Buzzed Books #33: Penguin Science Fiction Postcards

Buzzed Books #33 by Dmetri Kakmi

Penguin Science Fiction Postcards — 100 Book Covers in One Box

Penguin Science Fiction Postcards

It doesn’t matter if you are a science fiction reader or not. You will still get a kick out of this smartly designed box that contains one hundred book cover designs from Penguin’s golden age of speculative fiction publishing. The earliest cover represented is Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1935); the most recent is William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). That’s eighty years of publishing history — almost a century in which to contemplate changing tastes and sensibilities.

Penguin Books was founded in 1935. The nascent company published a wide range of popular titles, including science fiction. H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, appeared in Penguin’s world-famous tri-band design. The explosion of colour and imagination in the post-war years tossed out Penguin’s restrained approach and adopted a pulp sensibility that was in line with Weird Tales magazines, while anticipating the lurid poster art for 1950s science-fiction films. Michael Ayton’s grotesque art for the 1948 edition of Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival is one example.

The psychedelic 1960s and unfettered 1970s ushered in a new age of bizarro. Some covers are so outlandish you wonder what the designers were thinking or smoking when they came up with the concepts. See, for instance, Black Easter or Faust Aleph-Null by James Blush and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by the venerable Philip K. Dick. Even so, they have a stamp of playfulness and individuality that is generally lacking in today’s corporate book design.

I encountered many of these covers in the late 1970s, when some of the authors were at the height of their fame. John Wynham, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and Robert Heinlein had pride of place on my book shelf.

Demolished Man

But my heartbeat went into overdrive when I came across David Pelham’s 1974 cover for Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and the 1975 film tie-in for Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle.

Monkey Planet

I worshipped these books when I was a teenager and was crushed when one day they vanished from my collection. And image how excited I was to discover that the 1964 film 7 Faces of Dr Lao was based on Charles G. Finney’s 1935 fantasy The Circus of Dr Lao. It’s represented here with cover art by Alan Aldridge. 

I was part of the Penguin family for fifteen years. In that time I grew to love the iconic brand and to respect its achievements. This fantastic casket puts me in touch with everything that was good about the company. Every word I can think of to describe it is a superlative: bold, smart … And a damned good idea. It may even be a swan song now that Penguin has been randomly acquired by an older house.

Presumably, one is meant to mail these cards to friends. I’m selfish. I’m keeping them for myself.


Dmetri Kakmi

Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) was born to Greek parents in Turkey. He is a writer and editor. The fictionalised memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He edited the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. The ghost story ‘The Boy by the Gate’ was reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. He lives in Melbourne.

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