Science fiction fonts used in body text.

Science fiction fonts used in body text.

If you’re a writer, and you’ve dabbled with book layout, at some point you’ll have thought, what font should I use inside the book? Furthermore, if like me you write science fiction you’ll probably have pored over all sorts of funky fonts for the cover, but what do you use for the interior. Surely not Times new Roman!

I thought about this when I wrote “The Tango”, which is contemporary fiction, and one of the first books I published. In the end I did what I usually do in these kinds of cases, I “borrowed” from what the pros do. I grabbed a book off my bookshelf that seemed to suit, and used that font. In that case it was “Bookman Old Style”. For the life of me I can’t remember which book it was.

Now Bookman is a nice font. It suited “The Tango”, and I ended up using it for the first two Precursor books as well, but I’ve never been totally happy with how it looks. It’s just a bit wide, and I always had to fiddle with the spacing to get it readable. So with a new book, “Quantum Chronology” not far off. I decided to revisit that choice.

Why? Because these things matter. Consider the following three images (extracts from my upcoming book “Quantum Chronology”)

Quantum Chronology Text in Garamond Quantum Chronology Text sample in classic Garamond

Quantum Chronology Text in Modern Font Quantum Chronology text sample in modern style font.

Quantum Chronology Text in Typewriter Font Quantum Chronology text sample in Typewriter style font.

Now there’s nothing in the text itself that tells you when this is set. Is it few years after 1829, or centuries afterwards? But the second image, with its slightly more rounded lettering nudges the reader to a more modern time. The third, while a patently ridiculous choice for anything other than an epistolary style, recalls for me at least a post WW2 time.

This extract is from the middle of the book and may not even make the final cut. But what if it were the opening chapter?. A choice of type, like in the second image, along with ambiguous wording could easily lead the reader to think they were reading something set in current times, not science fiction. Compare that to a cleaner, plainer choice like the first image which doesn’t nudge the reader into an assumption.

So what font to use? Unlike font choice for covers, there is a dearth of suggestions on the internet for this topic. There’s a couple of articles with good advice which can be summarised by “stick to the classics”. But what are the classics, and what about science fiction specifically?

So I decided to do a survey off my bookshelf, and see what kinds of fonts have been used for a variety of my favourite titles. If only to save someone else the job of looking inside every book they own on the off-chance that the font name is included on the copyright page.

This is not going to be an exhaustive list, mainly because most of my books don’t have the font listed. So e.g. you’ll see “The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye” by Niven and Pournelle, but not the much more well known “Mote in God’s Eye”. I have both, but only the sequel specifies the font. Go figure.

Likewise Iain M. Banks is well represented, but Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton are not; though I have just about everything by all three.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

  1. Older Sci-Fi titles seem to be set in Times and Plantin (thought Plantin is mostly from one publisher so maybe they only had a single font licence)
  2. In more modern titles Times is out of fashion for Sci-Fi but is still used in fantasy (though my fantasy numbers are low).
  3. Garamond seems the more popular for newer Sci-Fi (though that’s overly influenced by Banks).
  4. Terry Pratchett can’t seem to make up his mind, or he’s playing some elaborate joke, both are possible.

The full list (such as it is) follows. And yes I realise I should be writing instead of dicking around with fonts. But it’s my time, and I’ll squander it however I like.

Author Title Publisher Font
Arthur C. Clarke 2061 Odessey Three Grafton Times
Arthur C. Clarke The Light of Other Days Voyager Meridien
Asimov The Early Asimov Vol3 Panther Times
Asimov The End of Eternity Panther Plantin
Asimov The Stars Like Dust Panther Plantin
Asimov The Caves of Steel Panther Plantin
E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith Children of the Lens Panther Plantin
E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith Second Stage Lensman Panther Plantin
Grant Naylor Red Dwarf Penguin Benbo
Guy Gavriel Kay The Summer Tree Harper Collons Times
Harry Harrison Homeworld Granada intertype Times
Heinlein To Sail Beyond the Sunset Sphere Sabon
Iain M. Banks Surface Detail Orbit Stempel Garamond
Iain M. Banks Matter Orbit Stempel Garamond
Iain M. Banks The Algebraist Orbit Stempel Garamond
Iain M. Banks Look to Windward Orbit Stempel Garamond
Iain M. Banks The Hydrogen Sonata Orbit Stempel Garamond
Katherine Kerr Time of Omens Grafton Times
Kevin J Anderson Hidden Empire Pocket Weiss
Lee Modesty jr The Ethos Effect Orbit Garamond 3
Niven Pournelle The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye Harper Collins Meriden
Phillip Jose Farmer To Your Scattered Bodies Go Grafton Linotype Plantin
Phillip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Panther Times
Piers Anthony Bio of a Space Tyrant 3 Granada Times
Raymond E. Fiest Daughter of The Empire Grafton Times
Richard Bach Johnathan Livingston Seagull Harper Collins Optima
Sean Willams & Shane Dix Echoes of Earth Voyager Sabon
Sean Williams Astropolis Orbit Garamond
Stephen Donaldson Chaos And Order Voyager Galliard
Terry Pratchett Pyramids Corgi English Times
Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi Mallard
Terry Pratchett Night Watch Corgi Meridien
Terry Pratchett Feet of Clay Corgi Sabon

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash