JG Ballard Book Covers
by Richard M. Powers

You can look up all sorts of info about Richard Powers; the net is well-stocked. My interest is the work he did for Berkley Publishing, specifically the covers of 14 JG Ballard paperbacks. While generally lauded as a pioneer in SF art circles, his covers for JGB's collections and novels seem to be either nonchalantly thematic or oddly inappropriate.

If I had to choose favourites, I like the work he did on both editions of The Drowned World, and the 1977 edition of The Wind From Nowhere. The images do correspond to the plot, but the "JGB-ness" of the story is misread by Powers' proclivity to illustrate fear and horror in the body language of the people he shows. The rest of his covers are either silly or dumb. Silly, like his misreading of The Burning World, almost immediately renamed The Drought, no doubt to erase Powers' misleading cover image of humanity running for high ground while a city lies below them, engulfed in flames. You think he would have at least had the opportunity to read an overview of the plotline.

The rest of the covers feature "surreal" images, which appear to be random choices from Powers' vast storehouse of unsold paintings. Do I like them? Not really. They have a borrowed feel to them, as if Powers was content to merely re-interpret what had gone on before. They seem devoid of meaning -- there's no uncanny feeling. It's ironic, therefore, that these quasi-surreal images would be chosen to illustrate JGB's book covers, given The Man's fondness and appreciation of the real thing. At least Jonathan Cape got it right. When they designed a surreal cover for their hardcover edition of The Crystal World, they chose Max Ernst's Eye Of Silence.

Here are some other opinions:


By C. Jerry Kutner

Not all great art is discovered on the walls of museums. Most of us who admire the work of Richard M. Powers first encountered it not in classrooms or museums or prestigious art books, but on the covers of mass-market science fiction and fantasy paperbacks published in the 1950's and '60's. Powers' eye-catching cover paintings were startlingly different from those of his contemporaries.

Where most sci-fi cover art in the early '50s consisted of dryly literal representations of spaceships and other hardware (the "techno-realist" school), or else tentacled aliens, hard-bodied space heroes, and their curvaceous female companions (the "pulp" school), Powers' innovative covers emphasized atmosphere and mood, utilizing the fine arts techniques of surrealism, abstraction, and collage to explore the inner landscape of the human imagination. Psychedelic before its time and astonishing in its variety, it was through Powers' visionary work, according to The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, that "the packaging of SF could be said to have come of age." Read the entire article here.

And From The Richard Powers FAQ site:

Richard M. Powers was the ideal cover illustrator for Ballard whose abstract, surreal sensibility complements Powers' own. In a 1977 interview, Powers called Ballard's The Drowned World, "one of the best pieces of surrealist writing I've ever read. This guy is not too interested in straight narrative writing. What he is interested in is communicating a Kafka-like sense of alienation and frustration and a really paranoid kind of existence on a different plane than the normal plane -- below, above, inside, outside, whatever."

Powers' cover painting for The Voices Of Time communicates precisely this feeling of alienated otherworldliness, of strange organisms moving somewhere beyond the threshold of consciousness. Powers provided covers for many of Ballard's novels and short story collections, in some cases painting an entirely new cover each time the book was released.

Key to Abbreviations

SFPB = Science Fiction Paperback
SFHB = Science Fiction Hardback
S = Signature
N = No Signature or Credit

The Wind from Nowhere Berkley F600 1962 SFPB N

The Voices of Time Berkley F607 1962 SFPB N

The Drowned World Berkley F655 1962 SFPB S

Billenium Berkley F667 1962 SFPB N

Passport to Eternity Berkley F823 1963 SFPB S

Terminal Beach Berkley F928 1964 SFPB S

The Burning World Berkley F961 1964 SFPB N

The Wind from Nowhere Berkley F1198 1966 SFPB N

The Impossible Man Berkley F1204 1966 SFPB N

The Voices of Time Berkley F1243 1966 SFPB N

The Drowned World Berkley F1266 1966 SFPB ?

Vermillion Sands Berkley S1980 1971 SFPB N

Chronopolis: The Science Fiction of J.G. Ballard Berkley Z2212 1972 SFPB N

Chronopolis: The Science Fiction of J.G. Ballard Berkley 4191 1977 SFPB S