Master Ultan asked Book of the New Sun enthusiast and SF writer Stephen Palmer how he first came across Wolfe’s work. This is his reply.
Author: Stephen Palmer
Stephen Palmer was born in 1962 in Harpenden, UK, and was brought up in Wales and in England. He read physics at the University of London, then went on to follow a “portfolio career”, including time at a college, a private girls’ school, a university, and with the booksellers Waterstones. He now works at a college in Shropshire. He has written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels. His blog can be found at http://stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com/ and his latest novel is Beautiful Intelligence
Many British readers first encountered Wolfe’s novels through the stunning cover artwork of Bruce Pennington. His artwork was used on the first hardcover and paperback editions of the Book of the New Sun, The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Devil in a Forest.
Visually striking, the art seems to perfectly capture the blend of the futuristic and the fantastic that characterises the Urth cycle. Bruce’s work was a fixture of any bookshop with a good SF and Fantasy section in the 60s, 70s and 80s. His work could be seen on the covers for Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many more. It has been said that Gene considers Bruce’s cover for The Shadow of the Torturer to be one of his favourites. It has also been suggested that in chapter 26 of The Urth of the New Sun (“Gunnie and Burgundofara”), Severian’s remembrance of his youth in Nessus is a direct reference to Bruce’s painting:
“As clearly as if he were in that chamber of tears with us, I saw the young journeyman striding along, his fuligin cloak billowing behind him and the dark cross of Terminus Est rising above his left shoulder.”
Examples of Bruce’s work can be seen in the gallery above and on his website.
Novelist Stephen Palmer, author of Urbis Morpheos, Muezzinland, Memory Seed and Glass, to name a few, interviewed Bruce for Ultan’s Library in April 2013. Steve’s article on religion in the Book of the New Sun is reprinted on Ultan’s Library.
How were you first approached about the four covers to the UK (Arrow) edition of Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book Of The New Sun’ quartet?
The editor and art director of Arrow Books decided to try me out with “The Shadow Of The Torturer” in the early 1980s. They liked the result enough to use my talent on several more Gene Wolfe covers.
Did you get to read any of the text before you began work? Did the publishers perhaps give you a summary of the scenario and characters?
I was always given the text to read through of each book before tackling the picture.
Would you agree that many of your paintings, including those not for SF book covers, seem to mix the ancient past with the distant future? The cover for “The Citadel Of The Autarch” in particular seems to epitomise this feel.
Both ancient and futuristic themes hold a fascination for me personally. It is the polarity of both extremes that has a certain impact I suppose.
Was there a specific real-world inspiration for the bird-creature holding a flaming torch depicted in the painting for “The Claw Of The Conciliator”?
Throughout my school days I was obsessed with ornithology. This took the form of creating my own ‘bird club’ at school, with lectures and bird-watching expeditions into the countryside. The bird-like creature that you mention wasn’t drawn from any particular fowl. The pin-tail duck is about the closest I can think of.
In many of your paintings lifeless environments seem to take on the forms of living things; is this a phenomenon, imaginary or otherwise, that particularly interests you?
During my ornithology days I took up taxidermy, which involved working on the lifeless forms of dead birds. This meant removing the bones etc to make room for wires and sawdust stuffing. Maybe all of that influenced me subconsciously.
I have found that many Gene Wolfe fans who discovered him when he was becoming better known as an SF author associate your four paintings with the work. Has this been borne out by your own experience since painting them?
It was gratifying to receive a letter from Gene Wolfe to the editors of Arrow Books, in which he believed that he and I were in danger of forming a mutual admiration society (praise indeed). I also received letters from fans endorsing the same opinion. All I can say is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given such atmospheric tales to illustrate.
How do you think about your cover art for Gene Wolfe’s books? Do you see your pictures as being illustrations of episodes in the books, or do you view them as images inspired by the books? In other words, are you trying to capture a scene or event, or you trying to express the mood and feel of the book in a visual medium?
The atmosphere and iconography of Gene Wolfe’s books already existed in my own imagination way before I read them. If you take a look at the section of my website titled “Migraine Monochromes” you’ll see what I mean. They were done back in the 1970’s – prior to 1980 when I was given the first in the Urth series to illustrate. The mood and environment were paramount above any particular scene, although I tried to keep as close as possible to the text.
Tell us about the colour palette you use for your depictions of Urth. Why those particular colour combinations for a world under a dying sun?
Regarding my choice of colour schemes, I tried to keep them sombre and solemn, as opposed to bright and vivid.
Many of your illustrations of Urth prominently feature stone and bone, particularly skulls. What are the significance of these materials for your conception of how Urth looks and feels?
Those familiar with my imagery know that I have a liking for fossilised remains and bones, particularly skulls. This stems from my early childhood when I discovered a horror comic in my school desk – that, along with seaside ghost trains, were to blame, I’m certain.
Did you read all the Gene Wolfe books you illustrated? If so, what was your reaction to them?
I’m a slow reader, so I have to confess that I tend to ‘skip-read’ books that I have to illustrate. With the Gene Wolfe books though I got really engrossed. From the very first description of them before I had a chance to read them I knew that they were meant for me. I’d like to thank all those who made it all come together.
We’d like to thank Bruce (and Steve) for their time in putting together this interview. All of the images above are the property of and copyright Bruce Pennington.
To see more examples of the art of Bruce Pennington, try the following links:
This is an amended version of an article I wrote almost twenty years ago for the British BSFA magazine Vector. The original version was entitled Looking Behind the Sun: Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” and was published in the August 1991 edition.
The Book of the New Sun is one of science fiction’s greatest achievements, and it is generally recognised that the book conceals rather more than is initially apparent. Wolfe, a Catholic, uses his faith to underpin a monumental work. This article looks at some of the religious implications, and hopes to draw comment from other readers.