Book covers have been telling us to fear extraterrestrial visitors for over a century

Our total destruction at the hands (or tentacles) of alien visitors has been gloriously featured on book covers since the dawn of science fiction. Writing in Granta Magazine, Jeremy Sheldon explores why so many book covers feature horrifying extraterrestrials.

That we should fear extraterrestrial beings in real life makes perfect sense. Consider that for this first face-to-face contact to take place, it will require either ‘them' or ‘us' (or both) to have travelled astronomical distances: several tens of light years at the very least, if not considerably farther.

If one remembers that a space shuttle at top speed currently travels at only one two-thousandth the speed of light, the terrifying nature of such an encounter becomes clear: if they can get to us before we can get to them, it's a certainty that they will be technologically vastly superior to us and that we will be at the mercy of whatever moral imperatives they have. Stephen Spielberg certainly communicated this sense of human powerlessness in the face of an extraterrestrial war machine in his 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Book covers have been telling us to fear extraterrestrial visitors for over a century

But a look at the covers of various editions of the novel show that our effortless destruction has been just as effortlessly visualized for over a century. The simple, almost playful malice exuded by the monochrome robots on the cover an 1899 Dutch edition finds similar expression in the cartoon lines of a 1962 Penguin edition. An Irish edition from 1934 sits somewhere in between, with its regimented onslaught of Tripods grinding through the cartoon flames of a destroyed landscape.

Book covers have been telling us to fear extraterrestrial visitors for over a century

No wonder, then, given the danger extraterrestrial life probably presents to us, that the human space travellers of our narratives are so often portrayed as warrior heroes and heroines. The visual representation of this ‘heroism' on the covers of extraterrestrial literature has often been robust, the artists given to focusing on the more gung-ho aspects of the characters and story-lines they seek to represent: tooled-up ‘badasses' ready to ‘take it' to the alien races of space. Yet, a more abstract view of the same heroic impulse has proliferated at the same time – for every cover bearing a body-armoured space grunt wielding some stupendous energy rifle, there seems to be a more elegant counterpart.

Book covers have been telling us to fear extraterrestrial visitors for over a century

Perhaps these covers with their offering of space as the ultimate ‘unknown' propel us readers towards a truth that underpins the genre: that the aliens we fear so much ‘out there' can only be projections of what we fear about and within our earthly selves. Space may not so much be a void of nothingness as a void of nothing: nothing that we can adequately foresee, or for which we can adequately prepare.

Looking at the covers of various novels, it's not hard to spot what the critic Timothy Beal calls a ‘public rite of exorcism in which our looming sense of unease is projected in the form of a monster and then blown away'.

This is an excerpt from a longer article by Jeremy Sheldon which originally appeared in Granta Magazine, as part of Granta's special themed issue about Aliens,.