[November 3, 1962] A Plague of Purple (December 1962 Galaxy)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

A plague has invaded the galaxy.

Well, more specifically, a plague has invaded Galaxy, as evidenced in the December 1962 issue.

It has become de riguer at my former favorite magazine, that of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to print “funny” literary stories.  Tediously amusing, dully droll, laden with parenthetical (uselessly so) clauses — and hyphenated articulations, sometimes “quoted” for extra sardonicism.  And did I mention the extra verbiage?  These magazines pay three cents per word, you know.

An author will not impress me with her/his command of the typewriter keys beyond the 36 letters and numerals, nor with an arcane talent for stringing comma-connected clauses unbroken across a paragraph.  I want a plot, compelling characters, and for God’s Sake, science in my science fiction.  I have nothing against humor.  The likes of Sheckley and (for the most part) Lafferty make me smile just fine.  I’ve nothing against avant garde prose — viz. the incomparable Cordwainer Smith.

No, what drives me crazy is the supremely affected garbage that is shouldering aside honest fiction.  Am I the only one who hates this stuff?  I’m not asking for a return to the mediocre gotcha tales starring James McAnglo-Saxon that larded the surplus of digest in the 50s (and which still regularly appear in Analog.) I just want good, readable stories with reasonable extrapolations of technology populated by genuine human beings…or plausible aliens (I’m no xenophobe.)

Read on, at your own risk.  There’s precious little to enjoy in this month’s issue, save for the second part of Pohl’s serial (the change in tone may give you whiplash) and the rather pedestrian nonfiction articles.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And if you actually like this stuff, well, it’s a free country. 

The Creature from Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

From the first few run-on lines, I knew I was in for a slog.  The once-brilliant Leiber, the fellow who gave us A Pail of Air, has this satirical(?) piece on little computerized calendar/memo-minders that eventually take over the world.  I gave up about halfway through, skimming just enough to confirm that I’d accurately guessed where the story was going.  I’m sure some will absolutely love it; it’s certainly a popular style these days.  Not for me, though.  One star.

Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns, by Avram Davidson

Having poured myself a stiff drink in reward for having made it through the opening novella, my moment of self-congratulation was shattered as I espied the byline of the next piece.  Davidson is the poster child for excellence gone to the prolix weeds.  Sure enough, this piece, ostensibly about earthworms and aliens, is possibly his worst offender yet.  One star.

Droozle, by Frank Banta

Oh look.  A pun-filled story about a sentient fountain pen.  At least it’s short.  One star.

Pluto, Doorway to the Stars, by George Peterson Field

A brief respite.  Field (who is he?) proposes a most unorthodox justification for Pluto’s most unexpected massiveness — it’s actually a gravitational slingshot for alien starships!  Of course, the ninth “planet” probably isn’t that massive, at least according to the astrophysical journals I read.  Three stars for imagination, and because the preceding stories left me with an overstock of stars.

General Max Shorter, by Kris Neville

This is supposed to be a brooding piece from the point of view of a hidebound officer who commits genocide, not out of malice, but stolid adherence to orders and routine.  Instead, it’s a plodding, overwrought story with all the seams showing.  Two stars.

Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas, by R. A. Lafferty

I can usually count on Lafferty to successfully deliver a mirthful tale.  This time, though, he simply fails.  Maybe I was just fatigued from too much of its ilk earlier in the book.  Or maybe his story of a befuddled census-taker who finds a community of Lilliputians in rural Texas just ain’t very good.  Two stars. 

The Glory of Ippling, by Helen M. Urban

I vaguely remember Helen Urban from the magazines many years ago.  I’m afraid her most recent story will not make any new fans.  I couldn’t even tell you what this piece was about — my brain was just too addled from its much of muchness with what preceded it.  One star.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

One of the few rocket scientists from Germany who was never a National Socialist, Willy Ley always turns in a decent article.  This one is on the progress that has been and is being made in the field of space stations.  Ley assures us that, while orbiting stations may not yet be in the headlines, they are certainly under development.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 2 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

Last ish, we learned that the end of civilization, brought about by the selective and destructive possession of people, was actually the work of a group of Soviet dissident scientists.  Drunk on power, they wrought a holocaust beyond the scope (if not the dreams) of even the most ardent Nazi.  Apart from the decaying and isolated millions left in the world, the community of a few hundred gold-circleted “execs” now lives on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, waited upon by 10,000 slaves made marionettes by the psychic coronets of their masters.

Chandler is our viewpoint character, a fellow “rescued” at the brink of execution for hoaxing a possession to commit depraved acts (but he really was a puppet at the time).  He finds himself in Oahu being put to work on a back-up psi generator, one that will assure his overlords eternal power.  People die around him right and left: used up, punished for petty reasons, slaughtered for attempted sedition.  Only the constant love of one of the execs keeps him alive until he has the opportunity to strike back at the masters.

This is such a hard piece to gauge.  It is an expertly written page turner.  The subject matter is extremely difficult stuff, though.  If the world hadn’t witnessed similar horrors just a couple of decades ago (e.g. Germany), I’d say it was a gratuitous exaggeration.  Part of the problem with the book is that Chandler simply doesn’t have much agency (which, to be fair, is rather the point).  Every spark of hope is quenched.  Every attempt to hatch a plan is squelched in the most brutal way.  Only happenstance saves him in the end, an event one can predict fairly early on.  Chandler views this horror world but barely interacts with it.  The result is a vivid, disturbing, fascinating tour of hell.  Four stars, if you can stomach it.

And that’s that.  90 worthy pages, mostly at the end, out of 196.  I sincerely hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.  Otherwise, I shall have to join the bandwagon of those who say that science fiction truly is on the decline.

Speaking of which, see you in a few days with a look at Philip K. Dick’s first sf book in several years.