[May 20, 1960] Three for Four (June 1960 Astounding)

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.

13 thoughts on “[May 20, 1960] Three for Four (June 1960 Astounding)”

  1. Thanks for pointing us toward a good issue.

    Of the Anvil, a weak beginning, and a very weak ending; but the basic idea is excellent. Also, I like Anvil’s writing. Such as his bits of intramilitary; and a scholarly biologist explained Traeger’s information to Wilforce all over again, with many homely analogies to make it easier for the layman to understand. He dwelt heavily on the caterpillar that spins a cocoon to emerge a moth, and nothing Wilforce could do would stop him till he ran through all the details.. And it’s nice to know he’s one of us ‘If it meows, salute it’ guys.

    The Janifer is just fine. All the characters are so good, especially Charley. I wonder if Janifer was thinking of Keyes’ character?

    Vigorish definitely gets better as it goes on. I think the first scene should have been cut, but I do like the surgery scene. Lightweight, but a good mystery story.

    1. I couldn’t have said it all better myself, and I’m glad I could actually recommend Astounding for a change.

      I’m more convinced, thanks to Charley de Milo, that the success of “Mark Phillips” is due in large part to Mr. Janifer.

  2. I’m usually pretty unhappy when a mag decides to give us fewer, but longer pieces. It certainly raises the chances that a single unliked story can really make you think less of the issue as a whole.

    Although this time, it looks like the real problem is the “science” article. If nobody’s seen the blasted thing actually work (at all, let alone under controlled scientific conditions), then you can’t really say people are being unfair. All Mr. Dean has to do is gather a group of reasonably scientific sorts, and sure let him have supporters there, too, and demonstrate it. To coin a phrase, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

    The Jannifer raises some very interesting questions that I doubt many people have thought about before. It could be argued, for example, that the deaf have their own language. What becomes of that language and the associated culture if there’s a cure for deafness? Very thought provoking, and that’s what makes good science fiction.

      1. Oh, I don’t mind long stories at all, but if you give me, say, four novellas, rather than one novella and a few short stories of varying lengths, even if it’s the same number of words, I feel shortchanged. Worse if I didn’t like one of them. That’s like having 3 bad short stories.

  3. “Star Tiger” was a pretty decent puzzle story, with enough suspense to keep me reading.  The biological details were interesting.  I have to agree with all that the ending was much too neat.  Better would have been something suggesting that the menace was understood, but still posed a very serious problem.  Military SF isn’t my thing, but this one was OK.

    1. Yes, the threat had the possibility to be far more.. threatening.

      Could have made a good novel, actually.  I wonder if he wrapped it up because he didn’t want to open any more worm cans.

      My brother wrote himself into a corner in a novella once, and instead of neatly fixing it, he went with it, and a novel came out of it.

  4. Is there an online archive of these magazines anywhere?  I’ve found some others at archive.org and gutenberg, but my google-fu hasn’t turned up any Analog.

  5. “Charley de Milo” was a fine story.  Good carnival background, nice subtle futuristic touches, strong emotional appeal, and fine characterization.  The ending was unexpected without being a gimmick, and was quite poignant.

  6. I have to admit that I was rather lukewarm about “Vigorish.”  Something about it just didn’t appeal to me.  There seemed to be a lot of unpleasant stuff to it.  In particular, the Lodge taking advantage of a phobia to get one of their members to do their bidding seemed awfully nasty for folks who are supposed to be (more or less) the good guys.

    1. Victoria, agreed.  As Stephanie pointed out, the first scene is superfluous.  I also didn’t like the pervasive (if de rigeur) misogyny, though perhaps Bupp (the character, not necessarily the author) had cause to be bitter.  Plus, we shouldn’t just people’s insides by our outsides.

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