06 May 2024

FWS Top 10: Favorite Military Sci-Fi Cover Book Art


It is hard to believe that something as simple as the selection of a piece of art for your book can determine the book's journey to either  success or doom it to failure even before the buyer cracks open the spine. While a piece of compelling cover art can sell a book or cause the buyer to open the book to see if the cover art is better than the book itself, it still matter more that the story contained in those pages speakers to the reader. For me, cover art is very important and some of my favorite pieces of art are from cover art. For this and other upcoming Top 10 articles here on FWS, we shall be ranking cover art. For this first installment, we have the Top 10 military science fiction cover art pieces of mine. Comment below and let me know which are your favorites! 

1. Japanese Cover for The Old Man's War
Among the best of the best military science fiction novels is the Old Man's War by John Scalzi. An incredible novel, that was original in tone and extremely creative overall; save the majority of ships and planets names in the Old Man's War novels. When it came to the original cover art for the book's first edition, it was rather conventional and showed the characters. When the paperback editions were released, the cover art by John Harris was radically changed to starships flying through a space scene. While John Harris is an amazing and talented artist, the art does not match the events in the books. And this true of all the books set in the Old Man's War universe. This is a pet peeve of mine...when the cover art of a book as nothing to do with the story. Then there is Japanese cover art for the Japanese language edition of novel and kicks all manner of ass. This stunning piece of cover art features two of the main characters in their green-hued bodies of the Colonial Union soldiers during the Battle of Coral. While the futuristic nano-fed MP35 rifle is shown as a flat-top variant of the British Enfield SA-80, it is still a real stunner and communicates power and interest. When or if a live-action Old Man's War production is made, this should be a reference. However, it should be noted that Japanese cover art for The Last Colony is some of the most misguide cover art I think I've seen. I think that the Japanese cover art for the Old Man's War should replace the American editions. 

2. The Foundation Trilogy (1986 cover art by Don Dixon)
In the 1980's, the cover art for Isaac Asimov core novels was redone to bring them out of some of the oddball cover art that was seen in previous editions. These 1980's editions are beautiful and alluring. I bought all of my Isaac Asimov novels with these era of cover art that were done by Michael Whelan, Jim Burns, and Don Dixon. The power of these masters compelled me to buy them because they transported me to a world that I wanted to live in and communicated an element of Asimov worldbuilding that is hard to put into worlds. These masters are on a plane of talent that few will ever live up to. For the large 1986 edition of the first three Foundation novels, Random House Publishing Group commissioned Don Dixon for a new take on the cover art for one of the best sci-fi series of all time...and boy, did he succussed! The image of the massive military starship approaching a Terra-like world with a space elevator poking out of the world communicated to me the power of the interstellar government seen in the page of the novels. This is the scene that I think of when the word "galactic empire" is used. This is one of those pieces of art that I want on my wall desperately.


3. Startide Raising by David Brin (1983 cover art by Jim Burns)
In 1983, David Brin would publish one of the more interesting sci-fi books with some military science fiction themes in the 2nd novel in his uplift universe: Startide Rising. These series of books would introduce the concept of "uplifting" to the sci-fi community. While this the 2nd book in the series, this was the book that I read in the series and I know others that also started with this book instead of 1980's Sundiver. For this novel, Jim Burns was hired for the cover art and it stands as one of the best 1980's sci-fi cover art pieces of that decade and it still has power to this very day. This is a damn compelling piece of science fiction art that sold many of us on the book and the world that Brin forged. Like many, I bought the book based on the art and I wasn't disappointed once I read it though.

4. The Sentinels #2 Dark Power (cover art by David Schleinkofer)
For me, ROBOTECH was a revelation when it first came on the air around 1985, and it changed my life forever. When the promise was made to us legions of ROBOTECH fans for a sequel that showed us the adventures of the REF and the SDf-3...I was in with my whole soul. And it never happened for a line of bad comics, one lame VHS release, the Art 3 book, an RPG module, and the excellent Jack McKinney penned novels. And yes, I am still bitter about this. For me, the five Sentinels novels and the End of the Circle published by Del Rey were the closest I will ever come to experience ROBOTECH II: The Sentinels. With limited visual information on the way the world of the Sentinels would look, the cover art for the five novels was key and a wealth of information...none more so than the 2nd book: Dark Power. Displaying on the cover by David Schleinkofer, who did many of the Del Rey ROBOTECH book covers, was a scene of warfare between the Invid and the REF. This lit a fire in my imagination of the wars among the stars with the brave ROBOTECH heroes I got to know and love. The fact that we never got the Sentinels still hurts, even after all of these decades.

5. The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (cover art by Jim Burns)
Back when I was going to the science fiction section of my local Waldenbooks, the cover art for this 1987 novel grabbed me and has been a favorite of mine for some time. Penned by noted science fiction author Harry Harrison, this book is another installment of his beloved future con-artist James Bolivar diGriz, AKA "The Stainless Steel Rat". For the more military science fiction entry into the series, we see the uber-talented Jim Burns take a crack at the rat and with that, he forged on of the best military sci-fi covers of the 1980's. There is a lot to love here and deeply examine. The uniforms, the buildings, the starships, and the massive guns...this piece of cover art has it all!

6. Cohort of the Damned by Andrew & William Kieth (cover art by Richard Hescox)
You never know what you will find at your local used bookshop, but a few years...I found this: Cohort of the Damn by Andrew & William Keith. The three books in the 5th Legion series are damn good military science fiction novels and the cover art is stellar. Done by Richard Hescox, he captured what we love about future war scenes with taste. These are arresting and made me want to know what was the story being shown on the cover. I bought all three on the spot and I highly recommend these novels. 







7. The Japanese Cover for all of the Honor Harrington Novels
The cover art for the original American release of the Honor Harrington novels published by Baen Books are okay...a little flat for me for some reason and they always remind me of art produced on a computer program. This is a series of military science fiction novels I've never really read or really plan to. However, I have to say that the Japanese language editions of the Honor Harrington novels are awesome! They look like they belong to a very cool anime series that is similar to Legend of Galactic Heroes. These Japanese cover art are more lively and dynamic than their flatter American editions, and honestly think, much as I wrote with the Old Man's War, that the Japanese cover art should be used here in America. 










8. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (Cover Art for 1987 ACE edition by James Warhola 
There have been many, many cover art pieces for the founding classic of the sub-genre of military science fiction, Starship Troopers. Some are super crazy, some are lame, but there is one that, to me, is defining cover art piece. In the 1987 ACE edition, artist James Warhola was tapped for the cover art, and he laid down a classic of military science fiction art that as endured as an icon of the genre. Showing a scarred grim warrior about to drop into hell, he stares hollowed eye to us as he is about to take to his bloody task on some exo-planet far from Terra. His sole mission is to kill bugs. It is so odd that artist James Warhola would create such a haunting piece of art for SST, he looks like such a kind man to have drawn a piece of military art so well. I wished that the production crew of the 1997 movie had paid more attention to this piece of art to forge to look of the Mobile Infantry. 







9. Armor by John Steakley (cover art for the 1983 first edition by James Gurney)
Before I started FWS back in the summer of 2010, I was working on my first military sci-fi novel that has never been read by anyone else (and I am working on the 5th rewrite of the novel at present), I decide to read the classics of the genre, and one of them was Armor by Texas author John Steakley, whom I met at writers convention not long before his death. Armor is an oddball novel with a ballistic opening that is one of the best in military sci-fi, but the middle is a trip, and the end ties it all up in a way. Honestly, the middle of the book should have been jettisoned out of the airlock and the first and last portions should  have been married together. For the 1983 first edition cover art, none other than James Gurney of Dinotopia fame would be tapped. The image of a futuristic armored soldier about to bash in the insect alien exo-skeleton with his empty blazer DE rifle is amazing in its honest portrayal of war and personal combat even with it being the future.  



10. First Flight by Chris Claremont (cover art by Luis Royo)
This military science fiction novel was a quest of mine for years to locate an edition that was not beating to hell. This 1987 military sci-fi novel was penned by X-Men writer Chris Claremont, and he was well known to us in the 1980's because of groundbreaking work on one of the best comics of the 80's. When this book came out, my brother owned it and I never read it. However, it has been one of the books I have chased for years here in the DFW metroplex attempting to locate a good clean copy. After years, I finally got First Flight and the sequel in very good condition. Interestingly enough, the author would go on to be a co-writer with George Lucas on the follow up books to Willow. The arresting cover art was done by Luis Royo, who is an amazing artist and captured the energy perfectly for the front and back cover art. This is one of the best pieces of military science fiction art of the 1980's and it channels the 1980's as well. I have yet to read this book at the time of writing, but we shall see if the book is as good as the cover art.  










5 comments:

  1. Sadly, the days of this type of art for sci if / fantasy books seems to be over. I'm on a fantasy forum where we've lamented the fact that the detailed covers of yore are no more. The trend today among traditionally published books is definitely towards more simple/generic and abstract covers. That could be the Amazon effect, the sad reality is that a small thumbnail on an app or computer screen simply isn't enough space to warrant the type of detail and imagination of this type of cover. Pity that.

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  2. Funny enough, the SST cover art (which I love, too) also doesn't match the contents of the book. It's a children's book that makes war sound like an adventure. That cover looks like something from WH40k. It'll always have a special place in my heart, though - it was my first exposure to powered armor, my now-fav sci-fi trope.

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  3. Kurt Miller's art for the Complete Hammer's Slammers is very sharp, you can find them on his Art Station account. Miller took some liberties with the tank design but as did every cover artist before (some covers, you can't even tell it's suppose to be a tank) The James Gurney cover for Armor is one of my favorites as well, it tells a story in itself.

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  4. Just to make it more hurtful, Harmony Gold also meant to do a third series, Odyssey, which would have looped back around to the beginning of the series, like in End of the Circle. Robotech is still the greatest show ever.

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  5. As an Honor Harrington reader, I'd have to say that the American cover art (mainly by David Mattingly) accurately depicts what's inside. The Japanese art looks like a typical manga heroine, which Harrington definitely is not. She began as an SF Horatio Hornblower (note the initials), but in the end has become more of a Lord Horatio Nelson (except unlike him, she didn't end up dead in her final battle).

    My vote for the worst SF cover art has to go to the huge number of Star Trek novels from Pocket Books. Most of them look like they copied and pasted publicity photos of the TV/movie stars and the Enterprise, and then reverse-bonestelled them to look like they were painted.

    SF art overall is pretty much a dead issue. Frankly you can go to Deviant Art and see artwork by amateurs that is ten times better than what the "pros" are doing now.


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