Astounding, the venerable science fiction digest, has often been my monthly whipping boy. Today’s article is going to be a bit different because, apart from one noteworthy, execrable exception, the June 1960 Astounding was actually quite good.
Much of the magazine is taken up by Part 3 of the enjoyable “Mark Phillips” effort, Out Like a Light. There are only three other fiction entries in this issue, all novelette/novella-sized.
Chris Anvil’s Star Tiger leads the pack. A colony is wiped out completely by an invisible enemy. Is it an alien invasion? An incorporeal monster? Or some new permutation of biology? The mystery is the best part of this story.
Anvil is an author who started out mired in mediocrity, and who seems to be improving with effort. However, despite some good description and atmosphere throughout much of this tale, he still ends it with that sort of droll, wrapped-in-a-bow fashion that feels perfunctory. A story should be more than just the “gimmick.” Not bad, though.
Charley de Milo is a minor masterpiece by Laurence Janifer (who co-wrote Out Like a Light). It features a man born without arms, who has learned to use his feet with tremendous dexterity: comb his hair, light cigarettes, etc. He makes a comfortable and enjoyable living as bally performer for a carnival freak show. But when a friend creates a cure for lost limbs, his audience drops off precipitously. Charley is faced with the hard choice: continue as a low-rent freak or be “cured” and start off from scratch as a normal person–at age 41.
This story raises a lot of poignant questions. If one is handicapped and comfortable with one’s disability, is a cure always desirable? If one can be cured, will society have less tolerance for the voluntarily crippled, be less supporting of those who refuse to be cured? I have a minor disability, myself: I am somewhat color-blind. It has never been much of a hindrance; in fact, I often find it amusing. But, imagine if, someday, a set of glasses were invented that would enable me to see as “normal” people do. Would I take the opportunity? I’m actually not all that sure. I am physically different from most people, and it has shaped my world. It is part of my identity. I don’t know that I want to lose that.
I’ve always maintained that the measure of a story is the extent to which it makes you think about the points raised afterwards. By that standard, this is definitely a 4-star tale.
Last of the three is John Berryman’s Vigorish, though he wrote it as Walter Bupp, same name as the story’s protagonist. Interestingly, the lead is also a handicapped person. His right arm is essentially useless, and its lack of functionality contributes to his ability to wield telekinesis with a fine degree of control. He is employed, practically enough, to watchdog casinos when it looks like someone is using psionics to bend the odds her/his way.
There are a lot of stories featuring psi powers in Astounding, but this one is done better than most. Give it a try.
Now, for those wondering about my comment in the first paragraph, it’s time for that other shoe to drop. I’ve observed before that Astounding’s science fact column is the lousiest among the Big Three digests. Not surprising given that the competition is Isaac Asimov and Willy Ley (and when the Astounding column is any good, it’s usually written by a pinch-hitter named… Isaac Asimov).
This month, Campbell has put it upon himself to write his own column. It’s a long, whiny screed in defense of the (deservedly) much maligned Norman Dean, inventor of the “Dean Drive” that, purportedly, converts rotational acceleration to linear acceleration thus creating a reactionless drive.
Well, no one’s seen it work. Even Campbell hasn’t seen it work. But Campbell blames the lack of government and private interest in Dean’s engine on bureaucratic myopia… or perhaps something more sinister and collusionary.
I recognize and respect Campbell’s contributions to the genre, but he’s the embarrassing half-senile old uncle of our community.
Happy 57th birthday (tomorrow) to pulp icon Manly Wade Wellman. He has not written much as late, so the Journey has only covered one of his stories, but it was a good one.