Ace Books

A Classic Format: Ace Doubles Revisited

From the 1950s to the 1970s Ace Doubles were a staple of science fiction publishing, and it was a good thing.  There were hundreds (possibly thousands?) of these books published.

For those unfamiliar with the series, these books have a tête-bêche format with spectacular pulp-style covers.  They contain two novels, and two “front” covers, so flipping the book over gives the impression of going from one book to the next.

I often wonder why the science fiction that is currently winning awards (the Hugos, at least) is utterly obscure and unpopular while everyone flocked to the stuff in the ’50s.  One reason, of course, is the inane, spectacularly boring political content that seems to attract prizes.  But another must be the pretentiousness, the utter horror of using a cover that the reading public might find attractive or exciting.

(I’m not trying to say no one is buying SF.  But I just don’t see the stuff the genre intelligentsia are trying to foist on us at Barnes & Noble… and B&N, having skin in the game, knows what sells and what doesn’t.  Apparently, it’s James S. A. Corey).

And when you read an Ace Double, you’re reminded of the good times.

Of course, with so many to choose from, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be good.  But I still pulled one at random from a local used book store and waded in, ready for whatever wonders (or horrors) of plot and prose awaited within.

I ended up with Ace Double D-351, and read The Sun Smasher first, as the title seemed to promise less than the other, Starhaven.

Ace Double 351 - The Sun Smasher by Edmond Hamilton

If my objective was to save the best for last, I probably should have read them in the other order.  Edmond Hamilton was a great writer (something I should have remembered because I’ve read a lot of his stuff), and he weaves a tight action story.  Predictable and dated?  Perhaps.  But we’ve had sixty years to catch up with the events of his novel, and both the main character and the way the plot was resolved still seemed fresh after all these years.  The Sun Smasher is an excellent short novel.

Ace Double D-351 - Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson

Apparently, this one’s author, Ivar Jorgenson is a pseudonym for Paul W. Fairman, but why he should have chosen to publish this one without attribution is a mystery.  Starhaven is a solid tale in the 1950’s mold where a clean-cut hero saves the day and gets the girl.  Wonderful stuff, and interesting in the way it plays with what morality looks like.

Binding these two short novels together is (and I don’t want to give any spoilers) a sense of hidden identity of the characters.  Neither of the heroes knows who he really is at the outset of the narrative, and that discovery–and subversion of the identity–is the key to both plots.

Very fun to read.  Also, I was delighted to get hold of this one because I’ve always felt that, if you’ve never read an Ace Double, your genre street cred is lower than it could be otherwise.

Anyway, they’re dirt cheap.  Find one and read it if you want to remember why people like SF.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Argentina.  His most popular book is a deep-space novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

 

 

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction – Part 1

Today, we begin what we hope will become a popular, long-running and Nobel-Prize-Winning* series on Science Fiction.  It will likely have a focus on literature, at least initially, but will be perfectly willing to include movies, comics and any other interesting subjects.

It will also be open to Fantasy and certain types of Horror, as much of the audience for the three genres overlaps.

Worlds_Best_Science_Fiction_1969_cover

1969 Worlds Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

A couple of weeks ago we reviewed and analyzed one of the many Year’s Best collections that the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre: the Wollhein 1989 Year’s best SF.  Suddenly, it dawned on us that that review of a book that has proven to be a minor volume in genre history is actually an excellent starting point for comparing eras.  So let’s call that post the honorary “Part Zero” of this series.

A logical place to start was with a couple of collections that could be compared directly to that ’89 book.  We chose the 1969 and 1972 Wollheim Year’s Best collections, but not without some trepidation, as we will explain a little further below.  But misgivings aside, these fit the bill perfectly – by choosing the same editor, we avoid questions of wildly differing taste and bias, and by going back nearly two decades, we get enough of a gap that contrasts are notable.

The first thing one notices about these two titles is how much more recognizable the names of the authors are than on the 1989 edition of the same collection.  Genre fans will all recognize Sheckley, Anderson, Silverberg, Aldiss, Knight, Delaney, Lafferty, Foster, Sturgeon and Lieber from the older books.  And everyone, even non-genre readers will perk up at seeing the names Vonnegut, Clarke and Ellison – three writers whose names appear on the tables of contents of the 69 and 72 books whose stature simply isn’t matched on the 89.

Why were so many important names present?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  The first is that during the late sixties and early seventies, the writers that made the genre important were still active and close to their primes.  The amazing Golden Age of Science Fiction has, to date, never been equalled, and the writers active in the 30s and 40s were still around.  Just look at that list again.

1972 Wollheim Years best SF

1972 Year’e Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

The second reason is that SF briefly became chic in the sixties due to a combination of experimental writing in the genre and, quite possibly, an excess of recreational drug use by editors of journals such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who allowed their hallowed pages to be sullied by this basest of genres.  Also, in order to be able to say that one read Playboy for the articles, one needed to be able to discuss the articles – and there was some SF there as well.  This mainstream exposure is still why casual readers recognize names like Bradbury or the aforementioned Clarke, Vonnegut and Ellison.

The second thing one notices is just how much difference the editor makes in one of these collections.  We’d had some trepidation in selecting the era because of an intimate knowledge of Judith Merril’s anthologies of the same era.  Possibly fueled by the same drugs as the editors of the journals, she seemed to have a knack for selecting kaleidoscopic  jumbles of words which, though possibly beautiful, were not ideal places to extract meaning.  It was like reading a modern artist or looking for the truth in the patterns generated by a lava lamp. Perhaps you had to be fully immersed – in every aspect – in sixties culture to appreciate the stories.  Like they say: If you remember the sixties, you weren’t actually there.

Wollheim’s selections were not aimed at making a statement about pop culture, but rather are core SF tales that explore ideas about how the world will be like some years in the future.  That is what SF used to be about, and is still what good SF is about today, whether the changes be technical, social, ecological or political.  It can reflect and comment about the present, of course, but if it isn’t done obliquely, it becomes preachy and unreadable – and a lot of the (thankfully now forgotten) SF of the sixties fell into that trap.

It defeats the purpose of this analysis to do a story-by-story rundown, but suffice to say that even the Vonnegut tale is almost completely devoid of impossible dreaming – although it is admittedly weird.

So, compared to their peers, these two books hold up reasonably well, but how do they stack up against the 1989?

 

Without taking into account individual highs and lows, such as the excellent “Peaches for Mad Molly” in the ’89 collection the older books are better overall.  I believe that is driven mainly by the fact that the level of the writers was higher, as was the purity of the genre elements.  By 1989, science fiction was in a transition between the popular but looked-down-upon work of the 40’s and the literary but boring SF of today.  Sometimes that transition produced masterpieces (Dune, or Ender’s Game are examples), but more often muddled works that attempt to be socially relevant but really only succeed in being vague, preachy or both.

The older anthos are highly recommended, with some true classics among the more pedestrian tales.

 

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*We refuse to believe that there is no Nobel Prize for blogs.  This should be reviewed.  We may need to put a clause in our manifesto making this an explicit goal of the site.