Friday, November 4, 2016

"Science fiction double feature..."

My girlfriend Karli has been visiting a new chiropractor who is located about a thirty minute walk from my workplace, so whenever her appointment schedule permits, I meet her there after work.

My route takes me past the Main Street location of Pulp Fiction, one of Vancouver's better used book stores, and it occurred to me recently that I've been doing most (if not all) of my book shopping in foreign cities.  I had some time to spare, so I decided to go in for a browse.

After a pleasant half hour perusal of the shelves, I walked away with five books: Fragile Things, a collection of Neil Gaiman short stories - hard to go wrong with Neil Gaiman - a long overdue copy of William Gibson's Distrust That Particular Flavour in trade paperback*, a replacement copy of The Stardust Voyages, by Stephen Tall, and a pair of near mint-condition Ace Doubles to add to my collection:  a replacement copy of The Beasts of Kohl backed with A Planet of Their Own, and Crisis on Cheiron backed with The Winds of Gath.

What, you ask, is an Ace Double?

Ace Doubles are one of the great unique aspects of science fiction book collecting. Very simply, an Ace Double is made up of two short novels rotated 180 degrees and bound back to back so that each one has its own cover.  Although Ace Books did publish material from other genres in this distinctive tête-bêche** binding, it was the science fiction content that really made its mark for the publishers.

Ace published the Doubles format from 1952 until 1974. They continued to print double-novel editions until 1978, but they were no longer in the back-to-back format, and as such really aren't the same thing. Online sources state that Ace released 221 science fiction Ace Doubles in the classic format, which to be honest sounds like a lot less than I thought there were - I own 57 Doubles myself, without ever having made a serious commitment to collecting them. (My sister Dorothy owns 48, with a couple of duplications - no pun intended.)

In spite of their landmark position in the history of the genre, the story of the Ace Double was not always a happy one. SF editor and author Donald A. Wollheim*** was in charge of the Doubles line, and was infamous for chopping down novels to fit the Double page count - apparently the tagline "Complete and Unabridged" which appeared on the copyright page was not always truthful.

However, the Ace Double format helped to launch the careers of a long list of well-known authors including Gordon R. Dickson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel R. Delany, and Philip K. Dick. The books combined writing by established authors such as A. E. van Vogt, Ray Cummings or Leigh Brackett with that of newcomers in the same way that television networks tentpole new or less popular programs around a successful show. 

Perhaps because I was in my teens and just starting my independent book-buying career at around the time that Ace Doubles went out of production, I have no memory of ever seeing a new Ace Double for sale.  In my world, Ace Doubles have always been a slightly battered but beloved artifact of the used book store science fiction section, which provided my first introduction to talents such as Jack Vance, Avram Davidson, John Brunner, Kenneth Bulmer, John Jakes, Brian M. Stableford and A. Bertram Chandler.

For science fiction fans looking for a comprehensive and entertaining overview of classic SF, the 22 year publication span of the Ace Double provides a fascinating resource that combines a wide range of authors and styles in a unique format that's affordable for collectors.  However, if you're even slightly obsessive compulsive, Ace Doubles will present you with an unexpected challenge: which author's name do you use to shelf them?

  - Sid

* I always feel bad when I see used William Gibson books for sale, I can't help but wonder if the previous owner has made other bad life decisions.

** This style of binding is often referred to mistakenly as dos-à-dos. Having passed along that bit of print industry trivia, let me reassure nervous readers that this will never ever come up in conversation, and as such there's no need to retain the information.

*** Wollheim, who passed away in 1990, is probably worth a posting all of his own as one of the more notable polarizing figures in the history of science fiction. Wollheim was responsible for the bootleg 1965 American publication of The Lord of the Rings - he seemed to have a bit of a predilection toward taking liberties with the work of other authors. On the other hand, DAW Books, which he started in 1971 after leaving Ace, remains a well respected and prolific publishing house.

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