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Powers of observation


In an unexpected confluence of two of my areas of interest, science fiction and graphic design, I discovered that design critic Rick Poynor has been waxing lyrical, over on Design Observer, about the surrealist cover paintings done by Richard Powers for so many science-fiction paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up on those covers. Although I knew nothing about surrealist art, nor for that matter about book design, I remember those Powers paintings as representing the mood and style of science fiction to me. They were very far from the rocketships and spacemen that might adorn a less sophisticated cover. It wasn’t until later that I learned who he was (it was rare for an artist’s credit to be included in those books), yet his visual imagination burned its way into my own, all unknowing.

Powers’s images were almost never representational; they were dreamlike and evocative, with flowing shapes, curving lines, and polished surfaces, floating in a limitless space of the mind.

Poynor takes off from a reference in the Guardian’s science fiction issue, where the editors asked a wide range of science fiction writers to describe their favorite novel or author; Christopher Priest wrote about J.G. Ballard’s early short-story collection, The Voices of Time (left). The cover of that Berkley paperback was classic Richard Powers; so was the (different) cover of a later reprinting (also from Berkley). This provides Poynor with a perfect jumping-off point.

The image to the left is not a swipe from the Guardian, but a scan of the cover of my own lovingly tattered copy of The Voices of Time. The only time I met Ballard, on a reading tour for Empire of the Sun, I had the pleasure of getting his autograph on this book that I had kept with me since I was a youthful sf reader.

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