Worst Book Description Ever … And a Note on Cover Art for “Out of the Silent Planet”

After five years away from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy–or, as I prefer to call it, his Ransom Trilogy, since not all the books occur in space–because of my current research I decided to pick it up again. Since I have loaned out my omnibus edition to someone I must love very much, I picked up a copy of Out of the Silent Planet at my library. The edition was published by Scribner in 1996, a cheap paperback following on the heals of Shadowlands, the Anthony Hopkins film about C.S. Lewis. Surrounding an evocative Malacandrian painting by Kinuko Craft is an awful Tron-like book frame with leftover “space age” fonts. It is a cover design trying too hard, which is captured by a quotation from Commonweal, which describes the book as “delicious.”

Despite the cheesy cover design, I was not prepared for the book description on the back cover. While I seriously doubt it is the worst book description ever, it is probably the worst one I’ve ever take the time to read:

Out of the Silent Planet begins the adventures of the remarkable Dr. ransom. Here, the estimable man is abducted by aliens and taken via spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra. Once on the planet, he eludes his captors, risking his life and his chances of returning to Earth. First published in 1943, Out of the Silent Planet remains a mysterious and suspenseful tour de force from one of our best-loved writers.

Now, I could offer an entire writing seminar on the use of words that have no meaning: “remarkable,” “estimable,” “mysterious and suspenseful tour de force” are excellent examples. Even beyond the Orwellian book jacket political jargon, however, it is clear that the staff writer had not even read the book (I put this in italics to: 1) demonstrate how ridiculous this reality is; 2) to teach upcoming writers not to use italics gratuitously; and 3) as an opportunity to introduce a list, which readers seem to like). Malacandra is indeed Mars, but nowhere in the book is “red planet” a connected image. In fact, unlike the Mars that Lewis knew about when he wrote, Malacandra has an atmosphere. Hence the aliens, and the plant life, and the book cover, which the Scribner publisher obviously hadn’t seen.

What the staff writer misses is that Out of the Silent Planet is an H.G. Wells inversion, where the perspective is not Earth’s (Mars looks red in our atmosphere); instead, Lewis’ first Ransom chronicle is imagined from the viewpoint of the rest of the enchanted universe, where Earth is an exiled black dot on the edge of the Malacandrian horizon, not the center of all things in what continues to be an intellectual version of Ptolemaic cosmology. Both Earth and Mars are unrecognizable from a desk at the Rockefeller Centre in New York where some Scribner employee tried to SciFi up this early space classic.

Now, I can understand why someone misses the subtleties of Lewis’ inversion of genre. I certainly didn’t understand until I had: 1) read H.G. Wells’ work again; 2) immersed myself in the world of Lewis, Tolkien, Orwell, and T.S. Eliot; and 3) seen any of Joss Whedon’s work (note again the exemplary use of lists). Why should booksellers be educated in literature, history and popular culture, after all? But the factual errors in this tiny paragraph are really unforgivable. Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938, not 1943, and the “estimable” Dr. Ransom was kidnapped by Earthlings, not Aliens. It is true that his kidnappers are cartoon versions of Western ideas, but they are not aliens. At best, we could say that Ransom was kidnapped by Caricatures. That is, of course, not what the book jacket says.

All this is to demonstrate the seriously bad book marketing on the U.S. softcover release of Out of the Silent Planet–and this in 1996, after Yahoo! had been invented. You may not be surprised to hear, then that in the 2003 cover redesign–a fortunate re-focusing upon the artist’s conception of Malacandra–they did not fix the book description, either the bad writing or the factual errors. This is a fact worth gratuitously using italics for.

Now, I can’t take the time to go into a dust jacket history of the Ransom Trilogy–note that my copy was booknapped by an Earthling–but a quick use of internet technology clearly not available to Scribner & Sons shows an impressive gallery of artwork for Out of the Silent Planet. I haven’t been able to get most of the dust-jacket book descriptions–all of the Amazon copies helpfully link the 1996 Dreadfully Bad Version–but I managed to find a 1972 description on eBay:

Man, arrogant yet fearful, stands in the presence of the god-like creatures who populate the universe – is judged and found wanting. Two men sought to plunder a planet – a third was offered as hostage to the unknown… More than a brilliantly imaginative picture of life on another world Out of the Silent Planet mirrors the inhumanities of man and contrasts a civilization of harmony and peace with the discord on Earth today. The protagonists of the series, philologist Ransom, Devine and physicist Dr. Weston are introduced when Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him to Malacandra (Mars).

I think we are supposed to read the description with the halting voice of 1960s television journalism. While the alarmist writing on this book could–and should, perhaps–be mocked, it is evident that the writer at least pretended to read the book.

What I was really struck by in my search, though, was the cover art and design. I think looking at the evolution of the images is helpful. I won’t attempt to put the covers in order, or explain what I think they evoke, but I throw them out here to show how various artists have  captured the mythic and science fiction elements balanced with details of Lewis’ fictional world and (if you know your history) the influence of pop culture moments in influencing book releases. Unsurprisingly, the most creative design is not Scribner’s.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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36 Responses to Worst Book Description Ever … And a Note on Cover Art for “Out of the Silent Planet”

  1. Lily Wight says:

    I’ve not yet managed to read these books and your post has renewed my interest. I do enjoy looking at old book covers too, great post!

    Like

  2. David says:

    Yikes, the Scribner description is horrible! At least the 1972 version hinted at some of the themes, and the general philosophical nature of the story.

    I didn’t know there was such variety in cover art for the trilogy. My copy is the green one, which depicts the Martian landscape as apparently filled with big translucent bubbles. Striking and evocative, sure, but not too accurate. And you’re right, you can see the shift in art styles through different periods. Modern versions tend to emphasize artwork that’s slightly more — what’s the word? — polished, shiny, “modern” looking. Their designs reflect the designs we see on some movie posters. Whereas you can clearly tell the pulp origins of many of the older designs. And then there are the designs that can only be described as psychedelic.

    Personally, while I love beautiful artwork, I tend to prefer minimalistic book covers, like the gray Voyager Classics one that just has the title, author, and a little symbol. It’s classy, dignified.

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  5. Matthew says:

    I read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in college, and the cover art nearly ruined the book for me. It was a drawing of an insectile humanoid with bulbous eyes, wearing some strange clothing and wielding a nasty looking weapon. NOWHERE IN THE BOOK did this character appear. There were mutants, yes, but these were people with extra toes and the like. I held out hope to the very end. It was a great book though, no thanks to the cover.

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  6. john penn says:

    I’m not sure if someone noticed this yet but contrary to the “description”, Ransom was not, in fact, abducted by aliens. He was abducted by two earthlings.

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  16. Aaron Earls says:

    I’m reading the Ransom trilogy to my two sons at night now and (after having read the series several times myself) it was the first time I actually paid attention to how horribly wrong the back cover description was.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. traildustfotm says:

    Dear Pilgrim,
    Thank you for expressing some feelings about the covers of the “Ransom Trilogy.” I don’t feel satisfied with any cover designs or descriptions I’ve seen. Nothing speaks to the prescience Lewis shows in these novels. If only the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth could have been involved. Wyeth’s style was not to make a picture of a moment in a book, but rather a moment in that book’s world, like Ransom’s reminiscences of actually living among the Hrossa.

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    • Wyeth was a great, but was he too serious? Perhaps there is some value in the crazy sci fi covers. I’ve got the old U.S. editions filled with SF symbolism. They sort of grow on me!
      Love the commnet.
      Brenton

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  24. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m glad you linked this – I had missed it, so far!

    I wonder how (or if) my susceptibilities to book covers have changed? I was put off trying The Hobbit for a decade because of the emus, etc. – even though I’d come to like Tolkien as author of Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and to read Lovecraft books with weird covers, during that decade, it still took a convinced and persuasive fan-friend to get me to try the fiction!

    Funnily enough, I think a case could be made for “remarkable,” “estimable,” “mysterious and suspenseful tour de force” on the basis of having read the book, but even if the blurbalist had read the book (which clearly did not happen), they would still seem badly deployed in a merely correct version of the text: the effect is one of unintentional self-parody, worse than “the halting voice of 1960s television journalism.”

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  27. Oh, my word. It is a good job that what is within the pages of Out of The Silent Planet is so good when there is so often such rubbish on the cover!

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