All posts by GalacticJourney

F&SF–for the Right kind of people (February 1959 wrap-up; 1-27-1959)

Do you know who reads The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Clifton Fadiman, writer, editor, judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  It supplies him his “special escape-reading…the finest the field has to offer in the way of short fiction.”

Spring Byington, famous star of the Broadway Stage does.  It improves the imagination, she says.

Basil Davinport, another writer and editor for the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  “F&SF gives us some of the best writing in the field, and the field is one of great importance.”

Orville Prescott, Book Review Editor for the New York Times does.  He says, “People who think that their literary I.Q. is too high for them to enjoy [F&SF] don’t know what they’re missing.”

In other words, snobs read F&SF–and you can be a snob, too.  Unlike those other lowbrow sci-fi mags, F&SF is the real stuff.  Just stay away from Astounding, and for God’s sake, avoid Amazing!

I know H.L.Gold was a bit nose-in-the-air when he contrasted Galaxy with Space Westerns, but F&SF is positively the caviar set by comparison.  I’m for the promotion of science fiction’s respectability, but I don’t think F&SF has the sole claim on quality.  In fact, I think F&SF’s editorial policy leans a bit overmuch toward the superfluously florid.

On the other hand, they are the favored home of more female authors than any other science fiction magazine.  And I’ve never read a Garrett or Silverberg story between its pages, though I did read a horrible Poul Anderson story in F&SF’s, thankfully defunct sister magazine, Venture.

Good-natured ribbing aside, while many issues of F&SF may suffer from overwriting-itis, the February 1959 issue is good stuff all the way though (even if the rest of the magazine is not as amazing as its lead story). 

Continuing where we left off, Misfit by G.C. Edmondson (the only Mexican science fiction author I know of, and a San Diego native!) is a good yarn about the perils of time travel–to the timeline if not the traveler.

Last month’s issue had the first of George Elliot’s Venusian stories, Invasion of the Planet of Love.  Its sequel, Nothing but Love depicts the Venusian counter-attack.  It is less satirical, less impactful, and less interesting.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I liked the first one very much either.  It’s not bad, exactly.  It’s just odd.

I did enjoy Charles Fontenay’s Ghost Planet, in which a presumably failed Martian colony is found to have survived through an unexpected and happy circumstance.  Apparently, Martian sage grass traps oxygen, so as long as one stays crouched within the grass, there is air and warmth. 

Now here’s where I need help: I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen this gimmick before in another story.  Does this sound familiar?  I’m hoping one of my many (Webster defines “many” as “more than three”) readers will solve this mystery for me.  Drop me a line and let me know.  If you don’t know the answer, please share this article with someone who might.

Raymond Banks wrote the next story, Natural Frequency, about what happens when someone’s voice naturally hits the resonant frequency of… well.. everything.  People, glasses, bridges…  It’s a silly story, reminiscent of that scene from the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs, impersonating the great conductor, Leopold, makes an opera singer sing a high note until his pants fall off and his tuxedo rolls up like a Venetian blind.  Filler.

Jane Rice’s The Willow Tree is the last piece of the magazine.  Per the editorial preface, Ms. Rice wrote for Unknown back in the late ’30s, and I have it on good authority that she wrote for a solid ten years after that for various magazines.  This story marks the end of a subsequent ten-year hiatus.  Your mileage may vary, but I liked it, this tale of two children sent to the past after losing their parents.  It is written like a fairly conventional children’s fantasy, much like something Edward Eager would write, but with a much more sinister undertone and ending. 

And thusly, we have come to the end.  I’d say 4 stars out of 5.  The lead story is fantastic, and the rest are decent to quite good.

Normally, one might expect (this being the 27th) that I have the new Astounding and/or F&SF in hand for the next review.  However, I am still out in the Territory of Hawai’i, and deliveries are understandably delayed.  Forward thinker that I am, I will still have something to discuss on the 29th. 

But you’ll just have to wait until then to find out what it is.

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On the Beach! (February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, Part 2; 1-25-1959)

Aloha from America’s prettiest territory.

Kaua’i is particularly pretty, and one of the less-developed islands.  Just last year, the hit musical South Pacific was filmed here, and I’ve gotten to see its location, the lovely town of Hanalei. 

Yet such is my devotion to all five of my fans (up 25% over last month!) that I have flashed in my latest column to ensure you know what stories in this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction are worth reading.

It’s a bit of a grab bag, really, after that amazing first one, but not a stinker in the bunch thus far:

Following Asimov’s science article is Graveyard Shift by Idris Seabright (the F&SF pen name of feminism and witchcraft enthusiast, Margaret St. Clair).  It’s an exciting, atmospheric piece about a young man working the night shift at a haunted sundries store.  One might label it “modern fantasy,” where beneath the banalities of technological life lie a malestrom of magical undercurrent.

No Matter Where You Go, by Joel Townsley Rogers (of long-time pulp fame), is a strange novelet.  It features a space traveler with the ability to zip between real and counter-Earths.  The two worlds have much in common, but there are also striking differences.  When our hero’s wife falls for the resident of one of the worlds and is subsequently exiled to the other, and the courting Cassanova comes a-calling at the hero’s residence… well, it gets interesting.  Like most F&SF stuff, it is written with pizazz, though I’m not sure I exactly liked it overmuch.

Eleazar Lipsky’s Snitkin’s Law is a satirical look at a future in which justice is meted out perfectly by computer, much to the misery of everyone—that is, until a shyster lawyer, the eponymous Snitkin, is brought from the past to reprogram it.  It’s short and unremarkable.  I suspect Snitkin is a parody of the author, a deputy district attorney (who also wrote the manuscript behind the famous movie, Kiss of Death).

Finaly, for today, is Death Cannot Wither by Judith Merril.  I am always excited to see Ms. Merril’s work, though I’m not quite sure how I feel about this novelette.  It is, first and foremost, a ghost story.  It is dark and a bit disturbing.  The ending is gruesome though perhaps not entirely unhappy.  It is not my cup of tea, but it might well be yours.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much, so I’ll save the wrap-up for the 27th.  And then I have a bit of a departure for you… but we’ll have to wait until the 29th for that, won’t we?

Aloha (a double-service word) and Mahalo for reading!

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The Mixed Men by A. E. Van Vogt (1-23-1959)

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

So here I am on a DC-7C turbo-prop headed for the emerald isle of Kaua’i.  A full week of lying out on the beach with nothing but my family, my typewriter, and a large backlog of books and magazines.  I had intended to write, today, about the rest of the February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Unfortunately, due to a S.N.A.F.U. in bag-packing, that magazine was unavailable to me for the flight out. 

But every cloud has a silver lining.  As it turned out, I had packed a random A.E.Van Vogt novel called The Mixed Men.  It was published some seven years ago, and the original stories from which it was compiled were published during the War.  I finished the short novel in just a few hours, and, as the flight takes nearly half a day, I found myself with time to write this article and flash it to my editor.  On time for the evening edition, no less!

The book is very very good.

I read a lot of science fiction, and precious few authors write advanced technology and settings in a way that is not destined to become dated in short order.  There is an art to boldly plotting the future while keeping the descriptions of the advanced components of technology non-specific.  Van Vogt, of course, is well-regarded for a reason.  A spiritual descendant of Doc Smith, his space opera is both sweeping and plausible. 

In The Mixed Men, it is some tens of thousands of years in the future, and humanity has colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy.  The Imperial Battleship Star Cluster has been dispatched to the Greater Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy of ours) on a ten-year mapping mission.  The vessel is enormous, fully a mile long and crewed by 30,000 men and women. 

Significantly and refreshingly, its skipper is a woman, the viewpoint character Lady Gloria Laurr.  More refreshingly, she is brilliant and capable (gasp!)

The story: at the tail-end of the Star Cluster’s assignment, the ship finds incontrovertible evidence of a human presence spanning the Greater Magellanic Cloud.  Complicating the matter is the revelation that the Magellanic peoples are actually mutant refugees (and their non-mutant allies) from Earth.  The mutants possess superhuman intelligence and strength, but at the cost of their creativity.  The “robots,” as they were pejoratively labelled, were reviled by “normal” humanity and became the victims of a genocidal war prosecuted against them some 15,000 years prior.  They were forced to flee our galaxy to the Magellanic Cloud, where they have now lived for millennia on 50 hidden worlds.

With the discovery of this renegade branch of humanity, Lady Gloria orders the ship to undertake a new mission: the incorporation of the 50 worlds into the Terran Empire—by force, if necessary.  Her aim is not subjugation for its own sake.  The Imperial policy is one of freedom and democracy for all, but no independent states are allowed to exist for fear that an external force might pose a threat to the Empire.

Lady Gloria’s decision predictably leads to an all-out conflict with the Magellanic state, which also has a protagonist in the person of Peter Maitland.  Ostensibly an astrogator on a Magellanic warship, Maitland is actually the hereditary leader of the “Mixed Men,” offspring of the mutants and non-mutants.  These Mixed Men have double-brains conferring to them the brilliance and toughness of the mutants as well as the creativity of normal humans.  Moreover, Mixed Men have the ability to exert psychic domination upon others making them quite formidable indeed.

Just as the mutants were mistrusted and shunned by Earth, so are the Mixed Men discriminated against by the Magellanic Government.  Thus, the Mixed Men are forced to constitute a hidden state within the 50 worlds. 

Confused yet?  And that’s just the set-up!  Yet the story flows quite naturally and with a strong personal connection.  There are wheels within wheels, machination after machination, and best of all, intelligent decisions made all around from beginning to end.  If I have any quibble at all, it is that the second half flags slightly after the brilliance of the first half; Van Vogt was not quite able to completely caulk over the seams of the three stories that make up the book.  I also felt a little uneasy at the mind-control exerted not just by Maitland, but by Lady Gloria (the latter using machinery where Maitland needs only his mind).  But only a little: Van Vogt sensitively restrains himself from portraying mind-rape, for which I am grateful.

In short, The Mixed Men is science fiction that is at once of the widest and narrowest scope.  Whole galaxies are involved, yet the players are few and well-drawn.  I heartily recommend it.  Interestingly, going back over my old Astoundings, I see P. Schuyler Miller didn’t like it much, and he felt the protagonist “wasn’t very convincing.” I wonder which protagonist he’s talking about.  I liked ’em both.  I know, too, that Van Vogt has been attacked for reworking his short stories into “fix-up” novels, but I think it worked pretty well with this one.

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for another article and photos from Nawiliwili Bay!

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First Impressions (February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction;1-21-1959)

The February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction has left me with a variety of impressions, so I preemptively beg your pardon for the scattered nature of this piece.

Firstly, the cover.  It’s a pretty Emswhiller, for certain, but “Under Jupiter’s Red Spot”?  It has been some 250 years since anyone last thought that the Red Spot (Jupiter’s most enduring feature, three times the size of the Earth) was the result of vulcanism or any other “surface” activity.  In fact, the prevailing model is that Jupiter, composed almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium, has no surface.  There is just hydrogen and helium under increasing pressure until it takes on the properties of an ice, Further in, the hydrogen may take on the characteristics of a metal.  There may be a rocky core underneath all of that, but we’d never see it.  There would not be a “surface” as we are familiar with the term. 

Thus, Emsh’s drawing is a weird throwback.  It’s just strange to see it on the cover of a current science fiction digest.

Secondly, the big news:

After ten years at the steady rate of 35 cents a digest, which was standard for “The Big Three,” F&SF is finally upping its rates to 40 cents an issue.  You can also get a year’s subscription for $4.50 (or 37.5 cents apiece).  I don’t think the increase is egregious, especially given that publishing costs have increased 38% since 1949–at least, according to the publisher.  With Galaxy now at 50 cents for a bimonthly, one wonders how long it will be before Astounding raises their rates.  Their production quality is the lowest of “The Big Three,” but I imagine their costs must still have gone up like everyone else’s.

Thirdly, Asimov has another article in this issue.  It’s a pretty short piece about the naming of big numbers–quite handy for describing things like a multitude of stars… or atoms.  It’s worth reading, but hardly his best work.


Perhaps you wonder why I slog through so much mediocre science fiction every month.  Two stars… three stars… Randall Garrett…  Well, it’s for stories like the opener to this month’s F&SF.

Damon Knight (or damonknight, as he’s known when he’s reviewing), has written a lot.  Much of it is unremarkable.  One of his stories, Four in One, which came out in Galaxy way back in 1952, is one of the niftiest stories I’ve ever read.  His latest work, What Rough Beast, is in that caliber. 

Mike Kronski, the protagonist, is a foreigner.  That is clear from his manner of speech, which seems Eastern European.  He has a very special gift–the ability to change one thing into another.  But the mechanism by which he does this is unique, and its ramifications are both fascinating and chilling.  I don’t want to spoil it anymore.  Suffice it to say that it is excellent.  It’s worth 40 cents just for this story.

So’s you know, my next update may be a day late.  I know my readers (I almost need two hands to count you now!) love my travelogues almost as much as my reviews.  Just for you, the family and I are flying to the island of Kaua’i in the Territory of Hawa’ii.  We will be sure to include photos with the next installment of this column!

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Par for the course (February 1959 Astounding; 1-19-1959)

It is still truly a man’s world, at least between the covers of Astounding magazine.  I recognize that we live in a culture where men aren’t allowed to take cooking or shorthand classes (these are women’s topics, after all), but I’d like to think that science fiction writers are more progressive.

Perhaps I’m the one who’s wrong, however.  Maybe women will remain “separate but equal” into the foreseeable future…

Ahem.  Where was I?  Ah, yes.  The rest of February 1959’s Astounding.  To be fair, the remaining four stories actually range from decent to good.  They are typical in their construction: an interesting set-up, a presented conundrum, and then a “gotcha” ending, but the execution is generally competent.  Each had an interesting tidbit that stood out to me, a place where the writer dared to dream–or failed to do so.  I’ll point each one out as I go.

Hi Diddle Diddle is by Calvin M. Knox (Robert Silverberg–why he needed a pseudonym, I’m not sure; perhaps Campbell wants us to think more than one person writes for his magazine).  I think Campbell would call it a “funny” story, but it’s pretty decent stuff about the crew of a small moonbase trying to come up with a way to synthesize food for provisions on the moon.  There are no women in the small crew, of course, though there is a line to suggest that is not always the case.  And, of course, everybody smokes.  Even on the moon, where air is (presumably) at a premium.

What I found compelling was Silverberg’s conjecture that, by 1995, there would be eight moon bases: three American, three Soviet, one Chinese, and one Indian.  Moreover, by then, the Cold War will have thawed considerably.  I’m happy when any writer remembers there is more to the world than the Eagle and Bear, and I think the timeline is quite plausible.  As for the story, well, as I said above, it’s pretty formulaic, but competently written.  Like all of Silverberg’s stuff.

So far as I can tell, Peter Baily, author of the next story, Accidental Death, has not written anything else.  That would set up alarm bells that he is someone’s pseudonym, but none of my reliable sources can tell me if that truly be the case.  In any event, Baily’s tale is of Earth’s first interstellar ship, and the first contact it makes with a race of creatures that possesses the ability to adversely affect probability.  A “Jinx” race, if you will.  Not a bad story, but the part that stuck out to me is when the protagonist, dictating his last thoughts for posterity, suggests that his memoir would make big news if someone could get it to a radio station or a newspaper office.  Baily’s story takes place in a future with starships, but media is stuck in 1940.  It just goes to show that science fiction writers need be careful to avoid the intrusion of current (or even latter)-day items and technologies lest they kill the verisimilitude.

Frank Herbert is a newish writer.  His Missing Link is nothing special.  A Terran spacer is involved in first contact with an alien race with delusions of superiority.  The Earther soon puts the alien in its place with go ol’ Terran ingenuity.  Lest I forget what magazine I’m reading.

Finally, The Professional Touch by “Leonard Lockhard” (actually the duo, Charles L. Harness and Theodore L. Thomas) is a fascinating, satirical piece on patent law, and its many current deficiencies.  It’s worth reading just as a treatise on the subject, particularly on the topics of “obviousness” and “flash of genius,” and just how arbitrary are those tests that determine the worthiness of a patent. 

All told, 3 stars.  Nothing terribly offensive.  Nothing strikingly original.  I’m looking forward to further installments of the Leinster series, though.

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Send the Marines! (1-17-1959)

It’s time for a little timely flag-waving.

Last year, around the time I started this column, Operation Blue Bat wrapped up.  It was one of our better moments, foreign policy-wise.  Who’d even heard of Lebanon before 1958?  But when that country came to the brink of civil war in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolution, American troops, particularly the Marines, were dispatched to help keep the peace.  Their mission successful, the last of them came home on October 25.

Now, I’m as cynical as the next person.  I know our action in Lebanon was political more than humanitarian.  We were calling the bluff of the Soviets, who insisted we not interfere.  We were protecting the pro-west Christian government from the pro-Soviet Arab government.  As Tom Lehrer put it in a recent song, “They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til somebody we like can be elected.”

And yet, I still have to applaud the avoidance of bloodshed, as well as appreciate the now-concrete evidence that the Soviets and the U.S. will not come to blows over petty conflicts (the Suez Crisis of ’56 was the first proof of that.)

So it’s timely that the next story I read in the February 1959 Astounding was The Stoker and the Stars by John A. Sentry (Algis Budrys’ Anglic pen-name).  In this story, Earth had been roundly trounced after an interstellar war, and all of humanity had been confined to our own Solar System.  Only limited trade was allowed.  One proud Marine, defeated but not beaten, became the lynchpin to earning the respect of our cordoning aliens.  It’s an old-fashioned piece, a reminiscence of a space merchant remembering how he’d known the great man “back in the day,” when they had shipped together on one of the last Terran cargo vessels; destination: occupied Alpha Centauri.

It’s jingoistic.  It’s a little maudlin.  It plays into Campbell’s penchant for Terrans-uber-alles stories.  I recognize that.  But the memories of Iwo Jima and Lebanon are still fresh, and a good Marine friend of mine only recently returned from his station in the Middle East. Whatever your politics, it does not hurt to recognize that there are some fine people in the service, and I saw a little of my friend in the hero of Sentry’s story.

Oribtal Cold War department:

Remember Sputnik III?  This was the first “real” Soviet satellite following the bare-bones Sputnik I (which went beep-beep) and the rather stunt-like Sputnik II (which carried the Muttnik, Laika).  Weighing in at over a ton and carrying a dozen experiments, it was certainly a feat of Soviet engineering.

It was also the only Soviet satellite launched throughout all of 1958.  Thus, while the American Vanguard I continues to chatter happily away from orbit, and Explorer IV is also still up there, albeit silent since October, Sputnik III remains the sole Soviet sentinel in orbital space.  So I can just imagine the consternation in the Kremlin when Sputnik III’s signal started to decay and warble like a drunkard’s whistle.  Since December 17, Sputnik III has probably been of little use to anybody.

But the day before yesterday, radio eavesdroppers in Napa, California announced that the poor space lab had recovered (perhaps with fuzz on its geiger counters and the need for some strong tomato juice).  The current theory is that Sputnik III gradually got tipped out of alignment so that its solar cells were no longer getting sufficient charge.  The probe has finally returned to a favorable tilt, and is happily back on the wagon. 

Thus, what began with an American flag-waving has ended with some Soviet flag-waving.  All in the spirit of fairness, of course.

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Tabulating the data (February 1959 Astounding; 1-15-1959)

It’s Astounding time again!

One thing I like about Astounding is that editor John Campbell publishes the results of his reader surveys in the magazine’s “Analytical Laboratory.”  Thus, he (and we) can all see what the reading faithful think of the prior issue’s stories.  Of course, while the technique can be good at better-pleasing your audience, it also runs the risk of specializing oneself into oblivion.  After all, the percentage of your readership who will respond to a reader survey is generally a minority, and often a quirky one at that.  Appealing to your die-hard fans may please them (if they can be pleased at all), but may also narrow the potential audience.

In other words, one picks up Astounding because one knows what to expect.  One avoids it because one knows what’s in it and doesn’t want it.  The feedback loop between conservative fan and conservative editor potentially leads to ossified content.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that Astounding is the most conservative of “the Big Three,” particularly in its outlook on other cultures and on the portrayal of women.

That said, let’s see how the opinions of the readers of Astounding compare to those I’ve published earlier in this column.  The results, and the lessons Campbell learns from them, are interesting.

For the November 1958 issue:

Stimulus, by Andrew Salmond, came far away in first place.
Unhuman Sacrifice by Katherine MacLean, was number two, followed closely by
Part One of A Bicycle Built for Brew by Poul Anderson.
Goliath and the Beanstalk, by Chris Anvil, came in fourth.
Gifts, by Gordy Dickson, was number five.

This is interesting.  I thought the MacLean was a clear number 1, Salmond’s piece being just all-right.  On the other hand, the latter three were so minor (not exactly bad, just utterly mediocre), that I’m not surprised they competed for last place. 

So far, so good.

For the December 1958 issue:

It was clear the fans had trouble picking a favorite given the scores.  Either they were disappointed with the magazine or they loved them all equally.  Campbell’s commentary (more on that below) suggests the former.

Part Two of A Bicycle Built for Brew straggled to the top of the charts.
The Queen Bee, by Randall Garrett, possibly the most offensive story I have read in Astounding, came in second.
Ministry of Disturbance, by H. Beam Piper, was number three.
Triggerman, by R.T. Bone was a solid fourth.
Seller’s Market by Chris Anvil was a clear fifth.

Mack Reynold’s Pieces of the Game didn’t even make the chart, even though I thought it was decent.  I quite enjoyed Ministry of Disturbance and TriggermanSeller’s Market wasn’t great, but it was surely better than the drek voted #1 and #2.

Campbell describes Queen Bee as “humor” along with Ministry of Disturbance, Triggerman and A Bicycle Built for Brew.  He wonders aloud if the comedic content of these stories resulted in their lower rating (with the exception of Queen Bee, which did well).  Of course, Bicycle finished strongly in the ratings.  Campbell wonders if comedy serials just take time to win over their audience.

Campbell also calls Queen Bee a “strong story.”  I suppose editors must love their children universally, so I wouldn’t expect him to publicly denounce Garrett’s atrocity.  That said, it certainly seems like Queen Bee is the kind of story Campbell wants in his magazine and, moreover, it’s the kind of story his readers (at least the ones who fill out the cards) want in his magazine.

Which means, I suppose, we all have much more of the same to look forward to.  Unless Campbell decides that “humor” doesn’t sell.

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Interlude.. with picture (1-14-1959)

A timely message. Is Eisenhower taking the Space Race seriously?  Is anyone?

From the NEA Service, Inc., run in today’s paper.

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“Doctor, Merchant” (Murray Leinster and the February 1959 Astounding; 1-13-1959)

Have you heard of Murray Leinster?

Of course you have, though he also writes under “William F. Jenkins,” which happens to be his real name.  Leinster/Jenkins is one of the few authors with a shot at the title of “Dean of Science Fiction.”  He’s one of the old guard–a veteran of World War One, the pulp era, Campbell’s Golden Age of Astounding, and he’s still going strong.  He won the Hugo in 1956 for his Exploration Team (which I haven’t yet read).  Leinster has an interesting style, unadorned and occasionally repetitive, that I think lends itself well to being read by adults and kids.

Interestingly, I am not as acquainted with Leinster as I feel I should be.  Aside from the juvenile, Space Tug (which I mentioned in an earlier article), I’ve only read some of his short stories.  Sam, this is you, for instance, came out in Galaxy a few years ago, and it was good. 

My favorites have been the short two stories, thus far, in the “Med Series,” (there is also at least one novel, which I should read soon.) Their protagonist, Calhoun, is a “med man.”  That is, he’s a doctor who flies in his one-person ship between planets like a country doctor visiting farms, bringing the latest cures and techniques.  Normally, his trips are routine, but we don’t get to read those stories.

Calhoun does have a companion–the cat/monkey hybrid named “Murgatroyd.”  Not only is the creature incredibly cute, but it has the innate ability to develop antibodies to virtually any disease.  It is thus invaluable for creating vaccine sera.

I like any story where the hero is distinguished by his or her healing rather than combat prowess.  Moreover, Calhoun has to use his brain, which is more fun and interesting than wielding a gun.  Both of the stories came out in Astounding in the last couple of years (Ribbon in the Sky, June 1957; The Grandfathers’ War, October 1957), and I imagine back issues would not be hard to obtain.

What I also like about this series is the universe.  Leinster’s future posits a superluminary drive that goes some 30 times the speed of light.  This is unquestionably an impressive speed, but though it facilitates colonization of other planets, it is too slow to efficiently maintain a galactic empire.  Instead, each planet is left to its own devices, and there are a few loose galactic organizations whose purpose is to facilitate the spread of medicine (the Med Corps) and to mediate interplanetary disputes.

This Ambassadorial Corps is featured in Leinster’s new serialized novel, The Pirates of Ersatz (“A ha!  He’s finally getting to his point!” I hear you say.) The February 1959 issue of Astounding has been sitting on my to-read pile for some time, and I’ve finally gotten to it.  Of course, only the first of three parts has come out, and I don’t want to spoil it issue-by-issue.  Suffice it to say, it looks promising.  It does not feature Calhoun, but rather an enterprising inventor, who suffers for his ingenuity.  In tone and structure, it feels a bit like Heinlein’s recent Astounding serial, Citizen of the Galaxy.  This is not a bad thing.

So stay tuned!  I won’t have a review of Leinster’s novel for another two months, but the other stories in the magazine (blessedly, I don’t think there’s an Anderson or Garrett among them) will be discussed quite soon.

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After midnight (43,000 Years Later; 1-11-1959)

It has been two minutes to midnight since 1953.

According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, we have been teetering at the brink of nuclear destruction since the Soviets detonated their first H-Bomb.  Now that both East and West have demonstrated the ability to launch, without warning and without possibility of resistance, H-bomb-carrying missiles from one hemisphere to the other, I will not be surprised if the FAS ticks the clock one minute closer to midnight.

It is thus no surprise that post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre coming into full flower.  On the Beach, a pessimistic look at the aftermath set in Australia, came out in 1957, and it was a strong seller. 

One of last year’s crop was Horace Coon’s 43,000 Years After, which tells the tale of an alien archaeological expedition to Earth 43,000 years after humanity has exterminated itself and all vertebrate land life by nuclear hellfire.  Coon is not, by trade, a science fiction author.  He writes social how-to books and satirical social commentary.  It’s actually a good background for someone writing a book of this type.

The best satire holds a mirror to its subject to point up its absurdities.  Coon does this in 43,000 by letting humanity’s writings and edifices, most made for public consumption rather than posterity, be our race’s only method of communicating with the archaeologists, humanity having rendered itself otherwise quite mute.

And what did we leave behind?  Most of our cities have been smashed, and the remains have not aged well over 43 millennia.  It is clear to the future observers that we did have large transportation networks, that we did have knowledge of the H-bomb, and that such weapons were employed universally (though the aliens are somehow able to deduce which had been fired by the West and which by the East).  Some statues survive, and the aliens are aided by a limited sense of telepathy that enables to them to puzzle out mysteries that might otherwise be unsolvable (the last is a hand-wave, but scientific rigor is not the point of the book).

The real breakthrough comes when the expedition finds a time capsule buried in 1938 in conjunction with the World Expo.  The capsule provides a wealth of written and physical detail, particularly the Almanac and Sears Roebuck Catalogs.  The expedition also finds scattered records on stone and surviving microfilm, but they (conveniently) end in the 1950s, ten years before the determined date of the holocaust.

The findings of the archaeologists are conveyed through the personal musings of each of the three expedition directors: dogmatic and dictatorial Zolgus, thoughtful and scientific Yundi, philosophical and emotional Xia.  Each is heavily influenced by his/her prejudices.  Zolgus, for instance, cannot help but denigrate humanity for its failings: employing agriculture, failing to fix the planet’s axis, failing to embrace a world dictatorship, eschewing renewable energy sources.  Zolgus acknowledges briefly that his own race had its savage time, but he refuses to pardon Earth’s growing pains, describing us universally as “stupid.”  Unfair?  Perhaps, but an attitude that the richer nations of Earth frequently adopt toward the more “backward” nations of the world.  Or by the rich toward the poor (i.e. “I got mine; why ain’t you got yours yet?”)

Yundi is more respectful, but relying solely on empirical data, he has the most trouble understanding humanity’s self-destructive urges.  Xia is willing to be charitable.  She unabashedly falls in love with the Earth and its erstwhile inhabitants.  She recognizes and forgives our self-destructive urges, only lamenting that they came to such an unhappy fruition.

We do not learn much about the aliens except that which can be gleaned from their own reflections–they must be roughly humanoid, but they have no teeth and six digits on each appendage.  They do not crowd all of their sensory organs into their head.  They have a Communist-style dictatorship and vast technologies and access to energy.  They do not self-perpetuate or have families, but rather artificially grow their young so as to completely liberate both sexes.  Coming to Earth reinforces the wisdom of these practices for Zolgus, but creates doubts regarding them in the other two, especially Xia.

Ultimately, the questions the expedition asks are “why did humanity kill itself, and was it inevitable?”  In answering these questions, Coon tells the readers (through his characters) how to possibly avert the potential tragedy.  Coon also creates a secondary cautionary tale in the form of Zolgus, depicting in a negative light the phenomenon of technological dehumanization.

Of course, such a book runs the risk of being a colossal bore of philosophical posturing.  In fact, the book is rather short (just 143 pages), and quite well written.  The characters, while probably not alien enough, are engaging, and each have their own well-developed tone.  As a story, the plot could have been served better with more focus on the archaeological sleuthing; the archaeologists come to their conclusions a bit too quickly.  But, again, that’s not really the point. 

So give the book a read.  You may or may not come away with any profound shifts in your thinking, but you won’t have wasted the few hours it takes to complete the novel.

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