Last year, I started an irregular feature here on the blog: offering a nostalgic look at a favorite series of movie or TV tie-in books. So far, we’ve revisited novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, V, and Space: 1999. The feature ended up being far more irregular than I’d originally envisioned and as you can see with a simple glance at the calendar I’m not doing all that well with it this year, either. However, I figured it was time to give it another go.
This time I have a brief look back at a very quirky collection of tomes: the “No-Frills Books.”
Published in 1981, this series of four “books” (each really not much more than a very long short story or perhaps a lean novella) were exactly what they purported to be: a generic, no-frills tale written for the specified genre. I only vaguely remember seeing them here and there in places like Waldenbooks or the book/magazine section of the local grocery store, which made sense because at that time such stores were really leaning into the idea of cheaper “generic” products for store shelves. I recall entire sections of aisles and coolers in the frozen food section devoted to this stuff, just as I remember my father opting to try out a six-pack of generic beer and lamenting it tasted like diluted monkey piss.
(How he might know what undiluted, full-strength monkey piss could taste like was one of those questions I opted to let go unasked.)
Anyway, books. “No-Frills Books,” as it were.
Created and published by diabolical rousers of rabble at Jove Books, the concept begat a Mystery, a Romance, a Science Fiction tale, and a Western. No authors were credited, and the covers offered the barest of bare bones so far as info. There was no back cover copy describing the story contained therein. Roll the dice, daring reader!
Though I remembered seeing them, I didn’t buy any of them at their now quaint cover price of $1.50. Then, because I was 14 or whatever in the fall of 1981, I quickly forgot about them and — so far as I know — they quietly faded from store shelves, replaced by something else.
Skip ahead to April 2020 and one of the Facebook groups I follow, which is devoted to discussing pulp fiction, SF, and “Men’s Adventure” action, western, and SF novels of the 20th century like Mack Bolan, The Destroyer, Nick Carter, and so on. One of the members posts a picture of one of the “No-Frills” books and lively and informative discussion ensues.
Thanks to the depth of knowledge possessed by the group’s various members – including several folks who have actually written some of the books the group typically discusses – I learned that the great Terry Bisson was the mastermind behind the whole fiendish “No-Frills” concept. I also discovered the authors of these little morsels:
The discussion about the books themselves offered hilarious hints about just how “generic” these tales were. A few of the group regulars remembered reading one or more of the four published titles, and I even learned two more entries in the series were planned, a “Bestseller” to be written by Bisson himself and a “Movie” to be penned by film critic David Ansen. However, the concept was abandoned and everybody moved on to doing other things perhaps containing far more frills.
At this point, I knew I at least had to read the “Science Fiction” title. Thanks to the wonder that is eBay I was able to secure a copy in decent shape at a reasonable price. As the whole story is 58 pages it didn’t take long to read, and I’m here to tell you that this thing is exactly as advertised. No overhyped expectations here, folks! This is absolutely, 100%, through and through a “no-frills,” generic science fiction tale. Indeed, the story could easily be retrofitted with whatever bits and bobs one might need to insert it into just about any existing literary, comic, film, or television SF series or concept you’d care to name. You could likely rearrange or flip genders or races on any of the characters and keep going.
It’s brilliant in its simplicity and amusing as hell in its execution. Holding the actual book with its totally nondescript, wannabe advanced reader proof cover is the icing on the cake. It’s worth having on the shelf just for the conversations it’s liable to start. I haven’t yet tracked down the other three books in this series, but you can bet I will.
During the discussion on the Facebook group as we talked about the books and the whole “No-Frills” concept, I likened the whole idea to military MREs (“Meal, Ready-to-Eat”), at least so far as the packaging. I joked about calling a new iteration of such stories “Books, Ready-To-Read” or BRRs. Then, my limited artistic abilities got the best of me and I came up with this:
Stuff like this is what happens when I can’t sleep.
I have no serious aspirations of trying to revive something like the “No-Frills” concept, and I figure if such a thing was viable someone smarter and more talented than me would’ve done it by now. That said, it’s one of those ideas that makes me chuckle. I was just born too late and started writing too late to be a part of something so goofy and funny.
Ah, well. Such is life. 🙂