[November 12, 1962] HEADS ABOVE THE CLOUDS (the December 1962 Amazing)

by John Boston

Science fiction becomes science fact!  Well not quite, fortunately for us all.  It appears that we came to the brink of nuclear war last month but our leaders on both sides had sense enough to turn back from it.  These grave events reverberated even here, far from any population center or promising military target.  We were herded to a school assembly to be addressed by the principal, very briefly.  It went more or less like this:

“We, ah, don’t think . . . er, anything . . . is going to . . . ah, happen, but if, er, . . . something . . . ah, happens . . . classes will be dismissed and you will return to your homes” (these last clauses delivered with accelerating confidence, unlike the earlier ones).

Shortly thereafter, I was outside in gym class (physical education, as they call it here).  In a corner of the large outdoor area, the school’s paper trash was burning in a concrete enclosure.  (Isn’t there a better way of disposing of this stuff than burning it in the open air?  There ought to be a law.) The wind shifted, and fine bits of ash began drifting down on us.  “Fallout!” someone yelled.

So much for existential terror, at least in the so-called real world.  There’s a fair dose of it in the December Amazing, however, and this issue is noticeably wider awake than its recent predecessors.

Raymond F. Jones contributes the lead story Stay Off the Moon! Jones is an intermittently prolific 20-year veteran who has produced a lot of cut-to-specs product but sometimes comes up with clever oddball ideas, and here’s one of them.  Our guys at Mission Control succeed in putting a remote-controlled mobile laboratory device on the Moon to take soil (i.e. rock) samples, analyze them, and transmit the results.  Turns out the atomic weights and energy levels are different from the matter we know.  How can that be?  The Moon must have originated a long, long way away, in a place where the laws we thought are universal don’t quite work.  Well, what else is going on up there?  Finding the bizarre but logical (and terrifying) answer is the rest of the story.  This is the kind of thing only an SF geek can appreciate, but within those bounds it’s imaginative and well done.  Four stars.

Roger Zelazny’s Moonless in Byzantium—his second Amazing story, fourth published—might have a broader appeal.  It’s a surreal riff on one of the more familiar plots in the warehouse, the lone rebel face to face with an oppressive regime, in this case the Robotic Overseeing Unit.  In this dystopia, machines are in charge, people are mostly machines, and our protagonist is charged with writing Sailing to Byzantium on a washroom wall.  He is also charged with illegal possession of a name—William Butler Yeats, which he appended to Yeats’s poem.  This is the world of Cutgab, in which language itself is drastically restricted and simplified, and writing forbidden.  ROU accuses: “You write without purpose or utility, which is why writing itself has been abolished—men always lie when they write or speak.” The outcome is inevitable save for the accused’s final and futile defiance.  This is one that succeeds on sheer power of writing; in theme and style, it suggests Bradbury with sharper teeth.  Four stars for bravura execution of a stock idea.

This month’s Editorial indicates that some readers thought that this Roger Zelazny was himself a fictional character, and prints Zelazny’s reassurance that he exists; his Polish ancestors were armorers and the name comes from the Polish for “iron”; he’s 25, and possesses an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, military training as a guided missile launcher crewman, and his old copies of Captain Future.

The Zelazny is followed by Far Enough to Touch, by Stephen Bartholomew, who had a couple of stories in If and one in Astounding a few years ago.  A space mission is returning from the Moon, and suddenly one of the crew—the young one who seemed most entranced by space—has gone out the airlock in his spacesuit.  Rescued, he’s in an ecstatic delusional fugue, and stays that way.  And the point?  It escapes me, but the story is very smoothly written.  Two stars.

Stewart Pierce Brown contributes an equally well-turned but insubstantial story in Small Voice, Big Man, in which the voice of a washed-up singer suddenly is emanating from radios everywhere, to benign effect.  And the singer, Van Richie, is trying to make a comeback, but had a hard time singing loudly enough until the producer’s electrician rigged up an amplifier for him to wear.  OK, clear enough, but so what?  Two insipid stars—but this one is also smoothly written, not surprisingly from a writer who’s been in Bluebook, Collier’s, Playboy, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, who served up a dish of broken glass in the last issue, is back with something more soothing.  Measureless to Man takes place on yesterday’s Mars, where explorers travel on foot through the mountains with tents and sleeping bags, people get around by flagging down the mail jet, and the fauna include cute scaly sand mice and banshees, giant, stupid but dangerous flightless birds.  I suspect that this story was at least started a decade ago in hopes of a sale to the now-deceased pulps that Bradley admired.  Anyway, it concerns an expedition into the said mountains to the ancient city Xanadu, abandoned ages ago by the seemingly extinct Martians, from which no previous expedition has returned, and you can more or less guess what happens, in broad outline at least.  This used furniture is rearranged agreeably enough, with a slightly ironic, newer-style ending.  Three stars.

Sam Moskowitz’s “SF Profile” this issue is “Psycho”-logical Bloch, which is a little puzzling; Moskowitz readily concedes that Robert Bloch is a fairly inconsequential SF writer and that his main credentials are in horror and psychological suspense, at this point chiefly in film and TV.  Apparently Bloch is here in this series featuring the likes of Asimov and Heinlein because he’s popular among fandom.  But for a relatively pointless article, it’s perfectly readable and informative.  Three stars.

Finally, Frank Tinsley is back with The Mars Supply Fleet, doing his best to make space travel pedestrian again.  Two stars for making interesting information boring.

But still, cause for hope: two items in this issue poke their heads above the cloudbank of routine, in very different ways…

4 thoughts on “[November 12, 1962] HEADS ABOVE THE CLOUDS (the December 1962 Amazing)”

  1. I thought the Jones was just awful. It started well, and I was particularly taken with the idea of robotic or remotely operated science labs going to the moon (and perhaps even farther) before we get there. Our top-flight chemist protagonist seemed rather bewildered by the concept of isotopes, and the whole thing went downhill into ever greater implausibility from there. At best, this story should have been in Fantastic.

    Now the Zelazny was excellent. I like what I’ve seen so far. He’s shaping up to be very good and I hope we see a lot more from him. Lest the Traveler be put off by Master Boston’s comparison to Bradbury, Zelazny is probably much more to your taste, more like Sturgeon or (good) Davidson. If nothing else, he’s far less trite and treacly than Bradbury.

    The Bartholomew was a bit pointless, but I liked it well enough. I’d have given it a solid 3 stars, even if it was perhaps a little long.

    The Brown was pretty bad. I think — think, mind you — it was supposed to be about the unexpected ways in which technology can impact our lives. Or maybe that’s reading too much into it. Invisible, wireless microphones could be a great boon to stage performers, though.

    The Bradley? I can only shrug. It felt like a pastiche of C.L. Moore and/or H. Beam Piper, perhaps with a soupcon of Bradbury tossed in. It was readable and reached a satisfying conclusion, but I’ve not been all that impressed with Mrs. Bradley thus far.

    The Bloch bio was interesting, not least because it was less hagiographical than these things tend to be. It’s true that he’s probably more of a horror writer than anything, but he has solid science fiction roots. I think fans of Fritz Leiber’s darker tales would enjoy his work. And if he has to turn to scriptwriting to keep body and soul together, at least he’s still creating.

    1. I did read the Zelazny — in fact, I have read all of the Zelaznys that have come out, at John’s suggestion.  I like him.  He reminds me more of Ellison than Bradbury.

      I’ve also liked Bloch when I’ve run across him, which hasn’t been often.

      Bradley…well, I suppose she’s popular because she’s so rooted in the fan community, and because she writes unabashed throwback stuff.  I think her work is overviolent and tends to be derivative.  And she’s a bit weird, personally.

  2. “Stay Off the Moon!” — Not the best transition from very plausible near future technology to wild speculation.  Almost like Arthur C. Clarke meets H. P. Lovecraft.

    “Moonless in Byzantium” — A unique dystopia and a unique style.  I picked up on some Bradbury feeling as well.

    “Far Enough to Touch” — OK character study, but too long for what it had to say.

    “Small Voice, Big Man” — Not bad, I thought.  A minor idea, to be sure, but I liked the way it changed the lives of the various people in the story.

    “Measureless to Man” — Bradley seems to be wanting to bring back the old-fashioned space fantasy adventure.  Might please those who like that kind of thing.  Not my cup of tea.

    1. “Almost like Arthur C. Clarke meets H. P. Lovecraft.”

      Excellent description.  Ya know, I think it was deliberate, which makes it kind of charming (though I’d have given it three stars, not four).

      It wins points for, perhaps, being the first depiction of Apollo in its current (and final?) Lunar Orbit Rendezvous configuration.  This couldn’t have been in a drawer long…

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