Science fiction digests, those monthly magazines filled with s-f short stories, are often like little anthologies. Editors will let their “slush pile” stack up, and when they have enough of a kind of piece, they publish them in a themed issue.
I don’t know whether the theme of the July 1961 IF science fiction was intentional or not, but it definitely focuses on the issues of over-population and over-mechanization. That is, in the future, there will be too many of us, and we won’t have a whole lot to do.
I’m not particularly concerned about the former. We live on a big planet, and although our presence on it definitely has an impact, I don’t think living space is going to be an issue for a long time, if ever. On the other hand, the latter topic holds a strong fascination for me.
We’ve already seen a precipitous drop in the percentage of people employed in agriculture. Industry looks like it will shed workers soon, too, as the use of robots increases. That leaves the nebulous “service” sector, whose added value to our lives seems rather arbitrary. Eventually, I foresee a world where no one has to grow or build anything…and then what will work mean to us?
It’s a worthy topic for discussion. Sadly, the writing in the July 1961 IF fails to impress and often downright disappoints. Here’s what we’ve got:
Jim Harmon is an often lackluster IF perennial. His novelette The Planet with no Nightmare, involves an insomniac space explorer and the strange planetoid he and his two crewmates discover. On said world, the animals play dead when startled, but when no one’s watching, they disappear. It has a promising opening, but the end is no great shakes. Three stars.
Then there’s William Stuart, who started with a bang and hasn’t quite recreated his initial spark. The Real Hard Sell tells of a salesman in a world where selling is the only human profession remaining. Like many of the stories in this issue, it is frightfully conventional except for its premise. Still, as a satire of our current commercial practices, it’s not bad. Three stars.
Now brace yourself – those were the good stories of the issue.
The Stainless Steel Knight is John Rackham’s attempt at humor featuring a hapless Terran agent, a faithful alien companion, and colonies that adhere to storybook milieus. In this case, the planet the agent visits is modeled on England of the Middle Ages. As to following the issue’s theme, the story is all about the agent’s mission to slay a “dragon”, a leftover automated tractor/combine that threatens to put the colonists’ serfs out of work. Well, the Arthurian hijinx was better in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, the Middle English better in Anderson’s The High Crusade, and the medieval satire better in Pratt and De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter. Two stars.
Once again, James T. McIntosh saves his dreck for IF. He often can write so well, but Doormat World, about a returned colonist taking advantage of Earth’s spate of super-pacifism, is a poor, disgusting little piece. One star.
A Taste of Tenure is a surprisingly clumsy piece by Gordon Dickson in which a businessman, promoted to the executive level, finds himself unable to discharge his predecessor’s secretary, protected as she is by the government’s strict “right to work” laws. Again – interesting premise, but utterly conventional despite taking place two centuries from now, and the ending is a confused muddle. Two stars.
Finally, we have The Junkmakers, by IF newcomer Albert Teichner. It has a great concept: planned obsolescence taken to an absurd extreme: enormous communal potlaches are held at five year intervals and given an almost religious significance. If there were any characters in this story, or much of a plot, it’d be a real winner. As it is, it’s the outline of a piece for someone more skilled (Cordwainer Smith?) to develop into a masterpiece. Two stars.
So there you have it. A collection of stories by IF‘s reliable stable on an interesting theme that barely breaks the two-star barrier. This is easily the worst issue of IF I’ve read. Editor Fred Pohl better start enforcing some higher standards, or I predict this magazine will end up following the path trod smooth by Infinity, Venture, Imagination, and thirty other digests born in the 50s.