Science fiction has a long, complicated history which, for the sake of my mental health, I will not go into here. Let’s suffice to say that it has been around for a long while, and is quite diverse. However, unlike the fantasy genre, which is all the rage these days, science fiction nowadays is more on the fringe, read mostly by science fiction geeks (a term which I use with affection). Maybe that is because we live in the future, that is the technology that people dreamed of during the Golden Age of science fiction is now a part of our everyday lives. Instead of dreaming about it, we are used to crazy ideas becoming a reality.
Taking a look at Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, published in 1978, this overview will show that, despite science fiction being on the fringe, the genre has nevertheless seen a development from its established genre look towards a more current, minimalistic design, just as its close relative, fantasy. Lets however start with the original cover for HHGTTG from 1978:
It is interesting how “normal” this cover looks, that is that there is nothing that reminds people of space, aliens or any kind of alien technology. Perhaps it’s because the book is based on a radio series which was quite famous, meaning that the title alone was enough to sell the book and it wasn’t necessary for the publisher to rely on a fancy cover to sell the book. This trend continues with later editions, such as this one from 1986:
It isn’t yet science fiction as we know it: the background isn’t immediately recognizable as space, nevertheless the font definitely belongs to the science fiction family. Science fiction as we know it, however, is apparent in this cover design from 1995:
Here we have background image of a galaxy, clearly signaling the genre, with science fiction typeface and a bold, green colour, all of which are indicators of science fiction. This is also a book which encompasses all five books of the series which are more often than not sold together in a single volume, as they are in this next one from 2002:
On this cover we find the aforementioned elements of science fiction, as well as an image that has been and will continue to be an icon for HHGTTG, such as on this 25th anniversary edition which was published in 2003. The cover was updated from an earlier version which was first published in 1984:
It is curious that instead of making a more contemporary cover for the celebration, the publisher chose to go back to the roots with this antiquated cover . It seems to be made for fans, instead of trying to reach a new or a different audience; like the other covers its focus is on space and the lunacy of the plot. On the other hand the idea might just be to make the book stand out as science fiction, an instantly recognizable bestseller, the classic from the late 70’s, which could explain why new editions look like they were made in the past, such as this one from 2004:
It makes sense to appeal to fans in this way, after all if they love science fiction they may very well be fans of the genre’s cover art, almost just as much as of the book itself.
Five years later the 30th anniversary was celebrated, proving what an iconic book this is (how many books do you know of that are celebrated every 5 years?). This time they had a little fun, the cover is quite simplistic for the genre and in comparison to previous covers of the book, however a limited edition was also developed where fans got a set of stickers with the book so that they could decorate their own cover as they wished. See first the anniversary cover:
And the subsequent four covers (the first one was the only one that came with stickers):
Those covers, published in 2008, are of course quite recent and one of the few versions of HHGTTG that have a modernized look. There are still some crazy, recognizable figures/objects on the cover but this series has toned down the previous lunacy of the older covers, maybe because of the anniversary (though that is not the case for the 25th version), maybe to link them to the fantasy literature that is selling well these days (these covers do resemble the Song of Ice and Fire/Hunger Games/Lord of the Rings look that has been discussed here before), or perhaps in the hopes of reaching a wider, more mainstream audience. The question is, is there a mainstream audience to reach?
Whether or not it is it has still appealed to designers to make an updated version of the series. These covers were designed by Rob McDonald who wanted to create ” a set of consistent, minimalist book covers”, seen here:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy has, as these examples show, gotten the contemporary, uncomplicated treatment, as has been the case with many other novels across genres. And yet, with the publication of the sixth HHGTTG novel, written by Eoin Colfer and published in 2009, the cover of this new book is just as crazy as the covers of the former book have ever been, complete with a galaxy background et al:
I believe that these types of covers are the right choice for the genre. The covers may sport brighter colours and bigger fonts to help sell the book online, but that does not mean that these covers shouldn’t look like science fiction and for that purpose I think it should always be obvious that the book takes place in space – just as I want to be able to pick out my Chick Lit novel at the airport on the basis of a girlish image, flowery font and pastel coloured covers alone.