Observer: The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

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What happened to science-fiction graphics?

There was a time when people turned to science-fiction-minded graphic artists to discover what the future would look like. Mid-20th-century visionaries were wild in their imagination, grandiose in their optimism, and, in hindsight, more than a bit unhinged. Frank R. Paul’s “City of the Future,” published on the back cover of Amazing Stories in April 1942, is one of the most spectacular of these illustrations. “What will the city of tomorrow be like?” asks the magazine’s blurb. “Here is the giant plastic, metal, and unbreakable glass city of the 21st century. A city of science, of atomic power, of space travel, and of high culture.”

Paul had studied architecture, and though his towering red spires topped by transparent globes possessed undeniable pizzazz, no one ever built them. The 21st-century future doesn’t look remotely like one of his machine-baroque cityscapes—not even in Shanghai or Dubai—and we have good reason to doubt it ever will. Who wants to see traffic jams of flying cars anyway?

It’s not that we have given up on science fiction now. Effects-driven Hollywood movies can’t get enough of it. There’s no need to linger on Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, or the pointless remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. But some recent SF films—Children of Men, Moon, District 9, Splice, Never Let Me Go, Monsters—show that it’s still possible to make intelligent science fiction for a broad audience. There is plenty to fault in Avatar’s trite story line, and it was strange to see so much corporate cash pumped into a full-throated critique of rapacious American capitalism and the military-industrial complex. Even so, James Cameron’s film was a stratospheric feat of digital image-crafting, beaming out a signal that many more sci-fi fantasias lie ahead.

In theory, the renewed cultural prevalence of science fiction should have spurred a new wave of SF graphics. It might have done so if by-the-numbers film marketing didn’t have graphic invention locked in its alien death grip. Publishing was where the SF image used to flourish, but science fiction is a shadow of the beast it was in its heyday—from Paul’s arrival on the pulps in the 1920s until the ’70s. I speak as a caring offshore friend when I say that contemporary American science-fiction book covers are a graphic disgrace. Take a defiantly antiquated style of SF “realism” that only a fanboy could cherish and slap some misbegotten type across it. That’s the formula. Even Eastern Europe under Communism managed better than this. America has brilliantly resourceful cover designers who could reinvent and rebrand the genre overnight if their sensitive feelers were allowed anywhere near it. Mainstream literary novels boast cover concepts based on collage, fragmentation, and counterintuitive type combos that would be perfect for many post-1960s science-fiction titles.

A visit to the science-fiction section of the Book Cover Archive website gives an indication of how little there is to celebrate. The most impressive recent covers are a series of reprints created in 2009 by Sanda Zahirovic for the U.K. publisher Gollancz. While these are ingenious designs, each one based on monochromatic paper shapes, cutouts, and constructions, the concept could just as readily be applied to other genres of fiction. Zahirovic deals with the problem of contriving a contemporary science-fiction image by sidestepping it.

Compare these solutions to the series produced by the great Italian designer Franco Grignani for Penguin in 1969 and 1970—for Ray Bradbury’s The Day It Rained Forever, Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, and 13 other titles. As James Pardey, creator of the excellent Art of Penguin Science Fiction site, observes, these kaleidoscopic, single-color photographic experiments “are like a free association of thoughts mapped out in watery reflections that briefly coalesce and disperse.” The images are metaphorical futures rendered in the hallucinogenic visual style of the late 1960s, and they helped to expand readers’ perception of what science fiction could be.

Science fiction is most interesting and relevant when it also says something about today. Breathless futurism no longer works as commentary because the future hasn’t turned out as early-20th-century technological dreamers imagined. Laptops, iPhones, and social networks coexist with a dysfunctional economic system and a public realm that threatens to fall apart. Bruce Sterling, a SF novelist with a perceptive take on design, uses two catchy memes to describe the phase we are in now—“Gothic High-Tech” and “Favela Chic.” Gothic High-Tech, marked as an era of decay and repurposing, represents the “analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. . . . The ruins of the unsustainable.” Favela Chic, a phrase derived from the favela slum, is the “informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the 21st century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality.”

The 2009 film District 9 has elements of both ideas. What could be more oppressively gothic than the vast and grungy-looking spacecraft that floats like extraterrestrial garbage above Johannesburg? The slum below is full of aliens from the ship, who are segregated and despised by the city dwellers as “prawns,” who are fully networked with the local criminals and not as dumb as their human hosts like to think. On this occasion, a strong concept became the launch pad for highly effective graphics derived from the film’s (at least metaphorically) plausible world. Ignition Print created a “Humans Only” campaign based on warning signs illustrating the aliens (“Bus bench for humans only”), and there was a troubling poster showing the outline of a “nonhuman target” splattered with bullet holes.

Since the debris of the past is still with us, and the future has yet to deliver all the clean-lined replacement fittings and fixtures we were led to expect, it can hardly be a surprise that there has been a lot of “repurposing” of old and defunct imagery going on. (In 2010, the illustration magazine Varoom! ran a feature about the trend, bracingly titled “The Future Is Junk.”) SF imagery of the 1970s is a rich seam of inspiration for some graphic artists now. Avatar’s planet, Pandora, with its exotically spangled fauna, sinuous canopy of trees, and gravity-defying rock formations, bears a close resemblance to the otherworldly fantasies of Roger Dean’s 1970s album covers for the prog-rockers Yes. Dan McPharlin, an Australian graphic artist, has likewise updated the limpid atmosphere and sharp, flowing lines of Dean’s work in a way that seems totally of our time. The 1973 Czech/French animated film Fantastic Planet also seems a likely visual source.

“I love clashes, strange juxtapositions,” McPharlin told an interviewer from an Australian website. “Things like Victorian-era mechanics brushed up against ’60s modernist design. Reimagining the past can often be just as interesting as forecasting the future.” His becalmed space vehicles have the awesome psychic presence and stillness of monu
mental sculptures fabricated from the pipes and vessels of industrial boilers and refineries. In other illustrations for magazines and album covers, lone explorers in space suits survey the terra incognita of mysterious dream worlds far from home. (Surrealism is another influence.) Somehow, McPharlin takes scenarios that had been drained of graphic vitality long before man had so much as set foot on the moon and breathes new air into them. In the 1960s and ’70s, rival SF publishers would have been duking it out with phasers for the chance to commission such a masterly image-maker.

There is still plenty of old-school, time-warped space-fantasy art around, though I have preferred not to dwell on it here. Sophisticated SF art such as McPharlin’s operates simultaneously on multiple planes. Right now, speculative art is preoccupied by past glories and what we used to imagine the future would be. Sterling thinks that the era of Gothic High-Tech and Favela Chic will eventually pass. When the culture moves on, graphic art about the future will evolve too. ▪

Illustration by Valero Doval.