Homo superior n the hypothetical successor species to Homo sapiens, the members of which have acquired super- human physical or mental abilities. The term was coined by Olaf Stapledon in his novel, Odd John (1935).

Allen Lane's idea of selling paperback reprints of other publishers' hardbacks became reality in 1935, when Penguin Books was launched as an imprint of The Bodley Head. Lane wanted the books to be cheap but not look cheap, so he priced them at sixpence and asked an employee named Edward Young to design a cover for the books and draw a penguin logo. Young was only twenty-one years old at the time but, undaunted, he rose to the challenge and created the classic cover based on three horizontal bands that has made Penguin one of the world's most recognisable brands.

The first ten titles in the Bodley Head's 'sixpenny series' of Penguin Books were published in July 1935, with a further ten following in October. Of these, Penguin No. 20 was Samuel Butler's Erewhon, a cautionary tale of a satirical utopia that is not quite Nowhere backwards. The novel climaxes in a section called The Book of the Machines, a science-fictional treatise on determinism versus free will that prophesies the evolution of conscious machines and the future cybernation of humanity. It has the makings of The Matrix except that Erewhon first appeared in 1872, only thirteen years after Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species sent shock waves through the established orthodoxy of science and religion.

Butler's book within a book took Darwinism into the machine age with a warning that when it comes to the survival of the fittest, humanity may one day lose control over the contraptions it creates. The idea was outlandish then but seems a little less so now, with society in thrall to computers and the 'global brain' of the internet. Add to this the future potential of robotics and cybernetics and a day may come when Butler's tocsin to technophobes will no longer seem like sf at all.

SAMUEL BUTLER Erewhon, 1935 Erewhon (20) by Samuel Butler

First published 1872.

Published by The Bodley Head in October 1935 under its Penguin Books imprint.

All the early Penguins such as Erewhon came wrapped in dust jackets like traditional hardback books. The jackets were more or less identical to each book's cover except for the price, which was absent from the cover but printed one or more times on the front, back and spine of the jacket, or alternatively on its front inside flap. The latter was also used for a small amount of promotional copy, while the rear flap carried a photograph of the author and a brief biography.

Initially THE BODLEY HEAD was printed down both sides of each book's front cover and dust jacket, but in January 1936 the Penguin imprint became a company in its own right and the Bodley Head's name was dropped.

Then in May 1937 Penguin launched an imprint of its own, with pale blue bands instead of orange on the cover and a new bird logo by Edward Young. Pelican Books was intended as a non-fiction imprint for the 'intelligent layman' so it is curious that the third title to appear was an sf novel by the English philosopher, Olaf Stapledon. Why the book was not published as a Penguin is a mystery, made curiouser by the almost palindromic fact that Last and First Men was the first and last novel to be published as a Pelican.

OLAF STAPLEDON Last and First Men, 1937 Last and First Men (A3) by Olaf Stapledon

First published 1930.

Published by Penguin Books in May 1937 under its Pelican Books imprint.
OLAF STAPLEDON Last and First Men, 1937 Last and First Men (A3) by Olaf Stapledon

Reissued in a cloth-covered edition June 1937 for schools in
the London County Council area which, at that time, refused
to purchase paperbacks for use as textbooks.

J D Beresford's tale of a child prodigy with superhuman intelligence, The Hampdenshire Wonder, was an early entry into the subgenre of sf that explores the next stage of human evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo superior, the nomen- clature coined by Olaf Stapledon for people with superhuman physical or mental abilities. Stapledon was a great admirer of Beresford's book and later paid homage to it in his own novel Odd John.

J D BERESFORD The Hampdenshire Wonder, 1937 The Hampdenshire Wonder (92) by J D Beresford

First published 1911.

Published by Penguin Books June 1937.
H G WELLS The Invisible Man, 1938 The Invisible Man (151) by H G Wells

First published 1897.

Published by Penguin Books August 1938.

The appearance of The Invisible Man in the Penguin Crime series saw sf change colour again: first orange, then blue, then back to orange and now green. This confusion about sf reflected the fact that its emergence as a genre had yet to spread beyond America, where the term 'science fiction' had been coined a decade or so earlier. However, in England such stories were simply fiction, albeit of a fantastic kind, and Penguin sf went on changing from green to blue to orange.

H G WELLS 'The Plattner Story'. In: John Hampden (Ed.) Great English Short Stories Volume II, 1940 Great English Short Stories: Volume II (A64) edited by John Hampden

Ten short stories, including The Plattner Story by H G Wells, first published as a collection by Penguin Books in May 1940 under its Pelican Books imprint.

Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men was the only novel to be published as a Pelican but it was not the only fiction or, indeed, the only science fiction. For in 1939-40 it was joined by two anthologies of Great English Short Stories and in the second of these was a cautionary tale that had first been published in 1896. The Plattner Story by H G Wells describes how an explosion during a school chemistry experiment blows a hapless teacher clean out of three-dimensional space and into a twilight zone inhabited by ghostly Watchers of the Living. There he remains, watching the watchers, until another explosion deposits him back where he started. Well, almost, though his sudden re-entry on top of the headmaster sends the latter sprawling across his strawberry plants. Then Plattner discovers he is now left handed and his writing is back to front. A medical examination reveals his entire anatomy has been transposed and for that there is only one explanation. Plattner has been to the fourth dimension and returned as his own mirror image.

H G WELLS The War in the Air, 1941 The War in the Air (343) by H G Wells

First published 1908.

Published by Penguin Books September 1941.

The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 saw Penguin turn its attention to the war effort, and among the 'books for the troops' that it published during the Second World War were two novels that highlight a not uncommon feature of sf, which is the prescience of its subject matter. The first was The War in the Air, a lesser-known novel by H G Wells that foretells of aerial warfare and cities bombarded by air raids. Penguin published it in the aftermath of the Blitz, an eight-month campaign of bombing raids by the Luftwaffe that rained destruction on London and other British cities, ports and towns. As prophecy the novel is all the more impressive since its original publication in 1908 was only a few years after the first powered flights by those magnificent men, the Wright brothers, in their heavier-than-air flying machines.

JACK LONDON The Iron Heel, 1945 The Iron Heel (461) by Jack London

First published 1907.

Published by Penguin Books January 1945, with an introduction by Anatole France.

The second though no less visionary novel was The Iron Heel, which had first been published in 1907 (a year before The War in the Air) and is widely regarded as initiating the sub-genre of modern dystopian fiction. Jack London's polemic on the evils of fascism seen from seven hundred years in the future offered a timely reminder, if one was needed, when Penguin published it in 1945. By now, however, the war had taken its toll on all aspects of life and books were no exception. The introduction of paper rationing early on in the war had quickly put an end to dust jackets, so the price was now printed directly on the front cover. The books were also of a poor, flimsy quality with tissue-thin pages, papery covers and stapled bindings, while the appearance of advertisements inside the books and on the back covers saw The Iron Heel promoting rubber heels, Horlicks, Mars Bars and Greys cigarettes.

JACK LONDON 'The Scarlet Plague'. In: Out of This World, 1944 Out of This World (537) edited by Julius Fast

An anthology of fourteen stories including The Scarlet Plague by Jack London.

First published by Penguin Books (USA) May 1944.

The Iron Heel was not the first sf by Jack London that Penguin had published, for in July 1939 the company had opened its first overseas office in New York, initially to import and distribute books from the UK, but this became increasingly difficult after America entered the war in 1941, so Penguin USA began to select and publish its own titles. One of these was Out of This World, an anthology of stories edited by Julius Fast who, at the time, was a sergeant in the US Army.

Fast avoided 'pseudo-scientific tales of rocket ships and time machines' but one story is sf, and that is Jack London's The Scarlet Plague. The story had first appeared in 1915 and is set in San Francisco, some sixty years after a plague in 2013 had all but wiped out the human race. One of the few survivors is a former university professor – now an old man clad in animal furs – who describes the plague and the end of civilization to his feral young grandsons.

The cover format used for Out of This World and other American Penguins was designed by Lucian Bernhard and reveals the attractive yet very different approach taken in the US compared to the unadorned typography of UK Penguin covers. Bernhard's design mixed typography, calligraphy, illustration and blurb on a colour-coded background, with the book number in the top left corner, a large Penguin logo near the lower right corner and a PENGUIN BOOKS banner extending from the left below that. The US used its own colour coding and book numbers, hence the 'Pelican blue' background on Out of This World and a book number, 537, that would later be used in the UK for Francis Bonnamy's A Rope of Sand.

JACK LONDON 'The Scarlet Plague'. In: Out of This World, 1946 Out of This World (537) edited by Julius Fast

March 1946 reprint.

By 1946 British and American Penguins had become two distinct species. Out of This World was reprinted that year using a new cover format (and a somewhat misleading image as none of the stories mentions flying saucers). The new format was probably designed by Robert Jonas and featured matching coloured bands above and below a large pictorial area. The book number remained in the top left corner, but the logo was smaller and relocated top-centre, while the PENGUIN BOOKS banner was now a band that varied in colour from book to book. Colour coding was dropped, however, and instead the logo was placed in a square for fiction, a triangle for mystery, a circle for anthologies and so on.

H G WELLS The War of the Worlds, 1946 The War of the Worlds (570) by H G Wells

First published April–December 1897 as a nine-part serial in Pearson's Magazine.

Published by Penguin Books September 1946.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Penguin was preparing a commemorative set of ten H G Wells titles to mark the author's 80th birthday (which was also Allen Lane's 44th birthday). The set included a reprint of The Invisible Man in Penguin Crime plus The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine and Other Stories in the main orange list, but the celebration proved to be a little premature as Wells died five weeks before the set was published.

H G WELLS The Island of Doctor Moreau, 1946 The Island of Doctor Moreau (571) by H G Wells

First published 1896.

Published by Penguin Books September 1946.
H G WELLS The Time Machine and Other Stories, 1946 The Time Machine and Other Stories (573) by H G Wells

Published by Penguin Books September 1946. The Other Stories are not science fiction.

The outbreak of dancing penguins on some of the books published in the years prior to, during, and immediately after the war may have been intended to inject some levity and lift readers' spirits but not everyone saw it that way, and to some the creature was an undignified eyesore. Looking back later, on the occasion of Penguin's twenty-first birthday in 1956, William Emrys Williams would write in The Penguin Story that the bird appeared to be 'in the throes of appendicitis'.

J J CONNINGTON Nordenholt's Million, 1947 Nordenholt's Million (582) by J J Connington

First published 1923.

Published by Penguin Books June 1947.

J J Connington was a pseudonym used by the Scottish writer Alfred W Stewart.

By 1947 it was clear to Allen Lane that the quality of the books being produced had fallen some way short of Penguin's reputation. On the covers and internally they looked somewhat amateur, with inconsistencies creeping in from one title to the next. To restore discipline and raise standards Lane hired Jan Tschichold, a Swiss typographer who was widely regarded as the best in his field. Tschichold arrived in March 1947 and immediately set about refining every aspect of a Penguin book, from the covers and page layouts to the typefaces and even the letter spacings. Nothing was overlooked, not even those dancing penguins which under Tschichold's command fell squarely to attention.

JAN TSCHICHOLD Penguin Composition Rules, 1947 Penguin Composition Rules

Jan Tschichold


Tschichold documented his changes as the Penguin Composition Rules, which set out precise instructions and a standard format – the house style – to be used for every book that Penguin published. Then in December 1949 he was off again. He had been at Penguin for less than three years but had, he felt, achieved what he had come to do, and comparing the books above with those below it is hard not to agree. For judged by their covers alone, the later books show a marked improvement over those that predated his arrival. The results of Tschichold's reworking brought the covers sharply into focus and gave them an unified appearance which had previously been lacking.

JOHN WYNDHAM The Day of the Triffids, 1954 The Day of the Triffids (993) by John Wyndham

First published 1951.

Published by Penguin Books January 1954 with a cover illustration by John Griffiths.

Cover illustrations were nothing new to Penguin but they had not featured on many books since the preference was for purely typographic covers. But a few books got a picture, and one was The Day of the Triffids, with a drawing based on sketches that Wyndham himself had provided. The drawing was somewhat misleading, however, for the tubby little triffid on the cover was considerably cuter than the homicidal plants that stalked the pages of the story.

GEORGE ORWELL Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1954 Nineteen Eighty-Four (972) by George Orwell

First published 1949.

Published by Penguin Books February 1954.

Following a global nuclear war in the 1950s, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is split into three warring superstates with Airstrip One, as England is now called, part of Oceania. The latter is ruled by a totalitarian oligarchy called 'The Party' and its symbolic leader Big Brother, whose self-serving ideology is summarized by its paradoxical Party slogans:


To these might be added 'madness is sanity' for it is this that underlies the Party's regime of tyranny and despotism. There are concrete contradictions too, in the form of the Party's giant pyramidal ministries, for the Ministry of Peace wages continual war, the Ministry of Plenty ensures poverty and hunger, the Ministry of Truth falsifies the news and rewrites history, and the terrifying, windowless Ministry of Love is in charge of surveillance, torture and execution. This fourth ministry is the headquarters of the Thought Police, whose ubiquitous reminders that BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU allude in part to the telescreens which broadcast Party propaganda into every apartment room and office cubicle whilst simultaneously monitoring each citizen's actions, words and gestures for the slightest hint of disobedience.

In addition to Big Brother and the Thought Police, the novel coined several other neologisms that have since entered common usage. One is doublethink, a form of self-deception where Party pronouncements are accepted unquestioningly, despite contradicting previous declarations or known facts. Another, thoughtcrime, is the heresy of independent thought, as this can lead to acts of rebellion. To prevent this the Party has created Newspeak, the official, pared-down language of Oceania which severely restricts freedom of speech so that, in time, freedom of thought will no longer be possible.

Orwell's final novel before his death in 1950 tells the story of Winston Smith, a low-ranking Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth 'correcting' old newspaper articles and other records in line with the Party's latest announcements. But Smith is a free thinker, and for that there is only one cure: Room 101, where the image of 'a boot stamping on a human face – for ever' recalls Jack London's metaphor of The Iron Heel with magnified brutality. Nineteen Eighty-Four may have passed its sell-by date but its classic status and Orwell's brilliance remain undiminished.

E M FORSTER 'The Machine Stops'. In: Collected Short Stories, 1954 Collected Short Stories (1031) by E M Forster

The Machine Stops and eleven other stories, first published as a collection in 1947.

Published by Penguin Books October 1954.


E M Forster's Collected Short Stories bear little in common with Howards End or A Passage to India as most of the stories are fantasies, but one is a celebrated piece of dystopian sf that was first published in 1909. The Machine Stops tells of a future where people live alone in identical underground cells which they never leave unless it is absolutely necessary, for visits to the Earth's surface do not produce any 'ideas' and physical interaction with others is considered distasteful.

Instead people throughout the world communicate with each other via the Machine, which provides for all their needs and is their life-support system. A user manual called the Book of the Machine is increasingly revered as a sacred text and many people have taken to worshipping the Machine in the privacy of their cells. Until, that is, the Machine stops.

Forster described the story as 'a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H G Wells' although today it has acquired the status of a prophecy and a warning, for the rejection of physical society and withdrawal into virtual communities – of isolation, alienation, and life lived through the Machine – echoes current concerns about the dehumanising effect that computers and the internet are having on people. A century after the story was written, science fiction is once again becoming science fact and Forster's famous leitmotif of 'only connect' is taking on a whole new meaning.

JOHN WYNDHAM The Kraken Wakes, 1955 The Kraken Wakes (1075) by John Wyndham

First published 1953.

Published by Penguin Books August 1955.
NIGEL KNEALE The Quatermass Experiment, 1959 The Quatermass Experiment (1421) by Nigel Kneale

A play for television in six parts, first published by Penguin Books November 1959.
Part 2 >>

In 1953 the BBC screened a groundbreaking sf series about a scientist called Professor Quatermass. Written by Nigel Kneale, it was the first of its kind to be shown on British television and it took the nation by storm. Quatermass became a cult classic and two more series followed in 1955 and 1958, with Penguin later publishing all three scripts. The central white space on The Quatermass Experiment was filled by the grey shape of a black-and-white television screen, giving the impression that the title and author's name were credits which had just stopped rolling and would soon fade to grey.

JOHN BLACKBURN A Scent of New-Mown Hay, 1961 A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1615) by John Blackburn

First published 1958.

Published by Penguin Books June 1961.

Like The Invisible Man in 1938, the publication of A Scent of New-Mown Hay in Penguin Crime was another case of mis- taken identity, for Blackburn's tale of murderous mutant mushroom-women must have perplexed more than a few fans of Agatha Christie et al. But it did show how Penguin's crime covers had changed over the years. The title and author's name were no longer in block capitals, and the symmetry of the earlier covers had been replaced by a new layout, with the typography ranged left and the quartic and logo offset to the right, leaving room for a blurb in the top-left corner.