Friday Book Design Blog: Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

Jonathan Gibbs
Meatspace web ready 611x1024 Friday Book Design Blog: Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

Photo: Phil Aylen

It takes a moment for the cover art of Nikesh Shukla’s new novel, Meatspace, to make itself fully understood. It shows a simple one-two of aviator shades and red bow tie, on a white background, with title, author name and quote discretely set in a narrow Helvetica.

You’ll see straight away that the shades and tie are made up of squares, uneven, organic, and clearly three- rather than two-dimensional, like a Roman mosaic.

But it’s only really when you look at the bow tie, with its lurid crimsons and rich dark carmines, that it clicks: that red is raw meat. No, surely… surely not. But yes, it’s all meat. Which means if he bow tie is steak and bacon, the shades are, what? Aged, smoked pork, with, ugh, pure fat for the white highlights and frames?

Pull back, look at the whole picture: the clue is in the title. Those squares aren’t mosaic tiles, they’re pixels: the digital made, literally, flesh.

Shukla’s novel is one of surprisingly few that properly tackle the huge, ever-increasing impact of the digital on our lifestyles – ‘meatspace’ is an ironical term used by internet users for the real world, defined in opposition to ‘cyberspace’. (Another one, that I like, but which I think has fallen rather by the wayside, is ‘the big room’, used by serious, sun-averse gamers to mean the outside world.)

It is, as I say, a devilishly neat device to throw the central dilemma of the novel into focus. But, really, you want to know who dealt with all the meat, don’t you?

Shukla points to his designer for the inspiration: “It was all Nick Hearne’s idea. I’ve known Nick for years. He’s a genius. He will always do my covers. I trust him implicitly… He gave me 6 or 7 different avenues, said he had a favourite and let me choose. Luckily I chose his favourite. The cover is related to a Facebook avatar photo that becomes an inciting incident for one of the characters.”

meatspace studio Friday Book Design Blog: Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

Well, ahem, Nikesh, that’s not quite how Hearne remembers it: “I am an ideas man by trade,” he says, “So I’ll think of a load of concepts before I think of any executions. I probably took about 8 ideas to Nikesh. My favourite was getting every other Nikesh Shukla on Facebook to pose for a group photo with Nikesh Shukla. I found 11 other Nikesh Shuklii on Facebook, I pray that one of them might come to the book launch so that Nikesh’s name is crossed off the guestlist and he can’t get into his own event.”

A fair gambit, but I think the meat one was the way to go.

meatspace studio 2 Friday Book Design Blog: Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

So it was Hearne who got all butchery with the meat (the actual ingredients, for those who want to know, were as follows: cooked chicken and turkey breast; raw lamb’s liver; steak raw and cooked medium and well done; raw pork cutlet, pancetta and pork pie and black pudding and a burger, both cooked).

I asked Hearne if he regretted his brainwave once he was arm-deep in the red stuff: “After cutting up over 1,000 cubes of meat I did start to have doubts,” he says. “The lamb’s liver really got to me. It is an unforgiving medium to accurately cut due to the varied texture and slipperiness, it smells bad, and if you don’t wear gloves your hands quickly go weird like Gollum hands.

“I froze a load of pre-prepared cubes of steak, but when I defrosted it they’d lost a lot of their red colour. So I had to spend a few extra hours cutting new fresh steak. My vegetarian wife wasn’t very sympathetic about this artistic impediment.”

meatspace pixels Friday Book Design Blog: Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

Photo: Phil Aylen

The photography was by Phil Aylen. “He is no stranger to me turning up to his small studio laden with weird objects,” says Hearne. “He barely batted an eyelid when I started arranging 834 cubes of increasingly smelly meat under his studio lights. 2014 will probably become known as my Meat Period. I’ll move onto something more pleasant next year.”

The publishers, according to Shukla, were happy to go along with the meat idea: “They liked the same one as Nick and me, luckily. It’s striking enough that we all knew it would shine on the shelf. They were all weirded out by it, I think. Rachel, one of the editors, is a vegetarian, bless her, so had to put up with a lot of lurid meaty upclosedness. It’s like the ultimate foodstagram, isn’t it? No one will ever take a photo of their dinner every again. Also, the idea of the selfie as being representative of our meat lives, it shows how disgusting that is.”

In summary, then: an imaginative response to the work, that stands out on the shelf or screen, and rewards the attention given to it by anyone who picks the thing up, and flicks open the first page…

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