UC Riverside buys Le Guin sci-fi novel cover art

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday January 26, 2024
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Mill Valley bookseller Mark Funke holds the original cover artwork for Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Mill Valley bookseller Mark Funke holds the original cover artwork for Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

A renowned science fiction collection at UC Riverside has purchased the original cover art for Ursula Le Guin's award-winning 1969 novel "The Left Hand of Darkness." The artwork is joining the state university's Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy and should be on display in the college library's special collections reading room by the summer.

With more than 300,000 items in it, the Eaton collection is "one of the world's largest, richest, and deepest collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopian literature and related genres," according to the UC Riverside Library's Special Collections & University Archives. It grew out of the personal library of Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton that encompassed nearly 7,500 hardback editions of science fiction, fantasy and horror titles acquired by the college's library in 1969.

"I am absolutely over the moon," Phoenix Alexander, the Jay Kay and Doris Klein Science Fiction Librarian at UC Riverside, told the Bay Area Reporter about being able to buy the 17 1/4 by 13 inch acrylic painting used for the cover of the debut edition of Le Guin's novel, which was released in paperback by Ace Books.

As the B.A.R. first reported in December, publisher Ace Books hired award-winning artists and biracial couple Leo and Diane Dillon to create the cover art. Highlighting the novel's plot centered on a gender-nonconforming and ambisexual race of humanoids, the Dillons featured profiles of the book's nonbinary protagonists in the left bottom corner looking off into the distance. Surrounding the pair is a blue and white celestial-like scene with what appears to be a brown planet and a spaceship hovering above.

(Leo Dillon, of Trinidadian descent, died in 2012. He was the first African American to win the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustrators of children's books, while the Dillons were the only consecutive winners of the award, having received the honor in 1976 and 1977.)

"Their artwork draws on African folk art, Japanese block printing, and medieval illumination," noted Alexander, who has been in his position at UC Riverside since August 2022.

It was a stark departure from the cover art created during the "golden age of science fiction," said Alexander, which largely centered on spaceships and other science fiction tropes. The Dillons' taking a different approach reflected Le Guin's experimental plot that was the first to focus on issues of gender and sexuality for a sci-fi novel.

"This is really characteristic of the new wave of science fiction from the 1960s," said Alexander. "There was experimentalism with form, and engagement with more complex social issues like racial politics, sexuality, and gender. It marked a historic change in the genre."

In honor of the success of Le Guin's novel, the publishing house gifted the Dillons' artwork to its late editor Terry Carr, who oversaw the publication of various sci-fi authors' works while at Ace Books. Carr died in 1987, and his personal papers are housed at UC Riverside.

The Dillons' painting, however, stayed with Carr's wife, Carol Carr, herself a sci-fi writer. She and her second husband, fellow sci-fi author and fanzine collector Robert Lichtman, displayed it in their Oakland hills home. Carol Carr passed away in 2021, followed by Lichtman a year later.

Their children put their parents' home up for sale and also decided to sell off their personal papers and other possessions. It was how Mark Funke, a rare bookseller who lives in Mill Valley where his business (funkebooks.com) is also located, came to discover the cover art for Le Guin's novel along with dozens of boxes containing Terry Carr's papers that had not been acquired by UC Riverside.

In conjunction with the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America International Book Fair taking place in San Francisco in early February, Funke had announced the sale of the Dillons' cover art with an asking price of $20,000. Funke told the B.A.R. it is the amount that the UC Riverside special collection paid to acquire it.

"It is super," Funke said of having the university library owning the artwork. "It is going to be available to the public. People will be able to walk into the library and see it. Hopefully, it will attract young people to go research science fiction."

Following the close of the book fair, the artwork will travel to UC Riverside where it will undergo conservation protocols. The library staff will also decide how to best display it in a protective manner in the reading room, which Alexander told the B.A.R. he hopes can be completed within the next six months.

"We will do a conservation check then make sure it is protected and displayed safely. Hopefully by this summer, for sure," said Alexander, who will miss the book fair because it coincides with the opening of the UC library's new exhibit "Eaton at the Movies" featuring items from sci-fi films and television shows housed in the Eaton collection.

Having had a working relationship for years with Funke, who called the Eaton collection "certainly the best in the U.S." for science fiction, Alexander told the B.A.R. he had fielded an inquiry from Funke on if he would be interested in acquiring the Le Guin cover art. Funke had told the B.A.R. last year that his preference was to see the artwork end up at a public institution rather than a private collection.

"When people think of libraries and think of special collections and archives, they have an impression that things are locked away and nobody can touch them. That is not true; we look after the items and do conservation on them," said Alexander. "We are making sure these pieces are accessible and are doing programs around them."

He hopes students, in particular, will be "really excited" to see the Dillons' artwork for the Le Guin novel when it goes on display.

"It is not just going into a vault and sitting away for 50 years and being wheeled out for research every 50 years," he said. "I think it is something that will really generate excitement and bring people into our special collections and archives."

The 56th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will take place February 9-11 at Pier 27, the cruise ship terminal on The Embarcadero along San Francisco's bayside waterfront. For more information, visit its website.

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