[June 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the Earth.  There are many hypotheses as to why these great reptiles no longer walk among us.  One current of thinking goes thusly: dinosaurs were masters of the Earth for so long that they became complacent.  Because their reign was indisputed, they evolved in ways that were not optimized for survival.  Thus, the strange crests of the Hadrosaurs.  The weird dome head of the Pachycephalosaurs.  The giant frills of the Ceratopsians.  Like Victorian ladies’ hats, the dinosaurs became increasingly baroque until they were too ungainly to survive.

I worry that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is heading in that direction.  I’m all for literary quality in my sf mags, but F&SF has been tilting so far in the purple direction that it is often all but unreadable.  I present Exhibit A: the July 1961 “All-Star” issue.

Kingsley Amis is perhaps better known as a fan than a writer, his recent New Maps of Hell being a lauded survey of the current sci-fi field.  Something Strange isn’t a bad story, but the fluffy writing can’t relieve or distract from the threadbare plot (a retread of The Twilight Zone’s first episode): Two married couples are stuck on what they believe is a remote interstellar outpost.  A series of increasingly strange things materialize, first outside and, later, inside the station.  Ultimately, the scouts are given a final message from Earth – they have been abandoned for want of funding to retrieve them!  Of course, the keen reader has already figured out that the base is really just a long-term isolation chamber on Earth, the whole thing being an experiment.  Despite the hackneyed plot, it’s still readable.  Three stars, barely.

Package Deal is the latest by Will Worthington, an author given to writing dark pieces.  This one, about a n’er-do-well spoiled rich kid who discovers his latent powers of telepathy, is overly cute and underly memorable.  Two stars.

The new writer, Nicholas Breckenridge, advises ailurophiles to skip the feline ghost story, Cat Lover.  It’s a good suggestion; Lover is a tired retread of familiar ground.  Two stars.

Grendel Briarton has a new Ferdinand Feghoot pun story.  I include it in the interests of completeness; do not mistake presentation for endorsement.

The Zookeeper is the first published story by Otis Kidwell Burger, and also the one piece by a woman (despite the unlikely name) to appear in any of the Big Three magazines this month.  It’s a tale of the far future, a sort of meet cute featuring a woman secured from present day as a sort of pet, and the all-too-human alien, also a pet, who comes to love her.  Another overly oblique piece, but kind of charming nonetheless.  Three stars.

Kris Neville’s Closing Time is more Socratic dialogue than story, a rather insipid piece about disproving the existence of intelligent aliens.  Two stars.

Night Piece, by the usually (these days) excellent Poul Anderson, is even more disappointing.  Something about a scientist becoming aware of dimensions beyond his own, grappling to retain his sanity amid an onslaught to his senses.  It’s all very ponderous and overwrought.  One star.

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Recipe for a Planet, all about the elements that make up the Earth and their proportion to each other.  I especially enjoyed the article’s wrap-up, describing our planet’s composition in cook-book style.

Comprising a good third of the book is its final piece, Brian Aldiss’ novella, Undergrowth.  It is a direct sequel to his previous stories, Hothouse and Nomansland, all set on Earth a billion years from now.  The sun has grown hot, and the planet is a jungle.  Humans have long-since stopped being Earth’s master and are now diminutive, barely sentient creatures.  In this story, we learn of the event that caused our race to topple from power, thanks to the racial-memory tapping talents of the fungoid symbiotes, the morel. 

As usual, Aldiss paints a vivid picture, and a unique one, but somehow the further adventures of Gren and Poyly and their bonded morel have gotten a bit tedious.  It feels more and more like one of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels – enjoyable, but shallow.  I’m looking forward to learning what happened to the lunar explorers from the first novella, and I expect Aldiss has already got that story plotted out.  Three stars.

Measured on the Star-o-Meter(tm), this “All-Star” issue only earns 2.5 stars.  In fact, not a single magazine broke the 3-star barrier this month!  Moreover, just one woman made it to print.  The two facts may not be unrelated…

In any event, if F&SF wants to win the Hugo this year, it’ll have to do better than this.  Otherwise, Analog or Galaxy are likely to take the prize just by failing to decline as steeply.

[June 22, 1961] HOME COUNTIES SF (a report from the UK)

By Ashley R. Pollard

Let me explain my title to you.  The British Home Counties surround London, where I live, and consists of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex.  I mention this apropos of probably the most well known of Britain’s science fiction novels: the apocalyptic War of the Worlds by Herbert George Wells.

The story is a veritable march through the Britain’s heartland, describing how the Martian tripods march from Woking in Surrey to Essex, wrecking all that’s nearest and dearest to the heart of the British people.  Though I should point out that this was a very English-centred story (Scotland, Wales and Ireland are left out), and regarding the rest of the world or our former colonies, Wells has little to say.

War, arguably, was where British science fiction was born.  I say “arguably” because Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein can probably lay claim to being the first British SF story; however, its roots seem to me to be more firmly in Gothic Horror.  I believe that Wells set the scene for British SF in a way that Shelley’s story has so far not.  Though perhaps now that we are in the swinging sixties, her influence will be felt more as women’s emancipation moves forward.

What is the point of all this?  Why, to set the stage for the introduction of one of our latest SF writers: John Wyndham, pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, also known as John Beynon and a host of other pseudonyms made through different combinations of his name.

Wyndham became widely known to British readers after his disaster tale, The Day of the Triffids, was published in 1951.  The story centres on the survivors of the passing of a comet, most of whom were blinded by the show (perhaps caused by coincident nuclear explosions of satellites in orbit around the Earth).  The plot doubles the calamity by featuring the deadly eponymous plants, piling agony on top of misery.  The Triffids are genetically modified constructs that are being farmed for their oil, and which have to be kept fenced in because they can walk.  They also come equipped with stingers to blind their prey.  You can see where this is going?  Like Wells’ tripods, the Triffids rampage across England blinding people and generally being unpleasant weeds that thrive on the dead.  Also like War, it is a disaster story for British readers, set in the familiar setting of England’s green and pleasant land.  If any of these topics appeal to you, you’ll enjoy the book.

Wyndham’s second novel was The Kraken Wakes, a story of aliens who invade our oceans.  A pointless war breaks out that ends with the melting of our Polar regions.  Much of the Earth is flooded — most importantly, London!  The debt Wyndham owes to Wells for creating the genre is explicitly made by Kraken‘s protagonist, who contrasts the course his aliens’ invasion takes compared to the one described by Wells.  Serendipitously, the book came out in the same year as George Pal’s film adaptation of War of the Worlds, which may have added to Kraken’s success, the public being primed for invasion stories.  Though one could argue that what sold the story was the resonance between the state of Britain at the end of World War Two and the situation the protagonists find themselves in at the end of the novel.

With these two books John Wyndham cemented his position as a writer of very British science fictional tales.  But it should be said that Wyndham liked to refer to his novels as logical fantasies rather than SF.

Following on from his two breakout novels came my favourite novel, The Chrysalids.  It’s a different story because even though it’s set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a nuclear holocaust that has devastated the Earth, the focus has moved from middle-class English people to a xenophobic community that enforces purity laws to prevent the spread of mutations.

On reflection, perhaps its not that far removed from the culture of the British Isles after all and the anti-German rhetoric that colours films and comics.

The Chrysalids tells the story of children born with telepathic powers who must hide their abilities because their society abhors all mutations.  The plot unfolds as the children flee after one of the children is discovered to have six toes.  Wyndham leaves it up to the reader to imagine what happens after the ending.

Wyndham’s third book was The Midwich Cuckoos.  Aliens choose a number of villages around the world, render the inhabitants unconscious, and afterwards it’s discovered all the women are pregnant.  The alien hybrid children have strange powers and things do not bode well for the rest of humanity.

The book was made into a film called The Village of the Damned, which was filmed, funnily enough, in Hertfordshire — one of the Home Counties.  At the film premiere, there were queues all around Leicester Square to get in.  And for those who like memorabilia, Penguin released the book with a still from the film on the cover.

His next book is a novel made from short stories called The Outward Urge (what I believe is called a fix-up in America).  Those who know me know that I like hard SF and The Outward Urge delivers in spades, telling the tale of one family’s expansion into space.  It is told as a future history spanning 1994 to 2194.  The future indeed, one where Britain has a space station in 1994, for which we are going to have to pull our socks up if that’s going to happen: given what I know and told you last month about the British space programme so far.  Still, The Outward Urge is an exciting read, and I found it quite gripping.

His latest novel is the Trouble With Lichen.  This book treads a different path from his earlier works, not being a tale of alien lichen taking over the world that the title might first suggest.  The story’s central character is a woman biologist who discovers that a rare lichen has life-extending properties.  From it, she produces the drug, Antigerone, that can extend peoples’ lives two to three hundred years.  Wyndham uses the story to explore the effects this will have on society, for instance, the liberation of women by extending their fertility, and thereby allowing them the time for a career before choosing to bear children.

I’m not totally convinced by his extrapolations of the effect a life prolonging drug would have on women’s reproductive cycle — or the societal effects thereof; we’ll know more once the Enavid (Enovid 10mg) oral contraceptive becomes widely accepted.  But, I will give John Wyndham credit for at least trying to put himself into women’s shoes and presenting a strong female character, even if I find his treatment at times a tad clumsy because he describes woman from a particularly male perspective that irks me.

That being said, if you haven’t yet come across John Wyndham’s work, and you want to have a taste of a British sensibilities towards the future I can’t recommend his work too highly.

[June 20, 1961] The bright side of the Moon (Nude on the Moon)

Rosemary Benton, as you know, is one of our regular columnists.  Imagine my surprise when she suggested the following subject for her article this month.  I’m just glad I didn’t have to propose it to her

Nude on the Moon is a surprising piece of science fiction cinema directed by Raymond Phelan and Doris Wishman under the pseudonym Anthony Brooks.  Like so many adult oriented films this one was a passion project.  Phelan and Wishman co-directed, produced and wrote the script and made excellent use of their surrounding area – southern Florida. Residents of Homestead, Florida will immediately recognize the set of the moon colony as the famous Coral Castle.  Although the production budget is obviously small, Phelan and Wishman managed to make a rather intriguing movie. 

[WARNING: Those planning to watch Nude might wish to skip the following paragraph!]

The film follows the exploits of two rocket scientists, Professor Nichols (William Mayer) and Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown), who fund and execute a scientific mission to the moon.  The premise beyond that is pretty predictable.  They make it to the moon, but to their disbelief it’s not the volcanic wasteland that they and the rest of the world expected.  Instead they find a peaceful kingdom of nudists ruled by a benevolent black haired beauty who is played by an actress simply credited as “Marietta”. Before they run out of oxygen Professor Nichols and Dr. Huntley must gather evidence of their discovery in order to fund further trips.  Tragically, Dr. Huntley and the Moon Queen fall in love but are forced to part so that the two men can return to Earth.  In a somewhat romantic turn Dr. Huntley finally notices the duo’s long time secretary, Cathy (also played by “Marietta”), when he realizes that she bears a striking resemblance to the Moon Queen.  The film ends with them gazing into each other’s eyes as they dissolve into the same moon landscape painting used for the beginning of the film.

The effort that is made to sound scientific, combined with the fantastical image of the moon, results in a rather simple but charming movie.  The first half of the film is dedicated to Dr. Huntley and Professor Nichols planning how they will use Dr. Huntley’s inheritance of 3 million dollars to fund the expedition, extended shots of them tinkering in their labs, the two of them discussing the issues of metal contraction and expansion, and pondering how their trip will go.  We see Dr. Huntley and Professor Nichols develop as characters, and even get a surprise reference to Doris Wishman’s 1960 nudist colony film Hideout in the Sun.  The science part of this piece of fiction melts away pretty quickly once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere.  After their ship separates and they land we enter the Buck Rogers realm of hockey space suits, gold nuggets just lying around on the ground, and of course a moon’s surface that looks strangely like a popular roadside attraction.

It’s surprising how fleshed out the two main characters of Nude on the Moon really are.  Dr. Huntley is portrayed as a man obsessed with his career and intellectual pursuits, but is naive and almost blindingly optimistic.  He’s consistently shortsighted too, which is showcased in how quickly he falls in love with the Moon Queen. Not to mention his logic of rejecting government funding in favor of using his own money because, “Money is only good when you’re doing something good with it.”  Professor Nichols is the guiding influence in Dr. Huntley’s world.  He’s the realist and far more money conscious than his partner. Scientific pursuit is extremely important, but not to the exclusion of ladies and film as we see when he flirts with Cathy and expresses his appreciation for Hideout in the Sun.

For a film that’s basically an excuse to show topless women there’s a lot of setup.  The plot even circles around to explain why this mission to the moon isn’t known all over the world.  By not telling the press, not accepting funding from the US government, and forgetting their camera and samples on the moon they have no proof that their mission even happened.  They themselves aren’t even sure that they went to the moon since they were passed out during the landing, and even by their own admission what happened to them went far beyond any current conception of the moon’s surface.

Given that I could only find this film playing at a grindhouse theater two towns over, plus the clarity of the title, that Nude on the Moon bears the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) label of “Suggested for Mature Audiences” is unsurprising.  Roughly half of the running time for Nude on the Moon is dedicated to the tropical paradise nudist kingdom on the moon.  Topless perky ladies (and two gentlemen) all lounging, dancing, frolicking before the scientific gaze of the visiting Earth research team.  It’s purely voyeuristic eye candy, but is still arguably part of a major shift in cinema.  Last year the Hays Code (also known as the Production Code) was significantly overhauled to better suite current trends in America’s disposition with cinema.  Prohibitions on portrayals of drug use, abortion, miscegenation, prostitution, abortion and nudity were all reframed. At the same time blasphemy and ridiculing of the clergy were expressly prohibited.  Nude on the Moon still has run into trouble with the censors.  New York state banned the film because of its portrayal of nudity outside of an “official” nudist colony context.  Phelan and Wishman’s explanation that it was a moon nudist colony did not sway their decision.

Nude on the Moon is, and it feels weird to say this, but a rather cute, charming movie.  It also can’t be overstated how refreshing it was to see a woman director taking to the science fiction genre in film.  I am probably not the audience that Doris Wishman or Raymond Phelan expected, but I have to commend them on producing a decently made and written schlock film.  It’s not often I wander into a grindhouse theater in the pursuit of science fiction, and since The Beast of Yucca Flats was the last grindhouse production I saw I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It certainly wasn’t something of quality.  The miniatures used to show the rocket’s launch, travel through space, and the landing on the moon were decently done, and the music plays well with the hokeyness of the premise.  The plot nicely ties itself up at the end, and most importantly it didn’t seem to bore the audience.  They are not just at a nudist camp sunbathing, lounging and having a generally relaxing day, they are aliens too!  It succeeds very well at what it sets out to do, which is to be a rather adorable twist on the nudist camp genre of films.

[June 16, 1961] Analog astounds… (July 1961 Analog)


I’m going to stun you all today. 

There are plenty of writers in this genre we call science fiction (or sometimes “scientificition” or “s-f”).  I’ve encountered over 130 of them in just the few years that this column has been extant.  Some are routinely excellent; many are excellently routine.  A few have gotten special attention for being lousy.

One such writer is Randall Garrett.

This is the fellow whose smug misogyny and his utter conformity to John Campbell’s peculiar editorial whims made his works some of the worst I had the displeasure to review.  Sure, the stuff he wrote with other authors (Bob Silverberg and Laurence Janifer, for instance) was readable, but when he went solo, it was a virtual guarantee of disaster.  It is thus with no undue trepidation that I dug into this month’s Analog which features Garrett’s pen in the first two tales.

Folks, I’m as amazed as you are.  They were actually pretty good.

For instance, A Spaceship named McGuire, about an investigator who travels to Ceres to find out why a brainy spaceship consistently goes insane, has a solid hook, a good female character, vivid settings, and a crunchy adherence to science.  My main beef with McGuire is that it’s a mystery, but rather than giving us clues, Garrett just tells the gimmick at the end.  It feels rushed and arbitrary.  It’d probably make a good novel, though.  Three stars.

Tinker’s Dam is by Joseph Tinker, a name so clearly pseudonymous that it must belong to a fellow with another piece in this issue.  Based on the style, I’ll eat my hat if it’s not also a Garrett story.  Anyway, it’s about telepaths in the near future and the national security risk they pose.  Not only is it a pretty interesting piece, but it stars a fellow of Romany extraction (unfortunately nicknamed “Gyp,” but he seems fine with it).  It’s an ethnicity one doesn’t often see in stories, and it lends color to Dam without being the point.  Three stars.

Van Dongen

Herbert D. Kastle wrote an admirable first piece in Galaxy last month; his submission for the July Analog, The First One , suggests that Breakdown wasn’t a fluke.  First tells of a man’s somber homecoming.  He is both famous and yet changed: strangely repellent, alone even in the presence of friends and family.  The reveal is fairly well telegraphed and not particularly momentous, but I assume there is a deliberate metaphor here for the experience of returning battle fatigued soldiers.  It’s about two pages too long though it is never bad.  Three stars.

On the other hand, Chris Anvil’s The Hunch, about a Galactic Scout sent out in a ship full of untested equipment, is just silly.  Some might find the hero’s tribulations as he thumbs through endless manuals to be comical.  I found it stupid.  Two stars.

The rest of the issue is take up with Harry B. Porter’s incredibly dull article on high-temperature rocket materials (Hell’s own problem; one star) and the exciting conclusion to Simak’s The Fisherman (four stars). 

Summed up, the book gets an uninspiring 2.7 stars.  On the other hand, there is a lot of readable stuff in here, and at this point, I should be used to Campbell’s inability to get a decent science writer.  Moreover, if Randy Garrett has finally learned to write, that bodes well for issues to come given his perennial relationship with Analog.

A cup half-full, I’d say!


A fan in the know tells me my guess was wrong, and Tinker’s Dam was actually by John Berryman.  That makes sense — he is also an Analog regular, and he writes readable stories about things psychic.  Thanks to Tom Smith for pointing that out!

[June 14, 1961] Time is the simplest thing… (The Fisherman, by Clifford Simak)

Girdling the Earth are bands of deadly radiation, the Van Allen Belts.  They form a prison, an eggshell that humanity can never pierce.  Embittered, the human race turns inward.  Psychic powers come to the fore.  At first, the psychically endowed paranormals (“parries”) use their gifts for a lark or for profit.  Over time, the world comes to hate these deviants, forcing them into ghettos and isolated towns.

All except for the rare few employed by Fishhook, an agency that has opened up the stars through other means.  Fusing technology and innate power, the “Fishermen” project their minds across the light years and explore other worlds.  They bring back wondrous gifts of technology, which are sold in Fishhook-owned centers called “Trading Posts.”  The Fishermen encounter a riot of experiences: things of incomprehensible beauty, things of unspeakable evil.  The most rigidly enforced rule is that the Fishermen must retain their humanity; any taint of alien, any hint of going native, and they are cloistered in a community that is, for all intents and purposes, a gilded cage.

All of which are just abstract concerns to Shepherd Blaine, a veteran Fisherman, tourist of a hundred worlds, until the day he encounters the pinkness: a sprawling, shabby, impossibly old creature who tells him, “Hi Pal.  I trade with you my mind…”

Clifford Simak’s four-part serial, The Fisherman, just wrapped up in this month’s Analog.  It is the chronicle of Blaine’s escape from Fishhook and his journey on the lam through the Dakotas as he attempts to reconcile his human self with the near-omniscient alien that has take up residence in his mind.  Blaine gains an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe as well as some mastery of time, “the simplest thing” the pinkness assures him.  All the while, he is pursued by antagonist forces.  One side wants to integrate the parries into society; the other would see them destroyed. 

If you’re a fan of Cliff’s, you know that he excels at writing these intensely personal stories, particularly when they have (as this one does) a rural tinge.  The former Fisherman’s transformation into something more than human is fascinating.  Blaine’s voyage of self-discovery and self-preservation is an intimate one, a slow journey with a growing and satisfying pay-off.  The pace drags a little at times, and Simak adopts this strange habit of beginning a good many of his sentences with the auxiliary words “for” and “and,” which lends an inexorable, detached tone to the proceedings. 

Still, it’s an unique book, one that I suspect will contend for a Hugo this year.  It single-handedly kept Analog in three-star territory despite the relative poor quality of its short stories and science articles. 

Four-and-a-quarter stars.  Don’t miss it when it comes out in book form.

[June 11, 1961] Until we meet again… (Twilight Zone Second Season wrap up)

When Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone debuted in October 1959, it was a fresh breeze across “the vast wasteland” of television.  Superior writing, brilliant cinematography, fine scoring, and, of course, consistently good acting earned its creator a deserved Emmy last year.

The show’s sophomore season had a high expectation to meet, and it didn’t quite.  That said, it was still head and shoulders above its competitors (Roald Dahl’s Way Out, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, etc.) The last two episodes of this year’s batch were par for the course: decent, but not outstanding:

Take Will the Real Martian please stand up.  A pair of policemen track the survivor of a flying saucer crash into a remote coffee house.  None of the folks inside will confess to being an alien, but it is certain one of them, all seemingly human, is no Terran.  Paranoia ensues, heightened by some electrical hijinks.  The show keeps you guessing to the end, and then there’s a bit of a twist. 

I think I’d have liked this piece more if it hadn’t been done better in first season’s The Monsters are due on Maple Street.  The episode was also a bit padded, with some unnecessary expository exposition.  I guess I’ll call it three stars, if only for getting to see John Hoyt again.  Jack Elam, who trades on looking weird, was also fun to watch.

I liked this episode a lot, even if it was slow.  It was similar to a previous episode of Twilight Zone, but the difference was this one almost turned the idea of people going crazy out of mistrust on its head (resolving the problem rather than going insane). 

The whole plot of the episode hinges on the fact that “There were only six passengers on the bus, and now there’s seven at the diner!”  At first I thought the twist was that there were only six passengers and the driver, a total of seven, until I did a headcount about halfway through the episode.

Something funny: earlier today I’d been watching the sit-com Angel, which had James Garner as a guest star!  Towards the end they had an in-show commercial for cereal.  In this Twilight Zone episode, one of the men was talking about how good his cigarettes tasted, and I thought for a moment he was going to break into an advertisement.  Of course that didn’t come until the end — when Rod Serling recommended Oasis cigarettes “for the freshest of tastes”.

I would give this episode a solid four.  It wasn’t perfect, and the pacing was a little slow, but I still loved the kooky special effects and funny story.  Even though it was simple, the story had me wondering the whole time.  I was hoping for a little more of a twist out of the end, but over all it was a good episode, and I highly recommend you watch it yourself.

The last episode of the second season, Obsolete, was a morality play.  A meek librarian endures a show trial under a regime clearly informed by Nazi Germany.  In it, he is declared “obsolete” and sentenced to execution.  The defiant man’s sole remaining right is to choose the method of his execution.  The librarian’s choice ultimately places the sentencing chancellor’s life in jeopardy as well.  Let us just say that one faces death more nobly than the other. 

It’s a beautifully shot piece, and the first half genuinely engages.  But the latter portion drags and is so monochromatic in its allegory that there is no room for pondering.  The God-loving, book-toting little man is right.  The Hitler-analogue is wrong.  Aren’t we glad that’s not us?  I give it three stars, but that comes from averaging the two halves.

I thought this episode was only okay.  The concept wasn’t that interesting and it was a pretty predictable episode overall.  The episode starred Burgess Meredith, who has already starred in two other Twilight Zone episodes.  The acting was alright, but the concept was so simple that the episode was almost bland.

The episode was about a society built on the idea that, if you were obsolete, you were killed.  There really wasn’t much else to the episode.  The man was tried, declared obsolete, and killed.  It felt even more drawn out than Martian.

I would give this episode a two and a half.  It was entirely mediocre and predictable the whole way through.  I would recommend skipping this one, because, to put it bluntly, it’s just not good.

And that’s that!  Next week’s episode is a summer rerun of the first of the first season, Where is Everybody.  Go check it out if you want to see where it all began.  Until next time,

This is the Traveler…

And, this is the Young Traveler, signing off.

[June 9, 1961] Common denominator (July 1961 IF)

Science fiction digests, those monthly magazines filled with s-f short stories, are often like little anthologies.  Editors will let their “slush pile” stack up, and when they have enough of a kind of piece, they publish them in a themed issue.

I don’t know whether the theme of the July 1961 IF science fiction was intentional or not, but it definitely focuses on the issues of over-population and over-mechanization.  That is, in the future, there will be too many of us, and we won’t have a whole lot to do. 

I’m not particularly concerned about the former.  We live on a big planet, and although our presence on it definitely has an impact, I don’t think living space is going to be an issue for a long time, if ever.  On the other hand, the latter topic holds a strong fascination for me. 

We’ve already seen a precipitous drop in the percentage of people employed in agriculture.  Industry looks like it will shed workers soon, too, as the use of robots increases.  That leaves the nebulous “service” sector, whose added value to our lives seems rather arbitrary.  Eventually, I foresee a world where no one has to grow or build anything…and then what will work mean to us?

It’s a worthy topic for discussion.  Sadly, the writing in the July 1961 IF fails to impress and often downright disappoints.  Here’s what we’ve got:

Jim Harmon is an often lackluster IF perennial.  His novelette The Planet with no Nightmare, involves an insomniac space explorer and the strange planetoid he and his two crewmates discover.  On said world, the animals play dead when startled, but when no one’s watching, they disappear.  It has a promising opening, but the end is no great shakes.  Three stars.

Then there’s William Stuart, who started with a bang and hasn’t quite recreated his initial spark.  The Real Hard Sell tells of a salesman in a world where selling is the only human profession remaining.  Like many of the stories in this issue, it is frightfully conventional except for its premise.  Still, as a satire of our current commercial practices, it’s not bad.  Three stars.

Now brace yourself – those were the good stories of the issue.

The Stainless Steel Knight is John Rackham’s attempt at humor featuring a hapless Terran agent, a faithful alien companion, and colonies that adhere to storybook milieus.  In this case, the planet the agent visits is modeled on England of the Middle Ages.  As to following the issue’s theme, the story is all about the agent’s mission to slay a “dragon”, a leftover automated tractor/combine that threatens to put the colonists’ serfs out of work.  Well, the Arthurian hijinx was better in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, the Middle English better in Anderson’s The High Crusade, and the medieval satire better in Pratt and De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter.  Two stars.

Once again, James T. McIntosh saves his dreck for IF.  He often can write so well, but Doormat World, about a returned colonist taking advantage of Earth’s spate of super-pacifism, is a poor, disgusting little piece.  One star.

A Taste of Tenure is a surprisingly clumsy piece by Gordon Dickson in which a businessman, promoted to the executive level, finds himself unable to discharge his predecessor’s secretary, protected as she is by the government’s strict “right to work” laws.  Again – interesting premise, but utterly conventional despite taking place two centuries from now, and the ending is a confused muddle.  Two stars.

Finally, we have The Junkmakers, by IF newcomer Albert Teichner.  It has a great concept: planned obsolescence taken to an absurd extreme: enormous communal potlaches are held at five year intervals and given an almost religious significance.  If there were any characters in this story, or much of a plot, it’d be a real winner.  As it is, it’s the outline of a piece for someone more skilled (Cordwainer Smith?) to develop into a masterpiece.  Two stars.

So there you have it.  A collection of stories by IF‘s reliable stable on an interesting theme that barely breaks the two-star barrier.  This is easily the worst issue of IF I’ve read.  Editor Fred Pohl better start enforcing some higher standards, or I predict this magazine will end up following the path trod smooth by Infinity, Venture, Imagination, and thirty other digests born in the 50s.

America’s Answer to Lunik: Project Ranger

by Larry Klaes

[The Space Race continues to run at an ever-accelerating pace.  To keep up with all the new developments, I’ve tapped my friend and fellow professional space historian to tell us a very special program that just might score for the United States in the next inning…]

President Kennedy declared three weeks ago before Congress that America shall make the bold step of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of this decade.  This has given a much needed – and quite literal – boost to the American space program. 

It couldn’t have come at a better time.  Since that day in October of 1957 when our geopolitical and space rivals, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR for short, lofted that 184-pound silvery sphere they called Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit, the Communists have handily outpaced us on virtually all key fronts of the Space Race.  First animal in orbit.  First man in orbit.  First probe to Venus.  First victories in the race to that big golden prize in our night sky, the Moon.

In one year alone, 1959, the Soviets sent the first space probe flying past the Moon and on into solar orbit.  This was followed by the first manmade vehicle to impact another world, with their Luna 2 littering the lunar dust with pennants engraved with the Soviet Coat of Arms.  The USSR rounded out their lunar triumphs of 1959 with a circumlunar imaging mission that revealed the hitherto unseen lunar farside.

So which Superpower will be the first to orbit the Moon?  The first to land, with robots and then with manned spacecraft?  Experts in various fields might understandably side with the Soviet Union, including those in the West.  In a mission-by-mission comparison, America’s efforts at exploring and conquering the Moon pale.

All of the first three Air Force Pioneer lunar probes fell short of their celestial goal.  Of the next two, made to order by Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California (JPL), Pioneer 4 alone escaped the confines of Earth’s gravity and headed into interplanetary space in March 1959.  Unfortunately, the small conical craft was many thousands of miles too far away for its scientific instruments to examine the Moon and slipped on to join its Soviet counterpart, Luna 1, in solar orbit.

Then it was STL’s turn again with their advanced Atlas Able Pioneers.  All four of them failed.  Spectacularly.

And so, back to JPL.  They have a new robotic lunar exploration program that they are confident will return some of NASA’s prestige in space and ensure that one day soon the Stars and Stripes will be standing tall on the lunar surface — before the Hammer and Sickle.  Named Ranger, it is actually a three-step program of increasingly sophisticated species of spacecraft: what the space agency calls Blocks.

The two Block I machines will fly this year.  Looking like an oil rig with two long solar panel “wings” at its base and a large high-gain directional dish antenna beneath, the first two Rangers will initially enter an Earth parking orbit and gradually be moved farther out into space until well beyond the Moon.  There the controllers at JPL will put the probes through their paces to see how they handle the cislunar environment to improve upon the next blocks of Ranger missions.  These won’t just be engineering flights; each Block I Ranger it will also fly a suite of scientific instruments. 

Now, JPL thought these science Rangers were good enough to make good Venus probes, too.  Their intention was to launch these modified Rangers using the Atlas-Agena B combination of rockets. 

NASA rejected this plan, instead asking JPL to develop a more ambitious planetary probe labeled Mariner A, which would use an Atlas rocket with the powerful Liquid Oxygen Centaur second stage.  The Centaur booster has a more powerful payload lifting capability, which translates into sending their Mariner A concept with more scientific instruments to either Venus or Mars.

However, the Centaur has had a number of technical issues during its development.  There is genuine concern that the new booster will not be ready in time to send a probe to Venus during the 1962 launch window.  A delay would mean waiting for the next launch window over two years hence.  NASA officials and others are quite certain that the Soviets could have their own Venus probes on their way to the second world from the Sun by next year.  A successful exploration of that planet would bring yet another space victory and political glory to the communist nation.  Thus the Ranger bus option to flyby Venus and see what dwells under its mysterious bank of clouds remains a plausible alternative.

Back to the Moon: the first Block I Ranger is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop an Atlas-Agena B for late July, 1961.  Its sister probe, Ranger 2, will follow into space aboard a similar rocket sometime in October.

Ranger Block II will be the first Moon missions.  Scheduled for 1962, three probes will fly through the airless void to make a direct hit on the Moon.  The original proposal called simply for each Ranger to carry a TV camera to map potential landing sites.  But, just as nature abhors a vacuum, scientists abhor minimum missions.  Thus, some of the sky science experiments from Block I will make their way to Block II — over the protests of engineers, who abhor complication. 

The neatest bit is the MoonQuake detector.  It is hoped that the Rangers will not be completely destroyed at the end of their missions: Each probe carries atop its main bus a thick sphere of balsa wood.  At the very center of each ball is a seismometer which will determine if the Moon produces quakes just as they occur on Earth.  The balsa sphere will protect the sensitive geological instrument upon impact with the lunar surface.  Six silver cadmium batteries will power the seismometer for up to one month after the rough landing. 

Just as with earthquake science here on Earth, the Ranger 3 through 5 science packages should teach us much about the composition of the lunar interior and if the Moon is still geologically active or not.  Although most scientists now accept that the vast majority of lunar craters were caused by ancient meteor and comet impacts, it may be that some of them are actually the calderas of volcanoes.  Scientists want to know if any of them may still be active. 

Finally, we have Ranger Block III.  As with their predecessors, the robot probes of Block III will also be sent plunging into the Moon.  While these mechanical explorers will not survive their high-speed impacts with the lunar crust, they will nevertheless return thousands of increasingly detailed images of particular regions of the Moon in real time using a bank of onboard television cameras.  These images will help scientists understand the finer details of the lunar surface both for geology as well as assisting NASA with future locations for soft landing missions, including manned vessels.

The manned program that will benefit from the findings of the Ranger program is Project Apollo.  The space agency had already planned Apollo as a follow-up spacecraft to Mercury with goals including a circumlunar flight or even a lunar orbital mission.  With President Kennedy’s new mandate to place a man on the Moon by the end of this decade, NASA has already begun to expand Apollo to include the ability to land astronauts on the lunar surface.  Whether this will involve using the entire Apollo craft and the powerful Nova rocket currently on the drawing board or perhaps an alternate concept of a separate Apollo craft and lander will be decided after much study and debate.

One thing from all this is certain, though: The Soviet Union has clear ambitions for the ultimate high ground of space.  Should the Soviets come to dominate Earth orbit and our neighboring worlds, especially if they include nuclear arms in this mix, the American way of life will be under a greater threat than ever before since the end of the last World War and the start of the Cold War. 

[June 3, 1961] Hope Springs (Poul Anderson’s Orbit Unlimited)

Today’s article is about second chances.

The newspapers are full of scary news these days.  OverpopulationTension between the East and WestThe threat of global disaster.  Some feel that we are headed toward a doomed future, one of increased authoritarian governments, of scarcity, of rationing.  That we lost something when the last frontiers closed, forcing us to turn inward, toward oblivion.

Poul Anderson’s just come out with a new book along those lines: Orbit Unlimited.  It’s a fix-up of sorts, composed of four stories, two of which I’ve reviewed before.  There are many scenes and as many viewpoint characters, but they all revolve around a central premise: a hundred years from now, freedom is ended, humanity is stagnant, and just one sliver of hope remains – a harsh world around the star e Eridani called Rustum.

I was not particularly charitable to Anderson when I first reviewed Robin Hood’s Barn and The Burning Bridge, the two stories that comprise the first half of Orbit.  He’d recently written the abysmal Bicycle built for Brew, and in general, he was at the tail end of a multi-year slump (and I had no way of knowing its end was near).  Moreover, the stories did not do well on their own; giving them a common premise gave them a combined value greater than their sum.

So Anderson’s stories are getting a second chance, just as the Earth gets a second chance, if only in the pages of Orbit Unlimited.

The first tale struck me much more favorably this time around.  Robin Hood’s Barn is the story of the choked, nearly hopeless Earth, and the old, canny politician, Svoboda, who tries to force one last gasp of colonizing desire by increasing the government’s tyranny.  The first time around, I took the story at face value, and it felt like yet another of those smug tales where one fellow has a preternatural ability to manipulate others such that the pieces always move as desired.  Plus, there were no women in the story, and that always gets a strike from me unless there’s a plausible reason.  More on that later.  On reexamination, it seemed Svoboda’s gamble was far less certain, really an act of desperation that just barely paid off.  That made it all much more palatable.

Now that I knew that Orbit‘s next story, The Burning Bridge, was set in the same universe, I was able to see it in a new light.  I’d been lukewarm toward this story the first time.  In Bridge, the colonial fleet in mid-flight when a message from Earth is received.  Things are better, they are told, and they should come home.  It’s a tempting offer, one that Fleet Captain Joshua Coffin is sure the majority of the colonists will take.  But he knows what they’ve fled, and he suspects that the respite will be a temporary one, perhaps already vanished after the decades it will take the fleet to return.  So he forges a second message, one with more forceful language, one which could tip the vote in the direction he wants. 

Again, this story is oddly chauvinistic.  The women colonists are kept segregated from the all-male astronauts even to the point of dressing in all-concealing clothing as the women do in some Moslem countries.  That degree of conservatism seems counter to our current prevailing trends.  Nevertheless, I found Bridge compelling.

Part three, And yet so Far, came out in one of the last issues of Fantastic Universe back in October 1959.  I didn’t read it so I missed this story.  In Far, the fleet has arrived at Rustum, but one of the vessels has suffered a catastrophe and now is adrift in the midst of planet’s deadly Van Allen Belts.  Sleeted with radiation, the ship is inaccessible and yet it must be accessed for it carries cargo vital to the colony’s success.  Admiral Nils Kivi refuses to consider a risky salvage mission for many reasons, not the least of which is his innate hostility for colonist Jan Svoboda, politician Svoboda’s son.  But Kivi has a soft spot for Svoboda’s wife, Judith, and Jan is not above using her to manipulate Kivi into coming around.  This is an impactful, bittersweet vignette.  I can’t imagine it being terribly successful without the context of the preceding tales, however.  Moreover, it was published before Bridge, which must have confused hell out of anyone who read both stories.

The final and longest piece, The Mills of the Gods, has not, to my knowledge, appeared in any magazine.  It is set ten years after planetfall.  The three thousand colonists have vastly supplemented their numbers with children born in both the normal fashion and “exogenetically” – from frozen sperm and ova brought along to augment the colony’s limited genetic range.  There is an overt prejudice against the exogenes and a general oppressive conservatism to the colony in general.  In cultural outlook, it feels like something out of the 19th Century (or perhaps the depths of the last decade).  Men run business.  Women tend house.  It is as if the people of Rustum, in their escape from oppression, could think of no alternative to it.  Rather like the Pilgrims seeking freedom from religious intolerance so that they could practice their own peculiar version in the New World. 

At the start of Mills, one of the exogenes, Coffin’s foster son, Danny, runs away from home.  When he is not found on the relatively small mesa that forms the colony’s borders, it is presumed that the youth descended toward sea level, into the thick atmosphere and alien ecology of Rustum’s flatlands.  Only Jan Svoboda is capable of helping Coffin make the trek to rescue Danny, and he must be bribed into it by the colony’s wily mayor, Theron Wolfe.

This was my favorite of the book’s episodes.  Few writers can convey an alien world with both vividity and mundanity like Anderson.  Their journey below the cloud deck into the noxiously dense atmosphere of Rustum was as exciting a travelogue as any Burroughsian tale of Pellucidar or Barsoom, but with the bonus of being scientifically rigorous.  Of course, the emotional interplay between the religious Coffin and the cynical Svoboda formed the heart of the story, without which the scenery would have been pretty but pointless. 

I’m not sure if Anderson had the entire novel in mind when he wrote the first words of Barn or if the concept evolved over time.  There is such a consistency to the themes that I have to believe the skeleton was pre-plotted.  Throughout, there are the recurring instances of what I’d term “selfless manipulation.”  The manipulator never relishes his actions, and it is only hoped that the results will be favorable.  There is never an omniscient viewpoint from which we get the satisfaction that things will go as hoped (though the events of each succeeding story suggest that they did and will). 

Orbit also repeatedly portrays humanity with an inclination toward the reactionary.  Time and again, people must consciously choose to break free of the chains of conservatism, which is never depicted positively.  In this context, the atavistic roles for women make more sense.  Given that, both prior and subsequent to Anderson’s bad period, the author portrayed women quite progressively, I have to think that the theme of sharp gender dichotomy was intentional – i.e. another facet of undesirable conservatism.

I could be entirely wrong, reading into Orbit what Anderson never intended.  It could just be a happy accident that the four stories hang together so well.  I doubt it, however; Anderson has proven to be a highly nuanced writer when he wants to be.  Orbit has something to say, and it speaks with a clear voice throughout. 

It’s worth hearing it out.  3.75 stars.

[May 31, 1961] First from the sun (The planet, Mercury)

For many of us, the motivation for reading science fiction is the opportunity to explore worlds beyond our own.  Only in fantasy can we fly to faraway planets and see the unusual sights they afford us.  But, as I try to convey in this column, science can also reveal places every bit as interesting as the those that are the fruits of imagination. 

For instance, there are eight planets besides the Earth whirling around the sun, each of them a wildly different orb from ours and each other.  Moreover, while we are still on the eve of a new era of observation, utilizing space probes like the recently failed Venera and the ambiguously targeted Pioneer 5, yet the progress of technology has revolutionized even ground-based observation.  Our conception of the planets has evolved significantly in the last half-century (to say nothing of a full century ago).  It boggles the mind to imagine what we might know in another fifty years.

Let me show you these worlds, as we know them today, and as we used to know them.  I’ve written about Venus, and I’ve written about Pluto.  Today is Mercury’s turn.

Mercury was known to the oldest civilizations.  It was named after the swiftest of the Roman gods because, being the closest planet to the sun, it completes its trip around the star in the shortest time.  A hundred years ago, we knew very little about this little world, in large part because it is usually lost in the sun’s glare; from our vantage, Mercury never strays far from its parent star.  We knew its period (year): 88 days.  We had a rotation (day): slightly longer than that of the Earth.  The latter was a guess – it seemed that some vague features could be resolved on Mercury’s tiny disk, and since they did not move much from day to day, it was thought that Mercury’s day must be similar to ours. 

We knew that Mercury has no moon.  This actually makes it harder to determine the size and mass of the planet; luckily, Mercury is occasionally visited by Encke’s comet, on which it exerts a measurable pull.  From that and optical observations, it was guessed that Mercury was just over 3000 miles across, about fifteen times less voluminous.  This made it by far the smallest planet in our solar system.  We knew nothing of the planet’s tilt, and there was speculation that, if the seasons were severe enough, that life might survive at one of Mercury’s poles.  The relative dimness of the planet, even taking into account its size, suggested that it didn’t have much of an atmosphere – at least, not a reflective one. 

And that’s it!  Not a big scientific haul for a planet that was closer to Earth, on average, than Mars.  Even the early science fictioneers had little to say about the planet: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martians knew that Mercury, which they called “Rasoom” was inhabited by an advanced race, but nothing more.

Now we move to the present day…and we still don’t know a whole lot about Mercury!  We do now know that Mercury must be airless or nearly so.  It would be hard for a planet so small to hold onto the energetic gases that make up an atmosphere, particularly a superheated one.  Additionally, whenever Mercury has crossed the disc of the sun, in an event known as a transit, observers have spotted no telltale halo that would betray the existence of air.  The romantic notion that life could exist on the planet seems forever excluded even from the realm of science fiction, though it should be noted that some mid-century polarimetry observations (measuring how sunlight scatters off of things) suggest that there is some Mercurian atmosphere. 

We still don’t know much about the surface of the planet, but it is assumed that it mimics that of Earth’s moon.  It has a similar color, and the difference in the density of light reflecting depends on Mercury’s phase (both of the planets closer to the sun than the Earth exhibit phases, of course – from new, to crescent, gibbous, then full, and back again); this suggests that the planet’s surface is rough.  Imagine giant Mercurian craters, jagged mountains, deep canyons, all more outsized than we generally conceive thanks to Mercury’s light gravity.

And that 24-hour Mercurian day?  Well, there is another rotation scheme that fits the evidence even better.  If Mercury doesn’t rotate at all, presenting one face to the sun at all times, as the moon does to the Earth, this also is consistent with its unvarying surface features over the span of several days.  In fact, given Mercury’s proximity to the great gravitational pull of the sun, it is likely that Mercury is “tidally locked”. 

Thus, one side of the planet is forever being broiled with terrific intensity, hot enough to melt lead!  Then you have the back side that never sees the sun.  It may well be the coldest place in the solar system – even more frigid than faraway Pluto.  Imagine an eternally dark landscape so cold that there could be lakes of hydrogen.  The dimmest of shadows would be cast by the rugged Mercurian mountainscape in the meager Venus-light.  Talk about bleakly exotic!

And at Mercury’s ring of unchanging twilight, perhaps there is a temperate zone where life could yet flourish, especially if there is, though evidence be against it, a measurable atmosphere on the smallest of our solar system’s worlds.  I suppose there may yet be stories to write about the first planet from the sun…