[Dec. 5, 1961] IF I didn’t care… (January 1962 IF Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

There is an interesting rhythm to my science fiction reading schedule.  Every other month, I get to look forward to a bumper crop of magazines: Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, and the King-Sized Galaxy.  Every other month, I get F&SF, Analog, and IF (owned by the same fellow who owns Galaxy). 

IF is definitely the lesser mag.  Not only is it shorter, but it clearly gets second choice of submissions to it and its sister, Galaxy.  The stories tend to be by newer authors, or the lesser works of established ones.  This makes sense — Galaxy offers the standard rate of three cents an article while IF‘s pay is a bare one cent per word.

That isn’t to say IF isn’t worth reading.  Pohl’s a good editor, and he manages to make decent (if not extraordinary) issues every month.  The latest one, the January 1962 IF, is a good example. 

For instance, the lead novelette is another cute installment in Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series, The Yillian Way.  I’ve tended not to enjoy the stories of Retief, a member of the Terran Interstellar Diplomatic Corps.  Laumer writes him a bit too omnipotent, and omnipotent heroes are boring, as they have no obstacles to overcome.  The challenges presented in Way, however, both by the baffling alien Yills and Retief’s own consular mission, are all too plausible…and charmingly met.  I am also pleased to find that Retief is Black (or, perhaps, Indian).  Four stars.

There’s not much to James Schmitz’s An Incident on Route Twelve.  In fact, if not for the engaging manner in which it’s written, this rather archaic story of alien abduction would be completely skippable.  As presented, it reads like a fair episode of The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

If there is a signature author for IF, it’s Jim Harmon.  This prolific author seems to be in every other issue of the mag (and quite a few Galaxy issues, too).  Harmon is to Pohl what Randy Garrett is to John Campbell at Analog: a reliable workhorse.  Thankfully for Pohl, Harmon is better than Garrett (not a high bar).  The Last Place on Earth is not the best thing Harmon has ever written.  In fact, the ending seems rushed, and the plot doesn’t quite make sense.  That said, this tale of a fellow being hounded by a malevolent alien presence, is powerfully told.  Another three-star piece.

Usually, alien possession a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is portrayed in a negative light.  But what if the society taken over is an intolerant dictatorship, and the foreign entity promotes love and brotherhood?  The Talkative Tree by H.B. Fyfe won’t knock your socks off, but it is a pleasant little read.  Three stars.

Last of the short stories is 2BR02B (the zero pronounced “naught”) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Like his latest in F&SF, Harrison Bergeron, it is a cautionary tale written at a grade-school level.  This time, the subject is the ever-popular crisis of overpopulation. With Vonnegut, I vacillate between admiring his simplistic prose and rolling my eyes at it.  Three stars.

That’s the last of the short stories.  Not too bad, right?  A solid couple of hours of reading pleasure there.  But then you run headlong into the second half of the serial, Masters of Space, and that’s where the wheels come off of this issue.  E.E. Evans was a prolific writer for the lesser mags between the late ’40s and his death in 1958.  I know of him, but I haven’t read a single thing by him.  There is another, more famous “E.E.”  That’s E.E. Smith, the leading light of pulpish space opera from the 20s and 30s.  He had largely stayed hidden under the radar for the past couple of decades, but he resurfaced not to long ago.

Some time between his passing and this year, “Doc” Smith got a hold of a half-finished Evans work and decided to complete it.  The result is a almost skeletal, decidedly old-fashioned novel, something about humans who once straddled the stars but were coddled to senescence by the android servants they created.  Millennia later, the descendants of the old Masters pushed out into the galaxy again, only to face the indescribably sinister Stretts.  Masters isn’t bad, exactly.  It’s just not very good.  Smith’s writing holds no appeal for me.  I recognize Smith’s importance to the field of science fiction, but time has not been kind to his work, nor have Doc’s skills improved much over the years.  I made it about 60% through this short novel, but ultimately, I simply have better things to do with my time.  Two stars (and I revised my opinion of the previous installment, too).

In many ways, IF is the anti-Analog.  That magazine usually has great serials and mediocre short stories.  Oh well.  At least they both have something to offer. 

Next up: the next installment in an ongoing series.  Don’t miss this Galactic Journey exclusive!

9 thoughts on “[Dec. 5, 1961] IF I didn’t care… (January 1962 IF Science Fiction)”

  1. Rather dark, most of the stories. Though, as you say, the Schmitz is a good Twilight Zone one.  The Vonnegut, too, I’d say.

    Laumer does create good alien settings and societies; though they might be a bit Earth-like for the most serious tastes. I’d call this one a definite success. And it does make a good cover.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m glad you’re warming up to Retief, though I still think you’re missing the point slightly. His omnipotence is part of the satire. He’s Campbell’s Competent Man writ (overly) large. Of course, it also simplifies the plotting and lets Laumer focus on the humor. And I’m really starting to think that Retief actually works for some intelligence service and is tasked with keeping the diplomats from screwing things up too badly.

    The Schmitz and Vonnegut were all right. Both are capable of much better, but these stories were readable. Fyfe, on the other hand, did absolutely nothing for me.

    Where we really differ is the Harmon. I found it confused and ultimately forgettable. In fact, after your review I actually had to go back and look at the story again to even remember what it was about.

    And Doc Smith annoys me so much that I gave this serial a complete miss and don’t regret it a bit.

  3. I think the issue was worth it just for the Retief.  I hope Laumer continues to crank those out.  Laumer has short stories *solid.* Now to see if he moves on to novels…

    Having worked in large bureaucratic organizations might have something to do with why I like them so much.  I’ve actually worked for organizations run the way the CDT is… sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cringe.

    I’m surprised Campbell didn’t jump on the Retief stories.  They’re the kind of thing he usually goes for.

    The Schmitz was one of those “cute trick” throwaway stories.  It’s something I would expect a beginner to write, and an editor to buy just as a short place-filler.  At the very least Schmitz should have asked for a pseudonym.

    Last month I said I’d withhold judgement on the Smith until it was done, but I found myself skipping pages on this installment.  I still love some of his earlier work, but this isn’t up to those (rather low, actually) standards.

    1. Laumer’s got a novel under his belt already. It was serialized in Fantastic earlier this year and is due out from Ace next month. I think the Traveler said he’s already got it lined up for a review.

      Laumer also knows a lot about large bureaucratic organizations and diplomats. He was in the US Foreign Service. Makes you wonder just how true to life some of these stories are.

      1. I understand that Retief is a satire, and the omnipotence is part of that satire…but it doesn’t make it any more fun to read!

        That said, without giving anything away, Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium was excellent, and I look forward to reviewing it next month.

  4. I also skipped the Smith and Evans serial, but I read all the other material.

    The editorial about the project to drill to the mantle was interesting.  An inner space race?

    “The Yillian Way” was OK.  The gimmick was fairly obvious to me.

    “An Incident on Route 12” was a reasonably effective horror story, if minor.

    The science briefs were too short to raise much interest, although I did wonder what else this Carl Sagan fellow might find in his atmospheric experiments.
    “The Last Place on Earth” struck me as really odd.  I got the feeling the author just typed it out as quickly as possible, without any idea where the plot was going.  Sometimes that sense of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink can work, but this was something of a mess.

    “The Talkative Tree” wasn’t bad, if more fantasy than SF.  It had a touch of Lafferty to it.

    Sturgeon’s rather whimsical little essay made that old fantasy book sound intriguing.

    “2 B R 0 2 B” was the gem of the issue, in my opinion, even if it’s not a great classic.  Vonnegut is becoming quite a satirist, if not quite up to Sheckley yet.

    I didn’t get much out of the letter column, except to note that SF fans disagree a lot.  (They either loved or hated “The Frozen Planet.”) However, I have to admit that the person who called “If” by the name “World of Galaxy Rejects” was being accurate, if cruel.

  5. I did not know that about Doc Smith and E E Evans.
    O well I remember when I started reading SF in 1953 Doc Smith was so out-of-print I never saw any of his work.
    When I turned 20 in late 1960 I remember I borrowed a copy of of Gray Lensman and a copy of A Princess of Mars. I had read the Burroughs novel when I was 12 but had forgotten it. I got through the first paragraph of Princess of Mars before putting it down. Got through the first page of Gray Lensman before tossing it. In 8 years my flitters had changed.

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