[Oct. 2, 1960] Second-rate fun (November 1960 IF Science Fiction)

Galaxy’s little sister, IF Science Fiction has settled into a predictable format.  Filled with a number of “B” authors, mostly neophytes, it generally leads with a decent novelette, and the rest of the stories are two and three-star affairs.  I don’t think the blame can be put on IF‘s shadow editor, Fred Pohl (Horace Gold is all but retired these days, I understand).  Rather, this is about the best quality one can expect for a penny a word. 

That said, the stories in IF are rarely offensively bad, and perhaps some day, one of these novices learning the ropes of writing in the minor leagues will surprise us with a masterpiece.

Preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at the November 1960 issue:

Jim Harmon is actually quite the veteran, and he has a knack for interesting, off-beat writing.  His novelette, Mindsnake, depicts a future where interstellar teleportation is possible, but fraught with risk.  Only the Companions, colloquially known (and disparaged) as Witches, can keep a traveller’s mind intact over the long journey.  Good stuff, and original.  Four stars.

Then we have the short Superjoemulloy by unknown Scott F. Grenville.  How can the most powerful man challenge himself?  By creating a superior version of himself, of course.  Three stars.

Now, I was a bit dismayed to find Daniel Keyes in the Table of Contents.  Whenever I see a “big name” in IF (and there is no question that Keyes is a big name: he won the Hugo this year for Flowers for Algernon), the story is usually a second-rater.  Sure enough, The Quality of Mercy, which clunkily mixes sentient computers with organ transplants and mandated euthanasia, is a bit of a talky mess.  Two stars.

R.A. Lafferty is a fellow who may surprise us some day.  He seems to be enjoying an upward trajectory with his stories, not just in quality but in venue.  McGonigal’s Worm, in which every animal on Earth loses the ability to breed, is sort of a poor man’s Brain Wave.  Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.  Three stars.

Esidarap ot Pirt Dnuor is an engaging little tale of tourism in a rather backward place, brought to us by Lloyd Biggle, Jr, who spends much of his time appearing in Fantastic.  I liked it, but I’m afraid I didn’t get the final joke–an Un-Prize to anyone who can explain it to me.  Three stars.

I was gratified to find that, per his book review column, Fred Pohl liked much the same stories in Aldiss’ Galaxies like Grains of Sand as I did.  On the other hand, he liked Dickson’s Dorsai! far more than me.  Perhaps the novelization (titled The Genetic General) is better than the serial.

William Stuart is back with another well-written story that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Don’t think about it is a low-grade F&SF-style tale that takes too long to get to its kicker, and whose kicker lacks kick.  Three stars.

That brings us to Frank Herbert’s Egg and Ashes, told from the point of view of a charming if horrifying little symbiote (parasite?) I felt like the beginning was better than the ending, but I do like the way Herbert turns a phrase.  Three stars.

The issue ends with The Impersonator, the third story ever published by Robert Wicks.  In the midling future, the Earth is threatened by an impending Ice Age thanks to humanity’s rapacious exploitation of the planet’s resources.  A host of outrageous plans are developed to fix the problem: from salting ice fields with carbon dust, to altering the axial tilt of the planet, to tapping the heat from the Earth’s core.  It’s not a great story, but I liked Wicks’ satirical presentation of “doubling down” in an attempt to thwart catastrophe.  Three stars.

As you can see, this isn’t the best crop of stories.  On the other hand, minor league games draw crowds, too.  And the tickets are cheaper….

10 thoughts on “[Oct. 2, 1960] Second-rate fun (November 1960 IF Science Fiction)”

  1. I might snag a copy of If for the Biggle story.  I’ve been following him for several years now.  As far as I can tell he’s only written short fiction, but most of it has been thoughtful and interesting.  Maybe I’ve just missed the bad ones.

    I’ve read a couple of Frank Herbert’s shorts, which were workmanlike.  And his novel “Under Pressure”, which a lot of people have raved about… it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a recognizeable plot (honestly, not all novels have all four…) but I simply don’t see why it attracted so much attention.

  2. I skipped most of the Biggle, but I *believe* the joke was the tourists were the exhibits.

    The Herbert is my pick, such a graceful and well done rendition of an old trope. The Lafferty was fun, too; though I did think never knowing why was a bit of a chiz.

    The Wicks was a good idea, but. Not a smooth writer, and I really couldn’t swallow that so many adults, responsible to their people, would let their planet be destroyed for immediate profit and politics.

  3. I haven’t had a chance to dig into this yet, but I like your minor league analogy. It is good to have a venue that has room for new writers. On the other hand, they deserve decent pay rates, too.

    I think Daniel Keyes has a problem. It’s extremely unlikely that he’ll ever again write anything as sublime and perfect as “Flowers for Algernon”. No blame to him, it was simply that good. But everything he ever writes from now on will be compared to it and found wanting. That has to be a burden for a writer.

    1. “Flowers for Algernon” was one the most horrifying story I’ve ever read.  Going gaga in your old age is bad enough, but having your brain decay while you know what’s happening…  that’s just sick.

  4. “Mindsnake” — Imaginative and different, if a bit confusing at first.  It seems to come to its conclusion a bit too quickly, which is better than being padded.  My eyebrows jumped up at the idea that the woman in the story was the first female genius in history.  Has the author never heard of Marie Curie?  Jane Austen?

    “Superjoemulloy” — Just a rather dark joke story, but not terrible.  Maybe a bit of Asimov parody was intended, with the positronic robots.

  5. “The Quality of Mercy” — If this had been by an unknown rather than Keyes, I would have called it a typical, rather mediocre “Galaxy” story.  Interesting societal speculation and satire, but very implausible.  Given “Flowers for Algernon,” it’s like seeing Babe Ruth hit a single.

    “McGonigal’s Worm” — This shouldn’t work at all.  It’s all tell and no show, and it’s just a shaggy dog story.  Darn it, though, if there isn’t something charming about Lafferty’s eccentric stories.

  6. “esidaraP ot pirT dnuoR” — Seemed rather like minor Sheckley, which isn’t a bad thing at all.  The mad logic of the mirror world’s economic system was decently thought out, and the story was smoothly written.  I’ll admit that the last line baffled me, too.  Since windows look both ways, what would reversed mirrors me?  Stephanie’s explanation is as good as any I can imagine, but weren’t the tourists from the forward world supposed to be a secret?

    “Don’t Think About It” — I enjoyed this gruesome little horror story.  True, the ending isn’t exactly surprising, but I thought the author did a fine job writing this through the eyes of a young child. 

    With these two stories, “If” seems to be willing to use stories which are at least a little on the fantasy side.

  7. “Egg and Ashes” — An intriguing sense of what it might feel like to be an alien, but the story is over before it really begins.  It seems as if the author couldn’t figure out what to do with a really good premise.

    “The Impersonator” — An interesting, complex story.  Maybe a little too melodramatic in places, but otherwise it kept me reading.  I did not predict the exact motivation for the “impersonation,” and it was good to have a story surprise me.

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