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.
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.