The art of the science fiction book cover has a problem: it seems to be stuck in infancy. This is strange, considering the fact that science fiction writers have done their best to bootstrap the “genre” into a genuinely expansive literary form. The whole point of the New Wave movement in the 1960s and ‘70s was to bust SF out of the genre ghetto, and, for the most part, those writers were successful. To read one of Michael Moorcock’s “Cornelius” stories (written from the mid-60s to the present) is to read a story as strange, wonderful and literary as anything written by a so-called mainstream writer. To read a mainstream novel by, say, Thomas Pynchon, is to likewise plunge into a speculative world as fraught with paranoid unlikeliness as any great SF story.
But publishers, and the artists they hire to dress SF books and magazines, are stuck in a time warp—somewhere around 1932, the stylistics of SF art ceased to mature. This isn’t to say that all SF art is bad—it just doesn’t suit the subject matter being illustrated. And some of it is bad—the cover of the recently reissues classic of feminist dystopian SF by Pamela Sargent, The Shore of Women, is draped in a lurid, cartoonish cover that betrays the profound philosophical artistry of the novel it covers. Which is unfortunate, because even though we constantly remind ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, we do indeed make such judgments.
Slawek Wojtowicz’s artwork is in the “not all bad” group. Many of the images reproduced (if that’s the right word for digital art that has no original) in Daydreaming are fascinating. But Wojtowicz, too, seems to have leapt from 1932, and an assignment for a cover of Amazing Stories, to the present without having really read what’s been written in between. And that’s nuts, because Slawek Wojtowicz is an avid reader of SF. His web site features interviews with Asimov (OK, maybe that explains it—if there ever was a guy stuck in his childhood, it was the late Isaac), Ursula Le Guin (one of the great literary innovators of SF), and David Brin (a brainy writer of literate thrillers).
Among historically-minded literary critics, it’s commonly acknowledged that SF has its origins in the Gothic of the seventeenth century. Exotic landscapes, bizarre architecture, characters with magical powers (recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism about any science sufficiently advanced looks like magic) who straddle the line between good and evil, the play of dark and light in both the literal sense as well as of mood (think of Poe)—all of this is the genetic backdrop of modern SF. But to read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, or any story by Le Guin, shows just how far the literary art has come. The subtle play of light and dark in Le Guin’s Earthsea books are far removed from the in-your-face starkness of Poe’s “Usher.” The architectural wonder of the starship in Bear’s Eon is, literally, light years from the grotesque of Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables.
Slawek Wojtowicz’s art is done on a computer (and he offers a very brief tutorial on “the making of” at the end of the book). Using Photoshop as a basic studio, he also employs Bryce for texture mapping, and Poser for rendering 3D human figures. It’s great stuff, if you haven’t outgrown the childhood of SF’s Gothic past. His shadows are in high contrast, as if a blazing desert sun shone just out of the frame, even when a galaxy-strewn night sky figures at the top of the frame (see the image on the cover for an example). Because texture mapping is so easy using Bryce, we get a man with a leopard skin, a granite hand, a nude woman with gold skin... Some of this is lovely, even provocative, but much of it is simply garish. Because Photoshop makes blending images with varying degrees of transparency so easy, we get an overindulgence in impossible landscapes—a sun shining through an ocean, for example. The term for this sort of art is “eye candy.” We’re supposed to accept it as highly imaginative—and some of it is, as in the billionaire lounging in the cup of a flower growing out of a richly textured stone wall—but a lot of it is geeky and cartoonish, the kind of stuff made possible by a Pentium 4 (or a Power Mac—whatever!) and lots of RAM. And where texture mapping, if used judiciously, can make a digital image truly appear organic, a lot of Wojtowicz’s creates dissonance: the rich textures hover on supposedly rock formations that are too precise to be found in any natural environment. The eye cries out, “Drag that formation into Illustrator and throw a Roughen filter on it!”
But most of all, the eye begs artists and designers, and the publishers they work for, to grow up. Study graphic design with the Dutch, where less is more. “Surrealism” doesn’t mean two or more incongruous images jammed together in the same frame; it’s a psychology of enlightenment, so study the covers (and the contents!) of books published by City Lights to understand that strategy. Take a walk through the world and actually study the play of light on faces and surfaces, and quit twiddling the knobs in Photoshop in a darkened room. We need an SF art as mature as the literature it works for. When, in an interview, Slawek Wojtowicz asked Le Guin “What do you think about SF and Fantasy art?” all she could do was politely answer, “Not much.” Enough said.