[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

I used to call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction “dessert.”  Of all the monthly sf digests, it was the cleverest, the one most willing to take risks, and the most enjoyable reading.  Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a slow but decided trend into the realm of “literary quality.”  In other words, it’s not how good the stories are, or how fun the reading – they must be experimental and erudite to have any merit.  And if you don’t get the pieces, well, run off to Analog where the dumb people live.

A kind of punctuation mark has been added to this phenomenon.  Avram Davidson, that somber-writing intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge and authorial credits that take up many sheets of paper, has taken over as editor of F&SF from Robert Mills.  Five years ago, I might have cheered.  But Davidson’s path has mirrored that of the magazine he now helms: a descent into literary impenetrability.  Even his editorial prefaces to the magazine’s stories are off-putting and contrived. 

I dunno.  You be the judge.

Gifts of the Gods, by Jay Williams

The premise of Gifts isn’t bad: aliens come from the stars to find Earth’s most advanced nation, and it turns out they’re the most primitive, technologically.  It’s three shades too heavy on the sermon, and it fails by its own rules (i.e. one can lambast states as a whole for not being perfectly self-actualized, but surely there are a thousand qualifying people within any given country that fulfill the ET’s requirements).  But then, these aliens seem to have shown up just to rub our noses in it.  Advanced indeed.  Two stars.

The Last Element, by Hugo Correa

Editor Davidson touts Sr. Correa as a brilliant find from Chile.  Sadly, this meandering piece involving (I guess) space soldiers who are undone in their attempts to mine a psychotropic mineral from a distant planet, feels incompletely translated from the Spanish.  It reads like an Italian sf film views.  Two stars.

The End of Evan Essant… ?, by Sylvia Edwards

A cute piece, more The Twilight Zone than anything else, about a fellow who is so determined to be a nebbish that he psychosomatically disappears.  It’s no great shakes, but at least it has a through line and is written in English.  Boy, my standards have dropped.  Three stars.

Shards, by Brian W. Aldiss

The editor advises that one give this story time to make sense lest you judge it prematurely.  He has a point.  This piece innovatively describes a traumatic out-of-body experience, and when you know the context, it’s not bad.  On the other hand, the context is laid out with surprising artlessness especially given the effort Aldiss puts into the first part (which is only readable in hindsight).  Three stars for effort, though your meter may hover at one star through most of the actual experience.

The Kit-Katt Club, by John Shepley

Something about a young, serious boy who abandons his starlet mother’s dissipated hotel life to frequent a bar with a literal menagerie of clientele.  I didn’t understand this story, nor did I much like it.  Maybe I’m just bitter at being made to look foolish.  Two stars.

To Lift a Ship, by Kit Reed

One of the few bright lights of this issue is Reed’s take on love, hope, greed, and despair involving two test co-pilots of a psionically driven aircraft.  I love how vividly we see through the eyes of the protagonist, and the subtlety (but not to the point of obtuseness!) with which the story unfolds.  Four stars.

Garvey’s Ghost, by Robert Arthur

I haven’t seen much from Arthur lately.  His stories have all been pleasant, fanciful fare and this one, about a most contrary ghost and the grandson he haunts, is more of the same.  Three stars.

Vintage Wine, by Doris Pitkin Buck

The English professor from Ohio is back, this time with a piece of ‘cat’terel (as opposed to the canine variety, which is not as good) that I actually quite enjoyed.  Four stars.

Moon Fishers, by Nathalie Henneberg

Charles Henneberg was a popular French fantasist who, sadly, passed away in 1959.  His wife, with whom he collaborated, has taken it upon herself to flesh out a number of remaining outlines for publication, Damon Knight providing the translations.  She has written well before, but her talents fail her this time.  This tale of time travel, Atlanteans, and ancient Egypt fails to engage at all.  One star.

The Weighting Game, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor takes on the subject of elements and how we determined their mass.  Just discovering that elements had mass was a critical step in understanding the nature of atoms.  Sadly, this article is really a highly abridged and much compromised version of his excellent book, The Search for the Elements, which came out two months ago.  I recommend you grab a copy and skip this article.  Still, substandard Asimov is still decent.  Three stars.

Test, by Theodore L. Thomas

A vignette about failing a driving test.  There’s the germ of a good story here, but the ending is too abrupt and affected to work.  Two stars.

Three for the Stars, by Joseph Dickinson

This piece is noteworthy for having one of the least intelligible Davidson prefaces.  Other than that, its a rather overwrought story about a chimp sent to Mars and back, and the scars he bears of the Martians he met.  Satire or something.  Two stars.


This issue ends up with a lousy 2.4 star score – by far, the worst magazine of the month, and possibly the worst F&SF I’ve read!  It’s a disappointing turn of events.  F&SF used to be the smart sf mag, and last month’s issue was a surprise stand-out.  With the arrival of Davidson, F&SF seems to be careening back toward smug self-indulgence.  I see that the back cover no longer has pictures of notables heaping praise on the book.  I wonder if they’re jumping ship… 

14 thoughts on “[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)”

  1. I wonder if it started out to be an issue honouring Mark Clifton. At least three stories are, shall we say, strongly referential.

    Though not, I think, my choice for best.  Garvey’s Ghost deserves to be a minor classic. Good writing all over; and that day ghost is just excellent.

    One for the opera fans, Moon Fishers might fail altogether as science fiction, or even story, but it does have have some lovely images.

    Correa certainly manages to out-turkey all the competition, and some of it’s strong, too .

    Thanks for sharing, and I love the term cat’erel!

  2. I think Davidson’s preface to the monkey story was a roundabout way of saying he didn’t buy the story and had no idea who the author was.

    1. There were a lot of “I don’t know who this person is” prefaces, which I actually appreciated.  It’s fascinating to know that much of this kind of work is done sight/voice unseen.

      By the by, Cordwainer Smith is proof that one can be experimental and excellent (speaking of unknown identities…).

  3. I liked “Test” more than you did (and I suspect it could become one of those “people who don’t read sf once read this one story that stuck in their mind and twenty years later ask me if by any chance I know this one about…” stories). 

    But the only real eyeblinker in your review this time was the choice of terms for describing Mr. Davidson: “dilettante” seems unfair and “somber” (!) seems just silly (an adjective AD is sometimes known willingly to be).

  4. For the most part this issue was “eh.”  I thought “Three for the Stars” was really awful, and “Shards” pretty good. 

    My favorite story in the issue was “Test.”  Just short enough to be effective.

    The adjective I usually use for Avram Davidson’s work is “eccentric.”  That can be good or bad.

    1. My problem with Test was the leading of the witness.

      If I slap your hand when you reach for a cookie, and that teaches you not to reach for cookies, well and good (though there are nicer ways to condition someone).

      If after I slap your hand, I then say, “Well?!  Aren’t you going to get your cookie?” and you reach for the cookie, who’s really to blame?

  5. It’s possible that a lot of what we’re getting right now was already in the pipeline when Davidson took over and so has more to do with Mills’ increasingly overly literary touch than the direction Davidson will take the magazine. I’m willing to give him a little time yet.

    “Gifts of the Gods” really fell apart for me when all the Bushmen decided they were going to the UN. They all went because no one wanted to leave his women and children behind. Sounds to me like women don’t quite count with them or the aliens.

    I thought the early bits of the Chilean piece were rather nicely done. I also liked the comparison of the stars in the alien sky to the familiar constellation of the Southern Cross. That was a nice reminder of the half of the sky most of us never see. But the whole thing devolved into mess about halfway through. There’s talent there, but this story needed more… story.

    “Evan Essant” was very like a Twilight Zone episode. We’ve seen a growing trend towards that sort of tale. I wonder if the show is having an impact on print as well as TV. Otherwise, it was an odd little exercise in existentialism.

    Once again, I just don’t like Aldiss half as well as I think I ought to. I wish I could figure out why I can’t quite like his stuff.

    I think Shepley was trying to say something about neglected children and imagination, but the story was a bit of a hot mess.

    The Kit Reed story, on the other hand, was excellent. Easily the best in the issue. She’s shown a lot of talent in the few years she’s been publishing. I foresee a long career ahead.

    The Arthur story wasn’t bad. But I think it wanted to be written by RA Lafferty.

    After that, the issue mostly fell apart. The Henneberg was so terrible I gave up after a few pages. Maybe some of the blame falls on Knight’s translation, but not much of it. “Test” was a fine vignette, but a touch too abrupt. And then the last tale. I actually liked the first two “chapters”. I was wondering what your problem with the story was. Then I got the end and found myself wondering what the whole thing was about. No wonder Davidson’s intro didn’t make any sense. It was just following along with the story.

    If you want to rescue your month, run down to the bookstore and get the new JF Bone novel, The Lani People. Ignore the lurid cover copy. This is a story with some depth, asking questions about what it means to be human. The ending is a little weak, but the trip there is worth it.

  6. Well! At the ripe age of 21 I don’t consider myself dumb!
    However the point on my head must have grown sharper because at this date I rank F&SF first, Galaxy 2nd and Analog 3rd. So I still read John Campbell’s magazine, but it is clear his tastes never evolved , something ‘arrested’ about it.
    Over in Galaxy Avram Davidson has a story. One does wonder if Fred Pohl struggles with his budget?
    Have I turned into a literary webfoot?

  7. I am surprised that no-one has mentioned this line on p. 6: “All the stories in this issue were selected from the treasury handed on to us by Bob Mills.”

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