Leaving the Sci-Fi Book Covers Behind

By Neal Comment

Halting State in US and UK editions

I was looking up something to do with this year’s Hugo Award nominations over the weekend when I caught a glimpse of the cover to Orbit‘s UK edition of Charles Stross‘s Halting State, one of the five candidates in the best novel category. As you can see from the illustration above, the playful avatars in that cover are radically different from the digitized high-fantasy look of Ace‘s American edition, which is largely consistent with the look and feel the publisher has given to earlier Stross novels like Accelerando and Glasshouse. And it’s a fine enough sci-fi cover, but there’s still a part of me that wonders if Orbit’s approach might not more accurately reflect the novel’s near-future setting and ironic humor—ideally, Halting State, like Ken MacLeod‘s The Execution Channel a few months back, was a strong enough thriller that it could easily appeal to a mainstream audience. Sure, both novels are set in the near future, and both have distinct and unabashed science-fictional elements, but they’re set in a reality that is readily recognizable as a mild variation of our present situation; the line separating Stross and MacLeod (at least in these works) from, say, William Gibson‘s Pattern Recognition and Spook Country is razor-thin. And the Orbit cover gets that; it’s the kind of illustration that could go on any hip commercial novel of the moment.

Put it another way: For those of you reading this who aren’t science fiction fans, which of the two book covers above would more effectively motivate you to at least check out the flap copy, maybe even the first couple pages, if you saw it face-out at a bookstore?

Actually, now that I think of it, since Orbit was also the British publisher of The Execution Channel, it might be worthwhile to see how their cover for that novel compares with the one produced by Tor, which published it here in the States. Again, Orbit recognizes a science-fiction novel with strong crossover potential—and I think Tor understood those possibilities as well. (You’ll notice that both employed the same pitch to thriller fans in the tagline: “The war on terror is over. Terror won.”)

The Execution Channel in US and UK editions

And I should stress something here: Neither Stross nor MacLeod is achieving the crossover appeal by diluting the science-fictional aspects of their work. These are both full-on SF novels; the Hugo nomination for Stross, along with MacLeod’s presence on both the British Science Fiction Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlists, is ample proof of that, if any is needed. But they are also excellent technothrillers as well, which with the right momentum could easily appear on mainstream bestseller lists. Don’t be surprised if subsequent novels by either author make that leap.