With Further Ado #225: The Rayguns and Rocketships of Rian Hughes

You can almost smell the stale greasy fumes in the air and the hear the metallic thrumming of the engines as you flip through the pages. This is space travel – 1950s style.

This space travel has more in common with a submarine than a Tesla or SpaceX. These spaceships are more like typewriters and lawnmowers than your iPhone.

The clunky space suits are cumbersome and ugly, except when worn by women. Then the unitarian suits somehow transform into slinky, formfitting fashion statements, hugging every curve of the women’s 50s hourglass shapes.

The brave astronauts of this day never dreamed of apps or coding, all they needed was a space-wrench, whatever that was, and a blowtorch to build or fix their spaceships in between intergalactic oil changes.

This is the vision of a sci future…from the unique vantage point of seventy-plus years ago and from the “other side of the pond”.

Ace designer Rian Hughes has done it again! His latest book, Rayguns & Rocketships, published by Korero Press is a space-age treat. In fact, the back cover of this book displays a logo/badge on the back signifying it to be a five-star Retro Scientific Thriller –complete with a “thumbs up”. This logo, presumably designed by Hughes, couldn’t be more spot-on.

In the interests of full disclosure, Hughes has long been a favorite logo designer, and I’ve even been a client – he designed our Agendae logo. His book of logos is on my bookshelf, and I even featured it in my very first With Further Ado column.

Rayguns & Rocketships is a celebration of the UK’s science fiction pulps and paperback covers. The promo copy says it all:

Rayguns and rockets! Spacesuited heroes caught in the tentacles of evil insectoid aliens! Who could resist such wonders? Science-fiction paperbacks exploded over the 1940s and ’50s literary landscape with the force of an alien gamma bomb. Titles such as Rodent Mutation, The Human Bat vs The Robot Gangster, Dawn of the Mutants and Mushroom Men from Mars appeared from fly-by-night publishers making the most of the end of post-war paper rationing. They were brash and seductive – for around a shilling the future was yours.

The stories were often conceived around a pre-commissioned cover and a title suggested by the publisher, and the writers were paid by the word, and sometimes not paid at all. Titles were knocked out at a key-pounding pace, sometimes over a weekend, by authors now lost to literary history (plus a few professionals who could spot an opportunity) who were forced to write under pseudonyms like Ray Cosmic, Steve Future, Vector Magroon or Vargo Statten. Despite the tight deadlines and poor pay, the books’ cover artists still managed to produce works of multi-hued, brain-bending brilliance, and collected here is an overview of their output during an unparalleled period of brash optimism and experimentation in publishing.

There’s something especially charming about the British version of vintage sci-fi. Like a dream that’s wispily evaporating from your memory as you awaken, it’s hard to put your finger on it exactly. Maybe, compared to US pulps, they are primmer and more proper? Maybe they are more middle class? Maybe the design and cover dress is more traditional? I haven’t quite been able to mentally articulate it – but as I read (and as I plan to reread) this excellent book, I am certainly going to try to understand it better.

While most this heavy book is about the images, Hughes supplies an excellent introduction. I tend to think of Hughes as a talented designer, but in this meaty introduction, he clearly establishes himself as “one of us”. He’s clearly a fan and details the way he’s pulled together his sci-fi paperback and magazine collection.

Phillip Harbottle, of the Cosmos Literary Agency, also supplies an engaging afterward entitled “Mushroom Cloud Fallout”.

Hughes pulls out all the stops and also includes a brief section towards the end of the book featuring the covers of the 60s and 70s. They are slick and designed in a focused way -less about the traditional space troupes and more like movie posters of that time. It’s a fun palate cleanser, but it does reinforce the notion that the party was over all too soon.

In a world of “what if’s” and “never was-es”, Hughes’ Rocketships & Rayguns provides proof positive that these “what if’s” did indeed exist, if only briefly on paperback covers ….and that it was glorious!

Title : Rayguns & Rocketships
Publisher ‏:‎ Korero Press (December 1, 2022)
Language ‏: English
Hardcover ‏: ‎456 pages
ISBN-10 ‏: ‎1912740044
ISBN-13 ‏: ‎978-1912740048
Item Weight ‏: ‎2.55 pounds (it seems really heavy to me!)
Dimensions ‏: ‎6 x 1.3 x 9 inches