[June 9, 1961] Common denominator (July 1961 IF)

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.

9 thoughts on “[June 9, 1961] Common denominator (July 1961 IF)”

  1. Well, I agree the Harmon was a bit lacklustre, but I did enjoy it, and thought the setting original. (I’m not going to inquire too deeply if the biology or planetology could work, but say ‘bumblebee’.)

    I’m afraid I didn’t like any of the others. The Dickson was particularly disappointing, of course.  And why off Earth did the editor accept the McIntosh? I suppose it got into the accepted pile by mistake. I think The Junkmakers sparked more by Sheckley myself, and agree it could have been a winner with live characters.(Hoping Teichner’s use of 1900s for twentieth century doesn’t catch on. 1900s should be 1900-1909.)

    Still, there was Sturgeon’s little piece about the wendigo.

  2. Actually, I think the underlying theme in this issue is interesting ideas either with no story or poorly executed.

    “Doormat World” was easily the worst of the lot. I found it utterly unbelievable. I suppose it was inspired by the fan saying I’ve heard: “The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.”

    The Rackham came so close to being good. I am getting a little tired of these stories where the protagonist is a complete boob who fails upwards through sheer chance or the help of a competent underling (I suppose they’re inspired by Jeeves and Wooster), but when done well they can be enjoyable. Put this one in the hands of Keith Laumer and you’d have a solid four star story.

    And I’ll nominate Mack Reynolds to rewrite “The Junkmakers”. Or at least something along the theme of a society without enough jobs to go around. Seems right up his alley.

    1. You’re right about the Reynolds. I think it was willingness of the characters to let thir beliefs change their behaviour that made me think of Sheckley.

      1. Oh, Sheckley could certainly do it too. His story would be funnier and more biting, while Reynolds would get wrapped up in economic theory and propose a plausible revolution. Maybe they should both write a version.

  3. Well, if the first two stories are the best, the rest of the issue should be a major disappointment.  I’d rate both as mediocre at best.

    The Harmon was a typical puzzle story of the alien ecology variety.  I didn’t believe the explanation for a second.

    Similarly, I didn’t really buy the twist at the end of “The Real Hard Sell.”  This is a rare example of a story that might have been better if the premise had been simpler.  If it had just been the protagonist finding out that he likes doing things that only robots do, it would have been an OK satire, if not distinguished.

    More later!

  4. “The Stainless Steel Knight” was the kind of silly farce that doesn’t appeal to me.  In addition to that, the “hero” simply has it too easy, overcoming every obstacle with no effort.

    “Doormat World” had an unbelievable premise.  The “hero” is also far too unpleasant from the start (what he does to poor Lucy!) to make the intended ironic ending effective.

  5. Well, here’s where I break rank with others.  I actually thought “A Taste of Tenure” was pretty good.  True, it doesn’t need to be science fiction at all.  With a little tweaking of the premise, it could be set in the cutthroat business world of today.  And I thought the ending was more subtle than muddled.  Dickson is one of those reliable authors whose stories are always decent, if rarely outstanding.

    “The Junkmakers” follows the typical “Galaxy” premise too closely — protagonist accepts the culture of a rather implausible future society, then learns it’s no good and fights against it — and it did very little with it.

    Overall, this issue is definitely below average, if not entirely worthless.

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