Wrapping up the December 1958 Galaxy (10-30-58)

On a walk down the block on a warm autumn afternoon, I finished the rest of the December 1958 Galaxy.  I’d worked my way backward from the end, as I’d wanted to finish the next installment of “Time Killer.”  Thus, I got to the lead novella, “Join Now” by Finn O’Donovan, last. 

Both the name and the style were familiar.  18 pages into the tale, I recalled that O’Donovan is a pen name for Robert Sheckley.  It is obvious from the writing style that it’s a Sheckley story, and given that Time Killer is being serialized in the same issue, I am not surprised Galaxy used a pseudonym.

Of course, this means that of the 142 pages, a good half of them were penned by Sheckley.  Galaxy is becoming Satellite (a bi-montly magazine which features a full-length, though short, novel plus a short story or two)!

Being a Sheckley short, it’s great.  It’s not science fiction, per se, or perhaps you might call it soft science fiction.  This is the kind of stuff Galaxy pioneered and Sheckley excels at.  This particular tale is about a “Splitter,” one of class of people in the future who splits his/her personality into three parts: the aggressive “id,” the conscientious and dull “superego,” and the fun-loving “libido.”  The superego remains in its own body while the other two parts are put into super-realistic androids. 

Traditionally, the polite superego stays on overcrowded Earth while the libido heads to Mars, which is mostly a fleshpot and tourist resort.  The tough id heads out to Venus, a wide-open jungle frontier.  Sheckley’s tale follows superego-bearing Crompton, as he travels to Mars and Venus, desperate to re-unite with his other parts. 

I think my favorite parts of the story involve Crompton’s libido-bearer, Loomis, and his speeches justifying his hedonistic lifestyle by which he makes fine money as a gigolo and escort.  There’s compelling satire here:

“Today everything is biased toward the poor as though there were some special virtue in improvidence.  Yet the rich have their needs and necessities, too.  These needs are unlike the needs of the poor, but no less urgent.  The poor require food, shelter, medical attention.  The government provides these admirably. 

But what about the needs of the rich?  People laugh at the idea of a rich man having problems, but does the mere possession of credit exempt him from having problems?  It does not!  Quite the contrary, wealth increases need and sharpens necessity, often leaving a rich man in a more truly necessitous condition than his poor brother.” 

To the question, “Why doesn’t the rich man give up his wealth,” Loomis replies, “Why doesn’t a poor man give up his poverty?  No, it can’t be done.  We must accept the conditions that life has imposed on us.  The burden of the rich is heavy; still they must bear it and seek aid where they can.”

The poor, poor rich people.  Also amusing is Loomis’ justifications for engaging in adultery.  He’s quite convincing, too…

Finishing up this month’s Galaxy is a short tale by the team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.  This was obviously written some time ago since Kornbluth died quite unseasonably of a heart attack in March of this year.  He was only 34 (places hand over heart).

The story is called, “Nightmare with Zeppelins,” and it is less science fiction than an exercise in writing anachronistically.  Specifically, it is a tale told by someone living during the Great War reminiscing about his travels in Africa in 1864.  It is fun, ironic stuff; the point of such an exercise, of course, is really to comment on the present.  I might try my hand at it some time.

Next up: December 1958’s F&SF!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Make Room!  Make Room! (Musings on overpopulation; 10-29-58)

The December 1958 Galaxy came in the mail on the 26th, and I’ve read about half of it.  Willy Ley’s column, on the amazing alien world beneath the surface of the sea, is fascinating stuff.  The third part (of four) of Sheckley’s Time Killer is engaging, though not in the same class as most of his short stories.  The short murder mystery, “Number of the Beast,” by Fritz Leiber, might have made an interesting novella; as it is, it is too underdeveloped to be interesting.  Too bad.  Fritz is good.

But what inspired this blog was veteran Jack Vance’s latest: “Ullward’s Retreat.”  It is a tale about how a little bit of privacy and living space is a status symbol in an overcrowded world; but, in a society used to being crowded together, too much privacy and living space is undesirable.

Recent figures show that our population is about to hit the 3 billion mark.  Given that we reached 1 billion in 1800 and 2 billion in 1927, it is understandable that a good deal of science fiction depicts an overpopulated future. 

I find it laughable when an author describes shoulder-to-shoulder crowding with a population of (gasp) 7-10 billion!  I recognize that some of our cities are pretty crowded these days, but even tripling the population is not going to squish people together–it will just spread the cities out.  Most of the world is still uninhabited, and I can only guess that science will make more of the world inhabitable.

Vance’s Earth, however, has a whopping 50 billion souls on it, and that seems a reasonable strain on space limitations.  The story starts in the spacious apartment of the eponymous Ullward, a wealthy man.  His home comes with a real garden and an honest-to-goodness oak tree.  His guests are suitably impressed: their homes are tiny cubicles with doors that exit right onto the commuter slidewalks.  To overcome claustrophobia, walls are replaced with image panes that display scenery to convey a convincing illusion of greater space.

Interestingly enough, in Ullward’s Retreat, whole planets are available to colonize with relative ease.  Ullward leases a continent and invites his friends to visit.  They quickly tire of the vast vistas and the pervasive loneliness.  They pine to investigate the “good parts” of the world, which are rendered off-limits by the planet’s owner.  Ultimately, Ullward forgoes his enormous estate and returns to his comparatively (to his peers, not to us) extravagant abode, which has proven, despite its smaller scope, much more impressive to Ullward’s friends.

Vance’s story is a trivial one and not to be taken especially seriously.  I did like some points, however.  For one, it depicts an overcrowded future as not dystopian, simply different.  Anyone who has been to Japan (before or after the war) has seen a society far more used to crowding than ours.  They don’t seem to mind it.  They just make do with smaller gardens and narrower houses; they adapt with greater politeness and cultural rigidity.  The people in Ullward’s Retreat like their little privileges, but those privileges become meaningless without a social context.  I guess it’s the difference between having a 1 karat diamond ring and a 50 karat hunk of diamond in your closet. 

I also like that the ability to colonize does not reduce the population pressure on mother Earth.  Columbus and Cabot finding America did not make Europe any less populated.  It just led to the Americas being more populated (after the colonists did some depopulation of the natives, of course).  Moreover, in a world where people are happier in close quarters with their neighbors, it makes sense that the colonizing spirit would be correspondingly lower. 

Was it a good story?  Is it worth 35 cents?  Sort of, and, probably not.  Nevertheless, it did provoke thought, and can you put a price on that?

Stay tuned.  I’ll have more on this month’s Galaxy in a day or two!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

A Disturbing Sign (10-27-1958)

Uh oh.

I received my December 1958 Galaxy magazine in the mail yesterday.  I have a very set pattern when I read my Galaxies: I start with the editorial, move on to Willy Ley’s science column (“For Your Information”), finish any serial novels in process, and then enjoy the rest.

I was in for a shock right out of the gate, however.  Per Mr. Gold (the editor), Galaxy is going to a bi-monthly format.  Instead of 142 pages for 35 cents every month, Galaxy will be a 192-page magazine coming out every other month for 50 cents.

Now, Mr. Gold puts as positive a spin on it as he can.  He describes the change in schedule as being done to accommodate his desire to offer a bigger magazine rather than reflecting an inability to publish on a monthly schedule. 

“We can fill 196 pages every other month with really good science fiction.  We can’t do it on a monthly schedule.  Nobody can.

Transposed western and detective stories cosmetically disguised as science fiction, oversexed Playboy rejections, witless space wars, extraterrestrial spies, post-atomic societies, biblical greats who turn out to be aliens or visitors from the future, cave-dweller Ugh who discovers how to chip flint or make fire or meets the gods with six arms or ray-flannel buckskins, the road or valley that proves to be a time fault into the future or past, good guy and bad guy marooned on an asteroid, psionics that have long psickened us with their psenseless psamenesses — there are enough of these literary cinders to fill any number of slagpile magazines.  But Galaxy quality?  Enough for 196 packed pages every two months is all we dare hope for, all we can safely promise.”

I wish Mr. Gold would tell us how he really feels about his competitors.

In sum, to hear Mr. Gold tell it, he just can’t get enough good stories.  I have a nagging suspicion that the truth is he is getting hit by the same economic pinch as his competitors, perhaps the continuing fallout from the demise of the American News Company, last year’s event that disrupted magazine distribution nationwide and effectively killed the last of the pulps.  This is borne out by a rumor I have heard from a reliable source that Galaxy is cutting its pay in half: from three cents per word to just one-and-a-half cents per word.  No wonder Mr. Gold expects he will have trouble filling issues!

Interestingly enough, Mr. Gold has also solicited a new round of suggestions from his readers for changes in the magazine’s format.  He is interested in knowing whether we want to keep serial novels or go to a mostly short story contents page.  He also wants to know if we want a letters column (something we strongly rejected eight years ago, and which I would encourage us all to do again). 

Mr. Gold even wants to know how we feel about Mr. Ley’s monthly (now bi-monthly) science column.  I don’t know about you, but Willy Ley, that great German rocket-designing expatriate turned science popularizer is the reason I started subscribing to Galaxy in the first place.  His readable style and interesting topics are well worth picking up back issues for.  I think Galaxy would do well to anthologize his articles as they do their fiction (and as I understand Asimov is doing/plans to do with his articles in Astounding/F&SF). 

I hope going to bi-monthly, and the accompanying floundering for a new magazine design, doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for Galaxy, and by extension, science fiction magazines as a whole.  I understand that we live in a world where science fiction has become fact, and that the headlines of our daily newspapers are nearly as thrilling as the contents pages of our digests.

But dreams are important, too.  We need to keep dreaming one, two or ten steps ahead of reality so that we have an incentive to progress and make the headlines.  To support these dreams, we have to buy these magazines and keep them going, or all we’ll have left is newspaper headlines, and in time, maybe not even those.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

X Minus One!  (10-26-1958)

“X minus 5…4…3…2…X minus 1… Fire.

From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space.  These are stories of the future adventures, in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe-worlds.  The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, presents:

X!  Minus!  One!”

Has it really been almost a year since X Minus One went off the air?

What?  You’ve never heard of X Minus One?

Sit down, Lucy.  I’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. 

As you know by now, I am a big fan of Galaxy Science Fiction (except they changed their name to simply “Galaxy” earlier this year; perhaps they are trying to diversify their audience, or perhaps spine lettering costs too much per letter).  Galaxy is one of the Big Three s-f digests.  Its content ranges from decent to excellent.  So you can imagine how excited I was when NBC partnered with Galaxy to adapt some of its best stories into half-hour radio shows.  And this from the network known for the Dinah Shore show and The Great Gildersleeve!

I was lucky enough to catch the show at the beginning thanks to the ads that appeared in Galaxy.  I’m sure I’ve listened to the better part of a hundred of them.  I never missed an episode by choice (even though I was familiar with all of the stories, all of them having appeared in Galaxy’s pages before).  But, family matters sometimes took precedence, and on a few occasions, NBC switched up its broadcast schedule, leaving me rather steamed for the evening.

It is my understanding that there was another show early on in the decade with similar content, and I found out after the fact that John Campbell (editor of Astounding) tried doing his own science fiction dramatization show for a year or so, but I never caught a listen before it went off the air.

I only wish they would make more, or at least there might be some place I might listen to them all again. In case any of you find that NBC recorded them all on 33s somewhere, here are some of my favorites:

  • “Skulking Permit” by Robert Sheckley
  • “Junkyard” by Cliff Simak
  • “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber
  • “Star, Bright” by Mark Clifton
  • “Hallucination Orbit” by J.McIntosh (or was it J.M’Intosh?)
  • “Saucer of Loneliness” by Ted Sturgeon
  • “Something for Nothing” by Robert Sheckley

I think that’s the order in which I heard them.  In any event, even if you can’t get your ears on the X Minus One adaptations, I’m sure you can find the written stories.  They are all worth reading.  I’m pretty sure Katherine MacLean, who I talked about a few days ago had one, too, though I don’t remember its name. 

Being unable to listen to these shows again drives home just how ephemeral broadcast entertainment really is compared to the written word.  We lament the loss of the Library at Alexandria, but we still have hundreds of surviving Classical works.  X Minus Zero is just.. gone. 

If NBC ever revives this show, I’m going to buy an old wire recorder or (since they are becoming quite affordable these days) a reel-to-reel tape recorder just so I can listen to episodes over and over.  Maybe I’ll be the modern-day Alexandria of science fiction!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Amazing? November 1958 (10-25-1958)

When Galaxy came out in 1950, the old pulp magazines were still doing reasonably well, though they were clearly on the decline.  Galaxy editor Horace L. Gold put out a one-page ad on the back of the first issue making fun of the Space Westerns that had typified the pulps since the 20’s and promising that no such trash would appear between the covers of his fine magazine. 

Gold kept his promise and seems to be having the last laugh.  The pulps were pretty well gone by the time I’d gotten hooked on science fiction digests (1954), and the digests that continue the tradition of the Space Western seem to be dying out.

Except for Amazing.  The first of the science fiction magazines has not changed its content in a long time, and reading an issue is like traveling back ten or twenty years.  Tales of strong-chinned heroes and tough-talking thugs and beautiful damsels gallivanting around the planets like folks taking the stage from Pecos to El Paso, with terrain to match.  This latest issue (November 1958) includes a story that takes place on the moon, which is adorned with volcanoes and vegetation.  In 1958!  Just to make sure I was with the times, I went into my daughter’s room and leafed through Roy A. Gallant’s fine hardcover, “exploring the planets,” (lower-case transcribed faithfully).  Sure enough, the moon is dead and airless.  Gallant’s book was published this year, and I don’t doubt its accuracy.  I guess someone needs to tell Paul Fairman (Amazing’s editor) what decade this is.

Now, I suppose I’m going to get a lot of negative comments such as the ones that I read in a similar magazine, “Imagination,” (“Madge” to its readers) before it, too, went out of print.  “Madge” was filled with angry letters and defiant editorials denigrating “egghead sci-fi.” After a long day at work (the editor said) a guy just wanted some adventure yarns.  He shouldn’t have to think so hard. 

(Of course, I only read “Madge” for Fandora’s Box, Mari Wolf’s excellent round-up of conventions and fanzines.  I miss her.  I believe her replacement on the column by Robert Bloch in ’56 was the proximate cause for the magazine’s recent demise.  And the lousy stories.  Oh, did I say that out loud?)

Anyway, back to Amazing.  I can’t imagine there is much of an audience anymore for the kind of backward stuff appearing in its pages.  Anyone into such fare would be better served by the sci-fi movies coming out these days.  I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Amazing will be off the shelves before the decade is through. 

Of course, I reserve the right to pretend I never made this prediction if Amazing does survive.  My fans (bless both of you!) will be kind enough to burn their copies of this article, I’m sure.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Astounding Science Fiction, November 1958 (10-24-1958)

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: An actual review of an actual science fiction magazine! 

NOVEMBER 1958, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION

I usually save Astounding for last among my subscriptions.  I have mixed feelings about this magazine.  On the one hand, it is physically of the lowest quality compared to its competitors (F&SF being easily the highest).  Editor John Campbell, with his ravings about psionics, perpetual motion and Hieronymous machines, as well as his blatant human-chauvinism, is tough to take.  But he has a fine stable of authors, and some of the best stories come out of his magazine.

This issue’s headliner, Poul Anderson’s short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew,” does not look like it will be among them.  It is the first half of a two-parter set some time in the next century in the Asteroid Belt.  The setting is interesting, and so is the set-up: a renegade faction of an Irish-colonized nation of asteroids has taken over Grendel, a small asteroid under the sovereignty of the “Anglians,” and the crew of the trader, Mercury Girl is stranded until it can find a way out. 

Unfortunately, this is one of those “funny” stories, the kind of which Bob Sheckley is a master and Poul Anderson is not.  Moreover, Anderson phonetically transcribes the exaggerated accents of his multinational cast of characters, which quickly becomes a slog to read.  I had high hopes for Anderson after “Brainwave” (1953), but everything since then has been generally (though not entirely) mediocre to turgid.  It’s all very chauvinistic stuff, too.  More so than most contemporary authors.

“Goliath and the Beanstalk,” by Chris Anvil is forgettable, like all of Anvil’s stuff I’ve read to date.  He and Robert Silverberg are much alike: prolifically generating serviceable, uninspired space-filler.

The next story is by a fellow named Andrew Salmond, a name so unfamiliar to me, that I suspect it is a pseudonym for one of the regular contributors.  “Stimulus” is a mildly interesting yarn about Earth being the one planet in the universe made of contra-terrene matter (also known as anti-matter), and the effect this has on spaceflight and humanity’s future in general.  The gotcha is that the situation was recently imposed upon the Earth–right before our first moon launch, in fact.  Can you guess how the Earth figured out what had happened?  I (he said smugly) did quite early on. 

By the end of the story, humanity is the most powerful race in the galaxy and rather insufferable about it, too.  I’m sure this appealed to Editor Campbell, given his taste (editorial requirement?) for stories where humans are better than everyone else. 

Gordy Dickson’s “Gifts…” is not science fiction at all, and it reads like a screenplay for a short television episode.  It is about a man given the opportunity to wish for whatever he wants, and his decision whether or not to use the power.  Slight stuff.

Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” is reason enough to buy this issue.  I had not read much of MacLean’s stuff before, but I will be on the look-out for her stories from now on.  Her tale of a spaceship crew’s encounter with an alien species with a singular life cycle, told from the viewpoint of both the humans and the aliens, is fascinating and haunting.  I won’t spoil it by telling you anything more. 

Asimov’s new science column continues.  This time, it attempts to answer why, in a galaxy filled with billions of suns, Earth has yet to be contacted by alien civilizations.  He ultimately concludes that galactic civilizations are likely to form in the center, where stars are densest, and may well avoid the backward edges, where we live.  He further opines that we may well have been discovered by vastly superior races (for any race that could find us must be far beyond us, at least technologically) and are being left alone so as not to disturb our development.  It’s a cute idea, but it is also indistinguishable from our being undiscovered.  Until the flying saucers announce themselves outside of the deep Ozarks, we have to assume We Really Are Alone.

P. Schuyler Miller’s book review column remains the most comprehensive available.  His comparing and contrasting of Bradbury with Sheckley, Matheson and Beaumont is interesting and arch.  The rest is good, too.

The issue wraps up, as always, with Campbell’s letter column, Brass Tacks.  I skipped it, as always.  Campbell may fill his magazine with fine stories, but I find the quality of his own opinions (like the quality of Astounding’s paper) to be lacking. 

New magazines come out on the 26th.  Stay tuned!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Childhood’s End (10-22-1958)

Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you’re so inclined, and I’m generally not) is a cliché.  Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I’d read nothing by the fellow.

This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707.  My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle.  Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover. 

And just barely.  Jets are fast.  It’s hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3.  And that was only a decade ago!

The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke’s best-seller, “Childhood’s End.” I can’t tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can’t chide me anymore for my illiteracy.

Here’s what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order.  It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style.  This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand. 

For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto.  For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters.  Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous.  Still, it is a very fine book.

And I shan’t tell you any more than that.  Because first and foremost, it is a mystery.  Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries.  It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that Childhood’s End is very original and never dull.

I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day.  It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot.  Moreover, Clarke’s future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day.  It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke’s vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.

Disturbing stuff… but then Clarke’s book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff.  Pick it up!  You won’t regret spending four bits.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

One year after Sputnik (10-21-1958)

On October 4, 1957, the world was stunned by the beep-beep of the first artificial satellite.  Well, maybe stunned is the wrong word, because anyone following the papers throughout the summer saw that the Soviets had announced quite candidly that they had planned to do so. 

It didn’t take long for good ol’ American know-how, like that provided by good ol’ Americans like Wehrner Von Braun, to match the Russians at their game.  Thus, Explorer 1 went up less than three months later. 

Given the promptness of the American reply, one has to wonder if Ike wanted the first satellite to be Soviet…

Last week, if you followed the presses, American took the lead in the Space Race, at least for the time being.  Pioneer-1 blasted off on October 11.  Destination: Moon.

Sadly, the intrepid probe didn’t quite make it.  Still, it traveled a good half of the way there, and it returned some pretty interesting science on the way, piercing Van Allen’s dangerous clouds of radiation that may pose a permanent barrier to humankind ever establishing an orbital presence. 

I understand that a second Pioneer is scheduled for launch next month.  I’m crossing my fingers and toes!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

October 21, 1958

I became an avid science fiction fan in February 1954 (about four and a half years ago).  At the time, science fiction digests were multiplying, and business seemed to be booming.

Even then, however, there was doom-saying about how the genre had already begun to die.  Apparently, from an explosion that started in 1949 with the start of Fantasy & Science Fiction, quickly followed by the publication of Galaxy Science Fiction (which I have been reading since 1950), the number of books published began to drop off after a peak in 1953.

It is true that Beyond is long gone, and Venture recently disappeared.  I lament the loss of the former–not so much the latter, after the publication of a particularly misogynistic story. 

But that still leaves Astounding, F&SF, Galaxy, Amazing and IF to read, and their quality has remained decent-to-good.

In these past years, I have seen the genre evolve.  I have read good stories and bad stories.  I’ve seen the focus go from our solar system to the stars.  I have occasionally seen the work of female writers, and I have occasionally seen the appearance of female/non-white characters. 

Rarely.  But occasionally.

So I decided it was high time I shared my observations with the public.  From now on, I will be writing short pieces on recent science fiction/fantasy I have read, and perhaps others can use this information somehow. 

Join me on my journey through (the) Galaxy (and F&SF and Astounding, etc.) I can always use the company!

What is this madness?