[November 3, 1962] A Plague of Purple (December 1962 Galaxy)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

A plague has invaded the galaxy.

Well, more specifically, a plague has invaded Galaxy, as evidenced in the December 1962 issue.

It has become de riguer at my former favorite magazine, that of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to print “funny” literary stories.  Tediously amusing, dully droll, laden with parenthetical (uselessly so) clauses — and hyphenated articulations, sometimes “quoted” for extra sardonicism.  And did I mention the extra verbiage?  These magazines pay three cents per word, you know.

An author will not impress me with her/his command of the typewriter keys beyond the 36 letters and numerals, nor with an arcane talent for stringing comma-connected clauses unbroken across a paragraph.  I want a plot, compelling characters, and for God’s Sake, science in my science fiction.  I have nothing against humor.  The likes of Sheckley and (for the most part) Lafferty make me smile just fine.  I’ve nothing against avant garde prose — viz. the incomparable Cordwainer Smith.

No, what drives me crazy is the supremely affected garbage that is shouldering aside honest fiction.  Am I the only one who hates this stuff?  I’m not asking for a return to the mediocre gotcha tales starring James McAnglo-Saxon that larded the surplus of digest in the 50s (and which still regularly appear in Analog.) I just want good, readable stories with reasonable extrapolations of technology populated by genuine human beings…or plausible aliens (I’m no xenophobe.)

Read on, at your own risk.  There’s precious little to enjoy in this month’s issue, save for the second part of Pohl’s serial (the change in tone may give you whiplash) and the rather pedestrian nonfiction articles.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And if you actually like this stuff, well, it’s a free country. 

The Creature from Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

From the first few run-on lines, I knew I was in for a slog.  The once-brilliant Leiber, the fellow who gave us A Pail of Air, has this satirical(?) piece on little computerized calendar/memo-minders that eventually take over the world.  I gave up about halfway through, skimming just enough to confirm that I’d accurately guessed where the story was going.  I’m sure some will absolutely love it; it’s certainly a popular style these days.  Not for me, though.  One star.

Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns, by Avram Davidson

Having poured myself a stiff drink in reward for having made it through the opening novella, my moment of self-congratulation was shattered as I espied the byline of the next piece.  Davidson is the poster child for excellence gone to the prolix weeds.  Sure enough, this piece, ostensibly about earthworms and aliens, is possibly his worst offender yet.  One star.

Droozle, by Frank Banta

Oh look.  A pun-filled story about a sentient fountain pen.  At least it’s short.  One star.

Pluto, Doorway to the Stars, by George Peterson Field

A brief respite.  Field (who is he?) proposes a most unorthodox justification for Pluto’s most unexpected massiveness — it’s actually a gravitational slingshot for alien starships!  Of course, the ninth “planet” probably isn’t that massive, at least according to the astrophysical journals I read.  Three stars for imagination, and because the preceding stories left me with an overstock of stars.

General Max Shorter, by Kris Neville

This is supposed to be a brooding piece from the point of view of a hidebound officer who commits genocide, not out of malice, but stolid adherence to orders and routine.  Instead, it’s a plodding, overwrought story with all the seams showing.  Two stars.

Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas, by R. A. Lafferty

I can usually count on Lafferty to successfully deliver a mirthful tale.  This time, though, he simply fails.  Maybe I was just fatigued from too much of its ilk earlier in the book.  Or maybe his story of a befuddled census-taker who finds a community of Lilliputians in rural Texas just ain’t very good.  Two stars. 

The Glory of Ippling, by Helen M. Urban

I vaguely remember Helen Urban from the magazines many years ago.  I’m afraid her most recent story will not make any new fans.  I couldn’t even tell you what this piece was about — my brain was just too addled from its much of muchness with what preceded it.  One star.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

One of the few rocket scientists from Germany who was never a National Socialist, Willy Ley always turns in a decent article.  This one is on the progress that has been and is being made in the field of space stations.  Ley assures us that, while orbiting stations may not yet be in the headlines, they are certainly under development.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 2 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

Last ish, we learned that the end of civilization, brought about by the selective and destructive possession of people, was actually the work of a group of Soviet dissident scientists.  Drunk on power, they wrought a holocaust beyond the scope (if not the dreams) of even the most ardent Nazi.  Apart from the decaying and isolated millions left in the world, the community of a few hundred gold-circleted “execs” now lives on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, waited upon by 10,000 slaves made marionettes by the psychic coronets of their masters.

Chandler is our viewpoint character, a fellow “rescued” at the brink of execution for hoaxing a possession to commit depraved acts (but he really was a puppet at the time).  He finds himself in Oahu being put to work on a back-up psi generator, one that will assure his overlords eternal power.  People die around him right and left: used up, punished for petty reasons, slaughtered for attempted sedition.  Only the constant love of one of the execs keeps him alive until he has the opportunity to strike back at the masters.

This is such a hard piece to gauge.  It is an expertly written page turner.  The subject matter is extremely difficult stuff, though.  If the world hadn’t witnessed similar horrors just a couple of decades ago (e.g. Germany), I’d say it was a gratuitous exaggeration.  Part of the problem with the book is that Chandler simply doesn’t have much agency (which, to be fair, is rather the point).  Every spark of hope is quenched.  Every attempt to hatch a plan is squelched in the most brutal way.  Only happenstance saves him in the end, an event one can predict fairly early on.  Chandler views this horror world but barely interacts with it.  The result is a vivid, disturbing, fascinating tour of hell.  Four stars, if you can stomach it.

And that’s that.  90 worthy pages, mostly at the end, out of 196.  I sincerely hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.  Otherwise, I shall have to join the bandwagon of those who say that science fiction truly is on the decline.

Speaking of which, see you in a few days with a look at Philip K. Dick’s first sf book in several years.




9 thoughts on “[November 3, 1962] A Plague of Purple (December 1962 Galaxy)”

  1. Bit of an overreaction, I’d say.  I haven’t read the whole issue, but I did read the Leiber story, which seems to me a perfectly ordinary GALAXY satire aimed at the general tendencies to pursue technology without thinking through its consequences and the latent totalitarianism of large corporations and nominally democratic government, told in a rambling stand-up comedy style that’s certainly different from Leiber’s tighter stories like “A Pail of Air,” but not at all unprecedented for him.  (If you hated this one, by all means stay away from THE GREEN MILLENNIUM.) Not a great story, but one I found agreeably readable and amusing.

  2. I think that the reason Lieber is a mixed bag is because he stretches himself to write things outside of genre constraints, and by that I mean he writes not to the market, but rather in reaction to it.

    I hope that makes sense?

  3. Well, I wasn’t expecting much out of this issue. Davidson and Lafferty in a single issue is a bit overdoing things. Add in the second half of a serial I didn’t like, and I almost didn’t even bother. But I think I got more out of it than you did.

    I thought the Leiber was fine, if a little too long. I must say that the idea of an alarm calendar is certainly appealing. And the concept of our machines becoming smarter than us and then designing machines that are smarter than them is intriguing. You have to wonder where that would go.

    After that, alas, the whole thing falls apart. The Davidson style reminded me of something, but I’m not quite sure what. Maybe Ron Goulart. In any case, someone who does it better.

    The Banta and Urban stories were 2 stars at best. Lafferty gets separate mention largely because it’s Lafferty. Actually, this one almost felt more like a Davidson story, and he would have done it better. And as I said, I didn’t care for the first half of the Pohl serial. I skimmed this and looked at the end and was rather glad I didn’t devote any time to it.

    So on the fiction front, it seems to me that Fred Pohl was cleaning out the file cabinets or something.

    The highlight of the issue for me was the science article on Pluto. Extremely well-written and I hope to see more from Mr. Field, whoever he may be. And with an imagination like that, he might try his hand at fiction, too!

  4. I’ve been digging through the sagging shelves of old magazines, trying to clear some room for new acquisitions.  It’s either that, equal space for the Mrs.’ “collectible figurine” collection, or divorce…

    There are some good stories in those old issues; I’m keeping those.  But there’s a lot of “filler”, and I assure you, looking back through the tables of contents, the “short played for yucks” has been a staple of the genre since the early 1950s, anyway.  My older magazines are hidden in the garage, so I won’t be able to get to those for a while.

    I hope we see more Willy Ley articles; so far they’ve been worth reading.  I could do with a lot less Lafferty and Leiber.

  5. “The Creature from Cleveland Depths” — I thought this was pretty good, and definitely in the style of Galaxy a decade or so ago.  Almost a tribute to the satiric style of “Gravy Planet” and other early serials.  It was somewhat implausible, of course.  The very idea of people paying rapt attention to devices they have with them all the time, and even lining up to purchase the newest models — it’ll never happen.  But I liked this story anyway.

    “Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns” and “Droozle” — two very similar, extremely silly farces that didn’t do much for me.  The first one has Davidson’s baroque style, which may be a good thing or a bad thing, or maybe both at once.

    1. Finishing up:

      “General Max Shorter” — OK, but took a while to make an obvious point.

      “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas” — A minor bit of Lafferty whimsy.

      “The Glory of Ippling” — More silly comedy, and probably the worst of the lot.

  6. Finishing up ….

    “A Plague of Pythons” was certainly an unrelievedly grim novel.  I found it to be powerful, if unpleasant to read.  The very last sentence certainly carried a powerful punch.

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