[July 27, 1961] Breaking a Winning Streak (August 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

Take a look at the back cover of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.  There’s the usual array of highbrows with smug faces letting you know that they wouldn’t settle for a lesser sci-fi mag.  And next to them is the Hugo award that the magazine won last year at Pittsburgh’s WorldCon.  That’s the third Hugo in a row. 

It may well be their last.

I used to love this little yellow magazine.  Sure, it’s the shortest of the Big Three (including Analog and Galaxy), but in the past, it boasted the highest quality stories.  I voted it best magazine for 1959 and 1960

F&SF has seen a steady decline over the past year, however, and the last three issues have been particularly bad.  Take a look at what the August 1961 issue offers us:

Avaram Davidson and Morton Klass’s The Kappa Nu Nexus, about a milquetoast Freshman who joins a fraternity that hosts a kooky set of time travelers.  Davidson’s writing, formerly some of the most sublime, has gotten unreadably self-indulgent, and William Tenn’s brother (Klass) doesn’t make it any better.  One star.

Survival Planet, by Harry Harrison, features the remnant colony of the vanquished Great Slavocracy.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s mostly told rather than shown, the book-ends being highly expositional.  Three stars.

Vance Aandahl, as one of my readers once observed, desperately wants to be Ray Bradbury.  His Cogi Drove His Car Through Hell has the virtue of starring a non-traditional protagonist; that’s the only virtue of this mess.  One star.

Juliette, translated from the French by Damon Knight (it is originally by Claude-François Cheiniss), is a bright spot.  It’s a sort of cross between McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and Young’s Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used Car Lot.  I found it effective, written in that Gallic light fashion.  Four stars.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you the point of E. William Blau’s first printed story, The Dispatch Executive.  Something about a bureaucratic dystopia, or perhaps it’s a special kind of hell for office clerks.  Hell is right, and here’s hoping we don’t see Blau in print again.  One star.

Then we have another comparatively bright spot: Kit Reed’s Piggy.  Per the author, it is “the story of Pegasus, although I don’t remember that his passengers spouted verse, and a mashup of first lines from Emily Dickinson, whom I admired, but never liked.”  There’s no question that it’s beautifully written, but there is not much movement as regards to plot.  Three stars.

A Meeting on a Northern Moor, Leah Bodine Drake’s poem on the decline of Norse mythology is evocative, though brief.  Murray Leinster’s The Case of the Homicidal Robots is a turgid mystery-adventure involving the spacenapping of dozens io interstellar vessels.  Three and two stars, respectively.

Winona McClintic is back with Four Days in the Corner, some kind of ghost story.  It’s worse than her last piece, and that’s nothing to be proud of.  Two stars.

Then we have Asimov’s science fact column, The Evens Have It, on the frequency of nuclear isotopes among the elements.  The Good Doctor’s articles are usually the high point of F&SF for me, but this one is the first I’d ever characterize as “dull.”  Three stars, but you’ll probably give it a two.

Rounding things up is Gordon Dickson’s The Haunted Village, about a traveler who vacations in a village whose inhabitants are hostile to outsiders.  The twist?  There is no outside world – only the delusion that such a thing exists.  Dickson is capable of a lot better.  Two stars.

I often say that I read bad fiction so you don’t have to.  This was especially true this month.  While Galaxy was quite good (3.4 stars), both Analog and F&SF clocked in at 2.2. 
For those of you new to the genre and wondering why they should bother (why I should bother), I promise – it’s not all like this.  Please don’t let it all be like this…

Coming up next: The sci-fi epic, Mysterious Island!

17 thoughts on “[July 27, 1961] Breaking a Winning Streak (August 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)”

    1. How do you learn such things?  Did you score high on Rhine test?

      If Davidson picks folks who write like Davidson writes now…I’m not excited.

      (P.S. Thanks for your comment!)

  1. I suppose McClintock’s story could be considered an answer to Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, saying both genders are in a mess together. But it does remind me of Thurber’s hopeful amaeurs, who start off smart and don’t have anywhere to go.

    I can’t even admire Reed’s writing, and that story’s been done so often, generally by the very young.

    Looking forward to The Mysterious Island!

      1. Sorry, the above comment was me. I didn’t realise I hadn’t signed in.

        And I’m sure your opinion of Reed is sounder!

  2. One the one hand, I just can’t believe you’re wittering about GERNSBACH looking smug “… letting you know that they wouldn’t settle for a lesser sci-fi mag”? Man, I want a CASE of what you’ve been drinking. Gernsback is well known for his sharp (and sometimes shady) business practices, and H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith both referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

    On the other hand, that roster of works you describe is dire. I hope they can do better.

  3. Well skewered.  But isn’t something missing here?  “It’s a sort of cross between McCaffrey’s Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used Car Lot — effective, written in that Gallic light fashion.”

  4. If I had to describe this issue in one word, it would be “thin.”  All of the stories seem minor.  Of course, one can’t expect “Flowers for Algernon” or “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” in every issue.  I suppose I would rather read several mediocre short stories than one mediocre novella, but that may be a case of sweet lemons (the opposite of sour grapes) on my part.

    “The Kappa Nu Nexus” was just a dumb sex comedy, and Davidson’s eccentric style adds nothing to it.

    “Survival Planet” was solidly plotted, but lacks passion.  It seems more appropriate for “Analog.”  (Maybe it got rejected by Campbell.)

    “Cogi Drove His Car Through Hell” displays Aandahl’s virtues and flaws.  He’s still a teenager, so he has the wild imagination and fire that Harrison (not much older, but already a seasoned pro) might lack at times, but he needs to develop some discipline.

    “Juliette” wasn’t bad, and it always good to see what speculative fiction from another culture is like.

    The Feghoot isn’t worthy of comment.

    “The Dispatch Executive” was, perhaps to your surprise, my favorite story in the issue.  I’m a sucker for a Kafkaesque nightmare, so this was right up my alley.  Let’s hope we’ll see more from this otherwise unknown author.

    “Piggy” wasn’t bad.  Reed can write very well.

    I can’t intelligently comment on poetry, but I enjoyed “A Meeting on a Northern Moor.”  I believe Drake has written quite a bit of macabre verse.

    “The Case of the Homicidal Robots” was a major disappointment from a well-known author, and I tend to think it would not have been published if it had been by an unknown.

    “Four Days in the Corner” held my interest, but maybe only because I still don’t really understand it.

    Any Asimov science essay is worthy, but maybe the subject matter of this one wasn’t thrilling.

    “The Haunted Village” was a decent story of its kind, if not outstanding.

    So, overall I guess I didn’t dislike this issue as much as you did, although I’m not really passionate about anything in it.

      1. I seriously doubt that.

        I don’t think trying to “explain” the story is possible, by its very nature.  It’s a work of absurdist fiction, with all the randomness and irrationality that implies.  The confusion that the reader is certain to experience is a reflection of what the protagonist undergoes.  Things happen for no apparent reason, and this is intended as a reflection of how we all sometimes experience a world which doesn’t always make sense.

        That’s my take on it, anyway.

      2. I’m joining in with the “Dispatch Executive” appreciation society in this week’s lettercol, though with some reservations. While I don’t feel it fell together, and while occasional moments of preciousness chafed a bit, I quite liked the mood and, I suppose, the lack of any explanation about what’s going on. I like being dropped in the middle and told, “you figure it out.”

        It reads to me as a vision of a kind of Stalinism as implemented through the bureaucracy of the modern mega-corporation, while also trying to be a meditation, or a fugue, on the comfortable meaninglessness of being a… not a happy cog in the machine, but a content one, I suppose, until jogged exactly the wrong way, at which point, well, all the parts go flying off. Hints of a lesser Kafka, perhaps.

        I don’t think it succeeds, but I do think it’s an interesting failure, which gets it two and a half starts from me. Despite how little happens, I was never bored; it hooked me well enough that I kept going, and, more importantly, I think, thought about it. And I might go back and read it again.

        (I’ve finished Fellowship of the Ring, by the way. This is very much a different story to my beloved The Hobbit, but wow, what a story so far!)

  5. Perhaps you just weren’t in the right frame of mind or were worn out from your hectic weekend. I found the issue a little better than you did, possibly even a full three stars.

    The Harrison could have been tightened up a bit and given a more solid ending. As you say, there was a little too much telling and not enough showing, but all in all I found it enjoyable.

    The Aandahl was abysmal, particularly given such an intriguing title. It was also the first of three stories here that I felt were trying to imitate Philip K. Dick or should have been written by him. As Victoria notes, he’s still in his teens (might not even have graduated high school when he made his first sale), so he does have room to grow. I do see the glimmerings of talent there.

    Like Victoria, I also rather liked “The Dispatch Executive”. I found myself wondering a lot about possible symbolism in the character names. “Insel” means “island”, “Fenster” means “window”, and “Unter” means “under” or “below”. Some of the other names also have potentially significant meanings. But this is another one that feels like Phil Dick.

    I enjoyed the Reed. It’s nice to see someone remember the connection between Pegasus and the Muses.

    The McClintic, well… I’m reminded of a bit in Animal Crackers where Chico is noodling about on the piano and Groucho remarks, “Say, if you get near a tune, play it.” She got near a story a couple of times, but she never told it. Again, a tale for Dick to do much better.

    I can be reasonably content with mediocre Leinster and while Dickson is capable of better, this one was at least readable.

    So overall, I think I’m generally in agreement with Victoria on this one.

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