Ace Double Reviews, Introduction

by Rich Horton

I've started a series of reviews of Ace Doubles on rec.arts.sf.written. I thought it might be interesting to look at these generally unpretentious, sometimes nearly forgotten, but sometimes significant, short novels and story collections.

The Ace Doubles were published from about 1953 through 1973. They consisted of two shortish "novels" bound back to back (or dos-a-dos), each upside down relative to the other. One of their most recognizable features was the spine, split in two horizontally, one side blue lettering on white, the other white lettering on blue. However, that feature actually changed quite often -- early books had the spine divided vertically, for example, and sometimes had black lettering, or white lettering on red, or other permutation.

The books tended to include one primary feature, usually a novel that was a bit longer or by a better known writer, and one secondary feature (a shorter book, or a story collection) -- but such identification, as far as I know, can only be inferred: there was no formal designation as to which half was the "main" half. Sometimes Ace Doubles would print two pieces by the same writer, in such a case often a brief short story collection backed with a novel. This could be a good way to get a collection into print. Sometimes also this would be a reprint of two novels previously published separately as halves of Ace Doubles, as with my 1973 edition of the first two of E. C. Tubb's Dumarest stories (The Winds of Gath and Derai). (Curiously, both of those novels were originally backed with novels by Juanita Coulson.)

Ace Doubles have a rather declassé image, but a surprising amount of first-rate stuff was published in the format. For instance, 15 of the 21 SFWA Grand Masters published at least one Ace Double. Hugo winning stories such as Jack Vance's "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle" were published as Ace Double halves. Isaac Asimov's seminal Foundation had an Ace Double edition (albeit abridged and retitled The 1000-Year Plan). Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, and Brian Stableford had their first novels published this way.

The length of Ace Double halves varied widely, from as short as about 23,000 words (the shortest I've seen is Poul Anderson's Mayday Orbit aka "A Message in Secret") to as long as over 70,000 words (the longest I've seen is one of the earliest, Robert E. Howard's Conan the Conqueror (74,000 words).). More typically they ranged from roughly 30,000 to 55,000 words, and as such they provided a convenient outlet for stories of that rather awkward length -- a bit short for a singleton book, and a bit long for a single issue of a magazine. Indeed that is one of the reasons I regret that they no longer exist -- I think that's a nice length for a story, and nowadays it is awfully hard to get a story of that length published. (Another outlet for such very short novels is the two-part serial, and while one still sees those very occasionally in Interzone and Analog, they too have become quite rare.)

There have been a few attempts to revive the format or something similar in the decades since the demise of Ace Doubles. From 1978 to 1980 five books called "Binary Stars" came out from Dell. They were published with a single cover, not "dos-a-dos" like the Ace Doubles. The most famous story to appear in this format was probably Vernor Vinge's "True Names". Another Binary Star halves were written by Firtz Leiber, Norman Spinrad, Isidore Haiblum, Stephen Spruill, F. Paul Wilson, George R. R. Martin, Joan D. Vinge, Ron Goulart, and Gordon Eklund (wonder what he's been up to lately?). They were sometimes originals, and sometimes reprints, either of recent stories that I imagine might have been written for the Binary Star series but first published in magazines; but also sometimes older reprints (as with Leiber's "Destiny Times Three"). I'm not sure if the series just wasn't very successful, or if it perished mainly because of the general implosion of Dell's SF line at about that time.

From 1988 to 1991 36 Tor Doubles were published (I seem to recall that Lawrence Watt-Evans's "The Rebirth of Wonder" was originally slated to be half of #37). These were in dos-a-dos format. As far as I can tell the great majority of the Tor Doubles were reprints (including one reprint of a former Binary Star half: Norman Spinrad's "Riding the Torch".) There was usually an attempt to pair the two halves thematically. In some cases this was arranged by having an author write a companion novella to an older example: for instance, Robert Silverberg wrote "In Another Country" as an explicit hommage to "Lawrence O'Donnell's" (C. L. Moore's) "Vintage Season", and the two stories became halves of Tor Double #18. (I believe Harry Turtledove's "The Pugnacious Peacemaker" was paired with L. Sprague de Camp's "The Wheels of If" by a similar process, and I think there are a few more examples.) A list of the Tor Doubles can be found here.

Most recently, some of the novellas procured by Peter Crowther for PS Publishing ended up as double books, in dos-a-dos format, from the UK publisher Millennium. I have two of these, from the first series of PS Publishing novellas, books by James Lovegrove/Graham Joyce and Kim Newman/Michael Marshall Smith. Several more have been published.

There were other attempts at similar formats, but I don't know much about them. Don Erikson and Dan Clore both mentioned a few from the low-end paperback house Belmont (or Belmont Tower) in the 60s, and Don mentioned as well a few "single author" doubles from Magabook and Signet, in the 60s and 70s. John F. Carr also mentions the small presses Gryphon and Ocean View. I think one of the major issues booksellers have with the format is the difficulty of displaying dos-a-dos books so that both authors are visible. At any rate, since the demise of the Ace Doubles the format seems not to have been successful. This is certainly understandable, but a bit sad.

Speaking of Tor Doubles, five former Ace Double halves became part of Tor Doubles. These are The Rithian Terror aka "Double Meaning" by Damon Knight, two by Jack Vance: "The Last Castle" and "The Dragon Masters"; and two by Leigh Brackett: "The Sword of Rhiannon" and "The Nemesis from Terra". (Norman Spinrad's "Riding the Torch" was both a Tor Double and a Dell Binary Star half.)

Here's some data about the most prolific Ace Double writers. (These stats compiled using the ISFDB's list of Ace Doubles.)

John Brunner, 24 Ace Double "halves", a total of 21 books (3 times an Ace Double consisted of two halves each by Brunner). (A few of these books were as by "Keith Woodcott".)
A. Bertram Chandler, 18 Ace Double "halves", a total of 13 books (5 times an Ace Double consisted of two halves each by Chandler)
John T. Phillifent ("John Rackham"), 16 halves, 14 as by "Rackham", 2 as by Phillifent
Kenneth Bulmer, 15 "halves", all in separate books
Andre Norton, 15 halves, 12 books, plus 1 reissue recombining two of those halves
Robert Silverberg, 13 halves, 12 separate books, several under the pseudonyms Calvin Knox, David Osborne, and Ivar Jorgenson.
Jack Vance, 13 halves, though only 11 unique, in only 7 different books (not counting two reissues) -- only once was Vance paired with another author in an Ace Double
E. C. Tubb, 12 "halves", 11 books, plus 1 reissue of two of those "halves" together
Poul Anderson, 12 halves, 10 books
Robert Moore Williams, 11 halves, 9 books
Mack Reynolds, 9 halves, 9 separate books plus several reprints
Murray Leinster, 9 halves, 8 books (plus one reprint)
Emil Petaja, 8 halves, 8 books
Marion Zimmer Bradley, 9 halves, 7 books (plus one reprint of two of her halves)
Leigh Brackett, 7 halves, 6 books
Philip E. High, 6 halves

And one more author, something of a special case! Donald Wollheim had 10 Ace Double "halves", one of them in collaboration with Lin Carter. This was in 9 separate books -- in one case he had halves back to back. The last six of these were under the name David Grinnell.

The kicker is, of course, that Wollheim was Ace's SF editor, and he presumably bought all or most of these books from himself. Indeed, Wollheim is usually remembered almost solely has an editor and publisher, but he was a fairly prolific author, though little enough of his work is really memorable.