Judging by the Covers: Dystopia

A few years ago, while browsing in a local bookshop, Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2017) caught my eye. Immediately, the cover compelled me to pick it up. It was then that I realised how extremely powerful dystopian book covers can be. Of course, it’s one of my preferred genres – therefore, by way of the book cover design, I knew that this novel would be of interest to me.

What is it about dystopian book covers that makes them so distinct? They’re striking. They’re threatening. Their loud colours and bombastic fonts are an affront on the eyes. These covers are playing a very particular tune. They often evoke the visual cues of 20th-century propaganda.

George Orwell’s 1984 has had the hand of many different designers over the years.

Take this Penguin edition from 2008. Black and red, like the noisy covers of The Power (2016), Vox (2019) and Q (2021) or the more minimal The Choice and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Why does this remind us of propaganda? It’s largely down to the way that these posters capture the dreadful dichotomy of the patriotic, utopian ideal and the dystopian reality. 1984 covers, like this one, usually include the ever-present eye of Big Brother, representing the ultimate surveillance of Orwell’s story. The optimistic stars in this design, against the bold red, remind us of the USSR flag. The USSR, of course, was a nation whose propaganda became prolific and stylistically consistent. This propaganda was hugely visual because a considerable percentage of the poorer Russian population wasn’t very literate.

‘Long live the friendship of the USSR and China’ (1949)

Dystopian book covers remind us of these real-life oppressive nations of the 20th century. These covers convey the sense that a society or nation is attempting to project its ideals onto its people. This poster celebrating the “friendship” of the USSR and China from 1949 leads with colourful ideas of national pride. The flags are boldly flying, the leaders are arm-in-arm. These figures are central, looking forward to the future, like the bright red, blaring covers of The Boy I Am (2021) and The Power.

Women’s rights activists have taken up the striking colour scheme (Getty images)

The Handmaid’s Tale has taken on a level of iconography in its phenomenon, while the book has seen a resurgence of popularity in the last decade, particularly around the release of The Testaments (2020). The handmaids and their distinct outfits – red dresses and white-winged head coverings – have become a symbol of female oppression. Recent years have seen protestors all over the world dressed in handmaid costume to stand up for abortion rights. This distinct clothing leads The Testaments’ minimalist cover design in 2020.

‘To the new labour victories’ (1976)

Intimidating, loud and iconic, dystopian book covers are joyfully sinister. Fiction can be inherently visual, and dystopian fiction has a habit of building images that stick: uniforms, posters, flags. These covers riff off the dystopian trope that the very things (visual cues, in this case) designed to encourage comradery, hope and compliance often succeed only in inducing fear. What better way to introduce readers to the fearful worlds of dystopia?

By Rory McNeill.