Four Tomorrows (Nine Tomorrows, first half; 2-26-1959)

For twenty years, Isaac Asimov (spelled with an “s”) has been a name synonymous with science fiction.  Quite recently, Asimov has been making a name for himself as a science fact writer a la Willy Ley.  It’s a natural transition, I think, so long as you can swing it.  Thus far, I’ve preferred Asimov’s defunct column in Astounding to the one he does for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but that doesn’t mean the latter one is at all bad.

But today, I’m going to focus on Asimov the science fiction writer.  I’ve a confession to make: I recognize that Asimov is one of the field’s major icons, but I’ve always found his work, well… workmanlike.  Unlike Dick or Sturgeon or Sheckley, there’s not much flavor to his stuff, and the writing and concepts are still rooted in the Golden Age of Campbell.  I have a suspicion that his stuff will date poorly.

Why do I pick this particular moment to faintly praise my colleague in age, ethnicity and interests?  Nine Tomorrows, an anthology of recent Asimov fiction was just published, and I thought you’d like to know what I think.  I’ll cover the first half today.

Being an avid digest reader, several of the stories were already familiar to me.  To wit, I read the lead novella Profession in Astounding back in June of ’57.  In the story, it’s the far future.  Humanity has spread across the stars, and the demand for specialized knowledge is so acute that people now have a college degree imprinted in their brains at age 18.  Yes, it’s another “everyone does the job they are best suited for, and the one who can’t be programmed ends up running the game.”  I liked it better the second time around, but it is hard for me to swallow that there can be sufficient innovation at the hands of so very few innovators.  I am not surprised to hear (through the grapevine) that this was a Galaxy reject before Campbell took it.

The Feeling of Power came out in IF about a year ago, and it covers similar ground.  In a world where all mathematical computations are done by computer, manual/mental arithmetic is seen not only as wasteful but impossible!  It’d be good satire if Asimov meant it as such, but I don’t think it is.  Interestingly, Asimov posits that computers will have a minimum effective size and, as such, missile guidance will always be limited to a subhuman level of accuracy and responsiveness.  In Power, it is concluded that the best use of the rediscovered human computation ability would be to employ humans as pilots for spacecraft and missiles. 

It is such a strange point for the author to assert as even he concedes in other stories that computer logic components, if not computers as a whole, are trending toward the smaller.  From mechanical switches to vacuum tubes to transistors.  I don’t know what’s next, but I suspect it’s not far off.  Oh well.

If you like Asimov’s scientifically inspired mysteries, you might enjoy The Dying Night.  It’s a straight whodunnit with the key to the puzzle being the environment in which the murderer has lived.  Not bad.  Apparently, it came out in one of the F&SF issues I missed before I started reading them regularly (July 1956).

Finally, for today, is I’m in Marsport without Hilda, which came out in Venture in the November 1957 issue (after Robert Silverberg made me stop reading it with his vile, misogynistic tale, Eve and the Twenty-three Adams–it’s right up there with Queen Bee).  It has the potential to be cringeworthy, but it degenerates (evolves?) into another decent whodunnit with a slightly dirty, somewhat silly solution. 

I note and applaud that Asimov makes a conscious effort to include an international cast of characters in his stories.  If only he’d recognize that women are people too…

So, thus far, a solid 3, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5.  Not at all bad, but not the work I’d ascribe to a master, either.

See you on the 28th!

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Odds and Ends (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 2-24-1959)

A bit of a grab bag today as I finish off the odds and ends before the new (diminishing) crop of magazines comes in. 

Firstly, the sad news regarding Vanguard II has been confirmed: the wobbly little beachball has got the orbitum tremens and is unable to focus its cameras on Mother Earth.  So much for our first weather satellite.

Secondly, the sad news regarding the April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Yes, Poul Anderson does have a story in it.  The Martian Crown Jewels is a science fiction Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  As a mystery and as a story, it is fairly unremarkable.  Still, Doyle-philes may enjoy it.  As can be expected, both for the genre and for the author, the only women’s names are to be found gracing ships, not characters.

There are a couple of oddball pieces in this issue.  One is a translated Anton Checkhov parody of a Jules Verne story called The Flying Islands.  Perhaps it’s better in the original Russian. 

There is also a chapter of Aldous Huxley’s new book, Brave New World Revisited, comparing the myriad of mind-altering substances available today to the simple and perfectly effective soma that appeared in the original Brave New World.  It is an interesting contrast of prediction versus reality.  It is also a great shopping list for some of us.

As I mentioned earlier, Damon Knight is out of an editorial job after just three issues at the helm of IF.  F&SF has found him a new place to hang his reviewer’s hat–as the new writer for the magazine’s book column.  Good news if you like damonknight.

Jane Roberts, an F&SF regular, contributes a two-page mood piece called Nightmare.  It’s another two-minutes-to-midnight fright.

But the real gem of the latter portion of the magazine is Fred Pohl’s To see another Mountain about a nonagenarian supergenius being treated for a mental illness… but is he really sick?  Interestingly, I never liked it when Pohl and Kornbluth teamed up, but Pohl by himself has been reliably excellent.  This story is no exception. 

Where does that leave us in the standings?  There isn’t a bad piece in the bunch (the Anderson and Chekhov being the least remarkable).  Let’s say “four”, maybe “four-and-a-half” given the greatness of the lead story.

Two days to Asimov!

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A study in contrasts (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction, Part 2; 2-22-1959)

Happy birthday to me!  I entered my fifth decade of life yesterday; I hope middle age will be kind to me.

This month’s F&SF certainly has been.  I have an interesting mix of stories about which to relate. 

It has often been said that, to be a good writer, one must be an avid reader.  There is no better way to learn the tricks of the trade than to see how others have manipulated the printed word.  I, myself, have been a writer for two decades, but I still often find some new technique that impresses me sufficiently to enter my repertoire.

Permission to republish graciously granted by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Something that struck me while reading Gordon Dickson’s quite good modern fantasy, “The Amulet,” was its focus on sensual descriptions.  You always know the temperature and flavor of the air, the tactile qualities of a seat, the character of sound and light.  It makes this a very feeling story, very visceral.

The following psi/space-travel story, by brand-newcomer Anne McCaffrey, The Woman in the Tower, is far more spare in its descriptions.  The focus is on a series of telepathic conversations that presumably carry little sensual information.  It is a story drawn almost in skeleton sparseness, and it makes sense in the context.

Seeing the two techniques in stark juxtaposition really drove home how important it is to focus (or choose not to focus) on the scenery.  Frankly, when I write fiction, I am often afraid to lavish attention on the background or prosaic items for fear of boring my audience.  Yet spending some extra time describing an item or sensation is the literary equivalent of conveying the focus of a character’s attention.  It happens in real life, so it should happen in a story, where appropriate.

So an oldish dog can learn new tricks!

Aside from all that, you probably want to know more about the stories, themselves.  Well, The Amulet has witches and all the paraphernalia associated with them.  It’s a dark story with a dark viewpoint character, about as different from The Man in the Mailbag (April 1959 Galaxy) as you can get.  Gordy’s got some range.

McCaffrey’s tale features a future in which a few supremely powerful telepaths with the ability to teleport matter have become the foundation for an interstellar transportation system.  It is a first contact story in several ways, and it is also a love story.  I found it very good though perhaps with a bit of the rough-hewn quality one associates with new writers.  I hope we see more of Anne in the future.

Speaking of unusual writing styles, Asimov has a piece of fiction in the issue in addition to his science article.  Unto the Fourth Generation is an interesting mood piece involving the evolution of a name’s spelling and pronunciation over time.  Perhaps the only “Jewish” piece I’ve seen Asimov write, it is a departure from his usual unadorned, functional technique.  I liked it.

That’s that for this installment, but there are still several more stories on which to report.  And if you’re an Asimov-o-phile, you’ll like this column ’round the end of the month.

Stay tuned!

P.S. Some have inquired as to what happened to the March F&SF and how I got my hands on an early April release.  The answer is simple–the author of this column pulled a “Charlie Gordon” (as opposed to a “David Gordon,” which some would argue is worse).  I actually managed to pick up both the March and April copies at the same time at the source, the latter being a pre-release proof.  So entranced was I by the cover that I started reading and forgot that I needed to do March first. 

Please forgive me, and if the order bothers you, I recommend swapping your left eye for your right, or perhaps reading upside down.

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Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 2-20-1959)


The April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction opens with a bang.  The lead novella, Flowers for Algernon, is destined to go down as a classic, I’m sure. 

But first, a quick detour to Asimov’s column for the week.  The old polymath (older than me–I don’t turn 40 until tomorrow!) has been on a gloom kick lately.  First it was melting ice caps.  Now, he points out that the limiting factor to the density of life on Earth is the limited quantity of terrestrial phosphorous.  Sure, there are lots of chemicals that are vital to life, but phosphorous is the one with the greatest imbalance between its concentration in living things and its abundance in nature.

Basically, living things have used up all the phosphorous, and if we want any more, we have to get it from the dead.  In the ocean, this cycle is maintained by currents that scoop up dead creatures from the bottom and bring them to closer to the surface.  On land, however, our rivers pour thousands of tons of soil into the ocean every year, and it comes back much more slowly than it leaves.  COULD THIS SPELL DOOM FOR LIFE ON EARTH?

I suspect not.  I am willing to wager that there is a nice equilibriating mechanism that we just haven’t discovered yet, much like the one that regulates the ocean’s salinity, sadly for those who wished to use the ocean’s salinity as a yardstick to determine the age of the Earth.

But back to Flowers.  Its writer is Daniel Keyes, who I know slightly from his work for Atlas Comics and as editor of the long defunct pulp, Marvel Science Stories.  It follows the life of high-functioning moron Charlie Gordon, who wishes to become smarter.  Diligent and good-natured, he is selected for a radical brain surgery that, if successful (as it had been for the eponymously named lab mouse, Algernon) will treble his I.Q.

The story is written in the style of a journal kept by Charlie.  We get to see him progress from a barely functional human being to the highest level of genius–and then back down again.  It turns out that the effect of the process lasts only a few weeks, barely enough time for Charlie to taste of brilliance before sinking to his former state.

What really makes this novella is the writing.  Keyes really captures the phases of Charlie’s transformation.  At first, Charlie is a simple person.  Not childlike, which would have been, perhaps, easier to pull off.  Just stupid, barely managing to write due to months of prior effort.  Charlie then becomes a genius, and that is when childishness enters the style, because Charlie is really a newborn at that point.  He spends a lonely several weeks in virtual isolation, unable to communicate, as those he once found unspeakably brilliant become universally less gifted than he.  This part resonated with me, a fairly bright person (though by no means a genius).  I remember in 4th Grade, a teacher once chastised me saying, “you think you are so smart–how would you like it if everyone was as smart as you?”  I replied, earnestly, “I’d love it!  Then I’d have people to talk to!”

The poignancy of the story as Charlie declines and nearly dies is tear-jerking, but what really affected me was Charlie’s condition at the end of the tale.  He may still have an I.Q. of 68, but now he has the memory of being a genius.  He is aware of his former place in society–a laughing-stock.  Now Charlie burns to accomplish something, to recover, by the dint of his own effort, even the barest fraction of what he has lost.

And thus, we’re left with hard questions: Is it better to have been smart and lost it than never to have been smart at all?  Is ignorance bliss? 

What do you think?

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Vanguard does it again! (Vanguard II; 2-18-1959)

At long last, the Vanguard team has launched the satellite it had always wanted to.  Vanguard II soared into orbit atop its 3-stage launcher yesterday joining four other satellites (three American, one Soviet) around the Earth.  It is expected to orbit for the next 300 years.

The Navy and NASA have been trying for almost a year to duplicate their first success back in May 1958.  Vanguard I was ridiculed by Soviet Premier Khruschev as a “grapefruit.”  Truth to tell, he wasn’t far off.  The first Vanguard did little more than duplicate the work of Sputnik I.  On the other hand, the Vanguard project also entailed the building of Earth’s first world-wide satellite tracking system as well as the development of the first purpose-built civilian booster.

Well, that booster finally got some good use this year.  Vanguard II is much bigger (beachball-sized) than its ancestor.  Moreover, the new satellite has been touted as the first “eye in the sky.”  There are two photocells located at the tip of two optical telescopes mounted inside the probe.  Their mission for the next two weeks (the lifespan of their batteries) will be to detect reflections off of clouds in the Northern Hemisphere. 

If that doesn’t sound exciting to you, how about if I tell you that this is the first step toward bonafide weather satellites?  Within a couple of years, we will have automated orbital observatories with a clear view of much of the globe at any given time.  They’ll be able to spot hurricanes, cold fronts, jet streams.. you name it.  After a few years, they will accumulate enough data to revolutionize our climatology models and maybe even lead to large-scale weather control.  Aside from communications (pioneered in December with the launch of Project SCORE), weather is the prime commercial use for satellites.

Even more nifty is the tape recorder set-up they’ve got in Vanguard.  This allows the satellite to collect and store data for later transmission down to Earth.  As Space Age as this sounds, rumor has it that this sophisticated system is about to be superseded by an all new, digital development.  That will be an exciting story to break, when I can.

Another interesting tidbit, to me, is how the Vanguard team chose to moderate the temperature onboard the satellite.  There is no air in space, so all heat is received and transmitted away by radiation, and not by the more-efficient methods of conduction and convection, as on Earth.  Translation: it’s hot in the sun and cold in the shadow, and there is no moderation by a surrounding medium.  It is important that the satellite not absorb too much heat or too little.  On the Pioneers, at least the first three, they had an alternating black and white paint scheme to address this problem. 

Vanguard, on the other hand, is coated with powdered silicon monooxide as insulation underneath the shiny aluminum picked for maximum visibility.  Inside, the satellite is gold-plated!  I assume this is to conduct heat to the silicon monoxide shell.  I wonder how much that cost. 

The only disappointment is that Vanguard II is tumbling as it spins like a wobbly top.  This is going to make interpreting the photoscanner data a challenge.  Still, it’s an exciting first step.  The next few years are going to be incredible.

Back to fiction in two days.  Thanks for all the well-wishes!

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The shoe drops.. (March 1959 Astounding wrap-up; 2-14-1959)

Now that you’ve all read Despoilers of the Golden Empire, I imagine you’ll want to know my thoughts.

I feel as if I waited an inordinate amount of time for the shoe to drop only to be hit in the ear with a wet sock.

As I read Garrett’s piece, I kept thinking to myself, “All right.  This is clearly modeled on Pizarro’s trek through Peru.  What’s he going to do with it?”  Was he going to reveal his feelings about intolerant imperialism, either favorably or unfavorably?  Was his protagonist going to bring about the ironic ruin of the father Empire through hyper-inflation?  I mean, what’s the point of an analogy without a point?

And then I got to the end, and there was no analogy at all.  It was the literal story, and the only reason one might think it was supposed to be science fiction was the fact that appeared in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction.

Perhaps Garrett’s work was supposed to be a dig against inferior science fiction. After all, H.L. Gold opened up Galaxy by denigrating the “space western.”  Maybe this piece was made to show how easy it is to dress up non-science fiction as science fiction with the minimum of trappings.

Somehow, I don’t think so.  I think this was an early April Fool’s prank, and not a very clever one.  Here Garrett was leading us to think there was going to be a trick ending to the story… and there actually wasn’t (though he might argue that was the trick all along).

Oh well. 

The rest of the book is pretty unimpressive, too.  George O. Smith’s Instinct, is about the abduction of an Earther by aliens who have tried seven times to smash humanity back into the Stone Age only to have us come back as world-beaters every time.  The aliens want to know what makes us tick so they can stop us once and for all or peacefully integrate us into their galactic federation.  Their plan backfires in the biggest of ways.  Not badly written, but not much of a story.

Silverbob’s Translation Error is really bad.  It’s not the concept–meddling alien returns to Earth 50 years after having ended the Great War early hoping to find a backward but peaceful world.  Instead, he finds that none of his historical changes took, and the resultant world (our world) is on the brink of nuclear war and the threshold of space.  I like alternate histories.  The problem with this one is there are about three pages of story and ten more pages of recapitulation.  It is poorly written, repetitive stuff with a conclusion so obvious, one wonders why it was written at all.  This is the worst story, technically, that I’ve read in Astounding.  Interestingly enough, my 17 year-old nephew, David, loved this story.  There’s no accounting for taste.

The only bright spot (aside from part 2 of Murray Leinster’s serial, which I have not yet read, and which I shan’t review until next month along with part 3) is Algis Budrys’ The Man who did not Fit.  It’s another in the genre where an advanced civilization has figured out how to determine the ideal employment for each of its citizens.  Of course, the few who do not fit in to the system are destined to rule.  Seen it.  Read it.  Many times.  But this one is nicely done with a rich setting: a conquered Earth at the crossroads of interesting interstellar politics.  The protagonist is the son of the Terran government-in-exile (a bit of self-insertion by the author, whose father was the consul general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile after the Soviet take-over).  Not a brilliant story, but a good one, and it shines in comparison with the rest.

Thus, excluding the Leinster, the issue barely manages to cross the 2 star mark.  I suppose that if you enjoyed Part 1 of The Pirates of Ersatz, you should pick up this issue for Part 2, but there’s precious little else for you in the March 1959 Astounding.

Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.  If you want to recommend any appropriately romantic science fiction, I’m all ears! 

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A challenge to you (Despoiler of the Golden Empire; 2-12-1959)

Today’s article is going to be quite brief, not because I don’t have much to say, but because I want your input, and saying anything about the topic at hand will spoil it.

Suffice it to say, I have schlepped the March 1959 Astounding with me to Hawai’i in back (and the paper, as I left, mentioned that the territory is already planning a big party for its impending, but yet unscheduled, statehood).  Yet I only got around to start reading it yesterday. 

Illustration by Kelly Freas

The lead novella is Despoiler of the Golden Empire, by David Gordon (really the beloved Randall Garrett in disguise).  Now, I want you to read this story, not because it is amazing, but because Randall is trying to do something here, and I want to know if you think he succeeded.  I’ll give my thoughts in the next article so you have time gather and communicate your thoughts.

“But I don’t have the March 1959 Astounding!” I hear you wail.  Fear not.  I have graciously been granted permission by the author to freely distribute this piece.  It thus follows this column entirely uncut and unexpurgated.

Despoiler of the Golden Empire by Randall Garrett.

Don’t worry–there is no brutalization of women in this one.  There are, in fact, no women.  It’s probably better that way.

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The first toehold (Project Mercury: 2-10-1959)

For a little over a year, both Superpowers have lobbed unmanned payloads of various (generally increasing) sizes into orbit.  But the real question in the public’s mind is when either side is going to get around to sending a person into orbit.  After all, things that go beep-beep are all very well, but can a dumb robot really stand in for an independently thinking human? 

We all know that the Russians plan to send someone into space–their rocket is certainly big enough for the job.  They just need to figure out how to get it safely back to Earth.  For the moment, the United States does not have a rocket strong enough to send a manned spacecraft, but we will soon.  It will probably be an adaptation of the Atlas ICBM, the most powerful missile in our arsenal.

As it turns out, our new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been working on a manned space program since it first came into existence last October.  Just one month later, on November 26, Project Astronaut came into existence.  Apparently, they didn’t like that name because when NASA Director Keith Glennan officially announced America’s manned space program, he gave it the evocative and all-American name, Project Mercury.  Perhaps the next one in the series will be Project Lincoln.  Let’s hope neither turns out to be an Edsel.

From all accounts, Mercury is going to be a simple, one-manned ship.  I haven’t heard what it’s going to look like, but it will probably have a wingless, ballistic shape.  I’m sure the Air Force would love to have a sleek spaceplane in its stable, but with the X-15 as yet untested, its big brother is probably many years off.

So now the question is who will they get to fly the thing?  Well, back in January, NASA put forth the following qualifications: age, less than 40; height, less than 5 feet 11 inches; excellent physical condition; bachelor’s degree or equivalent; graduate of test pilot school; 1,500 hours flight time; and a qualified jet pilot.

Sadly, while I qualify for three (four if you push it) of the seven qualifications, I’ve logged all of seven hours piloting an airplane, and it wasn’t a jet.  I have it on good authority, however, that NASA has gotten plenty of applicants, and they will survive just fine without me.  These applicants have just begun an arduous medical screening that will likely wash out a good number of eager would-be spacemen.

How ignominous: before vaulting off into the wild black yonder, they first have to bend over and cough for Uncle Sam, or at least his team of nurses.  I suppose the prize is well worth it, though.

We won’t know who or how many astronaut candidates will be selected for a while.  I am given to understand, however, that all of the astronauts will be from the military services, which leaves hotshot civilians like Scott Crossfield out of the running.  I’m not sure why this is.  Maybe it’s a security issue.

I hope you are enjoying the interplay of science fact and fiction in this column.  I think the two are so intertwined these days that it would be silly to eschew coverage of one of them.

Back on the 12th!

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Interstellar eavesdroppers (April 1959 Galaxy wrap up; 2-08-1959)

Since the second decade of this century, humanity has been indiscrimately pouring out a star’s worth of electromagnetic waves.  First with radio and now television, there is a sphere of information heading out to the stars at the speed of light that has already passed Arcturus, Capella, and is just now reaching Alderamin.  Imagine what conception an alien race must have of us judged solely on the basis of our advertisements, entertainment programming and news bulletins.

Now imagine an alien whose very form is shaped by these media.  That’s the premise behind Avram Davidson and Laura Goforth’s cleverly titled Love Called This Thing.  Like all of Davidson’s stuff, it’s short and brilliant (I have not heard of Ms. Goforth before; perhaps the story was her idea).  Read it if you can.

Security Plan by Joe Farrell is no great shakes, but it is a cute and diverting tale of time travel involving the years 1959 and 1991.  There is apparently a lot of profit to be had in inflation.  My favorite parts dealt with the outrĂ© styles of the future; they are extreme extrapolations of modern beat culture.  Absolutely sub-zero, o-daddy!

Fred Pohl’s The Bitterest Pill is another science fiction potboiler involving an eidetic-memory drug.  You’ll see the ending a mile away.  Possibly the weakest entry of the bunch.

Rounding out the issue is Gordy Dickson’s The Man in the Mailbag, which I liked very much.  Not quite a first contact story, in this one, humanity is trying to negotiate diplomatic and trade relations with a race that is singularly unimpressed with humans.  It’s not difficult to see why: the aliens (Dilbians) are all eight feet tall if they’re an inch.  Prideful, honorable, and incredibly strong, humans are comparatively puny and inspiring of mistrust.  As it is put by one of the elder Dilbians (in my favorite passage of the story), “What if, when you were a lad, some new kid moved into your village?  He was half your size, but he had a whole lot of shiny new playthings you didn’t have, and he came up and tapped you on the shoulder and said, ‘C’mon, from now on we’ll play my sort of game?’  How’d you think you’d have felt?”

Solving the diplomatic and economic impasse is left to the temperamental young redhead, John Tardy.  It so happens that a young lady, nicknamed “Greasy Face” has been abducted by a Dilbian tough (with the ominous and deserved name of Streamside Terror), and Tardy’s boss believes that sending a Terran out to rescue her is just the ticket to demonstrates humanity’s pluck and worthiness.  To ensure that Tardy makes it all the way to Streamside Terror without being waylaid, he is dispatched as a mail parcel to be carried on the back of a Dilbian postman.  This is about the safest place to be as the proud Dilbian postal service has a work ethic that would be familiar to anyone who served in the United States (or Persian) Postal Service.  Of course, this story has a twist, and the damsel in distress is not quite so distressed (and far more resourceful) than one might think. 

What I really like about this tale is that this time, for a change, despite all our unquestionable technological prowess, humanity is on the weaker footing and the writer treats the aliens with respect.  But then, this isn’t Astounding.  Or Cliff Simak.

Feeding the issue into JOURNEYVAC, this issue comes out a solid 3.75 stars.  The magazine seems to be weathering the format change reasonably well, so far.

See you on the 10th!  And if you’re new to the column, leaf through the older entries.  Feel free to share them with your friends, too.

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