BY AARON BLOCK
While doing a little background research for my “I Loved This Book When…” essay about The Martian Chronicles I discovered, through a Google Image search, a wealth of covers from various editions of the book. Hardly a surprising finding, considering the book was first published in 1950 and has been widely read ever since. But sixty years is a pretty long time when it comes to trends in illustration, advertising, and publishing; in fact, the sheer variety of Martian Chronicles covers suggests some of the changes in style that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Because those changes are worth considering, but more because laughing at old sci-fi covers is a lot of fun, I’m going to look at some choice cuts.
The “Post-War Optimism” Edition – 1950
The first edition cover is easily the classiest. I like the abstract cosmic elements: the unspecific galactic clouds, planets, and the twirling rocket paths. To me it feels very Eisenhower-era space-race chic, right down to the serious, official-looking font. Even though this cover doesn’t quite convey the tone of the book, which is far more somber compared to the whimsical rocket adventure promised above, I like the simplicity of the concept. I’d read this book.
The “Ed Wood Edition” – 1954
And here’s the other side of the 1950s coin – The Martian Chronicles as boffo b-movie adventure. I can just imagine William Castle promoting this thing, promising free Martian Vision goggles with every ticket. You can almost hear the orchestra sting as the title appears on the screen in that weird monster movie font. And I love the tag line at the bottom: “a masterly history of tomorrow’s pioneers.” And what kind of people are tomorrow’s pioneers? Well…
The “Mike Hammer” Edition – 1951
…apparently they came from Ohio, Alabama, and California, our three greatest states. I think the artist must’ve mixed up Ray Bradbury and Dashiell Hammett in his mind and tried to imagine what Sam Spade would do on Mars. Probably bust a few Martian skulls, that’s what. Thankfully he packed his pistol and binoculars, and is prepared to weather the harsh Martian climate in Dockers. Also note the parade of tough guides streaming from the rocket – maybe it was some sort of government program, to round up all the P.I.’s in the world, toss them up on Mars and let them sort things out for the rest of us. This cover is so hilariously misleading that I’d be willing to believe there’s another writer named Ray Bradbury who happened to write a pulp novel inexplicably titled The Martian Chronicles, and that I’m just a poor researcher.
The “Galaga” Edition – 1978
The Space Wizard here is a personal favorite. Much like the above cover, this edition promises lots of things that Bradbury’s text absolutely fails to deliver: crazy alien magic, hovering bug ships, and Orko from He-Man without his hat and scarf combo. I do give the artist credit for attempting (I think) to render the bizarre Martian insect car described in the chapter titled “Night Meeting”, though the wings are an interesting creative tweak. This could also serve as the art for the side of the Martian Chronicles arcade console.
The “Starship Troopers Edition” – 1979
Again with the techno-bug, though this version is far more pointy and terrifying. It seems to get quite a bit of attention considering Bradbury only spends a sentence or two describing it. This appears to be the armored assault model, which does not appear in the book but is tailor-made for the Martian Chronicles line of action figures. The Earth-Mars design is neat, though – without the bug this could be a really effective cover. Almost Saul Bass-y, if it had a more kinetic title font.
Marble background, gold border, small, graphic – all of it reeks of the early 90s (though the Harper-Collins website states it was published in 1997.) This cover is a 180 degree shift from the Space Wizard – rather than exciting promises that the book can’t keep, this edition plays it safe by representing the plot and themes with a bland image of an unspecific action. “None of the characters are explicitly illiterate, are they? So chances are someone is doing some reading in this thing.” Oh, but the hand does have six fingers, which is pretty creepy. And suitably, generically alien. I take it all back – best cover ever.
The “Rush” Edition – 1989
This was the edition I picked up when I first read the book in 1995. Despite that, I have no nostalgic fondness for it because it’s pretty awful. I remember being put-off by the Martian’s hair. It shouldn’t look that way, should it? Even if we push past the bald alien cliche and allow that maybe our Martian friends could have hair, it certainly wouldn’t be all close-cropped like that, would it? And what of the vests, or tunics, or whatever these two are wearing? It all feels very un-Martian. The masks are taken directly from the novel, though, so bonus points for that. And I like landscape – even the random, seemingly purposeless spindly towers are appropriately otherworldly. I think the gloss is what’s so unappealing in this design – too slick, too precisely rendered. This is a prog rock album waiting to happen.
Excluding non-fiction, how often do writers show up on the covers of their own books? Almost never, especially when the author is still alive, which makes this edition pretty special. The line drawing of Bradbury definitely adds more gravitas than a photograph, and I like that his head is positioned in such a way that exciting Martian action seems to be a giant thought bubble. Also, bonus points for its striking resemblance to the cover of Miles Davis’s album “Miles Smiles”.
The “Timeless” Edition – ????
This is my favorite of the covers I’ve found because it simply and elegantly captures the tone of the book. The Martian Chronicles isn’t about sci-fi action, or rockets, or even Martians, really; it’s both a love letter to and critique of pre-World War II America. Bradbury uses the Mars and the sad fate of the Martians as a background for stories that question the stability of “American values.” And though the scope is grand, the stories themselves are actually quite small and enclosed, usually involving only two or three characters at a time. With its Anytown, USA houses set before a Martian horizon (ok it could just be the sun, but the cover is red, so let’s say it’s Mars) this cover describes a quiet and thoughtful, but still extraordinary, reading experience.
There are, of course, more covers than these. Feel free to dredge up your favorites, or least favorites, and give them their due in the comments.