A science fiction visionary

Artist and illustrator Chris Foss has been credited with transforming the landscape of science fiction. Interview by Matilda Battersby

The name Chris Foss might not immediately set off flurries of recognition in your neurons but his artwork almost certainly will. One of the most prolific illustrators and cartoonists of the last century, his creations graced hundreds of science fiction paperbacks during the genre’s “golden era”, written by everyone from JG Ballard to A.E. van Vogt. Having also found time to work as a concept artist for Hollywood greats like Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, his futuristic landscapes informed a film aesthetic of science fiction without which Superman, Alien and Dune would not have looked the same. Oh, and as if that wasn’t groundbreaking enough, he also illustrated the 1972 “gourmet guide to lovemaking” The Joy of Sex.

A hefty tome comprehensively charting Foss’s contribution to science fiction was published recently. The book bursts with hyperreal spaceships, aliens, different planets and complex machinery rendered with obsessive detail, but with a flourish that lends his narratives real vim. Born in 1946 and brought up in Guernsey, Foss used abandoned World War Two bunkers as a playground and witnessed first-hand the post-war damage in Europe as a six-year-old - the influence of which is clear in his fictional landscapes. Interviewing him over the phone from the garden of his Devon home, he explains he had a rather extraordinary childhood.

“When I was little my mother bought a Picasso for £7 pounds 10 shillings in a draper’s shop in Barnstaple. It was a dark and brooding etching of a Minotaur from his Guernica phase. My father was a headmaster and his wage in those days was about £1,000 and that’s the amount my mother sold the Picasso for. She reckons she was done – similar paintings go for a million pounds now – but all things are relative, and with the money we went all the way around Europe. Can you imagine what it looked like? Hitler’s Nuremburg stadium with the big obelisks was a campsite when I saw it – full of tents! There was still a lot of kit around from the war and as a kid I was fascinated by machinery. It was the most phenomenal influence on me,” he said.

Despite wanting to be a “serious artist” Foss bowed to parental pressure and agreed to study architecture instead. He prepared to take the Cambridge entrance exam but decided to try and fail it, the consolation prize being that he could go off and attend art school. “But to my horror I actually passed the exam,” he said. “I think I was drunk at my interview – I was 17 and had an extremely good pub lunch beforehand. But I was so laid back about it because I didn't want to go and the tutor was very keen on fishing and I could tell him about all the best spots to go in Devon [where the Foss’ had a holiday home], I think that worked in my favour. Not like today. I really was well piddled!”

He didn’t make it to his first year exams before dropping out, but Cambridge was some help to Foss as he started contributing comic strips to the Cambridge Evening News on top of his weekly strip for the Guernsey Press. During this time he contacted Bob Guccione who had only recently started the adult magazine Penthouse. “I did a rabbit cartoon for Penthouse #3 and then things started happening.” Guccione put Foss on a modest retainer salary and he soon found himself cleaved to the publisher’s “mucky books division”. He was eventually persuaded to get a proper agent, and his first science fiction commission was helping with a book of Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella comics.

Foss says the trajectory of his career went parallel on rails. “I always wore two hats: on the one hand I had all the erotic stuff and on the other I had the science fiction stuff. The two things rarely joined up. It was a different world. In those days my studio was in Ham Yard opposite a strip club which carried the slogan ‘We’re naked and we move’,” he said. He found himself in huge demand around the time of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the moon landings, when the world suddenly went crazy for science fiction. He was so busy that he became famous for not reading the books he illustrated and for creating covers which had literally no bearing on the contents of the book. But the publishers were happy and the commissions kept coming.

He was asked to illustrate a book written by Stanley Kubrick about extra sensory perception. Years later Kubrick “summoned” Foss to his St Albans studio and asked him to help visualise the concepts he was working on for A.I, the film project famously started in the 1970s which was thwarted by the limitations of computer generated imagery and which Kubrick handed over to Stephen Spielberg in 1995 and was completed two years after Kubrick's death in 2001.

“Kubrick used to come in with a page of script and I’d visualise what he was doing. I told him that he’d got me started on my science fiction career when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. He said ‘Yeah and I’ll finish you too’ and he damn nearly did. He was a hard taskmaster. I put a sign saying Prisoner Cell Block 8 on my office door.” Still, things weren’t all bad during that period: “I was bonking [Kubrick’s] god daughter at the time, unbelievably. She was this naughty model”.

At 65 Foss has no immediate plans to retire and is currently putting together a follow up to an earlier book, Diary of a Spaceperson. He remarks on the anachronistic nature of the futuristic vision he came up with which is so heavily entrenched in World War Two and the past. “I was trained to be an architect and that did have an effect on the detail and solidity of my work. As an architect you really appreciate the structure and proportion of things like the German bunkers I played in as a child. Germans, of course, are brutally functional and so much science fiction has this sort of bunker mentality.”

The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss is available now and for more information visit www.chrisfossart.com