Publishers work hard to design books that look interesting enough for casual punters to pick up through sheer curiosity, even if the curiosity is along the lines of "Surely this can't be a book?"
The oddest SF volumes of 2007 were Gollancz's "Future Classics" reprints, titillating jaded shoppers by having no title on the front. Instead you need to squint sideways at the spine or – also printed sideways – the title page. Penguin used this trick decades ago: Joe Bob Briggs Goes to the Drive-In, the world's most politically incorrect movie review collection, had nothing upfront but a still from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Future Classics are physically quite striking, with much embossing and raised print: something gorily cellular for Greg Bear's Blood Music, aeroplane icons for Christopher Priest's The Separation, op-art dots for Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, spikes (or Shrikes) for Dan Simmons' Hyperion. Paul McAuley gets a butterfly-wing pattern with rainbow hologram veins for Fairyland. The only non-abstract design, on Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, is a daringly anatomically correct knee by some fellow called da Vinci.
Things get seriously bizarre with Evolution by Stephen Baxter, whose cover looks solid black on the Gollancz website. In reality it's a flock wallpaper finish! Like prehuman creatures in its early chapters, this book is clearly struggling to evolve a protective pelt. Remember that famous surrealist artwork, the fur-lined teacup?
One Future Classic didn't reach me in the first batch: Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder. Could this design have involved radioisotopes or strange matter, delaying production for reasons of public safety? The website showed only white blobs on a black background. A Gollancz supremo [Malcolm Edwards] enlightened me: "I believe it's luminous." And so it is. A book to read when the power fails.
Another interestingly weird volume is Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorised Autobiography, whose many sillinesses begin with a UK hardback that opens in the middle of the front cover. That title joke isn't new, though: the late Robert Bloch of SF and Psycho fame published his Once Around the Bloch: an Unauthorised Autobiography in 1993.
In America, the Snicket book has a reversible dustjacket. If worried by the author's warning that "Disguising this book, and yourself if necessary, may be your only hope," you can flip the cover and pretend to be reading a happier story: The Pony Party! by Loney M. Setnick (anag.). A long-ago potboiler called The Book of Bond or Every Man His Own 007 by Lt-Col William ("Bill") Tanner – really Kingsley Amis – used the same trick to disguise this alleged spy manual during fieldwork. When reversed, the cover shows the numbing title THE BIBLE Revised To Be Read As Literature. Complete with reviewers' quotes: "Useful; but the later, more fanciful episodes might well have been dropped." (Jewish Monthly).
Lemony Snicket's unfortunate events are reminiscent of those famous comic-macabre graphic novelettes by the late Edward Gorey, in which many hapless infants come to grief. Good news for fans: the sequence of jumbo Gorey collections that began long ago with Amphigorey now has a fourth, posthumous volume, Amphigorey Again. Crammed with sinister treasures, the includes a spoof French melodrama with unlikely subtitles ... which must be SF since it features a menacing Victorian automaton called Ahududu.
Coincidentally I discovered a neat on-line Gorey pastiche, supposedly his adaptation of "The Trouble with Tribbles". Google should find it for you. Also on line is the eccentric Frank Key's Hootingyard.org, where I paid real money for his irresistibly titled Befuddled by Cormorants and Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From the Stars. Mr Key's SF has a distinctive flavour: "Far, far away, there is a galaxy of shattered stars, stars crumpled and curdled and destitute ..."
Finally, the most expensive tome I've acquired in years. It's a French edition of a 1981 Italian original, which doesn't matter because the lavishly colour-illustrated pages are in an unknown language. Its creator Luigi Serafini was surely inspired by the mysterious 15th/16th-century Voynich Manuscript, still undeciphered, and by Jorge Luis Borges' unforgettable alien encyclopedias in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "The Book of Sand".
In fact the Codex Seraphinianus is SF in distilled form, showing marvellous creatures, plants, gadgets, rituals, games, street scenes, gems, buildings, cyborgs ... Like one of Gorey's elusively quirky mock-thrillers, it looks as though it should make perfect sense if you had the right Rosetta Stone to crack those alien symbols. It's a wonderful volume to puzzle over, and no, you can't borrow my copy.
David Langford hopes these gift suggestions will make your Xmas shopping more interesting, if not cheaper.