[December 21, 1961] Reviewer’s Burden (January 1962 Analog)

by Gideon Marcus

I read a lot of stuff every month.  I consider it my duty, as your curator, to cover as broad a range of fiction as possible so that you can pick the stories most likely to appeal to you.  What that means is I wade through a lot of stones to find the gems.

Analog is the magazine with the highest stone/gem ratio, I’m afraid.  Nevertheless, it’s rare that an issue goes by without something to recommend it, and the January 1962 edition has at least one genuine amethyst amongst the quartz.

It is the first story, Naudsonce, by one of my favorite authors, H. Beam Piper.  Like his earlier classic, Omnilingual, it is an extra-terrestrial linguistic puzzle story.  Unlike the prior story, Naudsonce involves a living alien race, one with no discernible language, and which displays nonsensical reactions to human speech.  Is telepathy involved?  Is the Terran contact team missing a fundamental clue?

It’s an interesting riddle, to be sure, but what really sells this story is the social commentary.  From the beginning, we see that the human explorers, while not bad people, are interested in one thing: finding a colonizable planet.  The concerns of the aboriginals are casually treated, and the callous, jaded attitude of the scouts is evident, particularly at the end.  This kind of cynical self-awareness is quite rare for an Analog story, and it contrasts strongly with the utter lack of it in Mack Reynold’s serial (see below).  I also appreciated that the contact team was thoroughly integrated, ethnically and sexually; but then Piper has always been ahead of the curve on this issue.  This diversity of characters highlights that the casual rapine associated with imperialism is not an ethnic problem, but a human one.  Four stars.

Idiot Solvant, by Gordon Dickson, is a story that could have been much better.  The premise is exciting: You know how you often get flashes of inspiration when you are sleepy?  Or a solution comes to you in a dream?  Clearly, some magic happens when one’s left brain relinquishes control and lets the right go wild.  Something similar happens to the protagonist of Solvant, allowing him to accomplish some truly miraculous feats.  What kills this story, however, is the several pages of exposition that set up the gimmick.  Moreover, a story, especially a short story, only gets so much leeway before it exceeds its “hand-wave” allowance.  Dickson asserts too many premises in too short a space.  The result is a contrived mess.  Two stars.

E.C. Tubb’s Worm in the Woodwork is a competent interstellar thriller about an undertaking to save a Terran logician who has fallen into the hands of a hostile colonial star league.  The thoughtful bits involving the captive genius, Ludec, are particularly engaging.  Three stars.

The science fact pieces continue to be where Analog falls down.  Campbell went through the trouble of giving his magazine a “slick” section, using the kind of paper one normally finds in news periodicals like Time.  Nevertheless, the articles often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.  Big Boom in Forming, by Willis Cain, has an interesting topic – explosive formed metals (where big booms press metal plate against molds to make parts) – but the piece is, by turns, overly kiddie and excessively obtuse.  Two stars.

Editor John Campbell’s When the Glaciers Go is much worse, though.  Some garbage about how rapid climate change (over the course of hours!) is evidenced by the frozen Mastodons in Siberia.  The climate is changing, and our species is a big contributing factor these days, but it don’t work like that.  Bleah.  One star.

That brings us to Black Man’s Burden (Part 2 of 2), by Mack Reynolds.  I had high hopes for this piece, about Afro-Americans spearheading efforts in Africa to promote democracy and progress.  After all, Reynolds is an accomplished writer of political thriller, and he’s spend a good deal of time in the Mahgreb.  Africa, a continent that has seen nearly twenty new nations spring up in the wake of decolonization, is a rich (and unusual) setting. 

In the end, however, Burden was a disappointment.  While no one knows where Africa is heading, I like to think that, after the normal teething pains, its states will join the community of nations as vibrant, mature members.  Reynolds’ premise is that they simply can’t, that without the aid of Westerners (Free or Communist), Africa will remain a tribal and/or despotic mess.  Or at least, that’s what the protagonists of the story all believe.  At one point, it is even asserted that Islam is a dead-end for nation-building; no Islamic country on Earth has an advanced social system.  I take particular umbrage with this idea given the flowering of the Muslim world in the “Middle Ages.” 

This idea that Africa must be boot-strapped into modernity by its abducted sons, the descendants of American slavery, is an insulting one.  It slights Africans, and it paints a veneer of redemption on “that peculiar institution.”  There is a throwaway reference to the destruction of African culture in the process of “improving” it, but it feels perfunctory.  Worst of all is this bland superiority that suffuses the whole thing.  Africans are pawns.  Americans are superior.  I appreciate that the characters of Burden are all Black, but that quality is only skin-deep.  It is, ultimately, a story of White Americans, who happen to be of dark hue.  And unlike Naudsonce, it’s played completely straight.  2 stars.

Sum it all together, and you’ve got a 2.3 star issue.  This is worse than, well, any of the magazines that came out this month.  If this is the digest that will win the Hugo, I’ve got a closet full of hats to eat…

…but Naudsonce is worth reading!

13 thoughts on “[December 21, 1961] Reviewer’s Burden (January 1962 Analog)”

  1. Actually, with my taste for light stuff, my favourite is the Dickson. It does take a very good writer to make all that exposition and handwavium enjoyable, but Dickson is a very good writer.

    Though I would have preferred a bit more solidity to both the aliens and their planet, I enjoyed the Piper, too. And must quote: he always looked as though he were gloating because nobody knew that his name was really Rumplestiltskin

    I rather think Reynolds was taking Ataturk as exemplar.

  2. Piper is one of my favorites, too. “Naudsonce” was a very good tale. I think what grabbed my attention the most was the way the scientists latched on to the wrong solution and it dominated their thinking for a while. Very true to life.

    The Dickson was fairly typical mediocre Dickson. Marginally enjoyable, but that’s about it.

    The Tubb was excellent (once I got over the title constantly making me think of Papa Schimmelhorn), but frustrating. My copy was missing the last page, so I don’t know if Ludec was rescued or killed. I particularly liked the three different voices. Even without names, it was possible to tell who the point-of-view character was as soon as a section started.

    I’ve gotten to the point where I just skim the fact articles, especially if Campbell himself is the author. I didn’t read closely, but it looked like he was talking about rapid continental shift at some point? The Dean drive has apparently rotted his brain so far, he’s starting to wander into Edgar Cayce or Madame Blavatsky territory.

    Your criticisms of “Black Man’s Burden” are well taken. (I found myself slightly troubled by a white man attempting to give us the viewpoint of even a black American. Abe was almost a cliche). I don’t agree entirely. We don’t get to see much of the “social engineering” (to coin a term) that Homer and his people are doing, but what I saw seemed largely to be more an attempt to create a synthesis of Western and African cultures, such as Isobel planting the seeds of ideas among the women of various villages in the first part. But, yes, much of it is problematic and smacks of a white savior coming in to rescue and lift up the benighted primitives. I’d still give it a full three stars, though.

      1. Thanks. It did finish just a little weak. I thought your three stars were a bit harsh, but having read the end, I’d say you’re right. That last line was just too arch.

  3. Your link for Naudsonce appears to be broken; when I mouse-over it, it looks like 2 URLs jammed together.

    Incidentally, note the change to my e-mail. I’m in the process of relegating the old one to lesser uses.

  4. A little short of time today, so I only read the Dickson.  I thought it wasn’t bad, although more in the style of F&SF than Analog.  The invention of a radio-controlled telephone that one could move from place to place and call anywhere on Earth (unlike a typical walkie-talkie) sounds reasonably plausible, particularly from what is very much a tongue-in-cheek story.

  5. Today I read the Piper.  I think what makes it work is his wry sense of humor, just a bit cynical about how infallible human beings think they are.  Not something you see a lot of in Analog.

  6. And just finished the Tubb.  An effective tale of espionage.  With some tweaking it could be a modern day Cold War story without the science fiction trappings, but it works well enough.

    Based on what you said, I think I’ll skip the articles and the serial.

  7. I just finished “Black Man’s Burden.”  It was a pretty tough slog… I disliked most of the characters, the storytelling was weak, and frankly, the plot needed a lot of handwavium.  I gave it my best shot, but I didn’t find anything to like there.

    Though I’m a big Piper fan, “Naudsonce” didn’t do much for me.  Somehow, it read like something from the 1930s, except with slightly more animated dialogue.

    The Tubb is next in the queue.

  8. Further — you do know the Dickson story was a comedy, right?  Dickson had only just published _Delusion World / Spacial Delivery_ in the Ace Double series, and was to publish a few more comedies as relaxation from his just-starting Childe series, which was an intense and complex work.  Some of the comedies were blatant antitheses to the tough, rigorous SF (and _Naked to the Stars_ is an obvious rebuttal to his own Dorsai series).  _Idiot_ makes absolute sense within its own intentions – to depend on humor yet remain entirely logical on how systems work.  Dickson may be among the dozen best writers of his time, and none of his work was negligible.

    1. Hello, Ian!  I received your letter regarding the McIntosh and Reynolds stories, and I hope you’ll publish them in the appropriate columns as the information in them is excellent and would be of interest to other readers.

      As for the Dickson, I do recognize that the story was an attempt at humor, and at least one of my readers quite enjoyed it.  It just wasn’t to my taste.  I will, however, happily concede that Dickson is quite the talent, and while I don’t enjoy everything he writes (Dorsai!, for instance), I do like much of it.

      Thank you for your comments!

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