Paperback Art

Romance, surrender, rescue. The girl in the boy’s arms. The girl in the robot’s arms or the monster’s fist. Screaming, swooning, terror, ecstasy. The very stuff of movies, harlequin novels, trashy drama. Guilty pleasures.

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Why is the Asimov cover image (seen above) uninspiring, whereas The Forbidden Planet poster is fun, saucy and weird? The tilted perspective, the grinning face, the bathing beauty–is she an astronaut or an extra from a Tarzan movie who walked onto the wrong set? No pretence at realism here. Enter loveable Robbie the Robot, stick in a Chinese pagoda, fainting women, Grand Canyon rock forms, and it is, as advertised, amazing. The movie sadly does not live up–how could it?

Cover art: E. Gorinstein

Compare this delightful cover illustration by E. Gorinstein from the 2002 J’ai Lu edition of Les robots (I added the English title pun). Here we see robot not as alien monster but rather robot as funky car. Its eyes serve as headlights, antenna as steering wheel/ gear shift, chin plate as pedal. The astronaut looks bored for a space cowboy, which adds to the humour. This is not an astonishing adventure but something he does every day. Like operating a backhoe. The purple Ziggy Stardust spacesuit adds a note of style. The illustration depicts one of the early stories in Asimov’s vision of human-robotic symbiosis and delightfully conveys Isaac Asimov’s humour of robot psychology.

Expedition_to_earth.BallantineEdition 1953, Cover Art Richard Powers

 

Illustrator Richard Powers

The most versatile and experimental of science fiction illustrators. A complete illustrated list of his book covers can be found on the invaluable site, Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Early work owes a debt to surrealism. Later work makes use of paint splatter and collage. This 1953 cover illustrates Clarke’s story The Sentinal, the starting point for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A monolith, depicted as an irregular undulating pyramid, is shown on the surface of the moon with the Earth in the distance beyond. The monolith raises the question: is it a natural form or a manufactured object? An ant-sized human figure throwing a giant shadow appears on the horizon under a hovering blimp-like eye.

 

Case of Conscience, 1958. Cover Art by Richard Powers

Starship Troopers, 1959. Cover art Paul Lehr

Here is another cover by Richard Powers. In the story, missionaries and scientists establish a colony on a remote planet with few natural resources valuable to humans, except for a substance used in the making of nuclear bombs. The colonists debate whether they should reveal the truth to other humans or suppress it.

Abstract expressionism, atomic structures in a novel obsessed with Cold War posturing. Both an anthropological approach to SF, and a religious fable, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is cited by Orson Scott Card as a strong influence for his novel Speaker for the Dead. 

 

 

Cover art Paul Lehr

The insect-like space craft with its dark cavernous shadow, monumental in scale next to the uneven line of waiting figures, produces a bizarre effect, as in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. We ask what is it, in this confrontation with the unknown. The green sky with blue clouds suggests an alien atmosphere. The yellow fire on the horizon is all that distinguishes sky from ground. The luminance of the wash, the hard sheen of metal, the contrast of scale, all give this design a graphic punch that matches the drive and gusto of Heinlein’s writing.

Cover Art by Bob Pepper

 

 

 

Illustrator Bob Pepper

Just how do you illustrate a Philip K. Dick novel anyway? Using a Pop Art approach, as in this illustration by Bob Pepper, is not a bad idea. Pop Art is linked to the mass consumption of a consumer society. Pop Art is often produced using similar methods of mass reproduction like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. Other artists mix Pop icons with Op Art, using bright colours, bold semi-abstract patterns suggesting psychedelic material or attitudes of mind, as well as an ecclectic sensibility that is as open to comic books as it is to Eastern mysticism. In this illustration, Pepper shows the mask-like features of a face barely covering a skeleton and robotic gears, from which seem to pour a parade of clone-like sheep. It immediately makes one think: does a robot have a mind and if so how human is that mind? What exactly are we looking at here? Man or machine? This is the very ambiguity that underlines Dick’s novel.

Album Cover Art by Bob Pepper

Remember a time when people got pleasure just looking at an album cover? More on artist Bob Pepper can be found here.

Popular movies, books and art share ideas and strategies for conveying other worlds. Experiments with visual styles, such as surrealism and Pop Art, unite books of the future with the period in which they were created. The references to Fine Art push a once-marginal genre to new levels of respectability. Pulp art is fun, pushing proprieties of tastefulness. Modern art is innovative, pushing boundaries of aesthetic experience. Science fiction cover art draws on both, adopting visually daring designs to match the unconventional ideas found inside the covers.

Cover art: Richard Powers

The Life & Death of Robots

 

RUR dick

Left: Robots revolt in RUR. Right: Signet edition of Dick's novel with cover art by Bob Pepper..

The word “robot” was introduced in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),1921, derived from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labour. The Webster dictionary also notes the Old Bulgarian word rabu, meaning servant. The robot was first conceived as a mechanical slave or appliance with some human resemblance. In the George Lucas film Star Wars, 1977, the lovable robots R2D2 and C3P0 are comic foils to the main action—they are garrulous servants from a tradition of comic theatre, characters who see all and yet have limited power or influence. In the play R.U.R., the robots become dissatisfied with their role as servants and stage a violent rebellion, during which all humans are killed except one. The one surviving human is then asked to make more robots, but he does not know how. The robots become conscious of their own inevitable demise. This consciousness of death, and the fear that accompanies it, elevates the robots to a human-like condition.

Karel Čapek.self-caricature

Karel Čapek. Self-portrait.

R.U.R. could be read as a Golem-like story of an artificial being, (The Golem, a silent horror film set in Prague starring Paul Wegener, was released in 1920). The Golem is a would-be protector and saviour who turns against the community it was designed to help. R.U.R. adds to this basic scenario a vision of a terrible genocide. The play exists historically between Henry Ford’s assembly-line automation process (unlike the Golem, the robots in R.U.R. are mass produced) and Hitler’s mad notions of eugenics. Capek died of double pneumonia in 1938, a few months before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Unaware of Capek’s death, the Nazi secret police made a futile effort to arrest him. Unfortunately, the Nazis did capture Capek’s brother Joseph, a cubist artist, who died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The robot in literature reflects ambivalent attitudes toward technology at this time.

Actress Sean Young plays android Rachael Rosen in Blade Runner, 1982 (dir: Ridley Scott)

Actress Sean Young plays android Rachael Rosen in Blade Runner, 1982 (dir: Ridley Scott)

The film Blade Runner, 1982, inspired by the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968 by Philip K. Dick, advances the idea of robot mortality and self-consciousness from R.U.R. The name of one of the androids in the film is Rachael Rosen, which may be a reference to the Rossum in Rossum’s Universal Robots. Rossum, the inventor of the robot in R.U.R., derives his name from the Czech word rozum, meaning reason, intellect. In Blade Runner, the androids are so human-like, and have such vivid in-built memories, that it is almost impossible for them to believe they are not human. As a safety measure, the android’s creator Tyrel has programmed the androids to a four-year life span. In this story the androids rebel not so much at their harsh treatment by humans as at the cruel brevity of the life that they do have. However painful and difficult the android existence is, they want more of it.

 

Low Tech Robots

 

Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

How fitting that in Holland, land of windmills, an artist has created large wind-powered robots! Dutch kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen combines a vivid artistic imagination with a background in science to create fantastic mobile creations. Made of plastic ribs, flexible pneumatic tubes, sails and sensors, Jansen uses computer simulations to perfect his designs before taking them for trial runs on the beaches of Holland. As the artworks lumber into motion, one sees slow-gaited giants, looking like extraterrestrial visitors, moving in herd-like unison. The artist refers to them simply as Strandbeesten, beach-animals. His ultimate aim, stated at a TED conference in 2007, is to make the organisms independent so that they can survive on the beach for long periods without the artist’s assistance. “A good advantage of the animals is they don’t have to eat–they eat the wind,” Jansen says. “That’s why they might have a chance on the beaches: There’s a lot of wind, not much food.” This is robotics without motors or computer chips, living not in outer space, not in factories or labs, but in an unsupervised ocean wilderness. The world of Philip K. Dick has arrived! In 1968 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Dick predicted that with the mass extinction of mammals from our planet, people would turn to robotic pets and virtual animals for comfort. Thanks Kate for bringing this artist to my attention.

To contrast this wind-powered artwork with another, here’s a work by New York artist Joshua Allen Harris, Polar Bears.


I find it telling that the above two videos feature artists in the context of ads; one promotes BMW cars and the other promotes public transport. Both artworks seem to be inspired by the rapid extinction of animals from our planet; both artworks explore the relationship between an artwork and the environment it is placed in, using wind power to bring inanimate structures to life. Both use common materials. Jansen’s work suggests the limitless possibilities of ingenious engineering. Harris’s work combines humour with pathos, using the onrushing wind from an unseen subway train to suggest a momentary breath of life. His mother bear and cub make a modest and fleeting appearance, and their loss of air and slow collapse reminds the viewer of the fragility of all life forms.