Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss by Rian Hughes and Chris Foss
Published by Titan Books, May 2011
Review by Mark Yon
The title page of this large format art book sums up the background to this book. There is, across the large double page, a row of over fifty books, their spines showing. These include books by Isaac Asimov, James Blish, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, AE van Vogt, Edmund Cooper, Jack Vance, JG Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Piers Anthony and books in the Perry Rhodan series.
For much of the 1970’s and 1980’s Chris Foss was THE cover artist for SF in the UK. His paintings adorned most of Isaac Asimov’s paperback covers, including the iconic Foundation trilogy, Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, and James Blish’s Cities in Space series. He was an artist whose covers were a sign of a quality read, or at least they were to the teenage me. I’ve mentioned in the SFFWorld blog how important those covers were to me at that time, when I would buy a book on the strength of its Foss cover.
Awesomely sized and detailed spaceships and buildings with people reduced to the size of mere dots, brightly painted in lines and stripes and with backgrounds not just of black, blue and grey, but vibrant greens, yellows and reds, Chris’s work is a triumphant sign of technology. It’s not by accident that this book is called Hardware.
Sadly, over time, finding a book with a collection of these iconic covers has been difficult. Since saving up my pocket money to buy 21st Century Foss in 1980, a slim 140-odd pages, there has not been a collection of Chris’s work. Something which I, and I’m sure many other fans, have bemoaned.
This latest large format art book from Titan Books puts this right. Over its 240 pages, there are more than 500 paintings from Chris’s career, mostly in energetic colour.
As well as the pictures, there are some details included to fill out the artist’s CV. The Introduction, by Rian Hughes, sums up much of what is great about Chris’s paintings. Then there is an interview with Chris by his daughter Imogene, which gives us a career summary and points to future work from Chris: he’s still working. There are also two Forewords – one by artist Moebius, writing about the artistic influence Chris has had on today’s artists, and one by Alejandro Jodorowsky, updating the Introduction he first wrote in 21st Century Foss.
Not all of the material here is SF in nature: there are pictures from book covers Chris did for war books and other media events. This includes not only his book cover work but also his production sketches from Alien and Superman and the first ill-fated Dune film production in 1975.
As is the nature of such collections, not all of the pictures are great – I never did appreciate his cover for JG Ballard’s Crash, for example – but most of them are still as visually stunning as when I first saw them: many of the Asimov covers, the Lensmen covers, many of which I still have on the Hobbit Towers bookshelves.
If I had any quibbles, it would be that there are still pictures of Chris’ work not included, though that is perhaps to be expected: at one point Chris says he was producing two or three book covers a week!
On a practical note, what would have been also useful would have been an index to the book, so that pictures, or the books they were used for, could be referenced easily. Although the pictures are individually titled and dated, there is no order to the book’s pictures – they are not chronological, nor collected by series. There are general groupings – pages that have spaceships together, battleships together, airplanes together, robots together and so on, but other than that the reader is left to discover each double page spread on its own merits, which may be its purpose.
Nevertheless, as a fan, it is wonderful to see these paintings in one collection and so clearly printed. Many of the originals are now lost and so in some cases book covers have had to be scanned in for use, not that I could tell a difference.
This is a collection that awes and entertains, and is a very useful primer to Chris’s body of work. The legacy of what is shown here is seen throughout today’s visual domains, having inspired and continuing to inspire book, film and game artists. For some, like me, it is a wonderful reminder of books gone by. As the digital revolution means that book covers become increasingly irrelevant, books such as these are important for archiving what has gone before. Over thirty years on, these images still ignite the imagination.
Mark Yon, July 2011