[January 4, 1962] Over the top…Barely (February 1962 Amazing)

by John Boston

Life is full of happy surprises!  At long last Amazing has crossed a line: nothing in the the February 1962 issue is worse than three stars, and the average is a little higher.  Read on; I think you’ll agree that there is much to enjoy in this, the first magazine of the month:

Mark Clifton’s serial Pawn of the Black Fleet concludes in this issue.  It continues Clifton’s series about Ralph Kennedy, a corporate personnel director (as was Clifton) who appeared in four stories from 1953 to 1957 dealing with various psi manifestations.  Back then, Clifton appeared so often in Astounding that some called it the Clifton House Organ, though most of his recent work has appeared elsewhere.

Here, Kennedy is mistakenly dragooned into a job as Extraterrestrial Psychologist for the Space Navy, where he quickly learns the game of bureaucratic aggrandizement.  There are no extraterrestrials to psychologize at first, but soon enough a flight of black disks (the titular “Black Fleet”) appears, striking terror and sowing confusion until radiant globes show up and spectacularly dispatch them in what only Kennedy realizes is a complete put-on.  The aliens from the globes then manifest as five regular guys with heavy Texas accents, communicating frankly only with Kennedy.  After a brief interlude at Blair House, they go sightseeing around the Earth, irrigating deserts, making paths through jungles, and making Siberia and similar places livable as they go.  Then they depart, letting everything revert to its prior condition, telling the world that now you know what needs to be done and how to do it, and we’ll catch you later when you develop star travel and come visit us.  A subplot involves the machinations of Harvey Strickland, a media mogul resembling a cartoon of William Randolph Hearst on stilts, a comically evil figure, and obese to boot (confirming his awfulness, apparently).

This novella’s worth of plot is larded with extensive and heavy-handed satirical screeds about federal bureaucracy and its status obsessions, the military, the gullibility and prejudices of humanity at large, and similar subjects, some voiced or enacted by the characters (especially Strickland), but most in the authorial voice.  One rant about the military mind consumes more than a page of text.  (Now we know why this did not appear in Analog: nobody but the editor gets to rant at that length.) Clifton has apparently given up on “Show, don’t tell.” Some of these bloated lampoons are quite well written and therefore amusing, but collectively they become tedious, though their effect cannot be conveyed without quoting more than is manageable in the cramped quarters of this long-haul vessel.  Satire of bureaucracy is nothing new in Clifton’s work (see the previous Ralph Kennedy stories), but this one is less like being pricked with a needle and more like being beaten over the head with a sandbag.  Satire has yielded to self-indulgent and over-the-top misanthropy.  See for yourself when, as the magazine promises, a version appears next month from Doubleday as When They Come from Space.  Three stars.

The lead story is Poul Anderson’s Third Stage, a near-space and near-time opera featuring two astronauts who get stuck in orbit in the Van Allen belt.  Someone has to go outside the vehicle and clear the blocked valve, taking a fatal radiation dose.  Which one?  How to decide?  (The General bucks it to the President.) Also featured is an obnoxious TV guy who is harassing the astronauts’ families for human interest shots.  Capably and tensely done, but mechanical.  Three stars.

Third Stage is illustrated by another hardware-intensive hyper-literal cover, this one with a fillip: the space capsule is presented in cutaway, like something in Popular Mechanics.  Conceivably, artist Alex Schomburg is being subtler than he seems: the TV guy at one point displays a cutaway of the capsule on the air, described similarly to the cover.  So maybe it is meant to present an image of an image—appropriate to the media-centric aspect of the story.

Amazing’s “Classic Reprint” series is selected from the magazine’s early days and introduced by Sam Moskowitz, the leading (virtually the only) historian of the genre.  This issue’s Classic is Missionaries from the Sky by Stanton A. Coblentz, prolific in the 1920s and ‘30s, and known as a satirist.  And, based on my reading of several novels, a right old bore.  At short length, however, Coblentz’s verbose and antiquated style is more tolerable. 

Rand the electronic scientist has a new invention, which he shows to his assistant Denison:

“ ‘You behold here a Micro-Crystalline Televisor,’ explained Rand, surveying his invention proudly.  ‘The first of its kind ever created.’ ”

“ ‘Micro-Crystalline what?’ I gasped.”

Rand has managed to contact Mars, learning and teaching the respective languages, and the Martians are horrified to learn that Earth still has nations and wars, not to mention inequality and starvation.  They have offered to pop over and set us right, if Rand will just give them the go-ahead and direct them to a flat place to land.  He agonizes about the boons of peace and equality versus the loss of freedom until he finally flips, melodramatically smashing his equipment and burning his notes, a now-mad scientist in a better cause than usual.  Three stars for this reasonably pleasant and charming relic.

The remaining fiction items read as if they had wandered over from Amazing’s companion Fantastic.  A. Earley, apparently a new writer, contributes And It Was Good, a religious allegory in which somebody who seems to be Jesus returns to a post-apocalyptic war-ridden world and lightens the burdens of a few hopeless deserters from different countries’ armies until he gets blown up by a grenade.  Usually I have no patience with this kind of thing, but it is so well written and visualized, and light-handed despite its overtness (parse that if you dare), and so different in flavor from the rest of the magazine, I’m giving it four stars. 

John Jakes, by contrast, is a veteran of Amazing since 1950, with 50+ low-impact stories in the SF magazines and several dozen more elsewhere.  He perpetrates the cheerfully grotesque Recidivism Preferred, in which dashing thief Mellors (no relation, I’m sure) has been reduced after apprehension to a dull and withdrawn clerk in Lumpkin’s Emporium.  But he is visited by three surreally cartoonish characters who prove determined to break the conditioning that has rendered him both law-abiding and vacuous.  This is comedy so black as to be Stygian, and would rate higher were it not for the silly and deflating revelation of the rescuers’ motives.  Too bad.  Maybe someday a more ambitious writer can make something of the tradeoff between therapeutic rehabilitation and mental and moral freedom.  Three stars.

Sam Moskowitz has another in his series of “SF Profiles,” this one titled Theodore Sturgeon: No More Than Human.  Remarkably, the latest Sturgeon work mentioned is More Than Human, published in 1953; there is no reference to any of his numerous subsequent short stories and novelettes, or to his recent novels The Cosmic Rape (1958) or Some of Your Blood (1961), except for a general acknowledgment of his “steady literary production…with a continuous striving for higher achievement.” Nonetheless, it’s an interesting account of Sturgeon’s life and earlier career, with speculation about why he’s been doing so well recently, and there’s nothing else like these articles.  Four stars, as much for ground-breaking as anything else.

So ends an above-water issue, and just in time to return to my less exciting (for once) school-related reading.  Until next month!

19 thoughts on “[January 4, 1962] Over the top…Barely (February 1962 Amazing)”

  1. Sam Moskowitz was one of the dullest people I ever met.
    I remember , in 1967, at the Worldcon in N.Y. City, Moskowitz made some kind of presentation at the Hugo banquet , he told a long joke, everyone already knew in such a monotone the crowd grew restless!
    Thing I remember at the ’67 Worldcon was that the scientologists had a booth there, a group of NY science fiction fans gave them holy hell the whole time , I have to wonder if the Church of Scientology ever came to a world con again?
    It is funny to think that the ‘science fiction religion’ , arising out of , so to speak, SF Fandom, was first and foremost despised by it origins.

  2. Mention of Sturgeon’s More Than Human reminds me that by 1960 I had that novel number one on my list of the greatest SF works. It was displaced in 1969 by Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which I consider as , not yet displaced, as science fiction’s great work of prose, and one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
    More than Human is still second!

    1. I have read at least one of the stories in the Sturgeon, and I know I own it.  But I have not read the whole thing. 

      I’ve not heard of this Le Guin person, but I wish her the best!

      1. The lady at the bookstore got a copy of Sturgeon’s “Some of Your Blood” for me, knowing my fondness for SF.  I read it last year with the intent to contribute a review, but whatever it was, other than tedious, it certainly wasn’t science fiction…

        I’ve never been a big Sturgeon fan, but after that book I think I can find better things to waste my time and money on.

  3. I do like the Classic Reprint. Just a bit long winded, perhaps; but I love the glimpses of that oldtime Mars we get. And we’ll never be sure if the Martians were honestly ignorant, or simply trying to con Rand.

    Earley raises a good point, but I think it would have been better to use a more limited god. Hercules would have been good, I think.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Looks like a couple of pranksters are dropping names from the future!  Ursula K. LeGuin (as unlikely as that name seems) is a real person, the daughter of the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber.  (Maybe you know the new book about his work written by his wife Theodora, “Ishi in Two Worlds.”) Anyway, LeGuin has had exactly one story published, “An die Musik,” in a literary journal.  What she might have to do with science fiction I don’t know.

    I managed to read some of this issue.  The biography of Sturgeon was informative.

    I must take issue with the introduction to “Missionaries From the Sky,” when Moskowitz claims that the only satirists to come out of SF are de Camp and Coblentz!  Has he never heard of Kornbluth and Pohl, or Sheckley?

    As for the story itself, I have to admit I skimmed through it.  I appreciate the author’s point, but the old-time style was a bit of a slog.

    “And It Was Good” was intriguing.  I’m still thinking about what the author was trying to say, which is a good thing.

    “Recidivism Preferred” certainly held my interest.  Its strange details and sudden changes in tone reminded me somewhat of Lafferty.  The punch line was a bit weak, but other than that it was my favorite.

    1. Fred Pohl did, after a fashion , get good recognition during his lifetime, alas that seems to gotten fogged in with time.
      C.M. Kornbluth makes the top of my list of unjustly unknown SF writers , he was a gem. Robert Sheckley was a steady presence in Galaxy in the 1950s , very wry. From that era Fredric Brown too. I have never, maybe should look harder, found out if Douglas Adams ever acknowledged his debt to Sheckley and Brown.
      Not to forget Phil Dick who could do chaffing in deceptive ways.
      I have never figured out why , or even how Dick’s novels of the 1950’s got labeled as pulp. I remember reading Solar Lottery in 1955 and , at that time, thinking “this is weird” when he pulled the rug from beneath what seemed a conventional story. The next year I read The World Jones Made , a strange SF novel , underrated then and seemly so even now. Other 50’s novels.
      One thing that always puzzled me , H. L. Gold was publishing the best Dick short stories in the 50’s , did Dick ever submit one of his novels to Gold? They seemed a prefect fit for Galaxy’s pages so open to works of Pohl and Kornbluth , Bester, … others. Never have figured it out.

  5. Might you be so kind as to describe a little further what your star ratings represent? I would never have rated either the Clifton or the Coblentz that high, so I surmise that your rating criteria are quite different from mine.

    I do occasional reviews on my own site, and when I do, this is how I rank things:

    0 stars — so bad I couldn’t finish it
    1 star — seriously flawed, do not recommend
    2 stars — readable but flawed, proceed at your own risk
    3 stars — solid, well-written and enjoyable, no obvious flaws
    4 stars — significantly above average
    5 stars — outstanding, blew me away

    I would rank the Coblentz as 2 (possibly 2.5 if I were feeling generous) and the Clifton as 1. Neither of them rises to the level of what I consider a well-written story.

    1. I can tell you that, in my rating system, there is no 0.  1 includes the abyssmal (though Lorelei gave a recent move .5 stars to reflect its true awfulness).

      The joy of having multiple writers is people have different takes on stories.  The problem with having multiple writers is inconsistent tastes!

  6. I generally like Clifton, especially the Ralph Kennedy stories, but this one really fell flat. I agree that judicious editing to cut it down to novella size would have helped it a lot. There’s also the problem that the Kennedy stories usually end with a big promotion for Ralph, and Clifton had already taken him about as far as a personnel manager could reasonably go.

    The Anderson was good. It might make a nice, tense film or hour-long TV show.

    I was less happy with the reprint. Not a bad story, I suppose, but the style was rather turgid (and I cut my teeth on that style). Makes me appreciate what Campbell did for the genre, if nothing else.

    “And It Was Good” was okay, I guess. I generally don’t care for stories like this, but it was quite readable. The prologue and epilogue reminded me a bit of the end of Stranger in a Strange Land.

    Jakes, as usual, spins a readable yarn, though his use of dialect kept yanking me out of the story.

    All in all, a much better issue than last month. Let’s hope this one is more typical of what to expect.

  7. Boy, Mark Clifton, even I who tries to keep the home fires burning forget some writers. He was a Campbell favorite . Around for too short a period. One of the unjustly unknowns.
    Won a Hugo for They’d Rather Be Right.

    1. With Frank Riley.  And, to be blunt, not a very good novel at all.  Of the half a dozen or so novels that have won that distinction — “The Demolished Man,” “Double Star,” “The Big Time,” “A Case of Conscience,” “Starship Troopers,” and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” — it sticks out like a sore thumb as mediocre at best.

  8. O my goodness , in 1955 Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers would have been eligible , not to mention Mission of Gravity , Brain Waves ,The Caves of Steel and maybe even I am Legend.
    Goodness the 1940’s may have been the Golden Age but the 1950’s were the Platinum Age.

  9. I dunno… Matheson seems to operate well enough in the horror and weird-tale genres, but I wouldn’t have rated “I Am Legend” more than a 2.  An enterprising scriptwriter might make a half-decent movie out of it, though.

  10. Dipping an oar into the river of time.
    Between 1960 and 1962 someone from the Church of Scientology would call me late at night proselytizing. Seems if one had ever been in a fan organization or gone to a convention Scientology had gotten hold of address lists. I think every SF fan in the world , for a few years in early 60’s, got a call from them. Happen to you?
    This month was the last I heard from them.
    They were insufferable jerks.

  11. It can take a bit to get in the groove at GJ.  Some people are so focused on the future, they forget it’s just now 1962.

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