Odds are you don't know Chris Foss' name, but if you were reading science fiction during the 1970s and ’80s, you've surely seen his work. His images of great grimy machines—spacecraft and earthcrawlers, their gaudy stripes and checks emphasizing the perspective, giving depth and scale to their bulk against airbrushed starfields or planetscapes—adorned many a paperback cover.
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These are strong and evocative pictures, and the visual aesthetic that Foss pioneered in the book trade and (albeit briefly) as a film production designer has proved hugely influential. You can discern the fingerprints of Foss in the weathered hull of Joss Whedon's Serenity and in Battlestar Galactica's ragtag fleet, in the brutalist military machinery of Avatar and in half a hundred video games.
Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss gives a deluxe presentation to a slew of Foss’ best and best-known covers. It is a beautiful object—an oversized (12.5 inches by 10 inches) hardback, weighing in at a whopping four pounds, with slick, heavy paperstock and gorgeous reproduction quality. Along with the pretty pictures, there's a biographical sketch and conversation, assembled by his daughter Imogene; an appreciation by editor and designer Rian Hughes; and brief essays by director Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrator Jean "Moebius" Giraud, both of whom worked with Foss on an abortive adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that still stands as the most ambitious science fiction movie never made.
The lavish presentation contrasts with the speed and facility with which Foss ground out the paintings themselves. At his peak, he was completing two to three covers per week, images often bearing little relation to the content of the books they wrapped. And while Foss was lucky enough to be associated with some of the biggest names in SF—crafting covers for series by the likes of Isaac Asimov, James Blish, J.G. Ballard and E.E. "Doc" Smith—he also lent his art to many forgettable books by forgotten writers.
And yet he never phoned it in. Always, Foss' machines have a plausibility to them, an industrial solidity. These ships and installations are objects for use, not for display. Not new and not pretty. Their deck-plating is scuffed with many footfalls, the brushed steel of the hatch-handles worn slick and shiny.
For all the evidence of use, though, there's little sign of users in Foss' SF work; the human figure is virtually absent from the scenes—ironic, given that his most-seen work overall remains the line drawings he did for Dr. Alex Comfort's 1972 bestseller The Joy of Sex. Those pictures (not reproduced in Hardware, and only glancingly mentioned) are a singular achievement; neither sensational not pornographic, they render their subjects with rare sensitivity. Above all they are profoundly human, more naked in their truth than any nude, vulnerable in their unidealized bodies, pot bellies, armpit hair and all.
The absence of this aspect of Foss' talent from Hardware is telling and reflects on the marketing practices of science fiction. Foss remains ambivalent toward SF as a genre—he's a giant in the field, but not a fan. It's tempting to read into his exclusion of the human form from his SF work an attempt to distance himself from the genre—tempting, but probably overreach. What is undeniable, though, is that in the ’70s Foss became notorious for not reading the majority of the books he was assigned to cover. But really, why should he have been expected to read any of them? What Foss was doing wasn't actually illustration in any meaningful sense—it was branding, pure and simple. It was no more necessary for him to read the books than for a designer of detergent boxes to wash his own clothes with the client's product.
During the genre's ’70s heyday, it was said that the SF audience would buy anything, no matter how poorly written, so long as it had a spaceship on the cover. This was a state of affairs by which Foss profited, and which he helped also to create. They wanted spaceships, and so it was spaceships that Foss gave them. And if hard SF prospered more by brand loyalty than by dedication to quality, then Foss deserves a large share of the credit for creating that brand—and a small share of the blame for the brand's reputation.
From a rusting, broken hulk adrift in the far reaches of the outer orbits, Jack Feerick sends his feeble signal across the cold vastness between the stars to Popdose, where he is critic-at-large.