Tsundoku, and the Ace Science Fiction Specials

If I had a word tattooed on my forehead, it would likely be this one:

I think I've mentioned before that I tend to buy more books than I have time to read.  When you've been doing that for forty years, your TBR pile tends to get, umm, large.

The oldest book in that TBR pile (which is actually multiple piles, and shelves, and boxes) is one of the old Ace Science Fiction Specials, Bruce McAllister's Humanity Prime:

I actually took this with me to Army Basic Training in 1972, with the intention of reading it in my spare time.   HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!  Spare time in Basic Training?  What a charmingly naive concept.  In the years since then, it's floated around wherever I've lived, sometimes in handy reach, sometimes in an accessible but inconvenient spot, and sometimes unfindable for years at a stretch.  (Current status: unfindable.)

I think one of the reasons I never quite got around to actually reading the book is that it reminds me of a sad moment in science fiction history.  Humanity Prime was the first Ace Science Fiction Special to not have a cover by Leo & Diane Dillon.

The Ace Science Fiction Specials were edited by Terry Carr at Ace Books.  Carr was the junior SF editor at Ace, under the senior SF editor Don Wollheim.  Wollheim discovered science fiction in the 1930, while Carr was a generation younger, becoming active in SF fandom in the 50's.  Ace Books' SF line, while having some gems, was mostly oriented towards a more pulpish, action-adventure style of plotting and writing.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In the 1960's, SF began going through a period of experimentation and horizon-expanding, as a new generation of writers, dissatisfied with the pulp traditions and styles of most SF, tried to write new works of greater depth and style.  (The "new" generation included some established writers like Robert Silverberg and John Brunner, known for rapidly-written slam-bang SF stories and novels, who chose to stretch their abilities in new directions.)

Terry Carr was more open to this new style of SF, and he was able to get Wollheim and their bosses at Ace to approve a "Special" line of Ace books, giving these new and upcoming writers a venue for their books.  A significant number of the Ace Science Fiction Specials that Carr brought out have gone on to be regarded as classics of the SF genre.  (Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin, Pavane by Keith Roberts, Past Master by Lafferty among them.  Many other titles in the line were nominated for or won Hugo and Nebula awards.)

The Specials were distinguished from Ace's regular line of books by having distinctively styled covers, done by Leo & Diane Dillon.  The Dillons' paintings were done in styles more reminiscent of other media (stained glass, batik fabric patterns), "artistic" as opposed to the pulp-style "illustration" of most paperback covers.  Here are some of my favorites:

The bad news was: The Ace Science Fiction Specials didn't sell as well as hoped.  The books, and their covers, were getting great respect and admiration, and occasional awards, within the SF field, but not from the buying public.  Ace Books decided (I'm not sure from what level, Wollheim or someone higher) that the covers were just too unusual; the public didn't recognize them as science fiction.  So the Dillons were dropped as the cover artists for further Specials.

The Davis Meltzer cover for Humanity Prime is not a bad cover.  But it's not a great cover, either.  I'm still a bit wistful that we never got to see what the Dillons might have done with this book or the others in the Specials line.  And I think that regret may be part of why, in all the years since I first bought it, I've never actually read the book behind that first non-Dillon cover.  To me, a cover by the Dillons was an integral part of an Ace Science Fiction Special.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the Dillons covers. Aside from being gorgeous works of art, they impart a sense of gravitas to the books, as well.

I liken the Ace Specials/Dillons relationship to the one Ballantine and Richard Powers had in the fifties. Powers surreal covers helped readers realize that science fiction could be something adult - even cool and hip.

That first Ace Special series is incredible though. I've read many of them for the first time over the last year, like Lafferty's "Past Master", Shaw's titles, D. G. Compton's.

Compton is one terrific writer who's really off the radar. His books can still stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any current "literary" novel today.

BTW "Tsundoku" is an excellent problem (disease?) to have. One that I have "suffered" from all my life, as well.