As a kid, I staunchly believed there were only two camps: you were either team fantasy or team sci-fi. And since Star Trek didn’t have elves and unicorns (I hadn’t yet seen the holodeck!) I wasn’t interested. Fairies shimmered in fairytale castles, while alien princesses, if they existed at all, ruled from sterile metal fortresses. Drawn to the whimsy of talking animals and magical forests, I dismissed sci-fi’s offerings as devoid of the fantastical.
But stories have a way of defying rigid categories. And above all, I came to realize whether scribbled in glitter or etched in chrome, it was the stories that captivated my attention–and, by extension, the beautiful art that accompanied them–not especially the genre trappings through which they were envisioned. One summer afternoon, while browsing my weird uncle’s dusty comic collection, I stumbled upon a cover, unlike the werewolves and vampires that dominated most of the towering stacks (by then, I had moved on from fairy princesses to the monsters haunting crumbling, gothic crypts) Lush, cosmic swirls enveloped a lone, impossibly graceful spaceship, its sails catching the light of a thousand alien suns. It was sci-fi, yes, but rendered in a style that wouldn’t look out of place on a fairy tale tapestry. That day, the 2-camp theory dissolved. Sci-fi, I realized, could shimmer with wonder, could paint impossible visions across canvases both grand and intimate. And not very long after that, on another summer afternoon, I uncovered an ungodly amount of my dad’s back issues of Heavy Metal magazine, and –say no more, right? You know what I’m getting at. I was hooked.
Years later, this revelation lives on. I consider myself an enthusiast of fantastical art of all stripes, and I couldn’t have been more excited when I realized that the creator of one of my favorite art-related Tumblrs–Adam Rowe of 70s Sci-Fi Art— was soon to be publishing an art book. If you don’t know any Tumblrs but recognize Adam’s name from somewhere, well, it could possibly be that you heard him on the Endless Thread podcast about the Wrinkle In Time book cover art. While I babbled about the mystery of it all and sounded like a total space cadet, Adam was the one with the grounding and logical insights who was actually saying all of the smart stuff!
Brimming with dazzling dreams of fantastical futures and explorations of the vast cosmos, Adam’s book celebrating the groundbreaking sci-fi art of the 1970s would have delighted skeptical childhood me and shown me everything I now love about that golden era of science fiction art today. It’s a vibrant showcase of retrofuturistic visions, stuffed to the gills with phenomenal art–from the abstract and avant-garde to the trippy and surreal, from the murky and lurid to the vivid, vibrant, and hyperrealistic, Worlds Beyond Time is an incredibly curated gallery-in-a-book, and love letter to this breathtakingly beautiful and frequently bizarre genre. Of course, it’s easy enough to fill a book with art (HA! That’s a lie. It is not easy.), but what really elevates an already special tome is that all of this gorgeous art is seated alongside a plethora of ridiculously well-informed, engrossing essays written in Rowe’s warm, chat, irreverent voice.
And speaking of warm, engrossing chats–that’s the reason we are here today! Adam graciously answered my questions about Worlds Beyond Time, his fascination with sci-fi art, and some of the colorful characters and favorite artistic tropes he features within the pages of the book. See below for our Q&A, and thanks from the bottom of my weird, awkward heart, Adam, for your generosity of time, energy, and spirit.
SE: I’m always interested in the formative stuff! Is there a definitive moment in your childhood that you can hearken back to wherein a fondness/fixation regarding sci-fi art was born? Or was it a series of snapshots, a thing here and there and so on, which drew you in? What initially engaged your interest and piqued your curiosity about the world of sci-fi art, and what continues to fascinate you about it?
AR: I’ve always enjoyed any sort of genre fiction, particularly old and out-of-style ones. I think the formulas that tend to get reused for disposable entertainment will tell you a lot about cultural anxieties or values. But my interest in sci-fi art is very specifically tied to the look of 70s and 80s art styles – they just really light up my amygdala in a way that even 50s and 60s sci-fi art rarely does. I don’t know how to explain it! That’s actually why I went so specific with my blog name when I first started my Tumblr in 2013. I had stumbled on an illustration on Reddit, and I couldn’t find an existing tumblr specific enough for me at the time, so I created my own.
There are other, similar-but-different art niches that I’ve sort of “spun off” my interest in over the years. I still love 70s sci-fi art, but I also love 80s/90s computer and tech illustration, as well as the 90s yuppie kitsch vibes from artists like Christian Riese Lassen.
In John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (not really sci-fi related but definitely full of otherworldly notions and ineffable explorations), the author meditates on the idea of “Astrophe,” the feeling of being stuck on Earth, occasionally looking up at the stars, dreaming of other worlds–but always, always being pulled back to reality, that feeling of being grounded. Is there a particular sci-fi artwork you revel in or an artist you admire whose art is so bold and striking that somewhere in your mind, it permanently yanks you right out of Earth’s orbit, perhaps quells that Astrophic yearning?
A great artist for sci-fi yearning is John Harris. There’s a bit of a removed, timeless feel to his artwork, there’s often a lot of cosmic awe. I’m repeating myself from my art book, but one of my favorite stories about him is that NASA commissioned him in 1985, and his chosen subject matter wasn’t a scene set in space or depicting a spacecraft at all. Instead, he painted the smoking, empty launchpad immediately after a launch. It’s a sharp contrast to the triumphant images you’d get from Robert McCall.
Another couple of favorites are Bruce Pennington and Angus McKie. Pennington always captures ideas and images that feel archetypal without being cliche, and McKie always has tiny delightful details that take a while to notice. I can stare at their work for a long time.
In your book, not only do you showcase the artistic brilliance of the individuals you feature, but you also unveil their unique personalities. Your chapter on cheeky visual satirist of chaotic abstraction, Richard Powers, particularly captured my heart– as I have a massive fondness for the goofballs and weirdos, for silliness and absurdity. Beyond their artistic achievements, these artists led rich and complex lives. Can you share some other examples of how their personal experiences and dispositions influenced their artistic expression?
Yeah, Richard Powers is quite a character! In a good way! Fun fact: I read a lot of art books while writing this one, and The Art of Richard Powers by Jane Frank was probably the best one for offering a candid picture of an artist, flaws and all, and fully avoiding the hagiography trap.
Leo and Diane Dillon were always exploring, which led to an art career covering so many mediums and styles that it’s hard to pin down. John Harris’s deep interest in transcendental meditation is impossible to separate from the cosmic awe of his art that I mentioned earlier. John Schoenherr had a love of naturalism that contributed to the lived-in feel of his famed Dune illustrations. And I really love Rick Sternbach’s dolphin in a spacesuit, which I slipped into page 4 of my book at the last second – he wasn’t commissioned for it; he just wanted to explore the idea as a thought experiment because of his interest in marine biology. Basically, any artist who wants to carve a legacy for themselves should let their love for other subjects flow into their art.
I really appreciate the way Worlds Beyond Time is structured, jumping back and forth between spreads featuring specific artists, themes, motifs, tropes, and gimmicks, as well as the subjects and landscapes of the stories themselves. It’s an unexpected and deliciously unpredictable format, curious and singular–much like how the best examples of sci-fi art and their stories can be. How did you come up with the configuration for the book?
I’m glad you asked! For the longest time, I didn’t think I could do an art book, but it was when I realized I could do that format that I realized how fun and interesting it would be to write. And I only realized it was an option because I read a book with a very similar structure: Grady Hendrix’s 2017 Paperbacks From Hell, about 70s/80s horror paperbacks. And I know you loved that book too, because I looked it up on your site and saw your review!
I love how fast-paced Paperbacks From Hell is, and how funny and irreverent the writing style is. It’s divided into sections, covering specific books and authors as well as fun themes and min-trends. Seeing that crystalized for me that I could do the same thing. When I first started putting together my proposal for Worlds Beyond Time, Grady was in the area as part of his book tour for We Sold Our Souls, and he was kind enough to meet with me and give me advice! He also recommended I talk to Vincent Di Fate, the artist and art historian who would go on to write my foreword.
Basically, reading Paperbacks From Hell really opened my third eye when it comes to how a nonfiction on fiction book can work. Also, as an aside, I’m trying to make the term “nonfiction on fiction” happen, as a way to describe history books that document eras and types of fictional media. So far, no one’s going for it, and I think it’s because it just sounds like you’re saying “nonfiction” twice when you say it out loud. It’s like the Little Caesar’s guy who says “piece a pizza,” but more confusing.
And of the common themes or motifs that you see recurring in the sci-fi art you included in the book what were some of your favorite to write about and think about? How did these reflect the cultural and social zeitgeist of the era in which they were created–and is there anything about it that still resonates today?
One of the most popular and striking visual tropes I covered is skeletons in spacesuits. It’s an immediately cool concept all by itself (a very memorable Scooby Doo and Doctor Who antagonist both basically boil down to this trope; that’s pretty cool). But it also has a history drawn from pulp adventure illustrations, where explorer skeletons were always popping up in deserts, caves, and islands. Adventure is a genre that a lot of early science fiction stories emerged from as far back as Jules Verne and HG Wells, so being able to see the visual connections is fascinating to me.
One of my favorite sections is the one featuring reflections in space helmets. There’s an interesting practical reason behind the concept’s popularity – it’s an economic way to get a landscape and a person into one scene, and it lets the reader project an appropriate emotion onto the figure. Plus, it also shares a bit of a history with adventure illustration, where you’d occasionally see the same trick pulled with other reflective surfaces like monocles or gun scopes.
Finally, there’s cities in domes, which is a particularly popular concept for this era of sci-fi art. It’s easy to grasp, looks cool, is fun to paint – but it’s also fairly impractical as a functional concept. Moon bases are more likely to be underground bunkers than domes. But geodesic domes were pretty popular and futuristic in the 60s and 70s.
I wanted to do a section on floating cities as well. I wound up cutting it, partially because it shares so much with domed cities, and partially just because the best examples were from artists who are more expensive to license, like Robert McCall and Chris Foss. The idea of a big floating city feels even more fantastical and disconnected from reality than a domed city.
Artificial Intelligence comes up in your chapter about robots, and I’ll confess, today’s AI-driven image generators and language models are something that concerns me greatly, with its creation of “art” without the consent of the human creators whose works were used to train their algorithms. I strongly feel the anxiety of living in a world where the line between art created by human and machine is increasingly blurred, for example, you only have to look at imagery shared by well-meaning family and friends on Facebook, life-size cats crocheted by obscenely grinning nonagenarians or sand sculptures of beautiful woman whose hair has been rendered so finely that it gently drifts in the breeze?! Come on people! THAT’S NOT REAL! Robots, cyborgs, machines becoming sentient, beings enhanced with technology, and all the dangers that transhumanism and artificial intelligence represent…I didn’t get the sense from art and stories that the dangers we’d be facing from AI would have to do with the art itself. I know this is a crazed and rambling question, but what are your thoughts on any of it?
I agree! I think you hit it on the nose with your takeaway about how science fiction didn’t prepare you for the real-life counterpart. But then, the stuff we’re calling AI today isn’t anywhere near sentience; Ted Chiang has said “applied statistics” would be a more accurate term for all real-life innovations than “AI.” But of course, it’s a better marketing pitch to feint at creating tech from famous science fiction stories. The tech we have with ChatGPT is definitely cool, but it’s a shame that it requires copyright theft and exists mostly as a way to cut enough jobs to boost quarterly revenues another 2% or whatever. The real problem, once again, is capitalism.
I do find the topic of how science fiction interacts with Silicon Valley ambition to be constantly entertaining. So many big tech figures love science fiction. I can’t imagine Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know that the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash is a dystopia, but he does seem to think that it doesn’t matter.
It feels a bit tragic, doesn’t it, to omit some really fantastic pieces from a book on a subject dear to your heart that you’re sharing with the world? And annoyingly, you know there’s going to be people who say “I can’t believe you *forgot* x/y/z!” – as if it’s simply a matter of you “forgetting!” Tell us about art-shaped holes in your heart and in your book that you would have loved to include if you had been able.
I couldn’t afford to include as much art as I would have liked from some of the biggest names, including Frank Frazetta, John Berkey, and Chris Foss (and arguably shouldn’t have included the images I did use since it blew past my budget and came out of my own pocket). Paul Alexander and Peter Andrew Jones are two other great artists I didn’t include at all – the former wasn’t essential enough to my book to justify some rights requirements, and the latter felt he had enough art collections out already that would compensate him better.
But the biggest one that got away was this beautiful Brothers Hildebrandt wraparound cover for Earth’s Last Citadel by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. I had a great scan ready to go, and I was willing to pay more than I did for any other single piece of art, but the estate just ultimately wasn’t interested. I couldn’t bear to cut the paragraph writeup about the image in the book, however, so you can still read all about it on page 152. Funny enough, I used to hate it when an art book would discuss an image that it didn’t feature. Now, I get it.
But back to things that were in your book! I was delighted to see that horror gets a spotlight! From mentions of cryptozoology to ghosts and Creepy and Eerie magazine, the horror-nerd in me was totally geeking out. Obviously, you have a great love for sci-fi, but as a horror fan, I’m compelled to ask about your relationship with the horror genre.
I definitely appreciate horror almost as much as sci-fi! Fantasy, supernatural horror, and sci-fi all emerged from the same early-1900s primordial genre goop of “weird stories,” and they still work well when blended today. With movies, I particularly like when other genres are thrown in, like horror, comedy, and action horror. I saw Ravenous last October; it’s a great historical horror. I’m in the middle of reading the second Clown in a Cornfield novel by Adam Cesare, and I definitely recommend it.
In that vein: if you’re a horror fan looking to dip your toes into sci-fi art, is there any artist/creator, or work, visual, or otherwise (ie literature or cinema) that you’d recommend?
A cover artist for retro horror books that I’ve always loved is William Teason – take his classic 1963 cover for Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle or this artwork for Mary Roberts Reinhart’s The Case of Jenny Brice. Some big-name science fiction illustrators have done plenty of horror illustrations as well, like Michael Whelan and Bruce Pennington. Of course, Paperbacks From Hell will tell you all about other great retro horror artists that fans of Worlds Beyond Time will probably enjoy.
Also, I don’t know what the classification is, but I saw this video a few years ago when it first came out, and I still keep thinking about it. Someone needs to give that creator a blank check to make the feature-length version of whatever it is.
Since it seems we’re delving into darkness, how do you think sci-fi art has explored the darker side of human nature, such as fear, paranoia, and the unknown? How has sci-fi art intersected with the occult and paranormal, and how has this influenced our beliefs in, or even disinclination toward the supernatural?
Man, I dunno! Strictly through the lens of my art book, I’d say a lot of the darker, more challenging art was swept off of sci-fi covers around 1971 since the publishing industry was expanding and worried that creepier surrealism would scare off readers. (Another example of profit incentives hedge-trimming artistic expression!)
Science fiction has always been a venue for facing horrifying world-ending threats head-on, though. Back in the 70s, nuclear war was a big one, and today, climate change is. Fiction can help raise to the surface some otherwise unthinkable concepts, although fiction alone is never going to save us. The pen’s only mightier than the sword when it’s writing to a lot of other people with swords.
This does remind me of one of the more fun illustrations in Worlds Beyond Time: The Mutual UFO Network’s 1977-79 itinerary covers. The designer is uncredited, but the covers have a great sense of precision and clarity of concept to them, which I imagine is pretty important to an organization dedicated to an often-dismissed phenomenon like UFOs.
Onto something a bit more frivolous: I’m a bit obsessed with Richard Hescox’s works, how the gleaming luminosity of his paintings really lends itself to the shimmering details in fripperies and fineries–jewels and gemstones, crowns and headdresses, all sorts of fancy accouterments. Bruce Pennington is another artist who shines at capturing a fashion-forward moment; I’m thinking of an image you included in your book for the cover of E. van Vogt’s The Pawns of Null-A, where Pennington “dresses a power-hungry emperor like an otherworldly Pope,” whose robes are embellished with a treasure trove of glittering symbols and beads– into which the artist had apparently secreted his own name! I’m curious if you can think of any other sci-fi artists who indulged in a sartorially-minded spirit in their book covers and other artworks?
Sci-fi fashion is pretty cool! Although often over-reliant on jumpsuits and cloaks. I have a “fashion” tag on my tumblr that I bet you’d enjoy scrolling through. I see Peter Elson’s work pops up several times; His 1978 cover to Jack Vance’s To Live Forever is pretty eye-popping! This David Schleinkofer fit actually might be considered cool today, which I can’t say about the guy on Roy Virgo’s 1980 cover art for Mannes éphémères, by Clark Darlton and KH Scheer. But the real winner is the robot drip on Isidre Monés’ cover to the 1981 German edition of Robot, by Adam Wiśniewski. Incredible energy on that cover.
One interesting fashion angle is the idea of astronauts having visual ID on their suits, either as heraldry like knights, or as a way for regular joes to express themselves, like sailors with tattoos. There’s an Ed Emshwiller cover for an issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that captures that idea. Shoutout to Winchell Chung’s site Atomic Rockets, where he discusses those topics over here. If I were to ever get a sequel art book, I’d definitely have a two-page spread on fashion in sci-fi art. I’ve just added it to my sequel brainstorming doc, right alongside other ideas like “Christ figures,” “bugs,” and “spaceships shaped like fish.”
I used to include a final question in my interview Q&As, something like, “what’s next?” But that’s a bit presumptuous and a lot of pressure, isn’t it? Isn’t it enough to enjoy what you literally just put out into the world earlier this year? So, instead of stressing you out, my question is more along the lines of what do you do to de-stress? What are you doing when not exploring and examining worlds beyond time? Adam Rowe is a complex creature and contains multitudes– what does he get into when he’s not writing about 1970’s sci-fi art?
A lot of movies and TV! I was just telling someone that I need a friend who actually appreciates mediocre mid-budget 90s movies as much as I do. I also like old crime movies – I just saw 1967’s Le Samourai for the first time yesterday and loved it. Aside from that, the most noteworthy thing I’ve done lately is uploaded the 2006 Jimmy Buffett cover of Werewolves of London to YouTube – it wasn’t available anywhere on the internet if you can believe that! Get the word out, I’m hoping to get past 47 total views.
I’m also developing a taste for other types of illustration from within the 1960s-’90s zone. The Tumblr Lookcaitlin has an amazing collection of retro-tech magazine illustrations, and I just finished the complete collection of the Antonio Prohías Spy vs. Spy comics.
For writing, I’m in the planning stage for another potential art book, but no spoilers yet. I’m also trying to keep doing articles to get the word out about Worlds Beyond Time. This year’s Hugo Award nominations open up on March 1st. Best Related Work? Maybe! Someone needs to explain to me how getting nominated works. Maybe I’ll talk to my publicist.
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