There’s nothing like writing a book about a topic to make you realize how little you know about it. But it’s not so much that I’m learning new facts — I knew I’d learn those — it’s that I’m adjusting my framework for understanding the topic a little bit.
Here’s one adjustment I learned recently: Bruce Pennington is a bigger part of retro sci-fi art than I thought he was. I already knew he was big! But it seems like he has dozens of standout covers, many of which are for the biggest names around. Judging from ISFDB, he kicked off his career with two 1968 covers, Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, both solid classics. He’s done Bradbury, Lovecraft, Asimov, McCaffery, van Vogt, more Heinlein, the list goes on.
Another related fact I’ve learned is that he loves flying saucers, and he’s done so many UFOs that are all both high quality and in such a great variety that when I sat down to figure out the best retro UFO art, about half of the top 15 or so images were from him.
I’m trying not to focus too much one any one artist in my book, so I had to trim his UFO art contributions down to just two. But here’s a dedicated email about all of them.
First, this classic. It’s Children of Tomorrow by A. E. van Vogt, for a 1973 edition. The dark lighting, the field, and the UFO’s grimy exterior all call to mind a sort of realist Andrew Wyeth vibe — about the last thing you’d associate with a UFO.
Most great UFO covers feature an ominously silent flying saucer, leaving the reader to wonder if it’s bringing world peace or laser blasts. The covers that go straight to the laser blasts just don’t have that same subtly.
Here’s a (non-Pennington) example of what I’m talking about. Which of these two covers is more interesting?
You might disagree, but I’d pick the uncredited 1980 one on the left over the more action-oriented 1982 Chris Moore on the right.
Anyway, that said, guess who still managed to throw together a compelling cover packed with UFOs on the offensive? Pennington, for a 1978 over to The Heaven Makers, by Frank Herbert.
Speaking of Herbert, Pennington’s 1972 Dune Messiah cover is worth a mention, even if it’s more in the ‘flying saucers’ category than the UFO one.
This 1977 cover to Barry N. Malzberg’s On a Planet Alien skillfully paints a picture of a first contact between shadowy figures and a spacesuited one. As the book’s title implies, it’s a reversal of your classic first contact: The guy with the flying saucer is the human, and he’s on… a planet alien.
But Pennington could do the classic UFO just fine. Here’s his stellar 1969 cover to New Maps of Hell, by Kingsley Amis.
That’s just the most noteworthy ones! Pennington has an entire section of his site devoted to UFO art, so check that out for more.
The page also includes Pennington’s personal musings on UFOs. Is he a true believer? He kept me guessing! Here’s how he starts:
“To pre-empt the question of whether I've ever actually had a personal experience of one, the answer has to be yes.”
Promising! But there’s an explanation after all:
“The autumnal ground mist of the time was acting like a vast magnifying glass, distorting even the humblest aircraft light into a glowing, pulsating ball of plasma gaining dimension the closer it gets to the horizon.
For several minutes I was enthralled, until an aircraft flew over soon afterwards, duplicating exactly the same illusion when it became submerged in fog, causing one of its lights to become prodigiously large and bright like a UFO. Dilemma solved.”
Then Pennington pulled another twist on me:
“More recent events though have defied such easy explanation and I hope in due course to give a full account of them here.”
Bruce Pennington stays an enigma to the end, just like the UFOs he depicts so well.