The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

Click to viewSome of the most gorgeous, evocative, and strange science fiction art you've ever seen comes from the covers of novels written between 1904-33, in SF's "pre-Golden Age."

Readers, here is the long-awaited second installment in my Pre-Golden Age SF series. I can't afford first editions of PGA SF novels, but I've managed to collect images of their dustjackets and "boards" (as bookbinders call the paper- or cloth-covered stiff cardboard forming a book's covers). The following 10 SF novels boast the most thrilling and evocative cover (board or dustjacket) illustrations and design from 1904-33.

I invite your criticisms; please note, though, that this is a survey of PGA SF first editions. Later Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks don't count.

Pre-Golden Age SF's Top Ten Book Covers

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

1. Norman Matson's Doctor Fogg (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). A shy and retiring Chicago scientist manages to communicate with an advanced alien civilization, whose scientific secrets he refuses to share with Earth's flawed political powers; and he accidentally "broadcasts" a gorgeous naked blonde alien with whom he falls in love. What does the fun dustjacket illustration have to do with it? Nothing! But I love the speeding meteors, which converge cozily at the center of the image; the void of space absolutely chock-full of stars and planets; the awkwardness of the gentleman at top right compared with the insouciance of the woman beneath. I also admire the crimson-orange/navy blue/silver color scheme. Making the characters' hair, the men's neckties, the woman's dress the same color as the slightly italicized title? An inspired decision. NB: The board illustration is also super-cool: it's a silver planetoid with the words "Doctor Fogg" inside.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

2. Karel Čapek's Krakatit (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1925). An English translation of the Czech author's 1924 novel. A scientist discovers the most powerful explosive ever, but he refuses to share it with (see above) Earth's flawed political powers. The Art Deco jacket design captures both the excitement and terror of such a discovery. The stylish typeface says, "Not to worry, the future is awesome!" But K. Romney Towndrow's artwork - an explosion rending the very planet in half - says, "Yes, worry." Still, this is a satire, so we're not encouraged to take things too seriously; the illustration kinda reminds us of limelights in a canyon of skyscrapers. It's as though we were approaching a 1925 Hollywood movie opening, perhaps Marion Fairfax's The Lost World. Fun facts: The book was adapted as a 1947 movie (d. Otakar Vávra) and a 1960 opera (Václav Kašlík); both are supposed to be tremendous. The 1925 US edition of Krakatit has a more restrained, but still fun, jacket.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

3. Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1917). I'm not impressed with the original book jacket illustrations for Burroughs's Barsoom series. Sure, they feature lone heroes confronting hordes of alien warriors, not to mention half-naked damsels menaced by multi-limbed aliens, but... Frank Frazetta's later work on the same titles demonstrates just how tame the original jacket illustrations were. They make the swords-and-sandals-in-space genre feel middlebrow and uplifting, which is precisely what we hi-lobrows do not enjoy. Peel away the Barsoomian jackets, though, and you'll often find more compelling boards underneath. A Princess of Mars was Burroughs's first published story - it was serialized in 1912, under a pseudonym - and everything great about his writing is captured here. That Arts & Crafts typeface, so pseudo-medieval and chivalrous! That red planet, so mysterious and alluring! Stop the world, Edgar, I want to get off.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

4. L. Frank Baum's Tik-Tok of Oz (Reilly & Britton, Chicago, 1914). Illustrated - like 39 of the 40 canonical Oz editions - by John R. Neill, Baum's picaresque concerns the efforts of the Shaggy Man (a proto-hippie who disdains all possessions except his Love Magnet) to rescue his brother from the Nome King. Tik-Tok, a copper-bodied clockwork man, first appeared in Ozma of Oz (1907), then starred in a 1913 stage musical. In this book, despite Neill's sweet, startling dustjacket illustration, Tik-Tok is (as ever) an emotionless though fiercely loyal servant. Exactly like Karel Čapek's flesh-and-blood "robots." Fun fact: Though often described as the first robot to appear in modern literature (if you don't count living-metal creatures, like the golden maidservants who attend Hephaestus in The Iliad, that is), Tik-Tok was preceded by Edward S. Ellis's Steam Man of the Prairies in 1868.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

5. Rudyard Kipling, With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D. (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909). This SF novella by Kipling - best known for The Jungle Book, Kim, and the Just-So Stories - first appeared in McClure's magazine in 1905. In 2000, lighter-than-air craft traverse the globe; the plot follows a mail dirigible on its adventures. Never Kippled? This ain't the place to start. However, Kipling did get so excited by his own nerdy vision that the book's appendices include ersatz instructions to aviators, not to mention advertisements for imaginary dirigible and aeronautical products. Detailed illustrations and pictorial endpapers make this a gorgeous production, indeed. "A beautiful object, most strange and peculiarly inspiring," writes one rare bookseller, of the 1909 Night Mail. The same could be said of the gilt-and-silver zeppelin that materializes - Millennium Falcon-like - from the star-spangled indigo depths of the book's cloth-covered boards. Wow!

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

6. Olaf Stapledon's Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (Methuen & Co., Ltd., London, 1935). Perhaps my favorite Argonaut Folly fiction, Odd John concerns the efforts of an international band of teenage and twentysomething "supernormals" (or "wide-awakes") to form an island colony, where they can devote themselves to "world-building" ("individualistic communism," not to mention the founding of a new mutant species) and "intelligent worship." The jacket illustration captures Stapledon's notion of the titular John: half-child and half-philosopher, ruthless but not malicious, "a creature which appeared as urchin but also as sage, as imp but also as infant deity," a fallen angel with a face that is "half monkey, half gargoyle, yet wholly urchin, with its huge cat's eyes, its flat little nose, its teasing lips." Cue David Bowie: "Look at your children/See their faces in golden rays/Don't kid yourself they belong to you/They're the start of a coming race." Homo Superior, that is.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

7. E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922). More admired than read, Ouroboros is a linguistically adventurous saga recounting the infinite war between the king of Witchland and the lords of Demonland... on the planet Mercury. Call it Nietzschean SF: somewhere out there, the author would have us believe, another world is possible, one in which the self-overcoming values and worldview of Roman, Arab, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, and Scandinavian Vikings will never be corrupted. (As Lord Juss puts it: "For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction, than thus live out our lives like cattle fattening for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants.") The end of Eddison's novel is also its beginning, hence the title and Keith Henderson's heavy-metal jacket illustration - a snake devouring itself tail-first. Like they so often do in medieval engravings, Celtic sculptures, Egyptian scrolls, Aztec glyphs, and on Agent Scully's lower back. Wish I could afford a 1st edition.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

8. George Babcock, Yezad: A Romance of the Unknown (Bridgeport, Conn. & New York: Co-Operative Publishing Co., Inc., 1922). Almost as much as I love the Satan-vs.-Martians jacket illustration ("from painting by the author"), I love the novel's description: "Highly eccentric romance of reincarnation, which includes an account of the colonization of the Moon by near-perfect humans of Mars and the unhappy circumstances of the descent of our ancestors to Earth." Mars, it seems, was once a technologically advanced utopia. Then, 20 million years ago, it lost its atmosphere, so the Martians relocated - but, in doing so, degenerated into our beast-like ancestors. (Isn't this the plot of Jack Kirby's The Eternals? And Scientology?) As for the devil on the dustjacket, the occult point of Babcock's novel is to inform us that we are divided creatures, within whom Bonality and Malality (good and bad aspects) struggle. Moral: Don't let Malality triumph, or it might break Martian-filled eggs with its pitchfork.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

9. Harold Steele Mackaye, The Panchronicon (Scribner, New York, 1904). I'm informed that The Panchronicon concerns a pair of New Hampshire spinsters who are given the opportunity to travel through time via a solar-powered airship-thing from the 27th-century. See, first you fly the Panchronicon to the North Pole; then you orbit the Earth widdershins (anti-sunwise, like Christopher Reeve does in the 1978 Superman); and presto, you're in 16th-century England, where you're able to disprove the Bacon-was-Shakespeare theory. Meanwile, your drunken shipmate, Copernicus Droop, can attempt to patent the phonograph and the bicycle. Sounds fun... but as you've perhaps intuited, I'm not convinced that the book is actually worth the effort of reading. Still, the cover board illustration is awesome. If this is what 27th-century time-travel technology looks like - part houseboat from Arthur Ransome's Big Six, part Terry Gilliam machine, part Owlship - then western civilization is inarguably headed in the best of all possible directions. Sign me up.

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

10. E.V. Odle, The Clockwork Man (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1923). "Of the many works of scientific romance that have fallen into utter obscurity," writes Brian Stableford, in Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950, "this is perhaps the one which most deserves rescue." Eight thousand years from now, advanced humanoids known as the Makers will implant clockwork devices into our heads, devices which permit us to move through time and space - at the cost of a certain amount of agency. If one of these devices should go awry, a "clockwork man" might appear in the 1920s, at a cricket match in a small English village, behaving strangely. Worse, like the titular character in Philip K. Dick's 1969 story "The Electric Ant," the clockwork man might tinker with his own mechanism. Bad idea! NB: This book is extremely rare; I've never seen a copy for under $500... and that's without the dustjacket. The illustration is like a Bildungsroman cover re-jiggered by Hannah Höch. Cool.

Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based freelance journalist and independent scholar, who writes frequently about science fiction. His most recent book is The Idler's Glossary.

AFTERWORD

Since publishing the first post in this series, I've been inundated with suggestions about terrific-sounding novels from 1904-33 concerned with, for example, Artificial Life, Homo Superior, Mad Scientists, Outer Space, and Lost Worlds. Commenting on my Top Ten Apocalypses post, for example, io9 reader Mathmos suggested:

It doesn't fit the Apocalypse category, but I like the title: The Devolutionist and the Emancipatrix by Homer Eon Flint.

A Francophone friend of mine emailed to say:

Don't forget Gustave Le Rouge (1867-1938). Friend of Verlaine, influence on Cendrars and on the Surrealists. Best books take premises from Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs and go crazy. A war fought mostly in the air (before 1914) between rival Mormon millionaires in Utah vying for control of sub-Atlantic railroad lines! A sculptor of human flesh! The planet Mars ruled by a Great Brain and populated by vampires!

The Most Amazing Book Covers from Pre-Golden Age SF

And a fellow PGA SF aficionado forwards these lines from Amazon or Wikipedia:

Leo Saint-Clair, alias the Nyctalope, was created in 1911 by Jean de La Hire, one of France's most prolific serial writers. Gifted with night vision, hypnotic powers and an artificial heart, Saint-Clair is a fearless hero who battles colorful super-villains.... In The Nyctalope on Mars (1911), Leo faces the megalomaniacal Oxus, master of the secret society of the Fifteen, who is plotting to conquer Earth from his secret base on Mars. After defeating the Fifteen, the Nyctalope must then face an ever more fearsome foe: H. G. Wells' Martians.

All of which makes me worry: What have I overlooked? How can I declare which Alien Invasion and Cosmic Perspective novels from 1904-33 are the best of their kind before I've read Gustave Le Rouge's Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars, and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Land of Mist? I'm going to read these two books, among others, before New Year's Eve. I'll be back, newly confident and opinionated, next month. But keep the suggestions coming.

Happy New Year! And please stay tuned.