[April 21, 1960] Roads not taken (May 1960 IF)

If there’s anything this month’s IF, Science Fiction proves, it’s that you get what you pay for.

Last year, Galaxy editor, H. L. Gold, cut story rates in half to 2 cents a word.  Shortly thereafter, he took over the helm of the promising but unsuccessful digest, IF.  Its quality has been in steady decline ever since, and I can only imagine that he pays IF writers even less.

IF‘s name is ironic.  Under the stewardship of Damon Knight, it had a short-lived renaissance culminating in the February 1959 issue.  Had this continued, IF might be the leader of the current, heavily winnowed, crop of science fiction digests.  Alas, such a history can only be contemplated, never directly perceived.

Why all the doom and gloom?  The May 1960 IF is definitely the worst issue I’ve read to date.  While not unmitigatedly bad, it never rises above the passable.  In detail:

Chris Anvil’s lead novella, The Tourist Named Death is a bland and amateurishly written interplanetary spy romp with lots of action but little depth.  It is written in a style I like to call sequential: “Bob did this.  Then he did that.  He saw this and reacted like this.  Then he did that.”  I’d think that, by now, Mr. Anvil would have matured past this level of ability.  But, perhaps for a penny a word, he doesn’t much care to apply himself.

James Bell is a brand-new author whose Freshman effort, Thirty Degrees Cattywonkus, is barely passable.  A fellow, upon exploring his new house,discovers that a parallel dimension is impinging on his, but not quite orthogonally.  The promising premise degenerates quickly.  Maybe next time.

Then you’ve got When Day is Done by part-time minor-leaguer, Arnold Castle.  The story, about businessmen who engage in simulated big-game hunting after work, would be an interesting first chapter to a longer tale, but as a stand-alone, there just isn’t enough there.

C.C. MacApp is another greenhorn whose first-ever story is A Pride of Islands.  I had trouble following this story, perhaps because it failed to ever engage me, but I believe it is about the descendants of a wrecked spaceship crew who have reverted to savagery.

Now, to leaven my harshness, I will say that it’s great that Gold (and his executive officer for IF, Fred Pohl) are giving new authors a chance.  With the folding of so many science fiction digests in the last decade, the authors of tomorrow have had precious few venues in which to hone their craft. 

I just wish they’d hurry up and get better…

The first solid story of the issue comes from the reasonably consistent Philip Jose FarmerHEEL is basically Homer’s Illiad with a science fiction twist: the Gods are really interstellar television producers filming a decade-long epic.  The Greeks and Trojans are just hapless pawns dancing to the tune of a Director they know only as Zeus.

by Virgil Finlay

It’s a cute concept, and as I’m currently rereading the plays of Aeschylus, I’m particularly receptive to classically themed works.  On the other hand, there is a dashed-off feeling to the story.  I don’t think Farmer strained himself putting this one together.

Back to the crop of new authors, A.M.Lightner’s (Alice Martha) first story (I believe) is A Good Day for the Irish.  A Terran entomologist (a refreshingly female protagonist) emigrates to a paradisical colony only to find it in the midst of a terrible blight.  Could the cure be the very infestations she had been enlisted to prevent?  This is another story that might have benefited from greater length. 

Finally, we have Charles Fontenay’s novelette, Matchmaker.  It is an engaging, if unremarkable, piece about the extreme measures to which a government will resort to ensure the computer-ordered union of two otherwise unfated individuals.  On a side note, I liked the vacuum-powered letter delivery systems.  I can imagine such systems being commonplace in the near future.

Thus, the May 1960 IF ends on a stronger note than it began, but all told, it’s a pretty unimpressive magazine.  I’ll keep my subscription, of course.  There is precious little out there right now, and perhaps things will get better.  Hope springs eternal.

See you soon, and if you have any opinions on these pieces, whether or not they are in line with mine, please drop me a line.  I welcome all comments.

16 thoughts on “[April 21, 1960] Roads not taken (May 1960 IF)”

  1. Maybe it’s just your description, but that Bell story sounds an awful lot like “And He Built a Crooked House” by Heinlein. If you’re going to steal from a master, you’d better be damn good at it. Doesn’t sound like this is.

  2. Oh, it’s definitely not Crooked House (which is an excellent story–I recently read it to my 10-year old, and she enjoyed it.  Then she went on to love The Menace from Earth).

    You can try reading it.  It’s not long, and it’s not awful.  And who knows if Mr. Bell will ever write again….

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Found this recently and am enjoying it. I have — and have dragged around with me for years — issues of Analog (and its early incarnation, Astounding) from the early 50s to the (I think) late 70s/early 80s. If you’re interested in some supplementary posts, let me know.

    1. Mr. Webster, I would be delighted if you’d add your commentary to my posts and, if you are interested in making a guest contribution to the column, that would be wonderful as well (Rosemary Benton did so a few months ago.) Send me a private letter regarding same, if you would.

      Where possible, I provide readable copies of the works I review (for instance, the May 1960 IF), so feel free to read these, as well, and comment at your leisure.

      Welcome to Galactic Journey!

  4. “A Tourist Named Death” didn’t appeal to me.  I always have trouble with these alien worlds, inhabited by all-too-human beings, which differ from good old Earth only in one relevant way.  I was almost willing to give it a chance, however, and wait for the author to reveal the planet’s big secret (which turned out to be not very interesting anyway) until the goofy ape battle sequence, which came out of nowhere.

  5. “Thirty Degrees Cattywonkus” held the promise of being an interesting “what is reality” story, but it quickly sputtered out into an obvious ending.

    You hit the nail right on the head about “When Day is Done.”  I like this kind of near future satiric social SF (the kind of thing I expect from “Galaxy.”) The style was a bit plain, but I appreciated the “take the future for granted” tone of the story.  I also liked some of the small details, such as the fact that the robot animals become safe playthings for the kiddies on weekends.  When I reached the end, I felt like I had taken a ten meter walk on a nine meter pier.

    I wanted to know more about the “Ulcer Free” and other clans.  I wanted to see how they interacted in the “jungle.”  I wanted to learn more about the kind of society that came up with this form of “therapy.” 

    Pohl and his late writing partner Kornbluth would have done a lot more with this concept.

  6. Precisely, Victoria.  I’m noting that the new writers tend to write stories that would have been at home in Imagination circa 1953.  They are inadequate for the “big-pants” magazines…

  7. “A Pride of Islands” was mediocre.  Not terrible, not great.  It held my attention, wasn’t too long or too short (although the ending was a bit rushed), but wasn’t terribly memorable or original.  The final punchline about the bite was a bit too silly for my taste, but I’ll admit I was amused by the “demon” (since I live with a houseful of them myself.)

  8. “Heel” was an interesting concept, with perhaps a bit of satire intended about Hollywood historical epics like “Ben-Hur.”  The way in which the unsuspecting Greeks and Trojans were manipulated by their “gods” might be seen as an extrapolation of the recent quiz show scandal (see Robert Sheckley’s excellent story “The Prize of Peril”) into something we might call (for lack of a better term) “reality television.”  I enjoyed it, even if it was a bit thin (and I suspect Farmer wrote it just to make the “heel” pun.)

    “A Good Day for the Irish” was OK.  The Irish stuff was laid on a little thick, and it was an incredible stroke of luck that the golden nematodes just happened to be the cure for the planet’s plague.  (It would have been more effective if the two protagonists had worked together to make the nematodes into the cure through some kind of futuristic “biological engineering.”)

  9. “Matchmaker” was a decent story, if not a classic.  I might quibble with some of the plausibility (there should be much bigger changes in society with such a lopsided sex ratio) but it was clever enough.  Unlike the other stories in this issue, it was neither too short nor too long.  As I said before, it’s the kind of “Galaxy”-style sociological speculation I enjoy.

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