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 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.


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