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.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Are You a Fictional Character?

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Ship in a Bottle, Professor Moriarty, of Sherlock Holmes infamy, seems to have escaped the confines of the holodeck and taken over the Enterprise. Of course, he has really done no such thing. Having achieved consciousness during a prior episode, Moriarty merely takes control of the holodeck computer and traps Captain Picard, Lieutenant Commander Data and Lieutenant Barclay in a holographic version of the Enterprise. In effect, they become real people (from their point of view) caught in a fictional universe by a literary character.
Taking a page from Moriarty's own book, the three officers use the transporter on the holodeck Enterprise to beam him and his paramour to yet another holographic version of the Enterprise, on the holograph's holodeck, which he mistakes for the real Enterprise; from there, he sets out into the universe in a shuttlecraft. When the Star Fleet officers shut down the simulation, they find themselves on a simulated holodeck, which they shut down to find themselves on a holographic holodeck, which they shut down to find themselves on the real holodeck, which Commander Riker has been trying to enter for hours. What of Moriarty? He now exists in a compact simulator that Lieutenant Barclay will keep "in a safe place." As far as Moriarty knows, he journeys through a real universe. As Captain Picard puts it: "Professor Moriarty has his reality, and we have ours.  But who knows? Our reality may be very much like his, and all this might just be an elaborate simulation, running inside a little device sitting on someone's table." Later, when Barclay is alone, he looks about nervously and utters: "End program." He is relieved by the non-result.

It can be quite disconcerting to be reading a book and encounter characters who realize they are characters in a book. I came across such people when I read Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy. Because the author decided to paraphrase and skip a period during a detailed discussion between some of the characters, they  realized they were figments of a literary imagination and raised a ruckus about the writer's lack of style, poor plotting skills, and...well, they called him a hack writer. I know from experience that writers do not get nearly the respect they deserve, but, really, you expect better treatment from your own creations.

In Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast, we have a foursome of what appear to be pulp fiction characters who use a machine created by the Mad Scientist of the group to move to various versions of reality, or what they first accept as alternate universes -- in time, they realize what they are journeying to are actually different literary universes, and that the Black Hats who have been menacing them at every turn are really just avatars of the author; they understand that their adventures are being created by an omnipotent (though not very competent) writer at some sort of cosmic typewriter, but savvy readers know even more -- the name of every villain or antagonist is really an anagram of a Heinlein pen-name, and he had a lot of them. This is a book I've read a half-dozen times, and disliked it each time. And yet I keep going back. And I own two copies! Go figure!

In the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, literature plays a central role. In fact, literature is the heart of creation. So intertwined is the world of Thursday Next, a book detective working for England's Special Operations Network, with literature that people can jump into their favorite books, and the characters of the books within Thursday's book can jump out as well. Just as the characters who enter the realms of fiction are aware they are in books, so those who escape the books are aware of their literary status. I've often found myself getting lost in a good (or not so good) book, but in the literary universe of Thursday Next getting lost in a book is taken to a whole new level. Those who enter books run the risk of changing literature, a very serious crime. I've not read all the books in the series yet, but the ones I have are very entertaining. Don't be surprised to find yourself yearning to drop in.

Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy series also uses a character who's aware he is in a book, but he thinks he's just as real as we are. Lovejoy is a divvy, a man who can sense an antique's true value, or the worthlessness of a copy, and while he's not a detective in the purest sense, he does often find himself involved with murder, larceny and perfidy. What's really disconcerting about Lovejoy is his tendency to suddenly break away from action and conversation, ignoring his fellow characters, to directly address the reader, a technique carried over when Lovejoy was adapted for television. To quote Travis Bickle: "You talkin' to me?"

Clive Cussler is not the first author to insert himself as a character into a book -- it's as old as Cervantes in Don Quixote and such modern authors as Isaac Asimov and Stephen King have done the same thing -- but no one has, I think, done it as often or as obviously as Clive Cussler in his Dirk Pitt series of books. If writing yourself into your own book was a crime (and some critics think it should be) then Cussler would be a lifer in Sing Sing. I first noticed it in Sahara -- Dirk and his companion are saved by an old coot of a prospector wandering the dunes with his burro, and of course the old coot introduces himself ("I don't like my name 'cause it's kinda funny.") as Clive Cussler. Very disconcerting! And Cussler does it time and again  -- in the wilds of Antarctica he shows up on a hovercraft; Dirk needs a classic car and Cussler provides it. This reached a peak in Dirk Pitt Revealed, which contained a short story where Clive Cussler crashed a reunion party and got to hobnob with all the characters he created...even the dead ones. So, in whom should we invest our sense of reality -- Dirk Pitt, beloved of millions and world-saver, or Clive Cussler, a now-and-then minor character? Who is more fictional?

People who love books (and if you're not one, you've probably wandered into the wrong blog) often find themselves thinking of a literary universe as real. Millions of people worldwide, for example, have imbued Sherlock Holmes with a level of reality that would have horrified Conan Doyle. And it's possible to go on walking tours of James Bond's London and Phillip Marlowe's Los Angeles. While it's one thing to give reality to a literary creation, it's quite another thing for that literary creation to take it. I mean, if it's possible for a fictional character to be real, does that not open the possibility of real people (us) being fictional? Does the true nature of world events (and the smaller events of our lives) have less to do politics and personal conflict, and more with bad writing? Is that thunder we hear, or the keys of a cosmic typewriter? Could our reality be nothing more than an elaborate simulation, running inside a little device sitting on  Captain Picard's desk?

Maybe not. But are you brave (or foolhardy) enough to shout, "End program!" Before you share the sense of relief felt by Lieutenant Barclay when his Star Trek universe continued existing at warp speed without interruption, you might consider the idea that, like him, you are just a minor character.

(Well, not quite "FINIS" just yet...)

Updated 26 March 2012

I would be quite remiss if I did not include one of the best stories in the I-am-a-fictional-character genre, Typewriter in the Sky by the late Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard. It must have been somewhere in the back of my mind, for I earlier mentioned the thunderous sounds of a cosmic typewriter, but it leaped to the forefront of my consciousness today when I came across my 1995 re-issue by Bridge Publications. The story appeared across two issues of Unknown Fantasy in 1940, then was published in 1951 (along with another Hubbard novel Fear) by Gnome Press. The story concerns Mike de Wolf, a musician, who is visiting the walk-down Greenwich apartment of his friend Horace Hackett, a writer of pulp potboiler adventure tales. After getting an electrical shock while in Hackett's bathroom, de Wolf wakes up on a Caribbean beach in 1640; he has not traveled back in time, but has become a character (a villain named Lobo) in Hackett's latest pirate yarn Blood & Loot. Since villains do not fare well in his friend's tales, he has to figure out how to get back to the real world, surviving the perils tossed at him by the crashing keys of his friend's typewriter, the last sound he heard before being electrocuted. It's a rousing tale by Hubbard written when he was at the height of his popularity.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Game of the Book

Sometimes we just don't want the book to end, especially true when the book or series is driven by something other than the plot, such as character (Sherlock Homes), location (Dune), or philosophy (Cthulhu mythos). It's why we love (and dread) films based on our favorite books, why we eagerly await a sequel or another book in the series... ofttimes even if the author is long dead. And I think that may be one reason for the popularity of games based on books. Now, I'm not talking about the myriad video games that infest society like so many malignant tumors, but board games. I have nothing against video games, which I play occasionally, or card games, such as the excellent Dominion, or even RPG's (though I more often use them for research than for game playing), but I was raised playing board games, and it's where my comfort zone still is.

Though I did not realize it at the time, my first experience with a board game based on a book was Uncle Wiggily. The game was created by prolific children's author Howard Garis, who, beginning in 1910, wrote 21 books about Uncle Wiggily Longears. The game appeared in 1916...despite what my children aver, I was around then and did not encounter it till years later. My grandparents (paternal) in Kansas sent me a game for Christmas; the next Christmas, they sent another, then another, and other...before they decided I was too old for the children's game (or remembered they had already mailed me one) I had about a half-dozen copies of the game. The actual play of the game is unremarkable in that pieces are moved along a set path, with the player drawing cards from one of two stacks to receive instructions.

What sets the game apart from any other race game with similar movement systems and goals for winning is all the tie-ins  to the many Uncle Wiggily books, the artwork obviously, but also the movement cards: instead of bare-bones instructions moving forward or back, the child reads directions presented in verse referencing characters from the books. Even though I had not read the books (except the Golden Book, which I thought had come from the game) I still enjoyed the play of the game. In fact, I enjoyed the game so much I barely noticed how much my reading and counting skills were improving...adults can be real sneaky. Another game along these lines for children was the Brer Fox & Brer Rabbit game, fun but now probably prohibited in this PC world.

I think the first game I consciously linked with a book was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, inspired by the novel by Jules Verne. I read the book in the third grade and probably acquired the game about the same time. The real impetus for the game, however was not the book, however, but the very successful 1954 film by Walt Disney. The film was great; I enjoyed it almost as much as the book, and I especially like Peter Lorre as Professor Arronax's assistant as I was a big fan of his...he submerged again in 1961 as Commodore Lucius Emery in the entertaining Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the novelization of which was by sci-fi great Ted Sturgeon. The Verne-inspired game had an exploration-theme and was actually quite fun to play. Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days also provided the basis for multiple board games, one as early as 1904, another as recent as 2005, with many more in-between.

When I was in college one of our favorite diversions between classes and during lunch was a game called Feudal, published by 3M as part of its Bookshelf Games series, which was later taken over by gaming company Avalon Hill. Although Feudal is not based on a book (it's like chess on steroids), but two other games published some years after college by Avalon Hill were based on very popular books -- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and Dune by Frank Herbert. Though very different from each other in play (Dune was based on political intrigue while Starship Troopers was a search-and-destroy bug hunt) they were both entertaining and succeeded at incorporating element of their parent books. Since they were published years before the films of the same names, our play of the games were not tainted with visions of the films. One interesting fact about the Dune game was that it was originally a Roman-themed game called Tribute, which got a makeover when Avalon Hill acquired the license.

Anyone who has read the stories in Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series (37 stories collected in seven books) know that although those two swordsmen and brothers-in-arms are the heroes of the tales, it is the world of Nehwon, particularly the dark and ancient city of Lankhmar, that takes center stage. How fitting it was, then, that the game published in 1976 by TSR was entitled Lankhmar.
When Fritz Leiber and his friend Harry Fischer first created the world of Nehwon ("a world unlike and like our own") in 1937, they formulated a complex wargame and rules of combat, but when they were approached nearly 40 years later to translate it into a board game, they simplified the rules and gameplay for a more generalized audience. As far as I know this is the only commercial game created by the authors of the books, which may account why the game has an atmosphere reminiscent of the stories themselves. Although Fritz Leiber wrote all the stories (except for a 10,000-word treatment) he always gave his friend full co-credit and royalties, but. Leiber was very much a gentleman of the old school

I was quite excited when Chaosium announced in 1980 that it would soon be publishing a role-playing game called Call of Cthulhu, based on the mythic fantasy fiction of writer H.P. Lovecraft, and I enjoyed playing it when it came out a year later. However I was even more pleased when the company published a board game -- Arkham Horror -- based on Lovecraft's unique dark fiction in 1987, and I bought my copy the first day it became available at Game Towne, the local gaming Mecca.

After arriving at the train station, investigators travel about the fictional (or so they claim) town of Arkham, Mass., seeking information, avoiding wandering monsters, fighting off villains, and trying to save the world by closing down inter-dimensional gateways, all without being killed or going insane -- both are common occupational hazards for those who pry into the mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos. The game was revised quite drastically in 2005, but I still prefer the simplicity and relative naivety of the original issue.

Both John Carter Warlord of Mars and Sky Galleons of Mars are games set upon Mars, but whereas JCWoM is directly derived from the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, SGoM only uses some elements of Burroughs' Mars within the larger frame of the Space 1889 RPG from which it derives. A curiosity of the RPG is that it is entirely possible to have Burroughs appear as one of the characters. Both games are tactical in nature, and very fun to play.

There are a slew of board games based on Sherlock Holmes, either directly or tangentially (we'd have to include the venerable Clue in the latter category), but my vote for most enjoyable board game based on a consulting detective has to be 221B Baker Street. Players are given clues based on the case file chosen as the mystery, after which they visit the locations on the board where they receive other clues (held secret). Get it right, win the game; guess wrong, out you go.

The games I mentioned are just a few of the book-based board games I've owned and played over the years. As many as I've played, however, it only scratched the surface of the subject. There are literally hundreds of games that started life as books, from Elric to Blade Runner, Xanth to Narnia, Baby Sitters Club to Nancy Drew, and Pride & Prejudice to Tales of the Arabian Nights, There are board games based on The Game of Thrones, Dante's Inferno, Jekyll & Hyde, Lord of the Rings, Dracula, Velveteen Rabbit, Curious George, Buck Rogers, Berenstain Bears, Green Eggs and Ham, and Sweet Valley High. And, yes, the Bible has been board-gamed many times, as has both of Homer's (the Greek, not Simpson) books, The Iliad and The Odyssey.