[May 3, 1961] Passing the Torch (June 1961, Galaxy, 2nd Half)

Something is changing over at Galaxy magazine.

Horace Gold, Galaxy‘s editor, started the magazine in 1950, near the beginning of the post-pulp digest boom.  He immediately set a high bar for quality, with some of the best authors and stories, and including a top-notch science columnist (this was before Asimov transitioned from fiction).  Galaxy only once won the Best Magazine Hugo (in 1953, and that one it shared), but it paid well, eschewed hoary cliches, and all-in-all was a pillar of the field.  It was the magazine that got me into reading science fiction on a regular basis.

Warning bells started to clang in 1959.  The magazine went to a bi-monthly schedule (though at a somewhat increased size).  Author rates were slashed in half.  Gold, himself, suffering from battle fatigue-induced agoraphobia, became more erratic.  This new Galaxy was not a bad mag, but it slipped a few rungs. 

Fred Pohl came on last year.  He was not officially billed as the editor, but it was common knowledge that he’d taken over the reigns.  Pohl is an agent and author, a fan from the way-back.  I understand his plan has been to raise author rates again and bring back quality.  While he waits for the great stories to come back, he leavens the magazines with old stories from the “slush pile” that happen not to be awful.  In this way, Galaxy showcases promising new authors while keeping the quality of the magazine consistent.

The June 1961 Galaxy is the first success story of this new strategy.

Last issue, I talked about how Galaxy was becoming a milquetoast mag, afraid to take risks or deviate far from mediocrity.  This month’s issue, the first that lists Pohl as the “Managing Editor,” is almost the second coming of old Galaxy — daring, innovative, and with one exception, excellent. 

Take Cordwainer Smith’s Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, in which an interplanetary ring of thieves tries to steal from the richest, and best defended planet, in the galaxy.  Smith has always been a master, slightly off-center in his style; his rich, literary writing is of the type more usually seen in Fantasy and Science FictionKittons is ultimately a mystery, the nature of the unique (in name and nature) “kittons” remaining unknown until the last.  A brutal, fascinating story, and an unique take on the future.  Five stars.

Breakdown is by Herbert D. Kastle, one of the aforementioned novices.  Despite his green status, he turned in an admirable piece involving a farmer who finds the world increasingly differing from his memories.  Is he sliding across alternate universe?  It is a cosmic prank?  A gripping story, suitable for adaptation to The Twilight Zone.  Four stars.

The one dud of the issue is Frank Herbert’s A-W-F Unlimited: thirty pages of pseudo-clever dialogue and inner monologue set in a mid-21st Century ad agency as its star executive attempts to fulfill a recruiting drive contract for the space corps.  I got through it, but only by dint of effort.  1 star.

Poul Anderson has another entry in his Time Patrol series, though My Object all Sublime does not betray this fact until the end.  It’s a slow, moody piece; the reflections of a man from the far future, flung into the worst areas of the past as punishment for a nameless crime.  In one thought-provoking passage, the condemned man notes that being from the future in no way guarantees superiority in the past, for most people are not engineers or scientists with sufficient knowledge to change the world.  Moreover, they arrive penniless, and who can make a difference without money?

This is actually a problem I’ve considered (i.e. what I’d do if ended up stuck far back in time).  While I probably wouldn’t recognize salt-peter if I smelled it, I suspect just introducing germ theory and Arabic numerals would be enough to carve a niche.  Zero must be the most influential nothing in the history of humanity…  I rate the story at four stars.

Rounding out the issue is Fred Saberhagen’s The Long Way Home.  Two thousand years from now, a (surprisingly conventional) man and wife-run mining ship discovers an enormous spacecraft out among the planetoids near Pluto.  How it got there and where it’s going pose enigmas that should keep you engaged until the end of this competently written tale.  Three stars.

In sum, the June 1961 Galaxy weighs in at a solid 3.5 stars.  If you skip the Herbert, you end up with a most impressive regular-length magazine.  Given that Pohl also edits Galaxy’s sister mag, IF (also a bi-monthly, alternating with Galaxy), I am eagerly looking forward to next month!

9 thoughts on “[May 3, 1961] Passing the Torch (June 1961, Galaxy, 2nd Half)”

  1. Cordwainer Smith is just a stunning writer. In a way, he’s like Lafferty, in that his style simply should not work, but it does. As I understand it, he has close ties to China through his father’s work (I’ve even heard that Sun Yat-Sen is his godfather) and it may be that he’s been inspired by Chinese narrative techniques. But I must say that the only writer who comes close to implying such a depth of history and culture to his worlds is Lord Dunsany.

    And this particular tale manages to twist the reader around so well. You start off expecting to sympathize with Benjacomin, and then he murders a child! And the whole thing becomes a tale of justice. Just amazing.

    “Breakdown” was also quite interesting. For most of it, it felt a bit like a Philip K. Dick story, but then everything suddenly grounded in reality. For me, I thought the ending weakened the story some, but that may have been due to expectations based on Dick.

    It’s fitting that the title of the Herbert story was derived from an effort to create an acronym that spelled AWFUL. It certainly was. There was definitely the possibility of a good story there; others have done some pretty good advertising agency tales. But here, none of the characters were at all believable, and the women were worse than caricatures.

    The Anderson was another winner. Very subtle and gentle right up until that punch at the end.

    And Saberhagen continues to impress. His characters were a little too much of our time, I felt, but the story itself was very good. I find myself wanting to know more. What happened with the people on that ship after they were “rescued”?

    An excellent issue that finished even stronger than it started. The only problem I see with Fred Pohl taking over the helm of the two mags is that it will leave him little time to write his own stuff.

    1. I tend not to discuss endings in the articles proper so as not to spoil, but now I can speak freely.  I agree that the Kastle’s ending is the weakest part — not bad, just the least interesting possibility. 

      I didn’t even mention the women in the Herbert because the vehicle was so lousy.

  2. While I agree the Smith is good, I think he overlooks how animal abuse leaks into child abuse. Especially when it’s a joke. I don’t believe the Norstrilians would be as sympathetic, or care in the same way for the dead child, as he has it.

    Both the Kastle (though it starts a bit slow) and the Saberhagen are first rate. The Anderson, too; mostly. But I think the twist is so inefficient it could do with further explaining.

    What *were* Herbert and the editor thinking?

    1. Stephanie, for that reason alone, I thought of docking the Smith, but I found it stayed with me too vividly.  I don’t think the Norstrilians are nice people, or even “the good guys.”  Their opponent was definitely a bad guy.

      I found the Anderson not quite…finished.  It’s hard to define.  If it hadn’t provoked my thoughts, I might have given it a 3.

      1. I got the impression both the Anderson and the Smith (more so in the Smith) shared the theme of a fairly amateur evil being defeated by more professional/established evil.

  3. I don’t think of this Anderson story as part of the Time Patrol series, but as another riff on the same topic. There are, as you note, no references to the Patrol anywhere in the story — not even at the end, when the twist is revealed. Now, it might be that the protagonist in this story is connected with a different branch of the same government, as if the Time Patrol itself is akin to the Army and this man works for the equivalent of Black Ops, but that’s as close a connection as I’d be willing to countenance.

    However, that affects neither the excellence of the story nor the basic argument that if you throw a person far enough into the historical past, they will not have the kind of detailed knowledge that it would take to predict coming events, or to know who to seek out as a patron.

    The language barrier alone would be a huge difficulty, and I notice that Anderson sort of glides over that particular issue. If you’re not a professional linguist, trying to puzzle out an unfamiliar language from native speakers while pretending to be part of the same civilization would be a daunting task at best. He was lucky not to have been “diagnosed” with some odd form of aphasia and made into an experimental medical subject.

    1. If Taddeusz had made it into the Soviet Union, he could blend in.  No one understands each other there; in fact, their military units are specifically composed of farflung nationalities to preclude mutual intelligibility.  Reduces the chance of revolt.

  4. Of course, I am a fanatic for Cordwainer Smith, so this was the highlight of the issue for me.  A powerful story; so much so that it’s uncomfortable to read.  I’d agree that there are no “good guys” in this story.  From other stories Smith has written, there are hints that this part of his far future is a rather cruel and decadent one, particularly in the way they treat the Underpeople.

    I thought “Breakdown” was a good story, if not as outstanding as the Smith.  Good characterization and details.

    “A-W-F Unlimited” was not only a poor story, it was outrageously repetitive.  It could have been boiled down to a few pages, given the trivial gimmick.  Too bad.  Herbert had a very good novel serialized in “Astounding” called “Under Pressure.”  Let’s hope he drops the comedy and goes back to serious science fiction.

    “My Object All Sublime” wasn’t bad.  The main point of somebody being helpless in the past was made better in Anderson’s previous story “The Man Who Came Early.”

    “The Long Way Home” was a one-idea story, but it’s an original idea.

    So, this half of the issue was like the first one, more or less.  Two very good stories, one bad story, and a couple of clever, if not deep, stories.  Overall, that’s about as good as you can expect a typical issue of a magazine to be.

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