SF Masterworks: A Collection of Science Fiction Classics Every Fan Should Own


SF Masterworks is to science fiction what Penguin Classics is to literature. Started nearly 20 years ago, it’s a series of books published by Gollancz (now owned by Orion Books) to commemorate seminal works in science fiction. The highlight of SF Masterworks books is fascinating cover art – that is if you need to be convinced to buy these books. For most people, the books in the series should be reason enough to look for them.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the book that Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner is based on), Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend are just some of over 100 books published under this collector’s edition. We spoke to the people who brought the series to life to understand why it was created and what keeps it going.

Picking the books
Darren Nash, Digital Publisher at Gollancz, says SF Masterworks was born to keep the touchstone works of post-war SF (science fiction) books in print. “The series was started because the then head of Gollancz, Malcolm Edwards suddenly realised that quite a few of what are generally regarded as the touchstone works of post-war SF had been allowed to drift out of print,” Nash told Gadgets 360 via email. “He realised that by bringing them back in a series he could establish a line of SF classics.”

This isn’t a fan-driven collection, but one where the team at Gollancz decides which books have made a significant contribution to science fiction, Nash says. “To use a TV analogy, if we were compiling a Masterworks list of police dramas, while both Hill Street Blues and Columbo were terrific cop shows, Hill Street Blues would be the Masterwork because of its revolutionary nature and the effect it had on the television that followed it,” he adds.

The series features a whopping 12 books by Philip K. Dick and we’re not sure if all of them should have been published as SF Masterworks.”Well, this was before my time at Gollancz but I believe it was because we already had a good number of titles under contract and also some personal enthusiasm on the part of the editor at the time,” Nash says. “In hindsight, he’s conceded that perhaps a few don’t deserve to be Masterworks, but he’d still make a compelling case for the others,” he concedes.

Photo Credit: Akhil Arora

In fact, Orion Books has to acquire rights to publish many of these books. “Every one of the first fifteen titles was published under a new contract,” he says, adding that they try to publish one book every month.

The SF Masterworks series itself got a makeover in 2010. The older SF Masterworks series, published from 1999 onwards, comprised a numbered set of books. Each book published had a number so Frederik Pohl’s Gateway had the number 9 printed on the cover. The older covers aren’t as good as the new ones and Nash concedes as much. “Firstly, the cover style was looking a bit dated and we wanted to update it; secondly – and more importantly – we can’t always keep books in print,” he says. Imagine if you were a collector and you had books 1-10 but couldn’t find 11-17 anywhere. Your collection would jump from book 10 to 18 and according to Nash, this bothered a lot of people. “Sometimes the sales drop off, other times our licence expires and we’re not able to renew it; when that happens, it drives collectors mad if they can’t get the next sequential book in the series – many fans would rather not have any Masterworks than have numbers 1-50 and then 53-100. By removing the numbers we made it less obvious when a title was ‘missing’,” he says.

Creating stunning cover art
Most of the covers in the new SF Masterworks series look a lot better. The covers use vibrant colours and have “SF Masterworks” written on them, along with the author’s name and the name of the book. These three things are constant, but as for the rest of the cover art, “anything goes”, says Tim Marrs, who illustrated the cover for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “The design guidelines were pretty much do what you want and we’ll see how it fits. The one constant is the SF masterworks vertical graphics and title area… that meant a few things had to be nudged to fit the layout or adapted to work,” Marrs told Gadgets 360 over email. “But on the whole a well received job and something I’d never have thought of applying my style to. SF!”

Since it’s one of the most popular science fiction books around, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen many editions of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy in bookstores. Most of these covers are unremarkable, but Marrs’ SF Masterworks illustration stands out because it brings together multiple elements from the story in a beautiful package. As Marrs puts it, “The previous book covers for this publication all seem to be hooked on the black comedy elements. I set about wanting to capture a more thoughtful vision.” He adds, “The book had hints of desperation, isolation and chaos all set against this vast abstract weird and often frustrating world Arthur Dent was thrown into. So in short we’re looking over Arthur’s shoulders into his new world and the epic weirdness it holds with all its loneliness and full of its stupendous glory.”

Gollancz’s Darren Nash says, “We also try not to be too experimental in the illustration; the books should have a classic feel, even if the artwork is new. That doesn’t necessarily mean it should look like an old book, but we generally look for a more traditional approach to illustration than we might in the wider Gollancz list.”

While Marrs created this cover on Photoshop, Larry Rostant, the illustrator for the SF Masterworks edition of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, made the cover using a combination of photography and Photoshop. “I shot a photo of a helmet. Then I shot [a picture of] spikes separately and put them together in Photoshop,” he says.

Photo Credit: Akhil Arora

Fans would love to believe that illustrators are fans of the books and that they’ve read these multiple times, but that’s not always the case. Rostant says he hasn’t read Hyperion at all. “Fans hope that I’ve read the book but that’s not how it works. It’s much more about what is currently selling,” Rostant says. He also designed covers for George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire series and according to him, the publishers approached him because the previous covers weren’t selling. “[Our] business is to sell the book. The covers make people buy the book,” Rostant adds.

Tim Marrs has a similar take. “I didn’t have time to read the book as the deadline was fairly tight and I’m a slow reader. But I found a version online read by the one and only Stephen Fry, a perfect accompaniment for this story and a great way to spend a day or two allowing me to work on the Mac as I listened,” Marrs says.

What authors say
Whether they read the books or not, these illustrators have managed to create covers that fans cherish. Do authors like these editions as much as fans do? Paul McAuley, whose “biopunk” book Fairyland was published in 1996, was pleased when Gollancz approached him with a request for reprinting his book under SF Masterworks. “[I felt] happiness. A nice confirmation that maybe — just maybe — I’d done something right with at least one of my books,” he tells Gadgets 360 via email, adding that another round of proofreading helped reduced errors too.

McAuley’s biggest concern with the SF Masterworks edition was that the subject matter of Fairyland was dated. “As always, the concern that it had dated in subject matter and approach. But that’s a very common concern, in science fiction. Nothing dates like the future,” McAuley says. “At some point you just have to accept that a novel written twenty years ago is a vision of where we might have been heading when it was written. Science fiction isn’t really a medium for prediction,” he adds.

Fairyland envisions a future where biotechnology has advanced to a point where genes can be edited and human intelligence can be hacked. Because these ideas are on the outer limits of probability even now, Fairyland has aged relatively well. McAuley says, “For instance, gene-editing to create new kinds of organisms turns out to be far harder than we thought, back in the 1990s. The genetic code is very gnarly, very compact, stretches can be read in various ways . . .” There has been some progress in biotechnology but not as much as McAuley had thought. “CRISPR technology can drop in or delete various genes, but that’s only editing at the level of the word, not the sentence or paragraph. So the cheap, easy and universal biotech of Fairyland is less likely, now, than it was then. And the idea of hacking intelligence continues to be elusive, despite massive investment in AI,” he adds.

Photo Credit: Akhil Arora

The SF Masterworks cover of Fairyland has an image of the Eiffel Tower which reflects the setting of the middle passage of the book, McAuley says. However, copyright issues may have deprived fans of the best possible covers for Fairyland. “Sadly, it was impossible to use an image of the fairytale castle in the Magic Kingdom (which my editor and I looked into, back when Fairyland was first published) because the Mouse (that is, the Disney Corporation) has copyrighted the image of the chateau on which it is based,” he adds.

Patricia Cadigan, author of Synners, was delighted when Gollancz approached her with a request to reprint her book under SF Masterworks. “I was delighted. My husband and I already collected the SF Masterworks series and I was so happy to become part of it. As well, Gollancz were the first to publish my work in the UK in 1987 and I already knew and liked the people there,” Cadigan told Gadgets 360 in an email.

With Synners, Cadigan says she deliberately tried to extrapolate science and technology already in development. She finished writing the first draft in 1989 and naturally couldn’t have predicted every major technological breakthrough that came to pass since then. “To date, nothing I’ve written about in Synners has been proven to be absolutely impossible,” she says, which is a testament to the fact that the book was ahead of its time.

“Things like reality TV shows, multiple TV channels dedicated to a single theme, the ideas of food porn, war porn, disaster porn, and even gay marriage appeared in Synners some years before they happened in real life,” she adds.

The most popular books
Some SF Masterworks books are available in beautiful hardcover editions while most others are paperbacks. Gollancz’s Darren Nash says this is a very simple choice. “We always try to buy volume rights (the right to publish a book in any format we wish) but sometimes those rights are with another publisher – in that case we try to buy a hardback licence so we can add the book to the Masterworks even though it is available in another format elsewhere,” Nash says.

Photo Credit: Akhil Arora

The first print run for these books is between 1,000 and 5,000 copies and they’re most popular in the UK and Australia. That’s partly because the publisher doesn’t have the rights to sell these books in the US. “It’s mainly a boost in reputation we get from America, rather than sales,” Nash adds.

Since the new SF Masterworks series was first printed, the most popular books are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Word for World is Forest, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and the Compass Rose, Dangerous Visions and The Door into Summer. This year’s top five are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flowers for Algernon, I Am Legend, Ubik, and The Forever War.

Which are your favourite SF Masterworks editions? Do you prefer this series over other editions of science fiction books? Let us know via the comments.

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