Reading Time: 6 minutes
Sometime shortly after I was gifted 21st Century Foss, another book turned up that captured my imagination in equal measure. The book was called ‘Great Space Battles’, and was part of Stewart Cowley’s (now legendary) Terran Trade Authority series.
A bit like gold, especially the one on the far right
The book had big flashy pictures that were more than enough to capture a fertile young mind, so was a favourite in my collection. Funnily enough, the Great Space Battles was generally very well received at the time, which I put down to a ‘right place, right time’ sort of thing – it hit local bookstores as the Star Wars franchise was really getting going, Battle Star Gallactica hit the small screen and science fiction as a whole was experiencing its heyday.
Some of the images, like this one, stuck in my mind since seeing them the first time
My father, in a bout of infinite wisdom, threw out all my books when I was overseas. Only a few were spared this act of savagery as I took them with me but Great Space Battles, along with the other books in the series I had collected plus so much more (…my full collection of Asimov’s Lucky Star and Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series [both collections with covers by Peter Elson] to name a few), vanished into the void forever. While I was more than annoyed at the time for a whole raft of different reasons, I ultimately resigned myself to the fact that they were gone and that was that.
I discovered artists such as Peter Elson through TTA…
Then few years back, after one of those introspective moments where you realise that ‘the old stuff’ really was every bit as good as you remember it, I got the itch to try and recover my collection; I’m not sure why but it just seemed like something on my shelves was missing without those books. The initial two books I picked up were Great Space Battles and Space Wrecks. Finding them was quite a task and suffice to say, finding copies in perfect condition was not a cheap exercise. Two of four though just ended up making the ‘hole’ bigger, so recently I decided to chase down the remainder, as well as a few others.
Through the power of the interwebs and international shipping, I very surprisingly managed to find all the books I was looking for, all in amazingly good condition for books that are now 30+ years old. Be warned though, if you decide to do the same, I found in the years that passed between the first purchases and the more recent, the rarity of the books seems to have only increased, as has their value.
So what’s the story behind the books? From the author Stewart Cowley:
“Spacecraft 2000-2100AD was the first book I ever wrote and represented a major point of change in my life. I was working as a graphic designer when I had the idea. I was doing work with an illustration agency called Young Artists based in London UK. They happened to represent a new generation of brilliant artists working in the SF arena, and I was really excited about their work. The only outlet for their illustrations at the time were paperback covers, but I felt convinced more could be done with the amazing images they were producing.
I persuaded them to loan me file transparencies of art samples and had them stuck on my lightbox for a couple of weeks. I’d look at them every day, trying to think how they could be utilised. Then one day I remembered a book I’d had seen as a child. It was Jane’s Fighting Ships – a survey of the world’s navies – and it hit me. Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD was born. Being a designer rather than a writer, I tried to find someone to author the project but couldn’t find anyone with the same vision as I had. I wanted someone who could not only create specifications for the spacecraft shown, but set them in a believable historic context.
I had already discussed the project with Hamlyn Publishing who wanted to do it and issued a contract. As I was running out of time, I started writing it myself and sent sample text to them to keep them quiet to buy time until I could find a suitable author. They liked it, so I thought, what the hell, and finished it. The rest is history as they say.”
What a fantastic premise.
Looking through them now, they are still very much fantastic books. Filled with great ‘old school’ illustrations – read no digital, just pen, paint and airbrush, they are not only a document for many artists of the time but also, funnily enough, have engaging stories; an aside I have only recently discovered (Ok ok, I looked at the pictures more than I read them first time around)!!
But what’s best about these books? What would make me track them down, and pay a premium, so many years later? Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia but that’s not it alone. At the heart of it, and this is the amazing bit, leafing through them now I still become inspired and my imagination’s re-found a place that it’s not been to for some time. It’s not so much that the all artwork is to die for, it’s of the period and there’s been much more refined since (though I still love it and believe many pieces have yet to be equaled). It’s not that the stories are gripping, they’re light, entertaining and easy to read but no literary hammers.
What the TTA books manage to do is combine the right elements, in a nice simple way, to deliver engaging and more importantly, imagination inspiring books. These books come from an age where ‘picture books’ were not only aimed at the kid’s market, and science fiction was not just a by-product of the film or game industry. These were books for adults first and represent something so much harder to find these days where publishers, marketeers and money men want flash and pizzaz; substance is an optional extra, if it’s available and does not cost any extra.
The TTA books deliver big, glossy and quiet escapism for no other reason than they can, no franchise attached. That is something almost impossible to find these days.
In an ever increasing world of vanilla, books like the TTA series have become super niche. Unless you are really keeping an eye out, or know where to look, you’ll never find them; they have for all intents become the domain of enthusiasts and collectors. My most recent purchase, ‘Sentre’ by artist Simon Stalenhag was only available to those that backed the Kickstarter campaign (though you can grab his other two on Amazon)… for everyone else it’s a glossy book about Star Wars or Harry Potter; published escapism is now franchised with a leaning towards those under 20.
Nabbing these books again has been one of the best things I’ve done for a while, they have rekindled ideas buried deep in the back of my mind. It also seems I am not alone in my admiration of the books Mr. Cowley put together, the TTA series has inspired a whole spin off universe of illustrators and games that all draw direct inspiration from the original books.
Here’s some stuff on the TTA series listed on Wikipedia