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I've noticed that a fair number of space-related sci-fi novels have cover art involving visually complex space ships that are unrelated to the plot.

Some examples I've noticed:

  • Leviathan Wakes, Abaddon's Gate (and all of the Expanse series)

    Leviathan Wakes Abaddon's Gate

  • Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead (and the rest of the Ender series)

    Ender's Game Speaker for the Dead

What is the origin of this motif? Are there prominent earlier examples?

  • Possible duplicate of What is the Speaker for the Dead cover depicting? – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 22:54
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    The dupe explains the process of using stock cover-images. – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 22:55
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    What is an "abstract" space ship, and how does it jibe with "visually complex"? – user14111 Feb 4 '18 at 23:21
  • @user14111 I edited the question for that precise meaning. I suspect that the OP does not (yet) know that "abstract" as a descriptor for art has a specific and historied meaning. – Lexible Feb 4 '18 at 23:23
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    Slightly off topic, but in the old pulp days, what happened frequently enough was they would commission a cover and then pass it along to an author to write a story influenced by it, rather than the other way around. That was for the magazines tho, but those magazines often had rocket ships. – Broklynite Feb 5 '18 at 10:28
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I don't think there's a particularly simple answer to this. By the late 40s, the rocket ship -- usually based on the shape of the V2 -- was ubiquitous, to the point that by around 1960, some libraries would indicate that a book was SF by putting a rocket sticker on the spine. Winston used: enter image description here In effect, a rocket became the icon that said "SF". (Valigursky was especially known for his elegant rockets and did many covers in the 50s and 60s, but he was by no means alone. Nor did he limit himself to things that looked like V2s!) Here's one from 1953 by Richard Powers: enter image description here

Artists wanted to do more and art directors wanted more, and needed to have their book covers simultaneously say "this is SF" and "this is something new and different", and one solution was to have a more fanciful spaceship on the cover. For some reason, this was especially common in the UK where artists like Rick Foss painted spaceships which couldn't possibly be intended to be real.enter image description here

So my best answer is that you see the result of seventy-five years of artists and publishers collaborating to creatively use the rocket (or spaceship, these days) to signify SF and sell books.

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