[August 6, 1962] Bookkends (September 1962 IF Worlds of Science Fiction)

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

by Gideon Marcus

It’s a hot, doldrumy summer.  My wife and I are hard at work.  Our daughter has headed to the North for a vacation.  There’s hardly anything in the news but sordid details of the Sol Estes case (if you’ve been living under a rock this whole year, he’s the Texas financier fraudster with dubious dealings with the US Department of Agriculture, not to mention Vice President Johnson). 

About the only item of interest is that the island of Jamaica is finally achieving independence.  I visited the place before the War.  I don’t remember much but lush beauty and friendly people.  The music coming out of the Caribbean is pretty interesting to my ear, too – some post-Calypso stuff including innovative steel drum work and a fledgling new genre that as yet has no name (q.v. Lord Creator and Robert Marley).

So in this languorous time, about the only consistent pasttime I can enjoy, aside from my records, is the ever-growing pile of stf (scientifiction, natch) magazines.  One of the ones I look forward to is IF, which, if it is not always stellar, usually has a few items of interest.  This month, the September 1962 issue has a lot of lousy stories, and editor Pohl cunningly placed the best one in front so as to dull the impact of the sub-par stuff that follows.  But the last tale is a fine reprise of the first, quality-wise.  See if you agree:

The Snowbank Orbit, by Fritz Leiber

A famous author and actor, Leiber’s works often approach sublimity.  This is one of them, combining both beautiful prose and cutting edge science fiction.  Plot in brief: a Mercurian mining vessel, one of Earth’s last remaining spaceworthy ships, is fleeing from an alien armada.  Its only hope for survival is to thrust at maximum acceleration toward the seventh planet, Uranus, and then use the giant planet’s gravity and atmosphere to slow it down and send it back in the direction of Earth.

There are so many interesting components in this tale: a demographically diverse and well-characterized crew, some truly bizarre aliens, a gripping set-up.  The scientific concepts, from the “International Meteor Guard” to the communication via visual light lasers, are both plausible and fresh.  Leiber’s use of color and texture makes for a literary experience yet does not get too self-indulgent.

Orbit is an almost great story.  I’m not sure what keeps it from hitting five stars save for its reminding me a little too much of Heinlein’s Sky Lift.  Nevertheless, it is vivid, it packs a lot into a small space, and the hero is a refreshing departure from the ordinary.  Four stars, and you may rate it higher.

One Million Four Hundred Ninety Two Thousand Six Hundred Thirty Three Marlon Brandos, by Vance Aandahl

Aandahl has accomplished the fannish dream, to be published in one’s teen years.  His work runs to the literary side.  Unfortunately, with the exception of his first published piece, not of his stories break the three-star mark – including this one, about a bored teen girl whose desire to be wooed by the great mumbler momentarily subverts the will of a town’s menfolk.  It’s one of those “cute but doesn’t go anywhere” pieces.  Two stories.

The Winning of the Moon, by Kris Neville

Neville was a brief shining star at the turn of the last decade, right as stf was undergoing its post-War boom.  But the field proved too limiting for the young author’s vision, and now Kris mostly makes a living doing technical writing.  He still dabbles, though.  Moon is a Murphy’s Law tinged tale of lunar colonization, a satire that is grounded just enough in reality to be effective.  Three stars.

And Then There Was Peace, by Gordon R. Dickson

No matter how mechanized war gets, the burden of fighting will always rest on the shoulders of the beleaguered infantryman.  Peace explores the sad fate of a futuristic soldier after the conclusion of hostilities.  Dickson’s explored pacifistic themes before, particularly in his latest novel, Naked to the StarsPeace is mostly a gimmick story though, and if you can’t guess the wallop, then you’re very new to this business.  Two stars.

The Big Headache, by Jim Harmon

I never know what to expect from Jim; he wobbles in quality like a Cepheid Variable…but without the regularity.  In Headache, a pair of scientists develop an anti-migraine drug only to have it turn out to have lobotomizing side effects.  It’s played for laughs, but I only opened my mouth to grimace.  What might have been an effective horror story or cautionary tale Headache is, instead, neither fish nor fowl, and only succeeds in delivering what’s on the tin.  Two stars.

Transient, by William Harris

This is a ghost story, except the haunter is an alien, and the place of haunting is a computer.  It’s a frivolous piece one might expect as one of the lesser entries in any given issue of F&SF, but you may like it more than me.  Two stars.

Once Around Arcturus, by Joseph Green

A futuristic retelling of the Greek myth of Atalanta, the woman who would only be wooed by the suitor who could beat her in competition.  Green, a brand-new writer and employee at NASA, pens a pretty clunky tale.  He almost manages to make it work in the end, though…but then he flubs it.  I suppose if you took out the last paragraph and gave the piece a downer ending, it might be a whole lot better.  Instead, Green cops out with a literary Picardy Third.  Two stars.

World in a Mirror, by Albert Teichner

The universe is full of dangerous symmetry: anti-matter will violently destroy matter with which it comes in contact; a southpaw fencer or pitcher often makes mincemeat of her/his opponent.  And what will our stomachs make of left-handed DNA?  Teichner expects the worst. 

It’s a worthy topic to explore (and, in fact, I’ve speculated on the subject in one of my recent works), but the set-up in World is heavy-handed and doesn’t serve Teichner’s intent.  Two stars.

Just Westing, by Theodore Sturgeon

Writing science articles for the general public, even for an intelligent subsection thereof, is hard.  You have to distill complicated subjects in a way that folks can I understand, and then you have to explain to the readers why they should be interested in what you’re telling them.  Asimov does it effortlessly; Ley did and often still does.  I like to think I’ve gotten consistently good at it.

Sturgeon, brilliant author that he might be, has not.  His summary of the recent Westinghouse catalog of advancements is neither interesting nor particularly comprehensible.  Two stars.

Cultural Exchange, by Keith Laumer

Retief, the much aggrieved Jack of All Trades diplomat/secret agent must thwart a war between Imperial worlds covered up in a cloak of harmless-seeming personnel and equipment transfers.  Retief stories run from the overly broad to the gritty.  This one strikes a nice balance and delightfully plays up the interplay of bureaucracies, something with which Laumer has more than a passing acquaintance.  Four stars, and thank goodness after the string of mediocrity that precedes it.

Taken as a whole, this is a pretty lousy issue – just 2.4 stars.  Plus it’s yet another “stag” mag: no woman authors, virtually no woman characters.  But, if you take just the 35 pages comprising the first and last stories, you’ve got some excellent reading.  Whether that’s worth a penny a page…well, it’s your wallet.

Next up: The Travelers hit the drive-in for The Underwater City!

7 thoughts on “[August 6, 1962] Bookkends (September 1962 IF Worlds of Science Fiction)”

  1. Worth buying, this issue; the book reviews are a nice extra. Sf people are likely to enjoy reading about other civilisations and I hope Peter Farb continues.

    Leiber’s aliens are excellent.  With his talent for conveying solid background and character, I rather hope he goes into historical fiction sometime.

    I do go for Harris’ Transient. A good idea, and from what I have of the story (my copy’s missing the end), very well written.

    To me, Neville’s story is too long, but it’s good work. And good to end the issue on a dessert piece like Laumer’s.

  2. I got halfway through, put it down and promptly forgot to finish it. In fairness, my brain is still recovering from six weeks of 14 hour days, seven days a week. I’ve got to reform some old habits to get all the reading done. Knowing there’s a Retief story at the end should motivate me.

    The Leiber story was excellent. Beautiful, atmospheric. If I have a complaint, it’s that the mystery surrounding the aliens is never really resolved. In lesser hands, it would have been a lot less satisfying.

    The Aandahl was a mess from front to back. It made no sense and had no point. Literally the only thing nice I could find to say about it is that I’m still looking for an opportunity to drop “you goddam logical positivist” into conversation.

    “The Winning of the Moon” was pleasant enough. I’m not sure I buy some of the catastrophic failures, but I’m willing to go along for the ride. Fun fact: apparently, Neville is something of an expert on epoxy resins. You can see where the idea for the story came from.

    The Dickson was utterly predictable. He can do a lot better.

    I did give the letter col a quick glance. It seems we’re getting a new Heinlein in the next ish. The question is can Fred Pohl get the Great Man to write like he used to or are we going to get more turgid didacticism?

    Now off to finish this mag.

    1. Wrapping up: The Harmon was all right, but frankly I found the end rather dark and sinister. A plan to turn people into mindless drones? That’s downright scary. I thought Macklin was going to find the solution to his problem from his childlike fantasies, rather than what we got. I’m not sure the author really thought through all the implications of his tale.

      I disliked “Transient”. Astrology, fortune cookies, astral projection. Bah, humbug!

      I mostly liked “Once Around Arcturus”. It’s true that some of the motivations were implausible and the ending was both abrupt and out of place, but the framework was quite enjoyable. Still, I agree that a downbeat ending would have been better. Green has apparently sold a few more stories, so let’s hope he improves from an already strong start.

      Retief was fun, as usual, though as Victoria notes somewhat obvious this time around. I was also a little put off by the very end. The story may have stood out more due to the anemic fare that preceded it. I’d call it a solid 3.5, but good enough to round up to 4.

      And Fred Pohl’s certainly got me looking forward to the November issue. Anderson, Laumer AND the start of a Heinlein novel. Plus his pledge to run a first sale in every issue for as long as he can. I can hardly wait.

      1. With regard to the end of the Retief, I assume you’re talking about the “prize” of the grape-stomping contest.

        That caught me flatfooted, too, but there’s no indication that she wasn’t there of her own desire.  I squinted my eyes and conformed the story to my sensibilities.  But you’re right — more agency on her part could have been communicated.

        In my mind, she was 36 (as opposed to 18) and the “prize” line was a flirtatious quip.

  3. The Leiber was very good indeed.  If I have any complaint at all, I wish it were longer.  The end was a bit sudden.  Otherwise, excellently written, imaginative, and believable.

    The Aandahl was certainly weird enough, but it didn’t go anywhere.  An eccentric shaggy dog story.

    The Neville read almost like a parody of an Analog problem story.  Pleasant enough, if trivial.

    The Dickson was OK.  Short enough for the minor idea.

    The Harmon had a fairly interesting idea, but so-so execution.

    The Harris was odd, to say the least.  Not much point to it I could see.

    The Green didn’t grab me.  The aliens were way too human, for one thing, and the contest wasn’t that interesting.

    The Teichner was also rather drab and a one idea story.

    I can’t share your enthusiasm for the Laumer.  The problem Retief faces was obvious.

    So, as far as I was concerned it was one very good story and a bunch of mediocre ones.  At least it’s good to see a lot of short stories in an issue instead of a long novella or serial.

  4. ‘The Snowbank Orbit’! Remember it well, and also this cover. Leiber’s story is a rare case of Uranus getting front and center in an SF story. Wonderful to see this issue considered here, as I can remember it arriving in my mailbox.

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