While I’m plugging away steadily behind the scenes on my BSFA reading (more novel-blogging later) last night I took time out to inspect the shortlist for the Best Art Award, which the BSFA has thoughtfully published on the back of the booklet containing all the Best Short Fiction finalists. I rarely vote in the Best Art category, not least because I haven’t always seen all the nominations, so before all else, kudos to the BSFA for coming up with this neat idea.
Beyond the problem of tracking down copies of the nominations, I am never quite sure what criteria to use in deciding how to cast my votes in this category. Am I judging art qua art or should I really be thinking about whether the art is fit for purpose, that is to be a book or magazine cover. And if the latter, a further set of criteria come into play. Can I make a judgement about the book’s cover without reading the book? How important is the relationship between cover and content? And what about the input of the art director in designing the cover?
Questions, questions, and none of them easily answered.
Of the six nominated pieces, I own only two of the books involved, though one piece of art is from a magazine that has an online presence as well as being available through print-on-demand so the contents are accessible; however it’s clearly not going to be easy to make any judgements about relationships between cover and content without finding more time to read so I shall strike that criterion from the list.
Of the six pieces, five are presented on the booklet in their physical ‘cover’ form. When I went to the Crossed Genres website to see how they’d used the art online I found the piece had been severely cropped, with only the right-hand part of the panel being used on the issue’s ‘front page’. I am guessing that on the physical object the entire piece would form a wrap-round cover. The title is, unsurprisingly, in the black area at the top. In turn I have no idea what the designs of the other five covers originally looked like, so I don’t think I can usefully follow that line of reasoning.
Which brings me to how the covers look on the booklet’s back page. This line of enquiry is slightly impeded by the fact that each cover picture has a large number on it, which in three cases obscures the novel’s title, so black mark for that design failure, BSFA.
The two that immediately catch the eye are Joey hi-Fi’s cover design for Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City and Charlie Harbour’s cover for Gareth Owen’s Fun With Rainbows, with Adam Tredowski’s cover for Jeff Vandermeet’s Finch coming in third. I’ll put them to one side for a moment and think about the other covers and why they don’t capture my interest.
With Ben Greene’s cover for Crossed Genres issue 21, it’s a combination of colour palette, subject matter and technique. I really don’t like the sludgy colours or the smeary paint effects. The spacecraft are so generic they could have come from anywhere, while the tentacle-things are just that, tentacle-things, and equally generic. This doesn’t persuade me that the magazine’s contents are going to be anything more than ‘some science fiction’. (View the artwork in its entirety here.)
Andy Bigwood’s cover for Conflicts is as far from Greene’s cover as one could get in terms of technique and colour palette. I love the blues, greys and smoky pinks, and the actinic white highlights as well as the sense of ‘photo-reality’, but again the ships seem generic; I think immediately of Babylon 5 rip-offs. Between that and the title, I would be thinking this book is not really for me.
Moving on to Dominic Harman’s cover for Cat’s Cradle. I like the colour palette again, and the artist has either read the book or at least been briefed to know that one of the characters helped design an atomic bomb. However, my understanding is that the bomb is not germane to the novel’s main plot. The use of the cat’s cradle design is, I suspect, inevitable, but I worry about the pose of those hands. It hurts when I try to replicate that.
Also, this publicity shot shows something rather odd. The promotional quotation on the cover is about a Philip K Dick novel rather than anything by Vonnegut so I am assuming this is a still of a mock-up cover. I’ve not been able to get hold of a photo of the actual, physical book so, in fact, I’ve absolutely no idea what it really looks like. Even the Gollancz website shows the rogue version.
Next, Adam Tredowski’s cover for Finch. It is a bit of an oddity, this one. I don’t particularly like the palette. What I do like is the flavour of ‘City of Dreadful Night’ that it has, although I’m not actually sure how well that chimes with the novel itself (which was, incidentally, my best-of-year novel for 2010).
Which brings me to the Charlie Harbour and Joey Hi-Fi covers.
First, Harbour’s cover for Fun With Rainbows: something about the palette and the draughtsmanship of this makes me think of various early twentieth-century artists along with a flavour of late Arts and Crafts. It’s a ‘happy’ cover; I smile every time I look at it. I have absolutely no idea what relation if any it bears to the stories inside but I want to know about the story that goes with that picture.
However, Joey Hi-Fi’s cover for Zoo City is my winner in this category. I like the way that s/he integrates the book’s plot into the lettering and I like the black and white simplicity of it. Nothing distracts from the title at all. Yet focus in and in and in and there is so much going on.
So, this turns out to be the first category in which I can actually announce my voting intentions. I’ll be ranking the nominations thus:
1 – Joey Hi-FI for Zoo City
2 – Charlie Harbour for Fun With Rainbows
3 – Adam Tredowski for Finch
4 – Andy Bigwood for Conflicts
5 – Dominic Harman for Cat’s Cradle
6 – Ben Green for Crossed Genres 21
I wonder how the final result will compare.