To open this occasional series, I’m going to discuss my favourite book in the universe.
Space Wars Worlds and Weapons by Steven Eisler, foreword by Chris Foss (Octopus Books, 1980, ISBN: 7064-1005-X). Hardcover, 96 pp. Condition: very well used, foxed, sunned, some small tears in page edges, inscribed by owner (aged 7) on flyleaf verso; if it ever had a dust-jacket, that’s long gone.
Of all the many, many books I own, I have had this one the longest. It may be that my parents have custody of some children’s book or the other which is older. But this one I remember getting as a birthday gift. I remember writing my name and address on the flyleaf: I misspelled my own name several times whilst doing so. It has moved to every home I have had since, which is a lot because I have moved around a lot and on three different continents to boot.
It is an art book, full of colour pictures reproduced from the covers of science-fiction novels and magazines from the 1970s. Some of these are classics which still get reused today, others have faded into obscurity or are perhaps catalogued in a gloomy corner of the internet somewhere, but there is not a bad work of art in this book. Not one. I am, I concede, somewhat biased. I have pored over the pictures in this book for hours and hours and still more hours. Flicking through it now, I have a feeling of ingrained familiarity and gentle comfort which is hard to describe: I know it better than my mother’s face, better than my own face, like the most devout monk knows his catechism. I suspect this is pathological: I was not a normal child.
It is not merely an art book. Amidst the pictures is a very well-written, extended history of science-fiction writing, perforce ending in the late ’70s. It is lively, but scholarly, rich with quotation and interesting asides, broad in scope and celebratory without hesitating to critique. I ignored it entirely for the first ten years I owned the book.
Latterly, I’ve learned a lot from the text and made a point of reading some of the many books and stories it discusses. Some are long out of print, a lot are well-known classics which have never gone out of print. Looking at it again, I realise that there is a conversational extension to the writing style – a fondness for mid-sentence explanatory clauses – which is strangely familiar. I suspect that osmotic absorption, due to prolonged exposure starting at an age when I was barely semi-literate, may have occurred.
Each of the five main chapters starts with a glorious double-page spread and a pithy quotation, unattributed and thus I assume actually penned by Eisler. The one I have always liked the most comes from ‘Interplanetary Wars and Weapons’. The art is by Peter Jones: an astronaut, suit-and-helmeted on the bridge of a landed ship or perhaps in some chamber of an abandoned base on a distant moon, recoils from a gunmetal and yellow, egg-shaped robot fully twice his size as it advances into the scene from a hexagonal doorway. The quotation reads, ‘…the value of human life is zero the machines become the heroes’ (verbatim, the lack of punctuation has perplexed me ever since I knew what punctuation was).
I haven’t yet mentioned the very best thing about this wonderful book: the captions. The captions to the pictures put each artwork into the context of a shared sci-fi universe, one made up (I assume) by the author. They are each quite long, with details of history, technology, people and places: all unmoored from any central narrative, as though the main text of the book would tell all, but of course it doesn’t. The tone is reminiscent of, and perhaps inspired by, the famous appendices in Dune (roundabout references to which, naturally, find their way into a few of the captions). I still think that it is one of the most brilliantly evocative storytelling tricks I have ever seen: how my younger imagination scrambled between art and caption, on one page, then ten pages away, to fill in the blanks! In a superb twist, I later realised that the caption text was often referencing ‘real’ science-fiction settings, and/or simply appropriating the names of their authors. For instance, the caption to a painting by Peter Elson on p. 59 reads:
Delaney’s World In the system of Beta Dhalgren, Delaney’s World boasts semi-intelligent life, the gigantic reptiliaforms known as torons. Human colonists have formed symbiotic relationships with the creatures, similar to the man-dragon relationship on the nearby world of Pern.
Other captions have exotic tech specs (‘space displacement 48 ziemen’) or witty takes on popular culture (‘Archie Bunker, mortally offended at having to accept refuelling from a red-painted relay station run by Jewish-Vegan cross breeds, has shot a blaster hole through the hull of his space cruiser the Middle America’) Many of these references, of course, I didn’t understand when I was 7. Or 27. Heck, I still don’t understand some of them. But I am confident that they are all fantastic! There’s even a glossary on p. 94 to help explain some of the terms referred to in the captional meta-narrative but all it does, of course, is scatter more delicious breadcrumbs.
I could go on, and on. But I won’t. I’ll keep things simple. I love this book.
As a fun bonus, I found an excellent old wine label, glued to a sheet of paper, tucked inside the front cover. I had completely forgotten about it. Here’s a photo for your viewing pleasure.