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The blog of smart core writer Robert Maas

The Maas gallery

I always design my own covers. It’s great to hold something and know you created every part of it. Here are a few of my favorites. Warning: this post has many images.

I don’t consider myself a designer. Maybe it’s self-evident that I’m not. I find myself fretting more about the cover than I did about the book itself, since writing comes easily and naturally to me. But I try to represent the theme or flavor of each book in the cover I create, within my own limitations.

In some ways, book covers are an anachronism. These days, they are largely just the stamp-sized image on an Amazon screen. But I certainly understand why they’re important. I am much less likely to buy a book where either I can’t see the cover, or the cover is simply the title on a solid field of color. If a design looks even moderately professional, or at least had some care taken with it, then I am more likely to believe that the book is worth reading.

And of course, the image has to reflect the contents in some way. In my case, that reflection is often oblique, more to do with mood than with plot.

Constant by Penny Maez. This image was based on the idea of M. C. Escher’s Three Worlds, in which the worlds in question are the upper world reflected on a pool of still water, the surface of the water itself, and what lies beneath. Like Escher, I represent the upper world by bare trees, suggesting coldness and winter. In place of Escher’s leaves are a vaguely leaf-shaped scrap of paper with my own scrawl on it. What lies beneath is not shown at all, but might be suggested by the bubbles.

There’s a mystery in this image, an abstraction, an enigma. Its chilly stillness and sense of mystery reflect the tone of the novel itself. Everything is focused on that scrap of stained and scribbled paper. What does it suggest about the past? Just what is under this placid surface?

The idea of Escher’s three worlds is something I also employed in the self-portrait I use on the backs of my paperbacks and whenever I need an image for promotional purposes. This photo was taken at the top of Bunkyo Civic Center in the center of Tokyo, looking out of a large pane of tilted glass into the sunset. The world beyond the glass is suffused in that oppressive, deep yellow sunlight. Because of the angle of the camera, you can also see my own reflection in the glass, and a speckle of dust or other imperfections in the surface of the glass itself, most notably in the lower left hand side.

Because the portrait is a reflection, the landscape is faintly visible through it, making me seem insubstantial, elusive, either not quite part of that world beyond or somehow deeply embedded into it. In addition, it makes me look like a fly trapped in amber, and perhaps that’s true also.

Wake Of The Sun by Penny Maez. This image was intended as a counterpoint to Constant, using exactly the same three components — a surface of water, a bare tree, and a piece of paper with writing on it — to create an entirely different mood. Like my self-portrait, the image is claustrophobic, oppressive, glaringly flat. Where Constant is chilly and still, Wake Of The Sun is hot and turbulent.

Even without the Japanese writing on the piece of paper, it’s quite obviously about Japan, and here’s another contrast. Constant is reminiscent of Britain, my place of birth, whereas Wake Of The Sun evokes the country I have chosen to live in. The sun, bloated and sinking in a fiercely blood-red sky, is like an inversion of the Japanese flag. In Japanese Buddhist temples, prayers and fortunes on small pieces of paper are tied to trees in the hope that they will come true. Sometimes you can see trees entirely covered in hundreds of these knotted pieces of paper. Here there’s just one, which helps to tell the story even before you read the book.

And incidentally, you can’t read the book, since I haven’t written it yet. It’s one of many projects that I have waiting to write, but for which I have already created the imagery.

The Wilderness Rules by Penny Maez. And here’s another book that I have yet to write. That’s my bath, here in my home in Tokyo, and this is yet another version of the Three Worlds concept. There’s a curious enigma in this image, just like in Constant. Is this woman alive or dead? Is this a happy image or a terrifying one?

The image has had a curious life of its own. This is true of a few of my covers. I originally created this image for a novel called Bendy Straight which has specific scenes in which the lead character, a guy called Biscuit, likes to lie in his bath with his head submerged and listen to music. So it’s actually a positive image, except that at the end of Bendy Straight gangsters murder Biscuit by drowning him in his bath during one of these sessions. I can tell you this, because I have shelved Bendy Straight for good — it’s a novel that will never be published.

But I hated to lose this image, and thought it was perfect for The Wilderness Rules, a novel about isolation, loneliness and fear. Oh, and it helps that I couldn’t bring myself to use a man — a woman is so much more interesting as a composition — even though Biscuit is a guy. The protagonist of The Wilderness Rules is a woman.

The Billows by Penny Maez. Yet another version of the Three Worlds concept, though in this case the surface of the glass is represented by its jagged edge rather than the flat plane. Again we have bare trees, which form a subtle echo of the line of the broken glass, suggesting that the properties of the glass — violence and threat — are reflected in the landscape itself. That’s very true to the novel, which does indeed exist in this scary world of clutching English woodland and billowing, lowering skies.

Like my self-portrait, the glass adds an enigma. Are we viewing the moon through the pane of glass, or is it reflected in it? Could the moon and stars actually be imaginary, something visible only through the glass? The broken glass, in other words, might be a doorway into a strange and alien landscape. Again, this is a reflection of the theme of the book.

The Summoning by Catherine Mays. Another shard of glass, another enigma. This cover was actually my homage to the design company Hipgnosis, whose record covers of the 1970s were so fascinating to me in my youth. In my own small way, it reflects the Hipgnosis style, including the flattened, all-in-focus composition, the overwrought, saturated colors, and the visual trick or pun.

In this case, here’s my own hand holding up a scrap of medieval stained glass, and the figure etched in the glass appears to be reacting with fear to the bloody, threatening sky over the ruins. That suggests time travel to me, and indeed time travel to and from the middle ages is the theme of the novel.

I play with the concept even more in the section dividers in the paperback version of the novel, where the figure in the stained glass is shown lifting his hand to cover his eyes. Is it god he dares not look at, or something worse? Don’t, incidentally, be annoyed by the obvious repeat in the grass in the foreground of the image. I’m well aware of this repeat and didn’t try to disguise it. This is where the title and author’s name go, so nobody will see it.

Residuum by Robert Maas. This is another image that floated around a while before finding its final home. I created it for my short story collection Born From Ash, which I originally intended to call Red Dwarfs Are Aborted Star Children and which for a long while became known as Forgotten Tomorrows.

For people to get the joke, my cover for Red Dwarfs, I knew, had to have something to do with the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I eventually arrived at the idea of a circular aperture in Earth orbit through which you could see Earth and the moon perfectly lining up. There’s nothing at all unlikely about this image, except that the thing that is in orbit is quite plainly made of some sort of weathered stone or concrete. Not the kind of thing we’d put into orbit. Hence it’s also a reflection of the title Forgotten Tomorrows: a grungy past and a glorious pristine future.

If you look closely, you’ll realize that the aperture, which is simply a hole punched out of that concrete wall, is in the shape of a sphere rather than a cylinder. Part of a sphere has been removed from that wall. This is a direct reference to one of the stories in the collection, ‘Deduction,’ which is about enigmatic objects that gulp spheres of matter out of existence. Think, for example, about the time travel device in the original The Terminator movie, which took out a sphere of our time.

When the short story collection eventually became Born From Ash, this image became an orphan, so I used it as a replacement image for my novel Residuum. Since that novel isn’t set in Earth orbit, the landscape outside the aperture had to go, and was replaced simply by a star field. But the grungy, disagreeable aspects of the image are perfect for Residuum. It is basically a urinal in space.

Born From Ash by Robert Maas. And here’s the image for Born From Ash, a rather obvious reference to yet another science fiction movie which, incidentally, has nothing to do with any of the actual stories in the collection but does sum up the repugnant aspects of much of the Robert Maas universe. The title itself is about how we’re all made out of the detritus from an exploded star. But how could I resist playing about with Alien?

It’s hardly a spoiler, but Ash was an android. Given that, according to one of the franchise’s memes, the alien takes on the characteristics of its host (which isn’t strictly speaking true, but it’s a meme nevertheless), what would an alien look like if it were birthed from an android? I don’t know. All I show is the ragged hole in the android’s body, fringed with flesh and metal substrate, with the interior mechanism faintly visible inside. It is of course a homage to H. R. Giger, whose biomechanoids were so much more than the movie, great though it is, gave them credit.

Oh and by the way, they may be the ultimate creature, but these aliens aren’t very clever. Why do they bash out through the breastbone when there’s soft flesh just next door? And in the latest movie they bust out through the spine! Good grief. At least my creature had the sense to exit through the stomach. It’s half-android, you see. Smart.

Biome by Robert Maas. The final image in this gallery might seem like a wasted opportunity, given that my novel Biome is full of potentially eye-popping visuals, but I wanted an enigmatic and moody image rather than one that played too much to any one aspect of the plot. Tone, in other words, was most important here. I had in mind a descent into hell, which is basically the theme of the book, and that’s exactly what I showed.

As usual with my collage images, I built this from a large number of components (more than 20 in this case), the most obvious of which are the radar images that form the landscape. To those who know their astronomy, it screams Venus, which is where the novel is set. The visible shock waves in the atmosphere, and the heavy lens flare, are intended to give the impression of the thick, suffocating atmosphere. The fireball-like object has just enough in its shape to suggest something artificial, rather than a natural phenomenon. So this is people plunging onto Venus. Not a fantasy Venus: the real place. And isn’t that, by itself, enough to intrigue a potential reader?


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