by Gideon Marcus
There are many ways to measure the strength of a story. Is the plot innovative? Does it resonate emotionally? Are the featured characters unusual? Does it employ clever literary devices?
As a writer, I am always particularly impressed by efficiency: the ability of an author to develop his tale with a minimum of exposition, unfolding a plot teasingly so as to keep the reader turning those pages with increased anticipation, and then delivering a solid conclusion at the end – where it belongs.
The July 1962 Analog Science Fiction delivers a series of object lessons in how (and how not) to write efficiently. In some cases, the execution can be admired even if the story isn’t great shakes. And vice versa. Read on!:
Listen! The Stars!, by John Brunner
Brunner is a new British author whose prolific writings have already enchanted one of the Journey’s writers. Now it’s my turn.
Listen! takes place a few decades from now, just after the discovery of an esoteric electronic principle that allows one to literally eavesdrop on the stars. Using a sort of acoustic telescope, the “stardropper,” one can tune in to the mental vibrations of extraterrestrials. This isn’t telepathy, and even if it were, who could understand the minds of total aliens?
Yet, listening to these emanations is compelling in the extreme. There is the feeling that, if you could just wrap your head around them, the secrets of the universe might be yours. Stardropper addiction runs rampant…and then the disappearances begin. Users simply vanish, though very few cases are actually witnessed. Concerned at the ramifications, the American government dispatches a special agent to investigate the vanishings.
Listen! is perfectly constructed, fitting its novella length just right. The plot is also novel, though there are shades of Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The characterizations serve the tale rather than being tacked on. A five star story.
Junior Achievement, by William M. Lee
This tale of a gaggle of precocious kids and their science project is neither engaging nor novel. I think the idea is that fall-out from an atomic exchange has caused the kids to surpass the adults by leaps and bounds, but otherwise, I couldn’t see the point. Two stars.
The Other Likeness, by James H. Schmitz
Alien agents in human form are inserted into a Terran Federation with the goal to destroy it from within. A textbook example of how not to write: three quarters of this story is action without explanation, followed by the most expository of endings. The result is that one wonders why one is reading until the finale and then feels let down for the effort expended. Two stars.
Brain Waves and Thought Patterns, by John Eric Holmes, M.D.
I normally cringe at the prospect of reading non-fiction in Analog given Editor Campbell’s preference for crackpots pushing psychic malarkey, but July’s piece genuinely intrigues. We are finally learning a bit about the black box of the mind that lies between stimulus and response. The key has been to implant electrodes into the brain and measure the electrical output. Cats are the subject of choice being the perfect combination of ubiquitous and medium-sized.
The result? We now know a lot about the brainwaves of cats. What this means for the future of humanity, brain research, Dr. Rhine, etc. remains to be seen. Three stars.
Border, Breed Nor Birth (Part 1 of 2), by Mack Reynolds
El Hassan, the mythical would-be uniter of North Africa is back in Reynolds’ second tale set in the Mahgreb of the 1980s. As in the first, it follows Homer Crawford and his band of Westernized Negroes as they promulgate the virtues of democracy and technology under a collective assumed identity.
I’m a little warmer to the idea that Africa can use the help of its displaced children across the sea, and I do appreciate the attention to detail in the setting and the politics (no surprise – Reynolds spent a good deal of time in Morocco and Algeria). However, the presentation is still too flip, and I suspect the endeavor is going to prove all too easy. But perhaps the naive ambitions of Crawford et. al. will be thwarted in Part II. Three stars so far, but I’m waiting for the thump of shoe #2.
The Rescuer, by Arthur Porges
Last up is the chronicle of the destruction of a machine, perhaps the most powerful and important machine in human history. The pay-off is as hoary as your grandmother, but the unveiling is rather masterful. Three stars.
Summed up, this month’s Analog is the least good of the Big Five magazines, scoring a still respectable 3.1 stars – and it has the month’s best story, in my opinion. Given that no digest scored under the three stars this month, it has been an unusually fruitful July for science fiction lovers.
(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.! If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)