Living Long and Prospering: Five Reasons Why Old Sci-Fi Paperbacks Are Awesome

 

Five Reasons Why Old Sci-Fi Paperbacks Are Awesome

I was kind of at a loss for something to write this week — until I noticed a stack of paperbacks sitting in the corner of my perpetually messy room. And while I am in no way a true sci-fi aficionado, and my general geek status has been slowly waning since I stopped watching Star Trek regularly, I still felt like shouting my old sci-fi paperback love from the digital rooftops.

There are few things I enjoy more than stopping to check out tables full of cheap secondhand books on the sidewalks of Manhattan. One of my favorite spots is on Sixth Avenue in the West Village, around Ninth Street, partially because it’s close to where I work (and I love the Village), but also because I’ve picked up some of my sweetest outer space thrillers there. Every time I pass by — regardless of whatever more productive things I should be doing — I can’t help taking a few minutes to leaf through the week’s selections, and I usually end making the street book guy a few dollars richer.

So in honor of idle book browsing, I’ll forego writing something deep and interesting — and instead share these simple reasons why I think old sci-fi paperbacks are awesome.

1) Awesome cover art

Because of course all the covers had to look awesome while doing acid was still cool! Whether its human or alien, phallic or amorphous, I’m hardly ever disappointed by just perusing covers alone. And I know I might be kind of a poser for saying this, but one of my favorites has to be my 1971 Berkley Medallion edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 classic Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s a perfectly simple-yet-trippy design: two hyper-real, back-to-back faces floating on a black abyss, linked by a groovy looking “GROK” (the novel’s iconic Martian term of understanding).

2) Awesome promotional catch phrases

Here’s another part of secondhand table browsing with which you can’t go wrong. Awesome promotional catch phrases — the little one-line previews found on so many old sci-fi covers — are basically like faster, cooler, wittier versions of movie theater coming attractions. My favorites in this department are a couple of ‘60s first edition paperbacks from Ace Books (which, founded in 1953, is actually the oldest continuously operating sci-fi publisher in the U.S.). One is Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 from 1966: “Think galactic—or your world is lost!” And the other is Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions from 1967: “Was he a human meteor or a time-bomb from the stars?” Fuck yeah.

3) Awesome portability

My line of work generally requires me to carry around my backpack — full of camera, lenses, notebooks, and other shit — wherever I go during the day, and it’s always nice to keep extra weight off my back, not to mention being able to close the zipper without rearranging everything. Answer? Paperback in the pocket. Fuck yeah.

 4) Awesome stories

I guess this kind of goes without saying, but it’s still a vital piece of the awesomeness total. And regardless of what anyone says, some of my absolute favorite, most dependably thought-provoking authors have a dozen or more sci-fi paperbacks to their name. I’m thinking of Le Guin, Delany, Heinlein (although I can admit he’s had his immature moments), Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny, among others. I honestly don’t really think of these guys as genre authors while I’m reading their work — there’s almost always more to it than ray guns, transporters or weird sex.

 5) Awesome affordability

The best part: I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than three dollars for any of my old sci-fi paperbacks. Enough said. Keep browsing those secondhand book tables.

 

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