by Gideon Marcus
Everyone who writes has got an agenda, but Science fiction writers may be the most opinionated of authors. That’s because their pigeon involves prediction, which in turn, is a personal interpretation of current trends. They can’t help but express their own biases in their work. And so we have Robert Heinlein and his penchant for plugging love of cats, libertarianism, and nudism (not necessarily in that order!). Dr. Asimov denounces anti-scientific themes in his works. It is no secret that I advocate for the equal representation of women and minorities.
John W. Campbell, editor of the monthly science fiction digest, Analog, is a big fan of psi – the ability of the human mind to alter matter.
Psi is one of those “pseudo-sciences.” To date, I don’t think there has been a scrap of compelling research as to the existence of ESP or telepathy or precognition, save in the parlors of the less reputable carnivals. Yet it can make for interesting storytelling, a sort of modern magic. I don’t mind it so much in my stories, any more than I mind Faster than Light space travel, which is just as baseless.
That said, Campbell, who has more power projection than a single writer, is a psi fanatic. It’s rare that an issue of Analog appears without at least one psi-related story, and most have several.
Like this month’s, the September 1961 issue:
I’ll skip over part 1 of Harry Harrison’s serial, Sense of Obligation, saving its review for after its completion. That brings us to Donald Westlake’s short They Also Serve. If you read Asimov’s The Gentle Vultures, about a bunch of pacifist aliens patiently waiting for humanity to blow itself up so that they could take up residence on our planet, then you’ve essentially read Westlake’s story. It’s exactly the same plot. Convergent evolution or recycling? One star.
Up next is a novella by an unlikely duo: The Blaze of Noon by Randall Garrett and Avram Davidson. My disdain for the former is well documented, but I have also noted that, when he writes with a buddy, the results are often pretty good. Set in the far future, after an intragalactic civil war has left Earth’s outer colonies unvisited for three centuries, Blaze chronicles the attempts of a fellow named Tad to build a teleportation grid on the backward world of Hogarth. Said planet was a metal-poor pleasure planet 300 years ago, and it has since regressed to rough feudalism. The reasoning behind making Hogarth the first world to bring back into the fold is that, if reconnection can be accomplished under the least favorable of conditions, it can be done anywhere.
Teleportation grids require metal. As all of Hogarth’s warlords jealously guard their own meager hoards, Tad must resort to refining magnesium and sodium from seawater, a tedious process that takes the better part of a year. During the grid’s construction, pressure builds up between the area’s political factions, each wanting control of the build site and its increasing trove of precious metal. On the eve of the grid’s completion, a struggle breaks out, and lusty warriors cleave into the grid’s magnesium-clad sodium beams with stone implements, attempting to steal pieces. During a rainstorm. The result is a chemical inferno that devours the grid and its assailants.
A decidedly downbeat ending is averted when the head of the local Barons, who foresaw the grid’s greed-fueled destruction, celebrates the fiery death of the most avaricious nobles. Now, he believes, the stage is set for the more level-headed nobles to give up their stores of iron for the building a proper grid, one that can help everyone.
It’s a good story. I particularly liked that Tad is unable to maintain his smug disdain for the provincial Hogarthians (which might have been the case in other stories appearing in Analog; Campbell likes his smug). One aspect of Blaze I found puzzling, however. Throughout the story, there is absolutely no mention of any women. Not a single one. To write forty pages of prose, involving a cast of thousands, and not portray a single female requires serious dedication. Perhaps this is not misogyny but an actual prediction – in the future, humans will reproduce via a masculine form of parthenogenesis? Four stars.
(Sadly, this is the one story in this issue on which I have been unable to secure reprinting rights. I am in contact with the author, and I will notify you if and when this change. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for its anthologizing, though there is no guarantee you will live to see it…
Captain H.C. Dudley is back with a science fact article, Scientific Break-throughs. Unlike Dudley’s last one, which was rather crack-pot, his latest is a genuinely interesting piece on the myriad sub-atomic particles that have been discovered in the last decade. Beyond electronics, neutrons, and protons, there are even smaller neutrinos and mesons and who knows what else. There may well be no end to the layers of atomic structure, at least until we get to the turtles. Three stars.
I promised psi, and the last third of the magazine delivers. Walter Bupp returns with Modus Vivendi, a continuation of his previous stories set in a future where a neutron bomb blast has caused the birth of hundreds of “Stigmatized” or psi-endowed people. I like Bupp’s take on the societal factors that stem from having a sub-race of different, superior humans; I appreciate the parallels he draws with our current inequality issues; I’ve enjoyed Bupp’s stories in the past. However, something about the writing on this one, a bit too consciously colloquial, made Modus tough sledding. Two stars.
Finally, there is Darell T. Langart (Randy Garrett, again) and his Fifty Per Cent Prophet. This is also a sequel, featuring The Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research: an agency of psi enthusiast kooks with a secret, truly psionic society within. Prophet is about a parlor prognosticator who turns out to have a true touch of second sight. The story’s first few pages, told from the point of view of the not-quite-sham, suggest we might be treated to a nuanced character study. Sadly, Garrett abandons the clairvoyant for his more typical omniscient and (Campbell’s favorite) smug style.
I wonder if Davidson wrote Prophet’s beginning. Two stars.
I’m not a psychic, but I’m willing to make a prediction about the October 1961 Analog: It’ll be another middlin’ quality issue, and it will feature at least one story about psionics. Anyone want to take that bet?