[June 11, 1960] Fool me once… (July 1960 Amazing)

If there is any innovation that defined the resurgent science fiction field in the 1950s, it is the science fiction digest.  Before the last decade, science fiction was almost entirely the province of the “pulps,” large-format publications on poor-quality paper.  The science fiction pulps shared space with the detective pulps, the western pulps, the adventure pulps.  Like their brethren, the sci-fi pulps had lurid and brightly colored covers, often with a significant cheesecake component.

Astounding (soon to be Analog) was one of the first magazines to make the switch to the new, smaller digest format.  Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and a host of other new magazines never knew another format.  By the mid-’50s, there were a score of individual science fiction digests, some excellent, some unremarkable.  It was an undisputed heyday.  But even by 1954, there were signs of decline.  By the end of the decade, only a handful of digests remained.  The “Big Three” were and are Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy (now a bi-monthly alternating production with a revamped version of IF).  Also straggling along are Fantastic Stories and Amazing, the latter being the oldest one in continuous production.

My faithful readers know I don’t generally bother with the last two titles.  Although some of my favorite authors sometimes appear in them, the overall magazine quality is spotty, and my time (not to mention budget!) is limited.  Nevertheless, Rosel George Brown had a good story in Fantastic last month, and this month’s Amazing had a compelling cover that promised I would find works by Blish, Bone, Clarke, and Knight inside. 

I bit.  This article is the result.

Last time I covered Amazing, I noted that the magazine was a throwback both in writing style and plots.  Things haven’t changed much.  Though there are a couple of decent stories in here, I wouldn’t buy a subscription based on what I read. 

In brief:

J.F. Bone has written some fine stuff.  Noble Redman, about a psionically endowed, red-hued Earthman who teams up with a Martian lowlife (both of them humans), is not one of his best tales, but it’s inoffensive 3-star fare.

A good portion of the book is taken up with William F. Temple’s novella, “L” is for Lash.  This is pure early ’50s stuff: a retired cop named Fred (I don’t think we ever learn his last name) is haunted by the criminal he put away decades before, and who was interned for life on Venus.  The convict somehow managed to escape, go on a robbing spree, and attain eternal youth and invulnerability to boot.  The protagonist’s solution is not only implausible, it’s actually inconsistent. 

I’ll spoil things for you: Lash, the criminal, has perfect telekinetic control of everything around him.  Missiles, A- Bombs, guns, all are ineffective against him.  We are told later in the story that the first of Lash’s murders had been designed to look like an accident.  He had angered a fellow to the point of firing on Lash, but Lash had gimmicked the assailant’s gun to fire backward, thus killing its owner.  At the end of Lash, the hero visits the Scotland Yard crime museum (is there such a place?) to view this unique weapon.  He then uses his powers of prestidigitation to swap his current gun for the gimmicked gun.  When Lash inevitably shows up to force Fred to kill himself, the gun shoots backwards and hits Lash. 

Perhaps Lash was taken by surprise.  I can forgive that.  But there is sloppy writing here.  Before the swap, Fred rewires his standard gun to stun rather than kill its targets.  After the swap, he wires the gun back for killing.  Except the trick gun had never been set to stun.  An author and her/his editor really should proofread a work before it is printed.  I understand that Temple wanted to keep the reveal a secret until the end, but this was just sloppy.

If you liked David Bunch’s A Little Girl’s Xmas in Modernia, set a world where, as people mature, they swap out their fleshly components for robotics, then you might enjoy Penance Day in Moderan.  This one involves an annual meeting of generals; they wage war on each other in a casually enjoyable way the other 364 days of the year.  Bunch’s suite of satirical stories has largely been published in Fantastic and Amazing, so I’ve missed them.  If you like them, seek them out!

Murray Yaco, who helped contribute to the poor quality of the October 1959 Astounding is back with the mediocre Membership Drive, about the first contact between an all-too humanoid alien and modern humanity.  The ending particularly bothered me for its callous treatment of the one female character; you may feel differently.

One of the reasons I’d purchased the magazine was the non-fiction article by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke.  A New Look at Space is not really a factual article in the style of Ley or Asimov.  Rather it’s just a four-page puff piece explaining how great Space is and how soon we’ll get there.  I’m not sure what occasioned him to write this space-filler.  Disappointing.

It turns out that the Blish story, …And all the Stars a Stage, is actually the fourth part of a four-part serial.  The description didn’t grab me–male hero leads a rebellion against a stifling matriarchy, so I won’t seek out the other three parts.

Finally, the Knight (Damon, that is).  Time Enough, or Enough Time, depending on whether you believe the Table of Contents or the story’s title page, is a decent coda to the issue.  In the near future, a psychiatrist invents a kind of time machine.  Whether it actually allows one to go back in time or simply return to an episode in one’s personal history is left vague.  The story focuses on an individual who attempts to rewrite an humiliating episode from his middle-school days, one that the patient feels is responsible for his problems in adulthood.  He is unsuccessful in his mission.  His doctor gently reminds his patient that the failures of the past are sometimes best left forgotten, and efforts better spent on improving the present person.  Nevertheless, the patient resolves to keep trying until he succeeds.  “There’s always tomorrow,” the patient states, the irony being that the patient is using his tomorrows to adjust the past rather than to forge a new future. 

It almost goes without mentioning that women are virtually nonexistent, and there are no female writers.  Amazing is still the most conservative of the digests, even more so than Astounding.  I’ve predicted its demise for some time, yet it manages to defy my expectations.  Maybe there are few enough digests now that Amazing‘s share of the market is big enough to sustain it.  Or perhaps its 35 cent price tag, the lowest of the digests, is the secret to its survival.

21 thoughts on “[June 11, 1960] Fool me once… (July 1960 Amazing)”

  1. Noble Redman was fun, in an unconvincing way. I *enjoyed* the ending.

    I was glad not to be convinced by the Yaco (skimmed only). As you say, the ending is most distasteful. But, though I’m no great admirer of the powers that be, I can’t see them being nearly as rube-like.

    I gather the remarkably poor cover is fair and appropriate warning.

  2. Noble Redman had its moments, but it is awfully old-fashioned. It would have felt more at home ten or fifteen years ago. Except for the ending, you could say the same thing about the Yaco. It felt a little like something by Mark Clifton, say. Except for that distasteful ending.

    Blish tends to be rather uneven. Some of his stuff is quite good, other can be very mediocre.

    As for Clarke, I’ve noticed a tendency in some of his work toward more of a travelogue style without a lot of depth. If that’s bleeding over into his non-fiction, that’s a shame. Bad enough in his stories. But “space-filler”, really? Did you do that on purpose?

    The complete lack of women (not to mention the Yaco story) is almost puzzling considering Amazing is edited by Cele Goldsmith. I have heard that she’s interested in developing new writers (maybe because Ziff-Davis isn’t willing to pay top rates) and she did drag Fritz Leiber out of retirement. Also, she’s been running Amazing and Fantastic for, what, a year and half. I’d guess she hasn’t fully put her mark on the two mags just yet. Who knows, maybe Amazing will turn a corner and stick around.

  3. Oh, yes. And there really is a crime museum at Scotland Yard. It’s more commonly known as the Black Museum, but it isn’t open to the general public, only to policemen from anywhere in the world. They have to apply for permission to visit. Properly speaking, I suppose it’s really more of an archive than a museum, but that’s what they call it. Orson Welles had a radio show based on it a few years ago.

    1. After the Ripper case was finally closed all the files and evidence were sent to the museum.  Despite the restricted access, over the years it has been pilfered until there are only a few files left.

  4. Oh!  Thank you for the enlightenment.  It’s great having readers more knowledgeable than one’s self!

    Yes, had thought of mentioning that Amazing‘s editor is a woman, but it didn’t seem germane, and one couldn’t tell from the content, of course.

    As for the Clarke-related quip, just be warned that the novel I am currently hip-deep in writing co-stars an alien with a penchant for bad puns.  There may be side effects.

  5. A badly damaged copy of this issue made its way into my hands — not much more of it left than the rather muddy cover and a couple of stories — so my comments will be limited.

    “Noble Redman” — Eh.  Space Western with some implausibilities.  Forgettable.

    “Membership Drive” — Decently written, enough so that it held my attention.  I was expecting some kind of ironic ending.  One possibility I imagined was that the “test” was actually a way to prevent the poor dumb Earthpeople from leaving the planet and messing with the all-wise Galactic Union.  (The “fuel” and “weapons” wouldn’t work or something.) Another was that the “alien” would turn out to be an Earthling, and part of a sort of benign conspiracy to get scientists to develop a way to leave the planet.  The ending we wound up with would be OK without the third part of the “test,” which made light of something that should have been truly horrifying.  If the author wanted to create a bit of grudging admiration for the clever rogue fooling the gullible humans, it might have worked without that part.

    In any case, it’s probably a good thing that I missed the Temple, and I would want to read only part of a serial, but it’s a shame I missed the Bunch (it’s “David” Bunch, by the way), since I like the daring and experimental “Moderan” series, and the Knight, which sounds like a good story.

    I can’t complain since I didn’t pay a penny for the partial issue!

  6. Thanks for the Bunch correction.  You didn’t miss much in this magazine…

    Here’s a question–do authors “write down” for the inferior mags, or do they market their knowingly inferior work to the inferior mags?  (or does the inferior work get rejected by the superior mags?)

    1. I doubt they write down. Some of it is probably lesser stuff getting rejected by the big mags and authors willing to salvage the time they spent writing by selling it for a pittance to mags like this. Other times it could be an editor cornering a known author at a con or something and convincing them to write something, anything for their cheap mag; the author then dashes off some semigluteal piece as quickly as possible to satisfy the obligation. That could explain Clarke’s piece here.

  7. Another possibility might apply to authors like Bunch.  His stuff is very odd, not quite right for the genre magazines or the literary journals.  I would tend to think he gets his eccentric stories published anywhere he can.  (One should keep in mind also that a “respectable” literary journal may pay nothing at all, while even the lowliest SF magazine pays something.)

  8. Heinlein has an arrangement with John Campbell; Campbell gets “first refusal” of Heinlein’s short fiction.  He’s been known to contact other editors to place stories he didn’t feel were suitable for his magazine, but, come on, it’s Heinlein, he usually manages to squeeze them in somewhere.

    Silverberg doesn’t have that kind of sweetheart deal; he sends his to where he feels he’ll get paid the most (or, given the industry, the most quickly), then works down the list until someone buys the story.

    1. And in between you have situations where Campbell will go to one of his writers and say, “Here is a plot. Write me a story.” That’s how Heinlein came to write Sixth Column. I understand he does it with Mack Reynolds a lot. Some mags do something similar with cover art occasionally. They’ll find a piece of art they like and show it to several authors, asking for a story based on it, then do a full issue with just those stories. I don’t know what happens to the stories that the editors don’t like, especially in the Campbell situation.

      1. A plot!  A writer should be so lucky.

        From comments by several writers, Campbell isn’t the only one who buys “sleazy SF magazine cover art” by the stack and tells authors “write something to go along with this cover, maybe I’ll buy it.”

        It’s bad enough having the checker at the dime store sniff at the lurid covers; finding out the publishers are more concerned with the covers than the stories shows how little the industry thinks of its own product.

        Yes, I understand we’re probably a low-single-digit percentage of the numbers who read other pulp genres, but we’re still buying their magazines!

        Seven or eight years ago we started seeing science fiction on television.  I had some hopes we might get something decent, but instead we got… mostly kid shows.  Which seems to be how almost everyone except us view science fiction.

        There’s the Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond, but… there’s way too much fantasy and supernatural in those, and the occasional SF episodes still get bogged down in the general dystopic anti-science message the series are so wrapped up in.

        1. I think it was damonknight in this month’s column who talked about how science fiction only makes it big in the mainstream if it involved nuclear destruction.  Cautionary tales about problems the average person can understand (i.e. dystopian themes) are the only stories accessible to the masses.

          And then, the lit-crit folks say they’re “too good” to be science fiction.

          Oh well.

          1. I sort of thought that when “Forbidden Planet” hit the screens five years ago, we’d at least see Hollywood wake up and realize there are paying viewers for decent SF.  Instead, they gave us “The Blob” and “Attack of the Crab Monsters.”  [sigh]

        2. I don’t know how lucky it is to get one of those Campbell “plots”. A lot of them are stories he wrote that are so bad he couldn’t even sell them to himself (again Sixth Column is a good example). And I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing with poor Mack Reynolds. Reynolds is pretty far left and Campbell keeps asking for those gung-ho, near future espionage stories.

          The fact of the matter is that covers sell magazines. And covers are getting better. There are certainly fewer damsels in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters these days. And usually if an editor pulls a stunt like getting a bunch of authors to write about an image, it’s when they’ve gotten their hands on a really nice bit of art, like a Bonestell or an Emshwiller.

          I haven’t entirely given up hope for television just yet, but I don’t hold out any great expectations either. It was either Fred Allen or Ernie Kovacs who said that “Television is a medium, because it is neither rare nor well done.” But if the Twilight Zone continues to do well, other shows, including shows that are more optimistic and less backward-looking, will come along.

          1. Well, to be honest practically everyone is to the left of John Campbell… though Mack Reynolds is probably further to the left than Pohl.

            I’ve never come across a detailed description of Mack’s politics, but apparently the SLP upsets the CPUSA even more than Richard Nixon.

          2. Dang, saved before I was done… anyway, I find Reynolds’ stories enjoyable, and apparently so do his readers and editors.  He sells all over the place, and not just in SF – he sells to the men’s adventure and detective magazines too.  So does Frederick Brown, who has moved mostly over to the detective genre these days.

            Reynolds has enough of a following he could probably dump SF entirely, though I hope he doesn’t.  I know a lot of people think he’s a hack, and they may be right, but for some reason I kind of like his stuff.

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