[April 10, 1962] All the Difference (May 1962 IF Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

The measure of a story’s quality, good or bad, is how well it sticks in your memory.  The sublime and the stinkers are told and retold, the mediocre just fades away.  If you ever wonder how I rate the science fiction I read, memorability is a big component. 

This month’s IF has some real winners, and even the three-star stories have something to recommend them.  For the first time, I see a glimpse of the greatness that almost was under Damon Knight’s tenure back in 1959.  Read on, and perhaps you’ll agree.

Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain, by Keith Laumer

Laumer continues to improve in his tales of the omni-capable diplomat hamstrung by the flounderings of a sub-capable bureaucracy.  In this story, Retief is dispatched to make peace between the settlers of a new colony, and a band of aliens that has recently popped onto the scene.  Comedy is hard to write, and it’s harder (but more rewarding) to anchor humor to a serious backbone.  There are some genuinely funny moments in Mountain, and it’s also a good story.  Four stars.

The Spy, by Theodore L. Thomas

An extraterrestrial (but human) reincarnation of Nathan Hale is captured by musket-bearing folk and tried for espionage.  I enjoyed it well-enough at the time, but the ending sat poorly.  There’s just not enough to this piece.  Two stars.

Death and Taxes, by H. A. Hartzell

I really enjoyed this fanciful tale of a beneficent sea-captain’s ghost, the impoverished artist he comes to haunt (or perhaps, “with whom he cohabitates” is more appropriate, and the lady who is the object of the artist’s affections.  It’s Lafferty-esque, a little bit disjointed but a lot of fun.  I’ve never heard of Hartzell before, so s/he is either a promising novice or a slumming veteran.  Four stars.


Misrule, by Robert Scott

Politics is a chaotic game.  Strikes, protests, riots – these can really throw a wrench into the workings of government.  What if you could do away with all that?  Subvert all the anti-government feelings into one quadrennial orgy of rapine and destruction, a blowing off a steam that keeps things quiet for another four years?  Scott’s tale isn’t particularly plausible, but it is vivid.  Three stars.

Deadly Game, by Edward Wellen

This is a weird Isle of Dr. Moreau-type tale about a park ranger who engineers his charges to be vicious guerrillas, making the animals sentient masters of their own fate.  Another well-told story that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Three stars.

The Hoplite, by Richard Sheridan

In the far future, flesh is not enough to withstand the rigors of war.  One solution is to surround the warriors in an exo-skeleton of metal, the other…well, you’ll have to read to find out what can resist a steel humanoid goliath.  Evocative but somehow hollow.  Three stars.

The 64-Square Madhouse, by Fritz Leiber

Some science fiction stories are so imaginative yet so plausible that you can be convinced that you are seeing the future.  Leiber’s tale depicts a chess tournament that takes place on the eve of the time when computers become good enough at the game to beat the best Grandmasters.  This is not some staid Robot vs. Man tale, but a cunning extrapolation of the current state of the art in cybernetic chess to a few decades into the future.  Add to it a cast of well-drawn characters and a multi-peak story arc, and you’ve got a story that will likely be referenced by name the day fiction becomes reality.  Five stars, and bravo.


Gramp, by Charles. V. DeVet

The gift of telepathy is a double-edged sword, as one boy soon discovers.  DeVet does a good job of capturing a youth’s voice, and he’s no stranger to sensitive stories.  Would make a decent The Twilight Zone episode, perhaps.  Three stars.

The Other IF, by Theodore Sturgeon

Ted Sturgeon’s non-fiction piece is about an IF magazine that never was.  Apparently, Sturgeon has wanted to have his own magazine since the War Years.  The digest he conceived, which he planned to call IF, would have exclusively published “If this goes on” stories: short-term predictions turned into plausible stories.  He concludes his non-fiction account of the IF that never was with a few guesses of his own – since he wrote the article in December, their accuracy is already a matter of record.  He then invites you, the reader, to make your own and send them in. 

Do you have any hunches on what’s in store for this Summer?

(Three stars)

The Expendables, by Jim Harmon

Harmon can always be counted on to provide readable fiction.  In this case, we have a droll story about the man who invents the perfect garbage disposal…but can the Laws of Thermodynamics be so easily beaten?  Or the Mafia?  The FBI?  My favorite line, “My opinion as to the type of person who followed the pages of science-fiction magazines with fluttering lips and tracing finger were upheld.”  Three stars.


Added up, that puts us at 3.4 for the month, a respectable score for what used to be one of the lesser mags, and it was worth it just for the Leiber.  A host of interesting, implausible stories, and one humdinger of a plausible one.  I guess I’ll just have to renew my subscription to this promising digest.  Good on you, Editor Fred Pohl!

12 thoughts on “[April 10, 1962] All the Difference (May 1962 IF Science Fiction)”

  1. Definitely a worth while issue. I expect the Leiber to be reissued in every chess anthology for the next fifty years.

    My own pick would be DeVet’s. I’m not sure about television, since the strong punch line would be lost.

    Like DeVet, Hartzell does very well where most authors would flop. Delightful!

    I agree about the Retief being a good one. Hope he keeps this level. The Wellen was a good idea, but personally I’d have preferred it shorter, or the writing more solid.

    The Thomas made me cringe.

    For my guess..surely music has gone as pop as it can go; and we’ll soon see a reaction into classical?

    1. I liked the DeVet.  Somehow, I didn’t love it, but I understand why you do.

      The Wellen was pretty short as it is… but it does chop from vivid imagery to exposition (a la Lovecraft).  I suppose it could have been a three page Davidson story and been better for it (provided it was 1958 vintage Davidson, and not 1962…proving to be a bad year!)

      You may have something about that classical music bit — I know at least one pundit has observed that “guitar music is dead.”

      In the words of Jose Jimenez, “Oh, I hope not…”

  2. I think it’s safe to say that Fred Pohl has righted the ship. With any luck he’ll raise circulation and finally be able to pay proper rates again some day.

    Retief, as you say, continues to improve. Laumer has a better handle on story-telling (hard to imagine his first sale was only 3 years ago!). He’s going places. Also, I’m more and more convinced that Retief actually works for some intelligence agency and gets sent to hot spots around the galaxy to clear up the messes caused by the diplomats.

    “The Spy” mostly left me fuddled. The pieces just don’t all fit together to make a coherent picture. The US seems to have fallen apart, but that has little relevance to the protagonist’s actual motivations.

    The Hartzell was cute and enjoyable. You saw Lafferty, I saw Avram Davidson.

    “Misrule” was interesting, but I think it might have been in better hands with Mack Reynolds or maybe Bob Sheckley.

    The Wellen had a dreamlike quality to its style. I’m not sure if it enhanced or inhibited the story in general.

    “The Hoplite” took me too long to immerse myself in. There’s a solid story there, but the execution missed the mark. Had a strong Dickson influence, too, it seems to me.

    Oh, the Leiber. What a fabulous story. Deserves to be on the Hugo ballot next year. Leiber knows his chess, that’s for sure. (Didn’t he have a story recently where somebody hustled chess to make money?) I’m guessing that Willy Angler is a stand-in for American grandmaster Bobby Fischer. Most folks probably haven’t heard of him, though he did gain a bit of notoriety when he earned his title. He’s still not old enough to vote and is barely able to drink in some states and not at all in others.

    The deVet was another fine tale (though anything coming after the Leiber was going to suffer in comparison). I might even give this one 4 stars.

    The Harmon was another enjoyable tale, that again I might have liked better if I weren’t still comparing everything to Leiber’s story. These “It’s not my fault” stories feel like they’re turning into their own subgenre.

    As for predictions, Sturgeon’s time frame is so short. But I’ll latch on to his prediction of plunging necklines and suggest that hemlines are going to go up even further this summer.

      1. That’s a good question. He’s been writing suspense novels of late. I suppose it pays better, though not as well as those books they keep under the counter only in some bookstores, which some other SF writers have turned their hand to. I hope he hasn’t abandoned the genre for good.

  3. “Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain” was OK, nothing special.  I can take the character at short lengths like this, but in longer stories he gets to be a bit much.

    “The Spy” depends entirely on its punchline.  At least it’s very short.

    “Death and Taxes” was a pleasant, if silly, bit of fluff.  Good to see some fantasy in the magazine.

    “Misrule” was the kind of satiric, if not very plausible, look at a nightmare society that used to show up in Galaxy a lot.  A decent example of the kind.

    “Deadly Game” was pretty powerful, I thought, even though you have to be willing to get into the mind of a true misanthrope.

    “The Hoplite” showed some imagination, although I’m not sure there was much point beyond “war is hell.”

    “The 64-Square Madhouse” is, as we all seem to agree, the gem of the issue.  Well written and characterized, plausible, and always interesting.

    “Gramp” was an OK tearjerker, if I didn’t really buy the title character’s change of heart at the end.

    “The Expendables” was another wacky gizmo farce, and not particularly distinguished as such.

    So, besides the Leiber, as I would describe this issue as fair-to-middling.

  4. I let my subscription expire due to lack of interest, so I guess I’ll have to pick this one up just for the Retief story.  Laumer has hit a home run with everything I’ve read so far.

    I never was fond of Sturgeon or Leiber, and particularly not Sturgeon after trying one of his recent novels.  I don’t recall ever having heard of any of the other authors.

  5. Jim Harmon lives in the Pohl-iverse, so if you don’t visit often, you won’t know him.  Theodore Thomas and Charles V DeVet have been around a while — the latter has produced some good stuff.

    I am interested to hear if this latest story does not endear Leiber to you.  As for Sturgeon, well, 90% of everything he writes is bad Sturgeon, right?

  6. “I am interested to hear if this latest story does not endear Leiber to you.  As for Sturgeon, well, 90% of everything he writes is bad Sturgeon, right?”

    I still remember at Pittcon, 2 years ago, as a wet behind the ears 19 year old marveling at Ted Sturgeon leading a group of Beat Generation fans in the lobby dead dog day , in filk singing.  Ted seemed like a holy man leading his flock.

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