All posts by GalacticJourney

Exploring the ground (7-22-1959)

Just a quick stop-press today while I wait for the new magazines to come in.  Apparently, NASA tried another satellite launch last week on the 16th.  A Juno II rocket, which is a modified Jupiter Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missile, had the latest in the Explorer series installed at its tip.  Weighing 42 kilograms (that’s 92.4 pounds for the metrically uninitiated), it looked a bit like a bigger Pioneer 1–two truncated cones welded together at their base. 

As might be expected from the choice of booster, it’s a product of Von Braun’s Alabama Army-sponsored team (which, rumor has it, may well be folded into NASA proper soon).

Its instrument complement was pretty standard stuff: geiger counters, x-ray detectors, micrometeoroid plates, thermometers.  What makes this craft special are the solar power elements built into the design; the probe was built to provide long-term measurements of cosmic radiation and the Earth’s heat balance. 

Sadly, the rocket lost power to its guidance system immediately after launch, and the thing started to spin in a wide, dangerous ark.  A range controller detonated the booster just 5 and a half seconds into the flight.  Too late for the Fourth of July, and I doubt the scientists were pleased.

I understand that the next flight of the package is scheduled for October.  My fingers are crossed, but I understand NASA is planning an Air Force-contracted shot next month, and that probe, made by my friends at Space Technology Laboratories, may well include all of the same instruments and more.

Thus, the Space Race continues domestically as well as abroad.  Nothing like good ol’ fashioned American competition to keep the satellite makers on their toes! 
See you soon!

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Flawed jewel(s) (August 1959 Astounding, last part; 7-21-1959)

Before I finish my review of the August 1959 Astounding, let’s look at the issue’s “Analytical Laboratory” and what the readers thought of the May 1959 ish (and compare it to my findings).

Interestingly enough, no story got higher than a 3.00, which means the readers had trouble picking a favorite.  That indicates a good issue or a bad one.  Garrett’s mediocre Cum Grano Salis got top ratings followed by the first installment of Dorsai!, then the charming Hex and Project Haystack.  I suppose that’s as good an order as any.  One might as well throw a dart at the wall.

The August issue, on the other hand, has clear strong and weak points.  Newcomer Anne Walker’s A Matter of Proportion is one of the strong points.  Her tale about a super-competent commando, who was once a paraplegic is gripping.  Anyone who can write about the ascent of a flight of stairs with the same tension and excitement of a daring assault on an enemy base has done an excellent job.  An interesting, sensitive story.

The following tale, Familiar Pattern, is so obviously a Chandler piece under a pseudonym (George Whitely), that one wonders why the ruse was even attempted.  To wit, it involves an Australian coast guard ship (Chandler is a former Australian naval officer), and one of the characters shares a name with a character in The Outsiders, which came out in the same issue!

Now, I like Chandler, but this story is only decent.  Aliens come to Earth to set up a trading mission, manufacture a diplomatic incident, and use said event as a pretext to invade.  It’s a metaphor for what the Europeans did to the Polynesians; I appreciate the sentiment, and I am amazed it could appear in the xenophobic pages of Astounding, but the allegory is a bit too precise and heavy-handed to be effective. 

Lastly, there is Theodore L. Thomas, whose Day of Succession is, as Orwell might say, rather un-good.  Aliens land on Earth, and their ships are dispatched with cold-blooded efficiency by an American general.  The officer is recalled to Washington and chastised for his bloodthirstiness, but is soon proven right when more aliens appear and wreak havoc (I wonder why they would be hostile after such a warm welcome!) The general advises a nuclear strike on the entire Eastern seaboard to defeat the incursion.  When the President and Vice President disagree, the general shoots them and requests that the Speaker of the House adopt the officer’s plan.
I didn’t really understand it either. 

The book finishes off with P. Schuyler Miller (a self-professed Conservative from North-Eastern United States) lamenting the death of science fiction, again.  We’ll see.  This seems to happen every five years.

So where does this issue end up in the ratings?  Well, I’d had high hopes.  Aliens was a five-star story, and Outsiders and Proportion were both quite good.  But Pattern was average fare, Succession was sub-par, and the Garrett was soporific.  The non-fiction “article” was also pretty bad.

All told, the issue clocks in at a “3,” which is actually admirable for Astounding.  Read it for the good stories, eschew the rest, and you won’t be disappointed!

In two days, the Explorer that wasn’t.

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Bad History Repeats (August 1959 Astounding, second part; 7-18-1959)

All right, all right.  There is no putting off at least an initial review of this month’s Astounding.  Actually, I’m more than half done, but I covered The Aliens earlier, so there was much reading to do to have anything of substance to report.

Randall Garrett’s Dead Giveaway literally put me to sleep several times before I was able to finish it.  The premise isn’t so bad, though it is quite hoary: humanity finds a long lost alien civilization whose technologies seem to dovetail perfectly with our own.  A bunch of eggheads (male, white, of course) determine that the abandoned city is actually a gift designed to give us a leg up.  It is also a test—do we have the ability, as a species, to accept the help?

This is discussed in one of the more ludicrous paragraphs ever written by Randy (and there is much competition):

Scholar Duckworth said: “It takes a great deal of humility—a real feeling of honest humility—to admit that one is actually inferior to someone—or something—else. Most people don’t have it—they rebel because they can’t admit their inferiority.”

“Like the examples of the North American Amerindian tribes.” Turnbull said. “They hadn’t reached the state of civilization that the Aztecs or Incas had. They were incapable of allowing themselves to be beaten and enslaved—they refused to allow themselves to learn. They fought the white man to the last ditch—and look where they ended up.”

“Precisely,” said Duckworth. “While the Mexicans and Peruvians today are a functioning part of civilization—because they could and did learn.”

“I’d just as soon the human race didn’t go the way of the Amerindians,” Turnbull said.

I’m reasonably certain that this is not how history went in the Americas.  If I’m not mistaken, the native Mexicans and Peruvians were devastated and supplanted by an imported European aristocracy.  Sure, they didn’t end up on reservations, but it is also disingenuous to suggest that they gratefully accepted European wisdom and, as a result, are better off than their impoverished North American counterparts (who had the temerity to, you know, fight for their lives).

I was going to give this story two stars, but upon reflection, I think it belongs at the bottom of the ash heap.  Which is too bad, because it is sandwiched between two quite good tales.

Which brings us to The Outsiders, the second of the Rim stories by A. Bertram Chandler.  It is a direct sequel to To Run The Rim, about the adventures of a pack of oddball space traders on the edge of the galaxy.  And it’s well worth reading.  In the last tale, Calvert and his band of misfits saved an interstellar liner and secured a tidy reward.  In The Outsiders, the crew buys its own ship and attempts operation as an independent concern.  I was happy to see that the ship’s complement is half-female by the end, all of them competent, hardened spacers.

Of course, for Calvert the dreamer, a hardscrabble life of tramp spacing isn’t enough.  Instead, he wants to chase legends of alien ghost ships floating Outside in the vast emptiness of intergalactic space.  Following a hot lead, he and his crew ultimately find what they’re looking for…

But we won’t know the resolution of this tale until the next story.  Or perhaps the one after that.  I strongly suspect there will be a book compilation of these stories when all is said and done, and it will be worth buying.  A strong, four-star story.  It only misses five stars for being so clearly a bridging piece.

Next time: the rest of the magazine and a review of the Analytical Laboratory!



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They sure make kids old these days… (Teenagers from Outer Space; 7-16-1959)

I know I promised the dope on the latest Astounding, but it took me several sittings to get through the Garrett.  Like children at a Passover, I kept falling asleep.  Had I known there would be another Chandler Rim story after the Garrett, I might have persevered more strenuously.  Ah well.

Instead, I took my daughter to the flicks yesterday to watch the newest science fiction film.  Well, if there are “B” movies, this one was a “C” movie.

In brief, aliens land in the suburbs of Los Angeles planning to use our planet as pasturage for the ferocious but edible Gargons.  The youngest of the crew, “Derek,” discovers that the planet is inhabited when he stumbles upon the disintegrated corpse of a dog, reduced to a skeleton by the bloodthirsty crewman, Thor.  As the boney puppy had a collar, it was clear it had been owned by a sentient being.  Derek rebels at the thought of condemning an innocent race to death at the hands of the Gargons and flees.  The alien ship leaves to summon a fleet of hundreds.


And already my daughter has decided this is the worst of the recent films.  Dog-killing doesn’t sit with her.


Derek is horrified.  I think.  This is his only expression throughout the film.

Derek arrives in town to find a room to rent being let by the quite beautiful (if worryingly thin) Betty and her doddering grandfather.  Romance flares, but evil Thor is on his trail.  There ensues a wild chase with Thor hot on the trail of Derek and Betty, a trail of skeletal corpses lining his path.  Thor is wounded in a shootout at City Hall, but he coerces a doctor into saving him.  Luckily, Thor is incapacitated in a car accident (he is not the most skilled of drivers), but the Gargon left behind in a cave kills a man and breaks loose.


A wag in the audience says, “Must be from one of those parochial schools…”


“Zap!”


“It’s 2:30!  I should be out on the golf course,” I said, joining in the fun.

Derek frees Thor from a hospital and brings him back to the site of the first landing.  There, he convinces all that he has seen the error of his ways and asks to have the honor of guiding the alien fleet to a safe landing.  Predictably, he instead orders them to home in on his ship and accelerate.  Derek and the invaders are destroyed in a fiery blast, to the horror of the onlooking Betty.


Obligatory young love.


“Everyone gets to be a hostage in this film,” comments another.


“I’m a lobster!  I like hugs!” says my daughter.


“You are clear for landing!”


“Ewww.  There’s tiny bits of Derek everywhere!” says one of the attendees.

The end.

I think this movie would have been completely intolerable had not several of the attendees begun making pointed commentary throughout the film.  I usually hate it when people do that, but in this case, they added tremendously.  I caught up with them afterward and thanked them.  Their names were Joel, Tom, and… Crow, I think it was.  Anyway, I hope we’ll meet again in the not too distant future.

To be fair, if I think of the movie as a college student’s project, which it very much feels like, there is much to commend.  The acting is generally terrible, the plot silly, and the special effects quite bad (though the ray gun effect is clever in its simplicity), but there is a plot, and the editing is actually quite inspired.  The movie never drags.  It’s just ludicrous.  But I could see Tom Graeffe (writer, director, and producer) helming a decent movie some day.  Maybe.

See you in two.  Promise.



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Space Dogs and opportunity costs (7-14-1959)

It’s another flight for Otvazhnaya, the daring Space Dog, in another zoological journey.  This time Otvazhnaya was joined by a different dog from last time (named “Pearl,” or the Russian equivalent thereof) as well as a bunny, whose name I do not yet know.  The flight, which took place on July 10, appears to have been a duplicate of the July 2 flight.

According to TASS, the Soviet news agency, the purpose of the flight was to collect more data on the effects of radiation on living creatures.  Per the agency, the space environment is not overly dangerous to space travelers.  I imagine the flight was also to make sure that the spacecraft parachutes worked properly, since rapid impact with the ground is overly dangerous for space travelers.  The rocket also contained a number of scientific instruments, too, for measuring the nearer regions of space.

All very exciting stuff, and it points to a level of progress very similar to our own.  One wonders how much the Soviets must allocate to their space program to match our systems.  While the Soviet Union looks big on a map, and it looms large in our headlines, there is no doubt that their economy is much weaker than ours.  That they can afford to have regular launches means other fields (say apartment construction, food production, automobile manufacturing) must be suffering.

You won’t hear about that from TASS, of course…

In two days, this month’s Astounding!



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Kookie Aliens (August 1959 Astounding, first part)

I’m a bit of an etymology nut, so when I recently heard the hit song, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend me your Comb),” I became intrigued by the provenance of the final lyric, “Baby, you’re the ginchiest.”

Turning to my Dictionary of American Slang, I found that ginch was 30s slang for a woman, a rather unflattering depersonalizing word.  It is akin to, and possibly related to “wench.”  Some people have taken “ginchiest” to mean “tops” or “the best,” but seeing how the male singer is a self-absorbed, beat-spouting jerk, and the girl (from his viewpoint) keeps pestering him, I think he really means, “Man… you’re such an annoying chick!”

Maybe I think too hard on trivial matters.

I’m happy to announce that this month’s Astounding starts with a bang, but first, I want to detour to the issue’s non-fiction article.  It’s the second of its kind that I’ve seen recently, an overdramatic, underrational speculation into the effects of weightlessness and space on the human psyche.  The author opines that, in the absence of normal sensory input or gravity, a person trapped in a tin can for any length of time will go nuts.

Well, people have survived on submarines for 50 years just fine (save for the occasional unfortunate build-up of carbon dioxide).  I suspect our future astronauts will remain sane.  It’s not as if we’re sending them into space inside of sensory deprivation tanks.

Now the fiction.  Murray Leinster has a really excellent story in this ish that I hate to spoil with too much description.  It’s a story of first contact, of an encounter between spaceships, of the interplay between crews, alien and familiar.  And it features a female bridge officer!  Leinster’s penchant for repetitive sentences, like he’s orally reciting an Homeric ode, is a little off-putting, but not cripplingly so.

I give it 5 stars.  How about you?

P.S. I’d planned to write more, but the next story in the book is a Randall Garrett, and I fell asleep five pages in.  I shall try again tonight.  Until next time, dear readers…



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Space Bunnies! (July 9, 1959)

It’s time for a Space Race update!  I hear mixed cheers and groans.  Well, it takes all kinds to make a column…

The Soviets have launched a rocket into space, apparently on a sub-orbital path using an equivalent to our Jupiter IRBM, with several living passengers.  They are the dogs, Otvazhnaya and Sznezinka, as well as the first Space Bunny, Marfusa.  The flight apparently took place on July 2, and all animals reportedly returned safely to the Earth.  In fact, if the report be believed, this was Otvazhnaya’s third such flight.  Given the long press delay and the lack of reporting on failures, I take Soviet press releases with several grains of salt.

Still, if it’s accurate, it means that the Soviets figured out animal recovery well ahead of us.  I’d estimate that the Communists are about half a year closer to a manned mission than we are.

Speaking of estimations, take a gander at IMPACT OF US AND SOVIET SPACE PROGRAMS ON WORLD OPINION, hot off the presses of the USIA Office of Research Analysis.  As it says on the tin, it’s a fascinating snapshot of domestic and world opinion of the space program.  It’s short, so do read it.

In particular, I liked the point that Space Race reporting has become more rational, less sensational.  I also enjoyed seeing the breakdown of those nations who feel the U.S.S.R. is ahead in the Race versus those who feel the U.S.A. is in the lead.  The distribution is predictable, I think.

Per the report, virtually all reporting links the space programs of the two superpowers with their military programs, which I think is sensible.  That said, it is my understanding that there is increasing resistance in the U.S. Congress to letting the Army team under Von Braun continue development of the enormous Saturn rocket.  It’s just too big to serve any practical military service, it is said.  If the program is transferred to NASA, our fledgling civilian space program, perhaps we will have a truly inspiring non-military space presence. 

If we can forget what Von Braun’s job was just 14 years ago.  Ah well, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down!” as one wise man has observed.


Image by Starbound

See you in two days!



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IF Returns! (July 1959 IF; 7-07-1959)

There is a certain perverse joy to statistics.  Think of the folks who spend hours every week compiling baseball scores, hit averages, etc.  It’s a way to find a pattern to the universe, I suppose. 

To date, I’ve sort of off-handedly rated issues on a 1 to 5 star scale.  Last weekend, I went through my issues and compiled real statistics.  Here’s my methodology:
Each story/article gets rated 1 to 5 with these meanings.

5: Phenomenal; I would read again.
4: Good; I would recommend it to others.
3: Fair; I was entertained from beginning to end, but I would not read again or recommend.
2: Poor; I wasted my time but was not actively offended.
1: Abysmal; I want my money back!

I generally skip editorials and book reviews (in the ratings; I do read them… except for Campbell’s editorials).

I then average all the stories in the book.  I do another, weighted, average where I factor in the length of a story (i.e. if the long stories are great and the short ones are terrible, the latter do not bring down the score as much).  Generally, the two scores are close.

My preliminary analysis has confirmed what I’d already felt in my gut–Fantasy and Science Fiction is a consistently better magazine than Astounding.  F&SF runs a consistent 3 or 3.5 average.  That may not sound like a lot, but any score over 3 means there must be at least one good story inside.  I haven’t reviewed a magazine that scored a 4 yet.
Astounding, on the other hand, runs in the 2.5 to 3 range.  This is why I find the magazine a chore.

I haven’t don’t Galaxy yet, but I suspect it will fall in between the two above magazines.

Using my brand new rating system, let’s talk about the new IF Science Fiction.  I’m afraid it’s not quite up to Galaxy’s standards, nor even those set by Damon Knight’s outing as editor, but it’s not horrible, either.

The issue starts strongly enough with F. L. Wallace’s Growing Season, about a starship hydroponics engineer with a contract out on his life.  It’s a very plausible and advanced story whose only flaw is that it ends too quickly and in a pat manner.   4 stars.

The Ogre, on the other hand, is a disappointing turn-out from normally reliable Avram Davidson.  As one reader observed, it falls between two stools, being neither chilling nor funny.  It’s another story where an anthropologist would rather kill than revise a pet theory, in this case, the date of Neanderthal extinction.  2 stars.

Wynne Whiteford, of whom I had not heard before, though I understand he’s been around for a while, writes a rather hackneyed tale of immortality and body-snatching called Never in a Thousand Years.  If you don’t see the end coming from the beginning, you’re not looking very hard.  2 stars.

Sitting Duck, by Daniel Galouye, is one of those stories with a uncannily relevant but unnecessary parallel subplot.  In this case, aliens are hunting humans from artificial “blinds” in the shapes of homes, malls, and movie theater… just like the protagonist when he hunts ducks from blinds.  It really doesn’t work as a story, but it’s not execrable.  Just primitive.  2 stars.

I rather enjoyed Mutineer by Robert Shea, in which cities have reverted to city states (albeit high-technology ones), professions are regimented, and soldiers are both fearsome and feared.  There are interesting parallels to be drawn to Classical Greece, perhaps.  3 stars.

Paul Flehr’s A Life and a Half is inconsequential, a bitter reminiscence by an old-timer about a century from now, noting how much better things were “back then.”  It has a rather strong Yiddish tone throughout, however, so it’s not all bad.  2 stars.

Rosel George Brown continues to show potential that is never quite realized.  In Car Pool, a young mother struggles with mixing alien and human children in a pre-school setting; at the same time, she wrestles with her plainness and puritanical virtuosity.  I liked it, but it is not quite great.  3 stars.

Baker’s Dozens is about a series of clones who encounter life and death in a number of interesting ways in their interstellar journeys.  The story is mainly a vehicle for author, Jim Harmon’s, groan-worthy puns.  3 stars.

IF ends as it began, with a quite good story by Phillip K. Dick called Recall Mechanism.  It combines a post-apocalyptic world with investigations into psychiatry and precognition.  I’m torn between assigning it a 4 or a 5.  If only there were an integer between the two!

Averaged out, this issue clocks in at 3 stars.  You could definitely do worse, and the first and last stories are worth reading.

See you in two days, and thanks for reading!



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Cats, IF, and Yankee Doodle (7-04-1959)

If you have a cat, you know what impediments to constructive activity they can be.  Perhaps you’re purposefully striding to your next chore; the cat will rub up against you or flop on the floor in a coy manner, and you will have no choice but to stop and give it a good petting.  Maybe you’re trying to read or, say, type up an article related to science fiction; said cat will purr alluringly, magically appearing under your hands, rendering keys or pages quite inaccessible.

There are worse fates, I suppose.

Luckily, I had the force of will to extricate myself from feline obstruction.  It only took about 45 minutes!  And now, without further delay, I can tell you all about the revived IF Science Fiction magazine.

Six months ago, I lamented that no sooner had I rediscovered IF, daringly helmed by Damon Knight, than the magazine folded.  Imagine my pleasure upon learning that IF had not been discontinued but merely sold.  In fact, looking at the masthead, I found that the new editor is H.L.Gold!  It looks as if IF is going to be Galaxy’s sister publication appearing in alternate months.  This effectively makes Galaxy a monthly again.  IF is only 130 pages long, while Galaxy is 196.  This puts the average number of pages at 163, which is a good length for a monthly digest.  Hurrah!

But the real question is whether or not the quality of Galaxy #2 is up to the standards of the original.  After all, there is no Willy Ley article to look forward to.  On the other hand, it looks like Fred Pohl will be a regular feature submitter, and a quick glance at the names of writers appearing inside (Rosel George Brown!) is encouraging.

So stay tuned.  I’m afraid festivities in celebration of our nation’s 183rd birthday preclude me from telling you about the July 1959 IF just yet.  But I’ll be back in three days with a full report.  In the mean time, why don’t you pick up a copy, and we can explore this new magazine together.

If you are from the United States of America, Happy Independence Day!  If you’re from the United Kingdom, no hard feelings.  And if you’re from anywhere else, Happy July 4th (or July 5th) of No Particular Consequence!



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The Bomb, the Clock, and the Devil (August 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction; 7-02-1959)

In this month’s F&SF editorial, editor Doug Mills reports that he’s gotten a number of complaints regarding the oversaturation of stories in the post-apocalyptic, time travel, and deal-with-the-Devil genre.  Mr. Mills’ response was that any genre can be oversaturated, but quality will always be quality, and F&SF will publish quality stories in whatever genre it pleases.  In fact, there are stories dealing with all three of the “oversaturated” genres in this issue.

What do you think?  I have to agree with Mr. Mills.  Personally, I can never get enough of After the Bomb stories, time travel is often a hoot, and the Devil features in relatively few tales these days, in my experience.   But I’d like your opinion on the matter.
I had not realized that Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol story had taken up so much of the current issue; there isn’t much left to review.  There is some goodness, however:

Rosebud, by Ray Russell, is teleological nonsense in a single-pager.  Damon Knight’s book review column deals with horror, and is interesting, as usual.  I wish he were still helming IF (come to think of it, I just received this month’s copy… I wonder who’s in charge.)

Kit Reed’s Empty Nest is well nigh unreadable, but I think it’s a horror about being eaten by anthropoid birds.

Obituary, by Isaac Asimov, is actually quite good, and one of his few stories from the viewpoint of a woman.  It involves domestic abuse, a truly evil (yet in a plausible and everyday sort of way) villain, and a satisfactory, grisly come-uppance.  I hope the good doctor is not writing from experience in this one…

Finally, we’ve got Pact, by Poul Anderson (under his pseudonym, Winston P. Sanders).  This is the aforementioned Devilish Deal story, and it is my favorite story of the issue.  I hear you gasp–an Anderson story is my favorite?  Yes!  It’s clever all the way through, this story of a demon summoning a human in the hopes of consumating a contract.  Fine stuff.

My apologies for the shortness of this installment.  I’ll make it up next time.  Perhaps.

P.S. One of the reasons I enjoy science fiction so much is the clever gadgets.  In Asimov’s story, the villain uses a “desktop computer” with some sort of typewriter keys attached.  Boy, would that be a fine tool to have, and I’ve never seen the like in a story before.  Something to look forward to in a decade or two?



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