[June 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the Earth.  There are many hypotheses as to why these great reptiles no longer walk among us.  One current of thinking goes thusly: dinosaurs were masters of the Earth for so long that they became complacent.  Because their reign was indisputed, they evolved in ways that were not optimized for survival.  Thus, the strange crests of the Hadrosaurs.  The weird dome head of the Pachycephalosaurs.  The giant frills of the Ceratopsians.  Like Victorian ladies’ hats, the dinosaurs became increasingly baroque until they were too ungainly to survive.

I worry that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is heading in that direction.  I’m all for literary quality in my sf mags, but F&SF has been tilting so far in the purple direction that it is often all but unreadable.  I present Exhibit A: the July 1961 “All-Star” issue.

Kingsley Amis is perhaps better known as a fan than a writer, his recent New Maps of Hell being a lauded survey of the current sci-fi field.  Something Strange isn’t a bad story, but the fluffy writing can’t relieve or distract from the threadbare plot (a retread of The Twilight Zone’s first episode): Two married couples are stuck on what they believe is a remote interstellar outpost.  A series of increasingly strange things materialize, first outside and, later, inside the station.  Ultimately, the scouts are given a final message from Earth – they have been abandoned for want of funding to retrieve them!  Of course, the keen reader has already figured out that the base is really just a long-term isolation chamber on Earth, the whole thing being an experiment.  Despite the hackneyed plot, it’s still readable.  Three stars, barely.

Package Deal is the latest by Will Worthington, an author given to writing dark pieces.  This one, about a n’er-do-well spoiled rich kid who discovers his latent powers of telepathy, is overly cute and underly memorable.  Two stars.

The new writer, Nicholas Breckenridge, advises ailurophiles to skip the feline ghost story, Cat Lover.  It’s a good suggestion; Lover is a tired retread of familiar ground.  Two stars.

Grendel Briarton has a new Ferdinand Feghoot pun story.  I include it in the interests of completeness; do not mistake presentation for endorsement.

The Zookeeper is the first published story by Otis Kidwell Burger, and also the one piece by a woman (despite the unlikely name) to appear in any of the Big Three magazines this month.  It’s a tale of the far future, a sort of meet cute featuring a woman secured from present day as a sort of pet, and the all-too-human alien, also a pet, who comes to love her.  Another overly oblique piece, but kind of charming nonetheless.  Three stars.

Kris Neville’s Closing Time is more Socratic dialogue than story, a rather insipid piece about disproving the existence of intelligent aliens.  Two stars.

Night Piece, by the usually (these days) excellent Poul Anderson, is even more disappointing.  Something about a scientist becoming aware of dimensions beyond his own, grappling to retain his sanity amid an onslaught to his senses.  It’s all very ponderous and overwrought.  One star.

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Recipe for a Planet, all about the elements that make up the Earth and their proportion to each other.  I especially enjoyed the article’s wrap-up, describing our planet’s composition in cook-book style.

Comprising a good third of the book is its final piece, Brian Aldiss’ novella, Undergrowth.  It is a direct sequel to his previous stories, Hothouse and Nomansland, all set on Earth a billion years from now.  The sun has grown hot, and the planet is a jungle.  Humans have long-since stopped being Earth’s master and are now diminutive, barely sentient creatures.  In this story, we learn of the event that caused our race to topple from power, thanks to the racial-memory tapping talents of the fungoid symbiotes, the morel. 

As usual, Aldiss paints a vivid picture, and a unique one, but somehow the further adventures of Gren and Poyly and their bonded morel have gotten a bit tedious.  It feels more and more like one of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels – enjoyable, but shallow.  I’m looking forward to learning what happened to the lunar explorers from the first novella, and I expect Aldiss has already got that story plotted out.  Three stars.

Measured on the Star-o-Meter(tm), this “All-Star” issue only earns 2.5 stars.  In fact, not a single magazine broke the 3-star barrier this month!  Moreover, just one woman made it to print.  The two facts may not be unrelated…

In any event, if F&SF wants to win the Hugo this year, it’ll have to do better than this.  Otherwise, Analog or Galaxy are likely to take the prize just by failing to decline as steeply.

9 thoughts on “[June 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)”

  1. When the issues finally arrive over here in Blighty I do find that F&SF is the most uneven: as in when it’s good it’s very good, but otherwise it’s no better than the rest.

    Total triviality, I much prefer the covers on Galaxy because they look fresh, whereas the others feel a bit meh.  But that’s just me.

    1. When F&SF is good, it is the very best.  I feel like Galaxy is the most consistent, however.  That can be a good and a bad thing. 

      F&SF paper is the most satisfying.  Galaxy looks to be the most durable.  Analog’s production quality is the lowest, but it’s also the cheapest mag.

  2. I couldn’t find it flipping quickly through back issues of the newsletter, but didn’t we very recently have an “all-star issue” of something in which almost none of the authors were big names and the stories were rather mediocre? If this goes on, I’m going to be very leery of anything proclaiming itself all-star (well, except maybe for the All Star game, and even that often ain’t real baseball).

    But, yes, F&SF does seem to be in danger of becoming increasingly baroque. The occasional story like that is fine, but it really shouldn’t dominate one issue, let alone all of them.

    The Anderson story is murky, but I’m going to forgive him, as long as he doesn’t go any further down this path. It’s good for an author to experiment with new things from time to time. He just needs to recognize when that experiment is a failure.

    A little birdie tells me that Nicholas Breckenridge is actually journalist and editor Knox Burger, who is also husband of Otis Burger. He was a decent war reporter and seems to have a good eye as an editor. Perhaps the shoemaker should stick to his last, though.

  3. I admit I find Zookeeper a bit creepy. It seems to be written from a Creationist background, and treats the keeper as someone without biological (or cultural) background of his own. But his complete abdiction of his own people could have been the point of the story.

    Package Deal seems to be two different, and good, ideas which don’t go together. In this fic at least. I think the editor could have got one or two good stories out of this.

    I love your analogy – and the picture!

  4. My overall reaction to this issue was “eh.”  I didn’t hate any of the stories, I didn’t love any of them.  The Hothouse series has always left me cold, so to speak, so that was not a surprise.  The other stories ranged from typical horror to typical people talking in a bar to stories that were strange but not fulfilling.  It may come as something of a surprise that my favorite story out of a not very inspiring bunch was “Night Piece.”  It was all mood and very little content, but I thought the mood was very effective.  Not at all typical of Anderson.

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