Annihilation: Visionary, Surreal, and Satisfying Cover Art

Finding Ways to Showcase the Weird for Readers

Annihilation, the first novel of my Southern Reach series, debuts next week in the U.S., Canada, and Hungary, with the UK edition out in late February and another dozen foreign-language editions to follow — including the Spanish and Hungarian editions showcased below. In Annihilation, the mysterious Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. For years the secret Southern Reach agency has been sending in expeditions to find out the mysteries behind Area X, and failing. Annihilation chronicles the discoveries of the twelfth expedition, through the narration of the biologist attached to the mission. The second and third novels, Authority and Acceptance, will be released later this year. You can find more information here.

There’s a fair amount of weird science and weird nature in the Southern Reach series, and this poses an interesting challenge for the publishers: How to give the readers a great cover for a “science fiction” novel that’s on the biological, squishy end of a spectrum that starts way over on the hard SF side? Especially when the main focus of the novels is how the people and institutions react to encountering the seemingly inexplicable. Novels, too, where there’s a low threshold for entry for general readers, given the novels are set in the real world and there’s really no technical or specialized terminology or situations. Each of the four covers I’ve seen so far — all reproduced below — do a great job, in my opinion. I’m thankful that the publishers are presenting the weird elements with ingenious approaches that should attract reader while remaining true to the spirit of the novels.

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The FSG Annihilation cover – also used for the HarperCollins Canada edition – pushes against the idea of using dark colors for a novel that features a great deal of psychological unease and trips into a tunnel and eerie abandoned lighthouse. Instead, they’ve focused the unease on a somewhat predatory-looking tiger lily, conveying both beauty and menace, which fits the novel perfectly. Integrating the image with the typography allows the designer to break up the word “Annihilation” into four lines in a way that feels natural — solving the problem of needing the title to be reproduced in large, bold letters. The printed book is also a marvel, with an interior illustration on the inside front cover in the same style, and raised letters and foil making it a little jewel of design. Art by Eric Nyquist and design by Charlotte Strick.

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The cover for the edition from the Spanish publisher takes its initial direction from FSG’s idea of a plant on the cover, but in this case to create a lush, almost decadent and surreal texture, one that conveys that these books are not literary realism, but neither are they straightforward science fiction (which is usually also devoted to the idea of realism). The plant is both normal and yet perhaps not so normal, a captured still-life that still seems to be in motion…perhaps in the next moment it will change into something else entirely. This cover forms a magnificent triptych with the other two in the series — a sumptuous feast for the senses. Art by Pablo Delcán.

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In the United Kingdom, The Fourth Estate’s gone with a rather spectacular yet minimalist approach for Annihilation that focuses on the great art and de-emphasizes yet highlights the title with a vibrant green. This image of an explosion of spores, based on a scene in the novel, then transforms into other images in the covers for the second and third book. The image has been printed directly on the boards of the hardcover, with a rich, sharp green used for endpapers that pops against the silver tones of the cover. It’s a classy and rather formally beautiful approach, and in the motion across the image suggests a kind of underlying exuberance. Art by Kai and Sunny.

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The Hungarian edition (from Agave) takes a totally different approach, by conveying the central mystery in a bold yet sophisticated fashion with a die-cut X on the cover that showcases a rich biosphere beyond — one given strangeness by the use of colors not usually found in nature. It’s both a literal and symbolic landscape, and an enticing invitation to the reader. This cover also borrows from the FSG approach, in creating a clean, light-colored space around the central image. Design by Rajmund Kuszko.

Return to Weirdfictionreview.com next week for an Annihilation excerpt, short essay on “weird nature” and more.

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