[June 2, 1960] Fewer is Less (July 1960 Astounding)

What makes a story worth reading? 

As a writer, and as a reader who has plowed through thousands of stories over the past decade, I’ve developed a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Some writers cast a spell on you from the first words and maintain that trance until the very end.  Others have good ideas but break momentum with clunky prose.  Some turn a phrase skillfully, but their plots don’t hold interest.

I find that science fiction authors are more likely to hang their tales on plot to the exclusion of other factors.  This is part of the reason our genre is much maligned by the literary crowd.  On the other hand, the literary crowd tends to commit the opposite sin: glazing our eyes over with experimental, turgid passages.

A few authors have managed to bridge the gap: Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, Daniel Keyes.  And, in general, I think the roster of science fiction authors, as they mature, are turning out better and better stuff.

Sadly, Astounding is rarely the place you’ll find them.

After last month’s decent issue, I had looked forward eagerly to this one, the July 1960 edition.  It’s not unmitigatedly horrible, but it does sink back into the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Campbell’s magazine.  Let’s take a look:

Poul Anderson, with whom I’ve had a rocky relationship over the last decade, begins a new serial called The High Crusade.  It’s about a 14th century English town that gets attacked by an alien scout ship.  Surprisingly, the “primitive” residents manage to overpower the alien crew and commandeer their ship, which they then sail across the suns to another alien outpost, where they defeat a contingent of the more technologically advanced aliens.

Now, this is the kind of story editor Campbell loves: plucky humans defeating inferior space aliens.  I suspect that the humans in Crusade will face increasingly ridiculous odds, always coming out on top.

This should bother me.  On the other hand, the story is really quite well written, with an excellent use of archaic language, a fair depiction of the age, and compelling characters.  Moreover, I have the faintest suspicion that Anderson is satirizing Campbell’s fetish, hence my prediction that the story will be ever more over-the-top.

Sadly, this incomplete tale is the high point of the book.  Chris Anvil is up next with The Troublemaker.  It starts out promisingly, involving an interstellar cargo ship and the seditious new cargo inspector who joins the crew.  The fellow has a knack for dividing and conquering, causing friendships to disintegrate and morale to plummet.  But the Captain’s solution for the problem comes out of nowhere and is thus unsatisfying.  Which brings me back to my preface.  Writer tip #1: Foreshadowing is important.  No one likes a mystery novel where the murderer is not presented before the detective explains whodunnit.  A good writer introduces concepts earlier in the story if they are to be used later. 

Onto the next story.  Its author, Dean McLaughlin, has been writing for various digests over the past decade.  I know I’ve read a few of his stories, but they do not stand out in my memory.  In any event, his The Brotherhood of Keepers leaves much to be desired.  In this case, characterization is utterly subverted to an involved, somewhat odious plot.  There is a race of near-sapient upright seals on a harsh alien world.  They are on the brink of becoming sentient, and a human outpost has been established on their planet, despite the uncomfortable conditions, to watch the transition.  There are three main characters, all made of the same grade of carboard. 

You have the fatuous, bleeding heart animal rights activist who wants to bring an end to the suffering of the “floppers,” both at the hands of their environment and the scientists (who employ them as slaves and vivisect them every so often).  You have the xenophobic scientist who pushes all of the activist’s buttons in the hopes that this will bring about a relief mission, allowing the floppers to be “saved” before they become truly sentient.  Finally, you’ve got the outpost chief.  He grieves for the cruel plight of the floppers, but he feels it would be more cruel to deny them their destiny of intelligence.

On the face of it, this could have been a very interesting story.  Aside from the truly hackneyed portrayal of the characters, I took umbrage with the way the floppers were treated by the humans.  Granted, the most egregious comments made by the scientist character (“they’re only animals,” he says of creatures smarter than chimpanzees) were probably designed specifically to goad the activist, but they must reflect, at least in part, the deeply held sentiments of his fellow researchers.  As any sociologist would tell you, the best way to study a society probably does not involve murdering its members.

Asimov has a fair sequel to his article on animal phyla, published month before last.  This one is called, appropriately enough, Beyond the Phyla.  The good doctor makes some interesting speculation on the next evolutionary steps humanity might take.  They will not involve physical adaptations, he opines, but rather a level of social cohesion that will transform our race into a larger, integrated whole.

It’s a pity that Isaac doesn’t write fiction anymore; I imagine folks will be lifting his non-fiction ideas and turning them into stories soon.

Finally, we have Subspace Survivors, by the renowned Doc Smith, himself.  All due respect to an admitted titan of the field, this is not a very good story.  It’s something of a relic from the pulp era, this tale of nine survivors on a wrecked interstellar vessel, four of whom are psionically gifted (of course).  Writer tip #2: Description should be incorporated seamlessly into a narrative, not obtrusively inserted in-between bits of action. 

There are two women in this story.  They acquit themselves rather well against two of the castaways, who turn out to be bad men, but for the most part, they are content to be submissive child incubators, comforted in times of distress by their lantern-jawed officer husbands.  Feh.

I recently exchanged letters with a fan who expressed his dislike for magazines with only a few, longer stories.  I told him that I didn’t mind them so long as the stories were good.  But, I am starting to take his point.

See you shortly with more fiction reviews!

17 thoughts on “[June 2, 1960] Fewer is Less (July 1960 Astounding)”

  1. You’re not selling me on Astounding, or even reading about it. I like your posts best when you write about a story you love and you inspire me to go find it.

  2. Perhaps The High Crusade will fit the bill.  And the Asimov was not unworthy.

    Every issue of a digest is a mixed bag.  Some have a lower average than others.  Last month’s was pretty good.

    Thanks for sticking around despite the occasional bad odor!

  3. Gideon, I like your project of reliving the past, but one of the problems is there’s a lot of stuff in the past that deserves to be forgotten. I’m very nostalgic about this time, and the old digests. I even started studying Ebay for buying digests. However, I’m torn between buying the old mags, and just getting anthologies that collects just the best of the stories.

    I guess what I hope to find are stories, essays and editorials that have been forgotten but are gems because 55 years later, they have new meaning relevant to us today.

    1. I’m glad you can use my articles as your guide as to which ones are worth getting.  If an issue is insufficiently interesting, I’ll keep providing sources for tales–Asimov’s non-fiction can be harder to source, but I’ll do my best to locate those, too.

      A lot of what I read every month is pretty good.  I am currently halfway through this month’s F&SF, and I’m enjoying it a lot.  Some of the books I’ve reviewed, like Brainwaveor The City in the Sea have been excellent.  The latter is freely available!

  4. See, this was my point. If there’s only a very small number of stories in a given issue, one (or worse, more) stinker can ruin the whole magazine and even make you feel less good about any stories that are decent. If you have part of a serial and a novella, you really need three or four additional stories to offer a good mix and the limited space of a digest makes that difficult. It’s like getting a chocolate sampler and finding out that half of them are varieties you can’t stand.

    I agree that Anderson can be rather up or down, though I do like an awful lot of his series, especially the van Rijn and Flandry stories. The Hokas on the other hand were cute once, but he and Dickson have gone to that well far too often. The High Crusade, though, is shaping up nicely. If nothing else, it’s a fine reminder that primitive is not the same thing as stupid (a mistake Campbell makes far too often and I doubt he sees the lesson here). One thing that makes this work is that Anderson knows his history and, even better, gets his thees and thous right. So many authors have no idea how the archaic second person familiar works and just throw the blasted things around based on a vague memory of the King James Bible. With Anderson it feels natural.

    1. Precisely!  The writing is excellent in Crusade.  The 14th century is of particular interest to me.  I’ve even published a (professional) article on the period, so it’s all very familiar stuff.

      It looks like the good folks of Ansby may have just missed out on The Plague, though I wonder if such a small place would have been hard hit.

      As for chocolate samplers, I like to think the box is half full of tasty treats.  And I hope that, if what I review isn’t up to snuff, at least the quality of my writing is.  After all, damonknight is as fun to read when he’s praising as well as dissecting.

      In any event, the bad stories are cautionary tales.  Nothing should be forgotten–there’s the old adage regarding history, forgetting, and repetition…

  5. I do like the ‘High Crusade’. Partly because I like historical fiction, at least historical fiction which admits the past’s people were as intelligent and skilled as us.

    The Anvil isn’t one of his good ones, the explanation being a strong letdown. But there are a few good quips. Here it’s all tactics and no strategy.

    I think I’ll skip the vivsection one, thanks for the warning

    1. Good turn of phrase, Stephanie.  This is another reason I keep reading, even the bad stuff.  Sometimes there’s gold in the ore.  Chris Anvil will someday, I’m fairly certain, write something unmitigatedly good.  Just as Rosel George Brown ultimately gratified me.

      Thanks for reading!

      1. I thought you’d like to know a friend who’s suffering from a somewhat Sneath-like workmate found the Anvil very consoling. Mind you, not as consoling as him tripping over his ego and breaking his neck.

  6. I’ve been a fan of E.E. Smith for decades, but Subspace Survivors seems awfully raw around the edges.  Smith hasn’t written much lately, so it was good to see something new from him, but…

    The Doc was never a particularly gifted wordsmith, and some people criticized his characters, but he had the gift of painting the Big Picture grandly enough that you could overlook that.  Back in my teens I re-read all three Skylark books until the covers came loose.

    Subspace Survivors seems to be a “little picture” story.  And it spends a lot more time on characters than he usually puts forth.  But I found all of the characters thoroughly unlikeable.  And the story start of skips along here and there, like scenes got left out.  Maybe it’s the result of editing for space, but I had a couple of heat-scratching moments following a few scene changes.

    It might be “new” Smith… but it reads like something he wrote long ago.  If it is new, I hope it isn’t an example of what any new Smith stories are going to be like.

    Yeah, I know, writers like to experiment and all that, or maybe it’s his response to literary criticism… I’d like to see another Skylark or Lensman story instead of this sort of thing, though.

  7. The first installment of “High Crusade” left some bits hanging, of course… but I *like* “plucky humans against the universe” stories.  I’m going to reserve judgement at least until the next installment.

    Anderson is one of those writers whose work is all over the place – from excellent, to middling good, to “should have saved the title and written a new story for it.”  I’m going to hope this new one is more like “Virgin Planet” than “Brain Wave.”

  8. I find “The High Crusade” quite enjoyable so far.  Does it remind you of “The Mouse That Roared”?

    I have to confess that I find “Doc” Smith literally unreadable.  I have yet to get through more than a page or two of his stuff.

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