Aug 5 2008 4:32am

SF/F Book Cover Review, Hugo Edition: Halting State

Part two of our review of the covers of the 2008 Hugo nominees, in which we’re not as gushing with our praise as we were yesterday. Part one is here.

Halting State, US hardcoverHalting State by Charles Stross
(US: Ace; UK: Orbit)
U.S. Edition cover illustration by Sophie Toulouse, designer unknown.
U.K. Edition cover illustrations by Army of Trolls, design by Sean Garrehy.

A near-future techno-thriller, involving a bank heist within an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game).

This cover is not particularly bad, but it’s not great, either. While the illustration by Toulouse is eye-catching, it is hardly this illustrator’s best work. I actually like her work a lot, I just don’t think she’s particularly suited for this type of project--check out her agent’s website for some really cool fashion, editorial, and advertising work. Regardless, the illustration used here says very little about the actual premise of the book directly, other than that it’s set in Edinburgh (and that’s only if you’re very familiar with that city’s skyline). The woman depicted in the illustration is wearing some sort of headgear which has a cyberpunk or possibly even slightly steampunk feel to it (note the crest on her ‘headphones’), but it’s vague, and doesn’t come across as one or the other, adding to the ambiguity of the piece. On the other hand, having read the novel (and enjoyed the hell out of it), I do think the artwork somewhat captures the general tone of the novel. It certainly gives one the feeling of a drab world made slightly richer through the use of technology, particularly the layers of information laid over real-world scenes used by the various enforcement agencies depicted in the novel.

The cover sports a spot gloss effect over most of the non-white areas of the layout,  giving the illustration and type a nice shine in contrast to the matte-coated white areas. This, along with embossing for the title and author, give the cover a pleasing tactile quality, while reinforcing the concept of information overlays which I mention above.

The typographical treatment is somewhat underwhelming: it’s not very expressive, and there isn’t much variation in size or treatment. The strange capitalization scheme for the title I imagine alludes to the phrase ‘halting state’, which, in programming, refers to a point in an instruction set at which a computing process stops (I am not a programmer, so please correct me if I’m wrong). By placing a capital letter at the end of a word, the designer is making it harder for the reader to ParsE ThE TitlE of ThE BooK in OnE FluiD TakE, thereby forcing the reader into their own kind of halting state. Unfortunately, the typeface is so clean and readable to begin with, and the title so short, that the effect isn’t as marked as it would otherwise be.

Also unfortunate is the large block of text for the cover blurbs. While cover blurbs are very important, and certainly drive sales, I think this is a case of overkill. The overall cover design would have been better served by keeping one blurb on the front (perhaps the Gibson), and leaving space for a more aggressive and interesting title treatment, instead of having a big block of text that is by far the densest element of the layout, and tends to weigh the whole composition down.

Halting State, UK coverThis U.K. version by Orbit is the complete polar opposite of the U.S. cover in some ways. While this approach nails the contents of the novel (theft and murder within the context of a video game), its whimsical approach is hardly appropriate for the tone of the book. It feels more like a modern-day comedy, or a light-hearted adventure, than a near future techno-thriller.

Once again, thanks to Jamie Stafford-Hill for additional material.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden
1. pnh
I actually like the British cover, and I don't think the (slight) whimsicality is inappropriate. British covers are often just a touch more whimsical than the books they enclose, just as British print advertisers seem to deploy offbeat humor a little bit more frequently than ours do.

If it misfires, it's because the eight-bit video-game imagery is all from a couple of decades ago--it's a middle-aged hipster's notion of what a "video game" looks like, completely unlike the visuals of present and near-future MMORPGs. On the other hand, on the general principle that the job of an SF cover package is not to literally illustrate the story but rather to tell us what the book is going to feel like to read, the UK Halting State cover is in fact successful--the message it gets across is "high-tech, stylish, and bloody-minded," which is a pretty good set of associations for anything by Charles Stross.
eric orchard
2. orchard
I really like this cover, I like seeing drawing on a cover and I love the colour palette. I don't care for the UK version, it looks like a Douglas Copeland book.
Pablo, are you responding primarily or more strongly to design elements? It's interesting to see how designers, illustrators ans authors all respond differently to these covers. I respond to this cover more favorably than I did to the Chabon book, perhaps because I look for a naturalistic portrayal of narrative, or a suggested narrative.
Darren Nash
3. Darren Nash
Many thanks for the kind words, Patrick. That's pretty much exactly what we were thinking when we briefed the cover.

the job of an SF cover package is not to literally illustrate the story but rather to tell us what the book is going to feel like to read

Yes, indeed! And also - in these times of congested shelves in the bookstores - to make the book stand out from the crowd and to entice potential readers to pick it up, both of which I think we've done. And if you'll permit me a small plug, we've endeavoured to take the "stylish" element even further with the mass market cover:

A higher res version can be found here. Great set of posts, by the way. It's fascinating to see the different cover approaches on each side of the Atlantic - and also the reactions they provoke from readers.

Thanks for the opportunity to post my two bits' worth.
Darren Nash
4. Anthony Cunningham
You should have seen the first version of the American cover. The artist obviously hadn't read the book and knew nothing of British policing.

I like the UK cover, especially the back page.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
Patrick--Thanks for the links (particularly to the Great Ideas photoset, man, I love those covers). I see what you mean about the British sense of humor, and suspect that my having read the book might be coloring my reception to this approach a more than it would a prospective buyer. I didn't find the novel funny, and that's what the UK cover says to me.

Eric--The comparison to the Copland covers has been mentioned elsewhere, but I decided to stay away from mentioning it here, as I'm keeping my discussion of the UK covers brief.
I like the illustrator, and I think I'd like this piece on its own, I just don't think it's the best solution for this particular book. However, you're right: my strongest negative response to the design is mainly the typographic treatment.

Darren--Welcome, and thanks so much for the link to the mass market cover! It's so great to hear from the creative team behind a piece. I'm glad you're enjoying the posts.

Quick request, if you come back to follow up on this thread: Can you supply me with the appropriate credits for the UK cover design (is it you, or another member of your team, a separate illustrator)? I like giving credit where it's due....

Anthony--I've heard...rumblings about the process leading up to the final cover, but since all I'm privy to is the final product, that's what I've limited myself to talking about. Were you involved in the process?
Vanessa Paolantonio
6. vanessa_p
The collage artistic and design style is very popular right now, taking its main influence from graffiti. That being said, it's really easy to overuse the style, especially since it's fashionable and has a certain grittiness. For the U.S. cover I agree that it doesn't explain much. Both literal and figurative cover designs can work depending on the subject and treatment. And even though the art does give you the "feel" of the novel, it doesn't do much else. If the woman on the cover was more literal to a character in the story, then perhaps it would balance out the looseness of the rest of the art.

I've had a glimpse at some of the artist's other work and agree with Pablo, that it is better suited for editorial publications.
Darren Nash
7. Darren Nash
I'm Charlie's UK editor, Pablo, so I can't claim creative credit for the cover - although I did work closely with the designer. Speaking of which . . .

Quick request, if you come back to follow up on this thread: Can you supply me with the appropriate credits for the UK cover design (is it you, or another member of your team, a separate illustrator)? I like giving credit where it's due....

My pleasure. The pixel illustrations are by Army of Trolls @ NB Illustrations, and the design work is by one of Little, Brown's inhouse designers, Sean Garrehy.
Jamie Grove
9. jamiegrove
The US cover is jarring and disconnected from the story. However, of the many books I've trucked around lately, Halting State has drawn the most questions from curious friends and strangers.

When I saw Halting State on the shelf, the book was face out and I wondered who on earth would publish such an ugly book. In addition, the position of Gibson's blurb made me wonder if he wasn't a co-author.

(Feel free to call me an idiot on that second point. I mean it's obviously a blurb. What can I say, except that this was my first impression.)

So, I picked up the book and checked out the jacket notes. I'm a Rebus fan so anything set in Edinburgh automatically ends up on the list. Glad I did too, Halting State is awesome.

Anyway, as I noted above, an unusual number of people asked me about the book and several went on to buy it. To me, this means the cover did its job - ugly or not. :)
Dave Bell
10. DaveBell
Charlie has mentioned the basic problem on his public blog: Here, for instance.

The original version of that cover design badly confused London and Edinburgh.
Alison Scott
11. AlisonScott
Patrick @1; one of the print ads you linked to was a US interpretation of 'British humour' for a mid-Western market; the series is a bit odd. (You are unlikely to find a UK press add with WANKERS in large print, for example).

Irn-Bru though is responsible for one of my absolute favourite ads of all time (Christmas! The Falkirk Wheel! The Forth Bridge! The Monarch of the Glen! Small child plummets thousands of feet and then lands on ground with a splat!) You do need to be familiar with the animated version of Raymond Briggs' Snowman. Luckily, 100% of the UK population is, so that's ok.
Alison Scott
12. AlisonScott
Also, the 8 bit version of Charlie is very very funny.
Andy Leighton
13. andyl
pablo said "I didn't find the novel funny,".

Well I didn't find it laugh-out funny but there was more than a touch of humour throughout the book. More than enough that a straight techno-thriller style cover could shade into not capturing the feel of the writing.

I would say that the graphics on the UK cover are purposefully retro. For me they resonate a little with the writing (and not the content) as they feel almost from the same era as text adventures.

However I do own the US edition (it was published first). About the only thing I really like about the US cover is the typography on the title. The cover blurbs are particularly horrible.
William Hassinger
14. iObject
U.S. Cover: I seem to recall that I was brought to this book by a link on the Steve Jackson Games blog, so I had something of an idea of what to expect. That said, the cover gave me no idea whatsoever of what to expect inside. It failed to communicate... well much of anything other than a somewhat sleek cyberpunk feel. I couldn't really pin down what made me think punk, but it was there. The Edinburgh skyline was totally lost on me (heck, I didn't even know about that until I read this!) but in the end I still like that cover on its own merits. Something about it appeals to me in an odd way.

U.K. Cover: I totally dig this cover. There was a lot of humor in the book, though it was hardly a comedy, so the "cutesy" 8-bit seems fine to me. There were times I laughed so hard I had to put the book down (something about juggling Elder Gods, stands out in my memory). Also the cover has a vague noir leaning in the imagery that seems not inappropriate. The slightly off-kilter addition of the orc is also in keeping with the way the "orcs" in game are problematic and confusing. All in all, it works for this reader.
Jeffrey Richard
15. neutronjockey
What I like about the US hardcover of Halting State was the gloss-over ink (I know that's not the term --- you said "spot gloss?"). Spot gloss catches my eye as a reader/consumer, then as a reader/writer my brain says,"hmmm this is someone they think is worth an extra penny on production."

Not that I wouldn't have recognized Charlie Stross's name---just saying in general when I see special cover treatments I know that someone believes this books is going to sell well.

The artwork itself tends to call the eye down towards the cover blurbs --- while I think the Gibson blurb carries weight with SFF enthusiasts I'm not to sure about the NYT blurb as far as weight consideration for hardcore SFF fans.

"You! NYT blurb...back of the jacket!"

I'm thinking the NYT blurbs are generally included for snagging mainstream market potential?

Either way I find the blurbs distracting from the

I think the cover art is too eccentric anyway for mainstream cross-over --- and any mainstream reader popping it open and seeing second person POV ...well, their head would probably explode.

The typographical treatment of HaltinG StatE may have been an attempt at expressing L33t-sp34k without 47I3N4TInG everyone. Leet is commonly used in MMOs. It could also be the artist was familiar with BBSs when leet-speak was just emerging as a SimPLE AnD AlMoSt RanDoM hit of the shift-key.
Sam Kelly
16. Eithin
I like the UK cover a lot (very reminiscent of Coupland), but the first reaction I had to the US cover was "Oh, dear. Yet another SF book with tits on the front."
Soon Lee
17. SoonLee
I prefer the US cover myself. The UK cover, though possessing an excellent lo-res rendition of Charlie Stross, was too cartoony & cute for my tastes.

Eithin @216,
It worked for me. It's only one tit & not in a sexualised way (unlike the cover for "Saturn's Children"). It conveyed the vibe of the book, I thought - vaguely futuristic/menacing.

Not sure about the capitalization scheme of the title though. The letters in caps are 'HGSE'. Is it some sort of secret acronym?

Hugo Grade Strossian Extrusions?
Nicole Cardiff
18. NicoleCardiff
Yeah, I'm not a fan of the US cover at all, though I think Stross's covers in general just plain don't do it for me. I haven't read the book, so I can't speak to how well it does/doesn't fit it.

The thing that actually irritates me the most about the US one is the near-tangent between the hair and the C. Illustration style preferences are subjective, but tangents and near-tangents send my design sense up a wall.

Of the two, I'd be more likely to pick up the UK book.
Darren Nash
19. Juri Pakaste
pnh: A small disagreement about the 8 bit visuals in the UK cover. I have yet to read Halting State, but if I understand correctly what it's about, I don't think the style is that far off from what we have today. Sure, some MMORPGs are rather different, but at least Habbo uses a visual style that very closely resembles that of the book cover.
Sam Kelly
20. Eithin
Well, the imagery on the UK cover isn't 8-bit, it's 8-bit-ish. Habbo, Puzzle Pirates, and the Lego games all use similar styles, and retrofuturoretrofuture is really big at the moment. The reason these games use that style is basically two-fold. It's a lot less expensive in terms of art design and animation (and computationally a lot less expensive, too) than the more photorealistic kind Guild Wars (for instance); and it helps people concentrate on puzzle content or socializing rather than the world. (Ref.: Bartle, achiever/explorer.)

On the other hand, Halting State is blatantly based on World of Warcraft, which has a very different graphical style indeed - but basing an SF book cover on a takeoff of that would make it look like a WoW novel to those who recognized it, and yet more extruded fantasy product to those who didn't. The WoW aesthetic is a lot more like the Pixar-esque US cover of Saturn's Children.
Michael Roberts
21. Michael
I should like to lodge a complaint. I went to Borders in San Juan on Monday in high hopes of acquiring a copy of said Halting State, but my hopes were dashed, as they had no copies on the shelf, even though their stock system told me flat-out, "Likely in store." Ha, I say ha! More vicious lies were never told.

I remain an unrequited Strossian purchaser to this very day.
Pablo Defendini
22. pablodefendini
@Michael #21- Dude, I'm sad to say that you're so S.O.L. My best friend, who also lives in San Juan, is constantly complaining about the dearth of a good contemporary SF/F selection, particularly at the Borders in Plaza las Américas. According to her, there's no Stross, no Scalzi, no Buckell.... and no recourse, as she's asked them a bunch of times about these authors in particular, and gotten similar results as you did with their computer.

Ni modo, ¡Amazon contígo!
Tara Chang
23. tlchang
I dislike this cover enough that I would probably only read the book if I could get it from the library rather than spend the money to buy it. (Coming from an illustrator point of view, I kind of need to like the visuals for it to actually live with me...)

I loved everything about yesterday's cover - more the longer I looked at it. This one leaves me completely cold.

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