When I first found out that the Folio Society were making a tête-bêche, or head-to-toe, version of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, I wasn’t blown away by the idea.
Tête-bêche binding – two novels head to tail in one book, with a front cover at either end – is often associated with cheap genre paperbacks from the 1950s to the 1970s: the very collectible Ace Doubles, for instance. A number of titles by Philip K Dick were produced in this manner, often with a title by a different author on the flipside, such as John Brunner or Leigh Brackett. As a marketing gimmick that cut down on costs, it was a very popular approach, and it launched a number of successful writing careers as little known authors could be paired with more bankable ones. But care for the written text was not top of the publisher’s agenda. Some authors complained that their work was being cut without their consent in order to meet length limitations.
The Folio Society is a completely different sort of publisher. The idea is not to churn it out cheaply, or launch any new careers. It’s about giving reverential care to create much-loved books for bibliophiles who want the best stories to be treated beautifully. Surely, on those grounds, Do Androids? and A Scanner Darkly deserve their own volumes? Why combine them to hark back to a time when cutting costs and space were the driving factors for a genre that commanded little critical respect?
Maybe there’s a hint of nostalgia about the exercise that doesn’t appeal to me, because I love these two books and I don’t see them as rooted in the past at all. They speak as much to society now as they did then, and I’d like both of them to have their own weighty hardback editions. But at least this volume does treat them both as contemporary texts, and comes up with two distinct and rewarding approaches to designing and illustrating them. The cover for A Scanner Darkly is particularly striking, choosing the first character we meet – Jerry and his belief that he’s infested by bugs – as its subject matter. It might well make you itch if you stare at it for too long. Illustrator Andrew Archer creates a detailed blend of reality and drug-induced visions in all his drawings for the story, concentrating on the faces of the characters with precise line drawings and occasional use of colour to startling effect.
The Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? side is illustrated in a completely different style by Chris Skinner, who uses hyper-smooth representations of people, animals, and machinery to produce an uncanny valley kind of effect. Who is human and who is android? What’s real in this world? I found myself turning back to these pictures often as I read, just to take them in all over again. They’re the kind of images that reward return visits.
In the centre pages, the differing styles of illustration meet and blend to create thoughts about what the texts share, and how they flow from the same imagination.
These novels have so many things in common: the downward path of a shabby hero who is getting lost between fantasy and reality, the machinations of large organisations, the mysterious woman who might be bad news, to name just a few things that you’ll find, not just here, but in many of Dick’s novels. Putting the two together in this head-to-toe format does highlight this, but that is, I think, one of the most positive aspects of the book. Great writers have themes that they explore in different ways, and Philip K Dick is no different. In fact, it’s brilliant to have the genre of science fiction given over to the high-class treatment that Folio Society can give. They’ve produced stunning versions of Dune, 2001, The Martian Chronicles, and The Drowned World, to name but a few.
To buy a lavish hardback edition of a novel is to honour it; you put it on your bookshelf in pride of place, and you feel good every time you look at it. It means something to you personally. That’s what the Folio Society is all about. On their website, they write, “We believe that great books deserve to be presented in a form worthy of their contents.” Do these two novels deserve this kind of approach? That’s always going to a subjective issue, but for me, as a lifelong fan of science fiction, the answer is yes. A double yes, for two amazing novels.
But I would have, given the option, cherished each individually in separate volumes. I would have liked an introduction for each, and additional illustrations, perhaps stretching over two pages, because the visions of the artists chosen for this project are so vivid and engaging. Why remind buyers of a time when you could get more for your money by compromising on word count and authorial vision, with the tête-bêche approach?
I can understand if I’m alone in this, but I’d rather not feel like I’m getting a two-for-one deal here, or be reminded of Philip K Dick’s cheap paperback roots. Sticking the two stories together made me feel, even though the book itself is a wonderfully made item, that in this case having more feels like getting less.
This edition is available to order from the Folio Society here.