SF writers are perfectly accessible to kids?

This does mean you might skip over the classics that are pushed at your age range, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, John Christopher’s The White Mountains, or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, but I don’t feel you’ll miss much. You can probably even live without Z For Zachariah.

However, there are dangers to the unwitting kid just plunging into the black hole of this literature, as my salutary tale will show. I don’t mean the books themselves. I mean their covers.

Growing up in the heart of the English West Country (I was born and raised not far from where Arthur C. Clarke was born and raised), there wasn’t much scope for reading juvenile SF, even if I’d wanted to. The village primary school didn’t have any. The mobile library didn’t have any. There were no bookshops, and the fiction in newsagents was all populist trash.

The only place to find interesting fiction of any kind was in a jumble sale.

For those who aren’t British, a jumble sale is much like a white elephant or rummage sale. During its services, the village church calls for unwanted items of clothing and other bric-a-brac. Having collected this stuff, it arranges it all on tables in the church hall, and sells it back to other villagers.

I don’t know if jumble sales still exist. Car boot sales and eBay mean people would rather sell their second-hand goods themselves than donate them to charity. And besides, in an insular village, do you really want to see those lower-class scruffs from the council estate down by the sewerage works wearing the clothes you threw out?

Back then, when I was ten years old, someone in my village must have read SF. He must have fallen out of love with the genre, too, because over the course of several jumble sales I bought a handful of old books — the first adult paperback books I ever read, and the foundation of my career as an avid reader of speculative fiction.

Having nothing else to guide me, and knowing nothing about the genre, I chose these books because of their covers.

The first cover to slam me over the head the moment I caught sight of it, down there among all the other tatty castoffs on the jumble sale table, was Robert Sheckley’s Journey Beyond Tomorrow. I’d never heard of it, nor of Sheckley, but I knew from that instant that I had to have it.

I remember well the stuffy crush of people in that hall, the reek of old clothes, the rattling of banter, and holding this old book and staring at it, mesmerized out of my surroundings. I handed over 10p – probably a large proportion of my pocket money – and shouldered my way out of there.

Journey Beyond Tomorrow is the book that started everything for me. Even today, I still consider it to be the best cover I’ve ever seen — no contest. I believe it’s by Josh Kirby, but as usual it’s not credited on the book. It shows a man climbing out of a huge, plain interior, a little reminiscent of the smooth glossy interiors we now associate with airports, toward an extraordinary but poorly revealed exterior. In the entrance stand a collection of vast, vaguely menacing industrial machines.

As an invitation into the genre, it is truly intoxicating. As sense-of-wonder, it is utterly thrilling. As SF — well, it’s absolutely adult. There’s no whooshing spaceship, no damsel in distress in an iron brassiere, no clunky robot, no hero with overgrown pectorals and a sword. No action at all, and definitely no cartoon explosion.

I must have gazed at that cover for hours, feeling my way through the mystery of the image: the uncertain stance of that man, his gun useless in his hand. The half-familiar horror of those guardian machines. The glimpse of marvels awaiting beyond them. Often when I write, I have this picture in the back of my mind. How do I take my reader here, to this extraordinary place? How do I write as seriously, as intelligently, and as mysteriously as this?

It turned out that the novel had absolutely nothing in common with the cover except that it, too, was ‘adult’ SF of a style that is today all but extinct. I feel myself lucky that I chose it — or it chose me — at the time it did.

So does this mean I avoided reading superhero comics, hated the tacky childishness of Star Wars, and devoted my life to serious, adult science fiction? Well, those things are all true, but there was a major hiccup on the way.

A year or so later, I happened to be visiting a large town with an actual, real-life bookshop, and my eye fell on a stupendous cover that looked like an update of Journey Beyond Tomorrow. It was Chris Foss’s magnificent machine that adorned the 1973 British edition of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves Of Steel. Naturally, I grabbed it at once.

It was a disaster. Asimov’s novel turned out to be a dreary police procedural with no sense of wonder whatsoever. Foss admits he doesn’t like SF and doesn’t read the books he illustrates, and here, for once, he damaged my faith in the genre. I felt cheated and betrayed.

In consequence, I regressed — big time. I stopped reading adult science fiction and became obsessed with novels about swarms of giant rabid animals terrorizing the English countryside instead. This was the golden age of the trashy NEL and Hamlyn animal horror novel by the likes of Guy N. Smith, Richard Lewis and James Herbert. They had fabulous in-your-face covers, exciting storylines, and lashings of explicit sex.

These novels seemed like transgression, something forbidden and truly adult, but of course in reality they were purposefully targeted at twelve-year-old kids like me. The local newsagent sold them way down low where we could find them. My favorite was Smith’s Locusts, which at the time seemed like fine art.

Luckily, everything changed again soon after. I discovered girls, and I didn’t need the descriptions of sex anymore. So I resumed reading SF, and I’ve done so ever since.

The tactile object of the paperback book, and the cover image that offers a window into another world, now seems an age away. Do kids get the same thrill from the stamp-sized ebook covers in online bookstores, or has sense of wonder moved elsewhere? And if it’s the latter, what hope for new generations of bright young readers, just starting off on this greatest of all adventures?


Robert Maas is the author of the thriller Biome, available to buy at Amazon.


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