[May 21, 1961] Pineapple Upside-down Month (June 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Have you ever heard/seen Karl Orrf’s Carmina Burana?  It’s an opera of sorts, the performance of a set of medieval poems to music.  It is likely that you’re at least familiar with its opening number, the catchy Oh Fortuna!.  Well, having seen Carmina, I can tell you that even Orff knew there wasn’t much to the rest of the piece – as evidenced by the fact that Oh Fortuna! gets performed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end.  You can snooze through the rest.

This month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction is like Carmina: a tremendous beginning followed by a largely snoozeworthy remainder.  I suppose that, if you want to complete the analogy, you can simply read the opening piece again after finishing the book.  You probably will.

For Cordwainer Smith’s Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.  Most tales of the future are either frustratingly conventional or completely opaque.  Not so in Boulevard, which features a world dominated by “Instrumentality”, an omniscient computer dedicated to the happiness of humanity.  16,000 years from now, after a placid, highly regulated existence, people are, at last, offered the luxury of uncertainty (or at least the illusion thereof). 

With just a few subtle strokes of his pen, Smith presents the trappings of an alien yet utterly believable world: the trio of reborn humans, programmed to think themselves French; the compelling homunculi, servant animals bred into a mockery of the human shape; the servile androids; the contrived movie-set surroundings; the ancient, decayed ruins of the old technology.  Moreover, Boulevard has a great story, the quest for meaning in a predestined world.  It’s a masterpiece – evocative and brilliant.  Five stars.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Crime on Mars is an adequate (but not exceptional) little art heist mystery.  I find it interesting that he publishes these very straight sf stories here rather than other, perhaps more suited, mags.  Perhaps there wasn’t room in the other digests (or perhaps F&SF pays the best rates!) Three stars.

George, on the other hand, by John Anthony West, is a dreadful slog: a henpecked husband slowly succumbs to a creeping paralysis over the course of an evening; the story is told mostly in shrill exchanges between the afflicted and his spouse.  One Star. 

Doris Pitkin Buck’s Birth of a Gardener is another domestic dispute piece with some vague nonsense about anti-matter.  Although Gardener makes good use of Buck’s personal expertise in horticulture, her knowledge of science is less complete.  Two stories.

Mark Twain’s reprinted A Curious Pleasure Excursion, an advertisement for a comet ride in the style of the great ocean cruises of the last century, is clever and funny — an all-too-brief island of quality in an sea of dreck (to continue the sailing metaphor).  Four stars.

Go for Baroque is the second woman-penned piece in the magazine, by mystery writer Jody Scott.  I think it’s about a crazy time traveler who cures the sane of our world with his chaotic, exuberant madness.  Maybe.  It’s hard to tell.  It is written in this “modern” style that I see more and more in more literary places, half stream-of-consciousness, half nonsense.  I really don’t like it.  Two stars.

By popular demand, I include this month’s pun-ishment, the latest tale of Ferdinand Feghoot.  Read at your personal peril.

Older writers are interesting.  They tend to stick to old techniques and tropes even as they adapt them to current themes.  Miriam Allen Deford’s, The Cage, reads like a Lovecraft tale, complete with a mad scientist regaling a young reporter of his horrifying plan.  In this case, it is the breeding of a race of super-insects to supplant humanity in the event of a nuclear war.  But the author somehow elevates the story to something more than the sum of its parts, steering it subtly to a thoughtful conclusion.  Three stars.

What do you get when you combine the carefree misogyny of Randall Garrett with the increasingly impenetrable prose of (the once masterful) Avram Davidson?  Why, Something Rich and Strange, about a connoisseur of seafood and women who sails off to find a mermaid to love, a task at which he is ultimately successful.  With many pages devoted to lurid descriptions of pescatory cuisine, I had a strong suspicion that the tale would end with the protagonist eating his fishy sweetheart.  Rather, it turns out that the siren is an old hag with, nevertheless, admirable culinary talents.  The punchline is thus, “She’s not much to look at, but she sure can cook!”  One star.

So perhaps I may end up owing my friend, Mike, a beer or two after all, since he may be right that 1961 will not be F&SF’s year to win the Best Magazine Hugo.  Normally my favorite of the Big Three SFF digests, F&SF came in at the bottom of the heap this month at just 2.75 stars.  Compare this to Analog’s 3 stars, and Galaxy’s stellar 3.5 stars. 

On the plus side, this month saw the most stories by women: four out of twenty-two.  I won’t call it a trend until I see this proportion again, of course.  Interestingly, the top contenders for Best Story were both written by Cordwainer Smith.  Maybe the fellow should start his own magazine…

15 thoughts on “[May 21, 1961] Pineapple Upside-down Month (June 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)”

  1. Cordwainer Smith is going to be one of the twentieth century’s great classic sf writers. The only worry is that he’ll become ‘so classic that no one will even try to read him’.

    I did enjoy the Clarke: his writing improves what could have been plodding.  And the Twain is a great find.

    For me, Buck’s mixture of two (or is it three?) different ingredients works very well. But I have to admit Scott and de Ford aren’t to my taste.

  2. I am in almost total agreement with your opinions (with one exception I’ll get to in a moment.) Certainly, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is excellent, one of Smith’s best (and that’s a very high standard.)

    The Clarke was OK, and was probably more at home when it appeared in “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine” as “Trouble With Time.”  (Both F&SF and EQMM are from Mercury Press, so that probably explains why it appeared there.) A clever gimmick story, no more or less.

    “George” had a touch of satire on our sedentary world that elevated it just a bit above worthless, but, yes, all that yelling was tiresome.

    Not much to add about the Buck and deFord.  They didn’t make much impact on me one way or the other.

    The Twain piece was historically interesting, and worth a smile.

    “Something Rich and Strange” was just a poor excuse for a joke.

    So, by this time you’ve figured out that our disagreement will be about “Go for Baroque.”  I thought it was the second best story in the issue.  It may be a matter of taste, but I enjoyed all the wordplay and inventive surrealism in this madcap romp.  A bit like Lafferty, I’d say.

    To each her own!

  3. A nitpick about Pitkin (Buck): She is not a brand new author.  She has had 11 previous appearances in F&SF, going back to 1952–four of them short stories, the other seven verse.

    John Boston

  4. I stand in awe of Cordwainer Smith. “Mother Hitton” was a strange tale told very well, but “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” has completely blown me away, as the kids say. There is probably room for whole doctoral dissertations in the imagery here. I can think of 2 or 3 ways to read Abba-Dingo, Macht means “power” in German, a host of other things. Frankly, five stars is too few for this one.

    The Clarke was average. He plays with crime stories every so often, but they always seem to just miss the mark. He’s much better at travelogues.

    The two domestic pieces were awful. Makes me wonder if all is well in the Mills household.

    My opinion of “Go for Baroque” lies somewhere between yours and Victoria’s. I’m sure there was a story in there, but Farouche’s rapid-fire patter kept drifting into Grouch territory and doing it badly. I found that too distracting. I did see something a bit Lafferty-esque there, though.

    “The Cage” was interesting, though the ending felt sort of tacked on to give the story some depth. Not Mrs. de Ford’s best work, but readable.

    As for the Garrett and Davidson tale, the less said the better. A clean miss all around. Since the final polish is clearly Davidson, I’m guessing the heart of the story is Garrett’s, but he couldn’t quite bring it the last mile. Certainly the protagonist is more typical of Garrett than Davidson.

  5. “Cordwainer Smith’s Science Fiction Magazine”.  Something like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine?

    No offense to Mr. Smith (who is going to be one of the greats) but I think Heinlein will get there first.

  6. I liked the Clarke story. My thanks to Victoria for explaining why the title wasn’t ringing any bells, although I recognized the story itself from the first sentence.

    The gnurrs come from the voodvork out!

    1. Ooh, I knew I forgot something I wanted to mention. And the story took place in the Schimmelhorn system. Of course, Grendel Briarton and Reginald Bretnor are the same person.

  7. One detail: I don’t think the Instrumentality of Mankind is a computer. It’s made up of fallible (very fallible) human beings, the Lords and Ladies of the Instrumentality. See “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” or “Drunkboat.”

  8. I think Rodii may be pulling our legs, by coming up with possible titles for Smith stories (which certainly always have strange and wonderful titles.) However, I believe the interpretation of the Instrumentality as a ruling class or government rather than a computer is correct.  There’s this hint from “Scanners Live in Vain” (which appeared in the rather obscure “Fantasy Book” magazine more than a decade ago, and which has appeared in a couple of anthologies since then.)

    “He might be stopped by the guards whom the Instrumentality had undoubtedly set around the person of Adam Stone. ”

    That’s not completely unambiguous, of course, but it sounds more like the Powers That Be to me.

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