Sci-Fi Cover Art: The Good, The Bad, and The Totally Bizarre


So we found ourselves clicking through images of romance novel covers the other day. (You never know where the Internet is gonna take you on a given afternoon.) The experience fast descended into a tawdry smear of heaving bosoms, broad-shouldered lotharios, bad mullets, gauzy gowns, too-tight loin cloths, extraordinary pectoral abundance, and various states and stages of seduction and swoon. But with a couple (possibly satirical) exceptions (one with the hero reclining next to three piglets, another featuring a man with a heart-shaped medallion and an over-sized feline), the covers blurred together, almost interchangeable. They featured simple variations on location (pirate ships, beaches, meadows, cliffs), dress (kilts, negligees, satin sheets, birthday suits), hair color, and size of raised font.

From romance covers we moved on to science fiction, wondering if sci-fi cover art might offer more. And holy moly, what we started seeing was bizarre, hilarious, campy, creepy, striking, surreal, sometimes sexy, and extremely cool. Flying saucers, planetary landscapes, lots of rockets, babes in inter-galactic distress, alien monsters, cyborg enemies, and on and on. The covers we came across were sinister, lovely, and completely ridiculous. Below, a selection of some of the sci-fi cover stand-outs.

1. Runts of 61 Cygni C by James Grazier

This planet must be a fraternal twin, because, come on guys, the sun’s a star.

2. No Way Back by Karl Zeigfreid

Living in the present means skeleton robot spacemen and belly dancers. More like the eternal wow.

3. Highwood by Neal Barrett, Jr.

It reminds you how lucky we are to live here on earth, where the battle of the sexes is nearing the end and completely explicable.

4. Mission to the Stars by Phillip Kent

With a spacesuit straining in all the right places.

5. The Secrets of Synchronicity by Jonathan Fast

I’ve unlocked the mystery of the universe, but I can’t find my pants.

6. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

The magazine’s been around for over 60 years, publishing work by the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy — Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and more. We’re not sure what sort of throes this ginger-haired woman is in — maybe she’s just sleeping? — but obscuring nipples with star mist leaves just enough to the imagination.

7. The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Finger rocket sounds like a discreet name for a vibrator. Also, and more innocently, this cover reminds us of the trippy “Capital I” clip from the heyday of Sesame Street.

8. The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Gogt

In the year 2650 people have joysticks growing out of their skulls.

9. The Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock

If this had a soundtrack, it’d be by Led Zeppelin.

10. Times without Number by John Brunner

Is this shield-wielding, torch-headed warrior feathered? Beware of the master of subtitles.

11. Humanity Prime by Bruce McAllister

Translucent two-finned merman magic and turtle power is a winning combination every time.

12. Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Prolific, beloved sci-fi master Philip K. Dick returns to reality unraveling. The skull looks half-laughing, half-horrified, which is exactly as PKD provokes.

13. Rebels of the Red Planet by Charles L. Fontenay

This cover asks the timeless question: man, mutant, or martian. Take off your spacesuit and lemme get a look atcha!

14. UFO 517 by Bron Fane

That’s the first question we’re going to ask when we’re being chased by flying saucers: oh god, no, whence did they come? WHENCE DID THEY COME???!?!?

15. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Part Dalí nightmare, part Grateful Dead album cover art, this guitar-necked, wrench-handed creature looks like it’d be hard to ride.

16. Roscannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin

Is anyone else suddenly wondering why He-Man’s Battle Cat didn’t have wings?

17. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Ranked as a classic in the sci-fi cannon, the tarot-cardish cover has an ominous feel.

18. The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

Simple, striking, understated. A bomb at twilight.

19. The Probability Man by Brian N. Ball

High probability of horned weirdness and alien balling.

20. The Eighty-minute Hour by Brian Wilson Aldiss

Was this winged eggshell the real inspiration for Lady Gaga’s grand entrance at the Grammys?