When I was much younger—in about 1959 to 1961—my best friend Jimmy Griffin had a big collection of Ace Doubles SF paperbacks, which was my first exposure to these wonderful little “two-fers.” If your only exposure to SF books is what you can find at the local bookstore chain (Coles, Chapters or Indigo in Canada; probably Barnes & Noble or Half-Price Books in the US; most likely W.H. Smith or Waterstones in the U.K.) or Amazon online; if you don’t have an independent bookseller or really good used bookstore (like Powell’s in Portland, OR), you may not have even heard of Ace Doubles.
From 1952 through, I believe, 1973, the Ace publishing company—now part of Penguin—put out a series of “tête-bêche” (French for “head to foot”) paperbacks: two “novels” (really more novella-length works, usually; sometimes full novels that had been abridged to fit a 320-page length maximum) bound together with one upside-down in relation to the other—with associated cover—so all you had to do was flip the book to read the other. (The “D” in the number doesn’t mean “double,” by the way, even if it was originally intended that way. Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and others had D-series single books.)
Ace started its double books by publishing mysteries and westerns; some people argue that Cry Plague!, by Theodore S. Drachman, was SF, but the book on the other side, The Judas Goat, by Leslie Edgley, was definitely not, so most collectors don’t count it as Ace’s first SF title. That honour went to A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A on one side, with his The Universe Maker on the other (D-31). To my way of thinking, the Ace D-series published some of the best SF of the time (not to say that this was the only good SF, but it was a reliable place to get good, sometimes very good SF). And for this column, I’ve been going back and looking at some of the books to see whether that statement has any kind of reality. Stand by.
What is it about ‘50s and ‘60s SF that makes it stand out in my mind? (For the most point in this column, when I say SF I don’t mean fantasy or horror, okay? D-36, which was Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror paired with Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon, is one of the few in this series that’s not straight SF. I don’t have all the Ace D-series, so I’m unable to verify whether some of Margaret St. Clair’s books (Agent of the Unknown, D-150 and The Green Queen, D-175) are SF or fantasy, but I don’t think she was well known for her SF. (One exception is D-453, The Games of Neith.) Most of the D-series books are pure SF if you count psionics—telepathy and the like—as SF tropes.) Why is it that I feel as if much of the SF of that era is superior to some of the SF/Fantasy of today?
But before I get into that, let me state right at the start that I’m not talking about literary superiority; a majority of SF in the ‘50s and ‘60s showed its pulpish roots, with idea, plot and action taking the driver’s seat, and character development, social relevance and the like very much sitting in the rumble seat. (What? You don’t know what a rumble seat is? They were a cute idea when a car’s speed was limited to something like 30-45 m.p.h., but totally useless with today’s high-powered vehicles. Safety? What’s that? But as usual, I digress.) In addition, most SF of those days was written by men for men; even further, by white men for middle-class white men and boys. If you are a woman, a non-hetero non-cis-gendered “other,” a person of colour (any colour but white), you might have to grit your teeth when reading these stories, as the assumption was generally that the protagonist is not you. It was not a deliberate attempt at exclusion, as far as I know; it’s just that the western world was still asleep when it came to recognizing gender and racial differences as important. There were women writing SF and fantasy—Judith Merril, Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret St. Clair, Andre (Alice) Norton—who also wrote as “Andrew North”, Wilmar H. Shiras, C.L. (Catherine) Moore, J. Hunter (Joan) Holly and Marion Zimmer Bradley among others—but often they hid their female identities (see above) with either pseudonyms (Andre Norton) or initials (C.L. Moore) or non-gender-specific names (Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley); their identities soon became common knowledge, even if their writing didn’t give them away. (In my opinion, the women generally had a bit of writing depth that their male counterparts lacked.) The western world was controlled by, and catered to, the white heterosexual male, and SF written for the adolescent, usually, of the species.
Is that a bad thing? Yes and no; yes, because at best it trivialized the contributions made by—or even the lives lived by—the other; at worst, the others among us were at physical and mental risk. But (and forgive me, here I must speak as one of the majority class) we didn’t know any better. Like fish, it was the water we breathed, and we were, by and large, unconscious of it. (We’re getting better at it, I think. Who knows, maybe in a century we’ll have all grown up and begun treating each other fairly!) But it did affect the kind of SF that was written and published. There were women in publishing; John W. Campbell’s “assistant editor,” Kay Tarrant at Astounding, influenced a lot of what was written for years (by taking out anything she viewed as “smut”); Cele Goldsmith edited Amazing and Fantastic and encouraged writers like Ursula K. LeGuin in the ‘60s. Later, we got writers like Joanna Russ, Suzette Haden Elgin, “James Tiptree” (Alice Sheldon) and Octavia Butler, encompassing the feminist and the non-white female; the male side got Samuel R. Delaney for “other.” SF, possibly because “we” thought so much about aliens, seemed ready to embrace a more literary and inclusive style. But that’s all for a later column. For now, let’s assume that SF was all-inclusive for any reader. (Yes, I know, it’s a giant leap.)
Ace Doubles, the D-series, was—as I’ve said—mostly concerned with action, ideas and cleverness of plot when it came to encompassing science, scientific advances, space exploration and possible alien contact. (There were exceptions; Leigh Brackett wrote a lot about a Mars that never was and never could have been; nostalgia for an imaginary time and place, for example.) If you go back and read as many of the D-series books you can, you’ll find yourself thinking that, in the words of the French writer Paul Valéry, (1937) “The future isn’t what it used to be.” For the writers of those ‘50s and ‘60s books assumed that science was probably going to be the salvation of the human race, even if we were conquered by vicious aliens; that we would all, in the common parlance, get our jetpacks; that no matter what the obstacles we would eventually conquer and go forward. Even in books that assumed some tragedy had happened to Earth, the assumption was that humankind would continue. We had an optimism that in some cases, no longer attains. And, dare I say, a sort of innocence, possibly—or even probably—born of the fact that these books were, by and large, written for adolescents. (And to counter some of what I said earlier in part, women and minorities were writing and reading them as well! I doubt that writers like Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler just woke up one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write some science fiction!” My guess is that many SF readers weren’t only the members of the intended audience. Some of the change in what was published later was very deliberate!)
Going down the list of D-series doubles, it’s awfully hard to pick out which books I enjoyed most at the time, as rereading any of them brings up a surge of nostalgia. The books I, personally, have always enjoyed most in SF reading included space flight, or psionic abilities, mental agility, conquering long odds, invention and exploration. So with that in mind, let me throw up a few titles and tell you what I liked about them; I can’t possibly do that with all 75 SF titles of the D-series, so I’ll just pick a few. You can still occasionally find these at used bookstores; if you have any interest in acquiring them, your best bet is still eBay, probably. Most of them will go for only a few bucks, although there are a few (like D-36) which command higher prices in good-condition copies. My own copy of D-36 is probably an “average-to-good” copy, although I think my friend Steve Forty has a near-mint copy; Steve has pretty much collected all the Ace doubles, not just the D-series.
Now bear in mind that all my book recommendations here are coloured by the fact that I first read most of them when I was a pre-teen or teen more than half a century ago, so if you pick one or two up and discover you don’t like them, give me a break. I have no pretensions, even now, of being a “literary” expert or writer. As the old saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” And deep inside, I’m still a teen-age SF fan geek. These aren’t the only ones I like, but they stick out for some reason.
D-31 and D-53: A.E. van Vogt—World of Null-A (brain power!) and The Weapon Shops of Isher (mighty guns of power!)
D-36: Robert E. Howard—Conan the Conqueror (it’s Conan!)
D-69: Andre Norton—Daybreak 2250 A.D. (She just had a way with the future.)
D-103: Philip K. Dick—Solar Lottery (Boobs! Women of the future went topless! [Hey, I was a pre-teen discovering the other gender.] Besides, it’s Phil Dick. I loved his stuff, which could make you question what reality was.)
D-164 and D-199: Andre Norton: Crossroads of Time and Star Guard (Andre Norton. ‘Nuff said.)
D-227: Cyril Judd (Judith Merril and Cyril M. Kornbluth)— Gunner Cade (This was very similar, in my mind to Heinlein’s If This Goes On. Kinda scary turn on society, which could still happen in our future, sort of.)
D-295: Jack Vance—Big Planet (A really big planet, like Jupiter. Typical Vance writing.)
D-315: Eric Frank Russell—The Space Willies (SF and humour. A great combination. Murray Leinster was also good for this.)
D-437: Andre Norton again—The Sioux Spaceman (One of the first non-white SF protagonists, but she did that kind of stuff.)
D-491: Fritz Leiber—The Big Time and The Mind Spider and Other Stories (If you’ve never read any Leiber, especially his take on “sword and sorcery” [Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser] you owe yourself. His voice was unique.)
D-509: Andre Norton—The Beast Master (Yes, I read everything I could find by Norton. Her protagonists were often telepathic with animals. A handy trait. This, by the way, is where that movie with Marc Singer came from, more or less.)
I realized partway through this list that I couldn’t possibly list all the doubles—just in the D-series—that I liked. So this list is very incomplete; sorry.
And I’m not saying that today’s SF is any less well written than the SF of the ‘50s and ‘60s, just that some of it lacks the energy and enthusiasm of those times. See here: today’s writers are writing in the SF genre, a fairly well established type of fiction, with all sorts of known tropes. Today’s writers don’t have to explain how ESP works, or what drives a rocket through space—they can drop in a convenient “warp drive”—because all that work was done by these older writers. They didn’t just write in the SF genre, they were inventing it! Nowadays you have to be very clever to invent a new SFnal idea, because they’ve already invented most of what we think of as SF. And I in no way want to make it sound like I’m dissing any of today’s crop of SF writers, because both in “hard” SF and fantasy, I buy new books by many favourite authors.
And don’t get me started on the cover art! I fully intend to do a future column on the art of the Ace paperbacks; where artists from Emsh (Ed Emshwiller), Frank Kelly Freas, Ed Valigursky and Jack Gaughan to Vaughn Bode and Jeffrey (Catherine) Jones appeared. Almost anyone who was anyone in SF art appeared on an Ace cover.
If you have a chance to get these books, let me know what you think of them from your own perspective. I’d like to hear your comments—pro or con! Comment either here on the Amazing Stories website—if you’re registered; if you’re not, it takes only a minute to do so—or on Facebook, where I also post a link to this blog entry in several fan groups. This column doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories, by the way. Next week, I’ll have more stuff. I think maybe I’ll do a couple of D-series book reviews in future. Thanks for reading!
Postscript: My wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, suggested that you (or some of you) might be interested in the process I use for graphics. Whether I scan an image myself (I have a pretty good Epson flatbed), or steal borrow them from the internet somewhere, I have this “thing” about graphics: they have to be clean. So I often spend as much time cleaning up graphics as I do actually writing the column. Here’s an example: my original 400 dpi scan of D-6 looked like this:
You’ll notice there are lots of creases, missing ink and so on; much of the spine is missing its ink. Keeping in mind that this will be reproduced at the tiny size shown here, I use Jasc Paint Shop Pro 9 (a very old program that does exactly what I need to do, and nothing more, which is why I still use it) to fix it up. Starting with the clone brush, I fill in missing ink—a combination of art and science; sometimes one has to divine the artist’s intention (this also holds true for photographs); if the clone brush doesn’t work, I use cut-and-paste as well as various paintbrushes to duplicate, as closely as I can, what the image must have originally looked like. Then I use filters to correct colour changes and brighten and/or sharpen the image, sometimes removing jpg artifacts, which tends to blur the image. If you compare Figure 1 with this one, you’ll get an inkling of what I do. Just so you know. Oh, and the D-36 scan is a lower-resolution one; my cover had too many warts to fix up in time for this column, so I took one off the web. It cleaned up quickly and not too badly, in my opinion. Cheers!