Friday, March 30, 2012

Reading Upsidedown

51375, 1970
Sometimes, when I was much younger, I bought the same book twice, but, then, I was sometimes accused of reading books upside-down. Quite true, but it wasn't my fault. I blame it all on Donald Wollheim, the mastermind editor at Ace Books who in 1953 came up with a novel idea of printing two books back-to-back, so they were upside-down relative to each other -- finish one story and you were staring at the upside-down ending of the other story (or ads), so you turned it over and started again., a trick I often played on my children...till they figured it out. The genesis of this publishing revolution is recounted in Don Wollheim's introduction to James A. Corrick's Double Your Pleasure: The Ace SF Double.

I can't do any better than James did in this excellent tome published by Gryphon Books of Brooklyn, N.Y. And if you're even halfway serious about collecting this long-lived series (35 years) you really need to get this book. Not only does it have Wollheim's introduction and James' highly detailed and informative thesis, it has a complete checklist of all the issues and reissues. While Ace also published westerns and mysteries, their science fiction issues are, justifiably, the most famous and popular; while I occasionally bought a mystery, rarely a western, I was a regular buyer of Ace's SF doubles, hitting the newsstand for then-current issues, scouring used-book stores and thrift stores for books published while I was still following the adventures of Dick and Jane. Since I can't trump James Corrick's achievement (sometimes the best really is the best and should not be messed with -- Hollywood hacks considering remakes, please take note) all I'll do here is add some some of my memories and reminisces about the Ace Double series...I'm sure you must have some of your own.

My Uncle Bob, one-time husband of my Aunt Joyce, had a whole shelf of books built into the headboard of his bed, which I thought was just the neatest thing ever, since I had to settle for a box at home. Among the titles was The Seed of Earth/Next Stop the Stars (Ace F-145), both titles by Robert Silverberg, published in 1962. The sight of that hairy big-eared creature covertly watching a classic 1950s rocketship (the original story, The Winds of Siros, first appeared in the September 1957 issue of Venture magazine) was very disturbing to me. It was definitely up to no good, and is probably the reason I never really trusted Debbie the Bloop...the space monkey from Lost in Space that everyone else thought was so cute. If they had seen this cover by prolific (79 Ace Double covers) artist Ed Valigursky (1926 - 2009) they might not have been quite so trusting of little Debbie...I certainly wasn't taken in, thought I can't say the same thing about Doctor Smith.

One of the great things about the Ace Doubles was that they carried ads and listings for other Ace books. Now, that was hardly unusual. Most Ace publications did as well. The difference is that since the Doubles were printed back-to-back and upside-down, the end of each story was in the middle of the book. Call me easily amused (it runs in the family) but to me that was nearly as fascinating as the format itself. And the ads gave me goals in my searches for the out-of-print internet, no checklists, I needed all the help I could get.

The interior pages of M-111
Fugitive of the Stars by Edmond Hamilton
Land Beyond the Map by Kenneth Bulmer
D-242, 1957
D-437, 1960
Two of the covers that intrigued me greatly were those painted for The Sioux Spaceman by Andre Norton and Empire of the Atom by A.E. van Vogt. Both covers are by Valigursky, an artist whose style was well suited to the Ace idea of bringing the pulp magazine to the mass market paperback. Beyond the artistic skill, there is the mix of the ancient or traditional with the futuristic, or what might be called now "retro-futuristic." On Andre Norton's book (I was a long-time fan of "his" before I discovered I was a fan of "hers") you have an Indian with an eagle helmet wearing a modern tunic and carrying a space gizmo; with van Vogt (also was a great fan of his stories, especially the Null-A series) you have an ancient Roman with a spaceship flying around for-crying-out-loud. I suppose it's the same reason people are attracted to Coca-Cola, the mix of two tastes that shouldn't go together, the sweet and the acid. The same sort of visual appeal is present for Life with Lancelot by John T. Phillifent, an English author who usually wrote under the pseudonym John Rackham, sporting another Valigursky cover.

As James Corrick points out in Double Your Pleasure, "Despite its availability as a market, many Double writers left Ace as soon as their finances allowed." It was a combination of low advances (when writers were paid at all, or on time) and ruthless editing to accommodate the format, which bothered established writers more often than it did beginners breaking into the paperback book market; much to the chagrin of giants such as Asimov, Ellison and van Vogt, "unabridged" did not always adhere to its Webster's meaning when it came to Ace Double cover claims. Also, "Ace Doubles were blessed with some of the best (and, to be honest, worst) SF pulp paintings in paperback history." Of course, I, as a reader, did not recognize some of the shortcomings that are obvious now; what I did know, however, was that the writing was vibrant, almost electric, and the covers were fantastically imaginative and evocative. Looking back, I think that energy might have stemmed from the breakneck pace required from the writers and artists to fill those newsstand racks week after week, month after month. I depended upon the Ace Doubles to be there for me with a regularity usually only satisfied by periodicals.

D-299, 1958
D-299, 1958
Sometimes, the two-story, two-cover format of the Doubles made for strange bedfellows. One such mixed combo that gave me pause were Star Born by Andre Norton and A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper & John J. McGuire. Okay, I look at the cover painted by Emesh for Norton's story, and I think, Fine, a half-naked guy fighting an alien beast gladiator style in an arena in a futuristic city...still, it's Andre Norton, so it's gotta be good. On the other title, however: Did they get one of the westerns mixed up with the SF? What gives? A cattle stampede? And a spaceship? Wow, those are big cows! Well, it turned out not to be such a mismatched pair after all, since A Planet for Texans really was space opera after all, not a horse opera, and both were on the themes of interplanetary colonization, Norton's about rebels with the desire to escape a nasty dictatorship on Earth, the other about the whole state of Texas getting fed up with Earth and settling its own planet where everyone could wear hoglegs and shoot politicians who deserved it...silly idea, maybe, but not without its allure, especially these days.

Let's finish up with a few of my favorite Ace Double titles and/or covers. As I mentioned earlier, I'm sure you have your own list of titles that stick in your mind for whatever reason, whether they were glimpsed on the racks, back when every American town had a newsstand, or a candy store where trashy SF magazines and books were sold, along with five-for-a-penny candy and wax bottles, or were found in used book stores and charity shops.

D-303, 1958
D-413, 1960

War of the Wing-Men by Poul Anderson has a wonderful cover by Emesh and takes place in the universe of Anderson's Polesotecnic League, one of the best ideas ever for a realistic interstellar economic system.

Harlan Ellison's A Touch of Infinity is an odd duck in the realm of the Ace Double, being a collection of short stories. It has a Valigursky cover, and was paired with Ellison's novel, The Man With Nine Lives.

D-94, 1955
D-53, 1954
A. E. van Vogt's One Against Eternity is really his famous novel The Weapon Makers, first serialized in the February through April issues of Astounding Science Fiction in 1943, and though the cover states "Complete and Unabridged," don't you believe it. As everyone who has read this novel knows, "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free," which has become something of a rallying call for Second Amendment proponents. Among the many fabulous inventions were weapons that could only be fired by the owner, a technology which is only just now being developed. I love everything everything van Vogt wrote, and I think he was the one writer who truly understood that science fiction is a literature of ideas. And I love the grand pulpishness of this cover, another triumph by Valigursky. Perhaps not so grand, but just as exciting, is Stanley Meltzoff's cover for van Vogt's seminal tale of the Weapon Makers who exist in opposition of the Isher Empire; Meltzoff, who died in 2006, is nowadays more known for his fine art of game fish and maritime subjects.

M-107, 1964
M-107, 1964

Another favorite writer for me growing up was A. Bertram Chandler, an Australian in the merchant marine whose love of the sea pervaded his science fiction stories, especially those about Commodore John Grimes, into which series falls Into the Alternate Universe, which features an irresistible cover by Valigursky; Commodore Grimes is the most fully realized character in all science fiction. Not in the Grimes series but also exploring an alternate universe is The Coils of Time, sporting a Jack Gaughan cover, another great artist.

F-199, 1963
F-199, 1963
These two stories from 1963 packed a double punch for me. Captives of the Flame by Samuel R. Delany, one of science fiction's most "literary" writers, is a dense and challenging story that I did not quite understand fully till thirty years later, when I re-read it as part of the Fall of the Towers trilogy, but I did love the cover by Gaughan and the calligraphic title. Emesh's cover for the other half of the book, The Psionic Menace by Keith Woodcott (John Brunner), just freaked me out -- I mean, look at those guys...the stuff of nightmares. But despite what our nanny-world now believes, nightmares do serve a purpose, and pity that young person who tries to enter life without the fortification of his nightmares.

G-597, 1966
When I started reading Mankind Under the Leash by Thomas Disch, I immediately recognized a keen literary sense of humor at work. If Charles Dickens had decided to write a science fiction novel, he might have written something like this book, "...a true and faithful account of the great upheavals of 2037, with portraits of the principals involved, as well as reflections by the author on the nature of art, revolution & theology." Perhaps it will help you take the story a little more seriously if you know the original magazine title was White Fang Goes Dingo...well, maybe not. But I enjoyed immensely this story in which an Ace author indulged in as much satire as action. And the cover by Kelly Freas was outstanding.

G-632, 1967
Also outstanding was Kelly Freas' cover for Nebula Alert by A. Bertram Chandler, one of the three novels from his Empress Irene series. If Valigursky is rivets and ray guns, then Freas is satin and stardust, and nowhere is that more evident than in this depiction of a spaceport.

G-618, 1967
G-618, 1967

I was first attracted by the evocative covers for this 1967 Ace Double, both of which are by Jack Gaughan, though each is painted in a totally different style. While lots of science fiction has been based on Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths, Petaja may be alone in using Finnish myth, the Kalevala, of which The Stolen Sun is the third in the series. H. Warner Munn's The Ship From Atlantis was the second in his series about Merlin's godson (the first was published in 1939!), and is a grand fantasy in the Weird Tales tradition, a magazine for which he often wrote in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

23775, 1969
Let's finish up with not one of my favorite stories, though Treasure of Tau Ceti by John Rackham (John Phillifent) is a well-written though minor story, an old-fashioned adventure tale which leads from London to a the mysterious jungle planet of Verlan, orbiting Tau Ceti. But it is the cover which entrances me, one of the most beautiful to grace an Ace Double, subjectively speaking. It is, of course, by Kelly Freas, and it captures the mystery and adventure of the story even better than does the story itself. And while there may be nothing unique or special about a metal tower rising from a jungle landscape, did we not see this on Yavin? Greatness always inspires...but credit is always appreciated.


  1. I hear you on the bad editing. A book with great possibilities was Mr. Justice by Doris Piserchia. It was quite interesting and a real page turner in the first 3/4 of the book. Then it read like chapters were ripped out at random. No less than Harlan Ellison called the editing a butcher job. An apt description. Mr. Ellison also seems to have issues with most publishers, but I'm sure you knew that.

    1. Mr Ellison has issues with the world in general. I had the great pleasure of being on a panel with him at the 1991 World Fantasy Convention (it seemed everyone had at least one panel with him, as they had scheduled him for so many) and I was impressed with his directness, honesty, energy and dedication to the purity of his craft. Were I an editor at a publishing house, I am sure I would both love and hate working with him.