Visual, static two-dimensional art is possibly the only art form in which everything is presented to the audience at once and not over a span of time, but good SF art, because it relies principally on the imagination, necessarily encourages the viewer to imagine what else might exist beyond the immediate context of the image itself. Each of the works on the final shortlist of this year's BSFA "Best Artwork" Award does this very well indeed, though it has to be said that the list inevitably reflects the kind of SF imagery that British SF readers are exposed to, and that there are plenty more examples of visual excellence out there (particularly in Japan) that somehow ought to be brought to the attention of the English-speaking world, and have suitably mountainous amounts of praise heaped upon them.
The winner will be announced at Concussion, the 57th British National Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in April, and the shortlist of six, on which members of that con and the BSFA will vote, are:
- Max Bertolini: 'Megara,' cover of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2005.
- Kenn Brown: 'Weapon Shop,' cover of Interzone #198, May/June 2005.
- Pawel Lewandowski: 'untitled', cover of Interzone #200, September/October 2005.
- Stephan Martinière: cover of Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (Tor).
- Frank Quitely: 'Run!' Ch. 2 pp. 2-3 of We3 by Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison (Titan Books).
- Steve Rawlings: cover of Brass Man by Neal Asher (Tor UK).
Last year's Award was won by Stephan Martinière, for his cover for the US edition of Newton's Wake. Martinière is well known for his impressive hard SF covers, but his nominated work this year shows how he's also rather adept at illustrating fantasy, with an eye-catching cover for Brandon Sanderson's Elantris. It has the Martinière hallmark of gravity-defying technology but this time also with a dash of romance. Though it is an extremely detailed picture, Martinière knows when to keep it in the background and when to bring it out front, and the composition sends your eye on a journey both around and into the picture. It's a fine piece of work, and one of those covers that rightly makes you stop, look, and wonder about the contents within.
A useful comparison for Martinière's art rather handily comes in the form of a fellow shortlist contender this year, Max Bertolini's 'Megara,' the cover for the January 2005 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Bertolini has done several F&SF covers, and his figurative work adorns many romance novels in his native Italy, but to my mind this is an illustration that also wouldn't look out of place on the cover of a 1970s British SF paperback. Depicting an almost Foss-like future city having its own 9/11 moment, the painting functions in the opposite way to a Martinière painting in that in this image the city has had all its technological magic stripped away, structures reduced to mere physical dimensions, as though someone has switched off gigawatts of power moments before it all comes crashing down. Bertolini has wrought a jarring, angular composition to telegraph panic and foreboding, helped by a sky (mostly hidden by the magazine's banner) that drags the eye down into the painting. It's enough to make me wonder whether a retrospective look at paperback and magazine art of decades gone by might find a preponderance of just this kind of imagery, and how differently we might look at it from our present perspective.
Kenn Brown's discomfiting cover of Interzone #198 appeared in May 2005. It's a powerful image; Brown knows how to disturb with visions of soulless, fragmented, nightmarish futures. 'Weapon Shop' graphically depicts an industrial-strength, unrestrained religious devotion to the dark and technologically obsessed aspects of the human mind, still a human world but a human world alone, one stripped of nature and reduced to the status of material resource. Even without knowing the title, it's a work that invites imaginative exploration outside the frame, its strength only diluted by its obviously commercial composition. Though Brown says in its current form it is still somewhere between a sketch and a finished piece of art, it would still make an excellent book cover (and the zeppelins are a cool touch).
The wild card in this year's shortlist is undoubtedly famed Scottish comic artist Frank Quitely's double-page spread 'Run!' for We3, a kind of graphic novel successor to Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs. A picture of great dynamism, depicting the escape of three augmented animals from a military experiment, it exudes a kind of fanboy excitement and visual energy that, in this particular context, seems to fire off random shots at the other shortlist contenders. So much comic art necessarily reaches for impact, especially on a double-page spread, but here you don't even need to know the back story to be completely taken with the picture's forced perspective.
Steve Rawlings has been doing some very creative covers for Neal Asher's novels for some years, so much so that I'm left wondering why they have not been nominated before. All of his covers for Asher's books are both challenging and pleasing to the eye, but many fans still don't realise they are portraits of the book's protagonists set sideways and wrapping onto the back. To look at the front cover only will give the impression of a colourful yet probably rather meaningless abstract; if you open out the book and hold it portrait-fashion it provides something of a revelation. What Rawlings achieves is something of a designer's indulgence, doing something unusual with the traditional book cover format. He gets his results mostly by Photoshop layering with different degrees of opacity and with almost no other digital effects to over-elaborate an already complex image. It's all complemented by some simple and direct vertically-aligned typography for the title—again, daring, and the font works well. I'd call all Rawlings's covers for Asher's novels very successful indeed.
Finally, Polish artist Pawel Lewandowski's cover for Interzone #200 began life as an entry into the Computer Graphics Society's annual CG Challenge XVI competition, in which entrants were asked to create an iconic image capturing a pivotal moment in a vast galaxy-spanning civilisation, and Lewandowski's image finished third runner-up in the 2D category. Created entirely in Photoshop, Lewandowski's art is more usually experimental and figurative, and this untitled image went through several transformations before settling into an almost serene composition that hints at greater drama than is on show. The elegance and simplicity of the composition itself is particularly noticeable: one part earth, two parts metal and three parts space; the eye is led in circular fashion to hunt out details on a smaller scale that will connect and provide explanation for the whole, and what particular pivotal moment being depicted is left to the imagination. While Interzone was here graced with yet another eye-catching and absorbing cover illustration, I feel in this instance it was obscured by too much cover clutter.
The shortlist for this year's award is not as diverse as last year's, but from the total of twenty-six nominated works the six that have made it to the final shortlist still represent a diversity of style and content that shows the current field of SF imagery is thankfully as fertile as it has ever been.
Pete Young is editor of the Nova Award-winning fanzine Zoo Nation. His reviews appear in Foundation, Vector... and now Strange Horizons.
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