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Retro-Futuristic Surrealism: The Best in Vintage Sci-Fi Book Art

Retro-Futuristic Surrealism: The Best in Vintage Sci-Fi Book Art
Over the Edge (1981) by Steven Vincent Johnson. Image via

Vintage science fiction books have a cult following, with collectors willing to empty their wallets for limited editions of rare titles. Why? In part, because their covers are just so damn good. In an age when most people read on e-readers and screens, tangible book covers—especially ones drawn by hand—are becoming a thing of the past. Here, we absolutely judge these books by their covers, highlighting some of our favorites from the sci-fi genre. So many of them, created decades ago, feel so stylistically relevant today, as figuration, airbrush, and surrealism are back in vogue. Maybe these books really did forecast the future!

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Though Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968, it was reprinted with this cover by an unknown artist in 1971. Though you'd never know it from this bizarre cover, the movie Bladerunner was based on this book, which is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco and follows a bounty hunter tasked with "retiring" escaped androids. We love that the artist chose to represent the title of the book, rather than the plot.

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Ace Double F-261:The Towers of Toron was published in 1964 and written by Samuel R. Delany, who won the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a lifetime's contribution to lesbian and gay literature. The cover, by Ed Emshwiller, features a surrealist figure with "invisible" body parts, and a lurking cyborgian head. Creepy!

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The Moon is Hell! is a collection of science fiction stories by John W. Campbell Jr, first published in 1951. The title story follows a team of scientists whose spacecraft crashes on the moon, leaving them stranded and forcing them to devise clever ways of surviving (like building shelter from meteor showers or creating oxygen from lunar rock) as they await rescue. This first edition cover is by Hannes Bok, and we love the relatively simplistic composition, muted tones, and graphic lettering. Plus, the title is hilariously to the point.

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Launched in 1952, If was a science fiction magazine that from 1966 to 1968 won the Hugo Award for best professional magazine three years running. This issue, Volume 21 published in 1972, featured the cover for a book called The Book of Rack the Healer by Zach Hughes. The illustration is by  Jack Gaughan. Two years later, the magazine merged into Galaxy Science Fiction after it's 175th issue.

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Stanislaw Lem was one of the first authors to realistically deal with alien life, in that he proposed that it was likely nothing like our own. Solaris (1961) is a classic, and so is this cover art.

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These next few covers are from a number of science fiction books published in the '60s and '70s by a Norwegian imprint called Lanterne.



All of the covers are designed by Peter Haars, who illustrated some 300 book covers, often done with airbrush techniques. The Norwegian artist also wrote his own books and comics, in addition to translating them.

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His style reminds us of Mark Kostabi , a painter who made a name for himself during the revival of figure painting in New York in the early '80s. Of course, that was almost two decades later.

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Written by Thoedore Sturgeon, who became inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2000, Beyond is illustrated by Tom Hallman. Hellman is most known in the horror genre, having created hundreds of book covers in the ‘80s—though he continues to create book covers today.

Initially published serially in a magazine called Amazing Stories in 1967, The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert was published as a stand-alone book in 1968. It was reprinted several times, and we don't know which edition this cover is from, or who illustrated it... but we're living for this font on a jet-black sky background, and this pink-lit alien-toting spacecraft.

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Ringworld , a 1970 science fiction novel by Larry Nevin, is considered a classic and there are countless illustrations and book covers—some official, and some fan art—that are simply gorgeous. This particular illustration, called Over the Edge (1981), was created by Steven Vincent Johnson. We're not quite sure if it was part of the book (or the four prequels or final sequel that surround it) or not, but we love it.

Image via Pinterest. Image via Pinterest.

Here's another image from the Ringworld series. Judging by the initials on the lower-right-hand corner, we assume this was also created by Steven Vincent Johnson. It's dated 1979.


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