I judge books by their covers.
In the realm of science fiction — where voluptuous green-skinned babes and slimy androids roam free — an illustration can make or break the experience of a novel. The good ones build a tangible landscape, a breathing world, out of a writer’s imagination. They can stand on their own as fragments of the greater canon. The bad ones, however, can completely misrepresent an author’s intent and make you embarrassed to be carrying around a piece of trashy pulp. They can also be prohibitive: I didn’t pick up my beloved Philip K. Dick for years because of the hellishly nineties design of the easily-available Vintage editions. Which is why I’d like herewith to initiate a series of Space Canon educational tidbits about the artists of science fiction, a subject I’m only beginning to explore.
Today’s lesson is about Jim Burns, the Welsh illustrator whose airbrushed landscapes have graced countless book covers since the early 1970s, from Arthur C. Clarke, Philip José Farmer, and Isaac Asimov to several editions of Dune and over thirty Robert Silverberg books. Burns is a classicist with an immediately recognizable style and a tendency to form space babes against intricate technical machines and spaceships. Highly esteemed in the world of capital-F Fandom, he’s won the Hugo award for best professional artist three times. In the early 80s, Burns worked with fellow St. Martins School of Art alumnus Ridley Scott on Blade Runner, doing concept design for things like the film’s police spinner and various urban details (the job eventually went to insane-o visual futurist Syd Mead).
Burns is still working; he’s published a handful of his own books, including Planet Story (written by Harry Harrison), Mechanismo, Transluminal: The Paintings of Jim Burns, and Imago. You can read a fairly recent interview with him here.
If you are into science fiction and fantasy illustration, especially the vintage kind, immediately bookmark Sci-Fi-O-Rama and Ski-ffy, two phenomenal, well-curated resources with fantastic scans of early Burns and countless other unsung illustrators that will blow your mind.