Action Stations' Cover: Mysteries Revealed

If you purchased the recent eBook release of Action Stations, you may have noticed that the cover is wrong. Exactly how wrong, though, is a matter of opinion! There is one obvious problem: the eBook uses an incorrect, pre-release version of the cover. It has one clear problem: a tagline that reads “From Wing Commander V: The New Release!” Action Stations is an original story and not an adaptation of a Wing Commander game… especially one that does not exist, as Wing Commander V was renamed Wing Commander Prophecy. It’s not clear how this error happened in the first place, but it was fixed between the original solicitation (that used the mockup) and the final publication.

The more general issue with the cover has existed since the book was published: it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the book. There are no familiar characters or ships and it features two female figures… an odd choice for a book that features almost no women in major roles! For years, fans theorized that it was a case of slush art being touched up (a stroke here, a Kilrathi head here!) and used for a Wing Commander novel.

There were apparent holes in that story: the cover is credited to Paul Alexander, the storied science fiction artist who painted the first three Wing Commander novel covers and it did seem to be roughly based on the Wing Commander III poster art, the same way Freedom Flight and End Run were adapted from the Wing Commander I box. All of those were clearly representative of the text, though, so what was happening here? The true story has come out in recent years, thanks to the early “color study” version of the cover’s painting which went up for sale last year.

A close look at the study reveals that it is labeled “Wing Commander IV” and dated August 1994. That’s a full four years before Action Stations, the SIXTH Wing Commander book, was published. So here’s what happened: the painting was originally commissioned to be used as the art for the FOURTH Wing Commander novel, the adaptation of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. That’s why it looks like the WC3 box and why it features a Kilrathi (Thrakhath) and two women (Rachel and Flint): it’s intended as a stylized take on WC3. Baen opted to use the existing game art for that book and then went back to it four years later when the next original novel needed a cover!

That explained, would you believe that Action Stations’ cover won a Hugo Award? Well, okay, it didn’t… there’s just the slightest possible technicality that connects the book with the most prestigious award in science fiction. Here’s the skinny: in a not-uncommon practice the German-language version of the novel uses a different cover from the one discussed above. That cover, which shows a stern-looking woman running to… one supposes action stations, just happens to be a painting by Don Maitz which was originally created for the 1989 C.J. Cherryh novel Rimrunners. In 1990, it won Mr. Maitz the Hugo for Best Professional Artist!

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