The Dregs (August 1959 Galaxy; 6-09-1959)

Writing a column is 50% inspiration and 50% deadline.  Normally, I get pleny of ideas for articles from the fiction I read, the movies I watch, the news I hear.  But sometimes, nothing seems to spark that desire to put fingertips to typewriter, and I wrack my brain trying to thing of something interesting to convey to my readers (both of you) before the all-powerful deadline sweeps over me.

The problem, ya see, is that the rest of this month’s Galaxy just isnt very good.  Nevertheless, it’s all I have to write about. 

Robert Silverberg’s Mugwump Four is, like most of his work, strictly mediocre.  A poor fellow gets stuck in a temporal and interdimensional war between roly-poly mutants and baseline humans only to find himself in an endless time loop (though the protagonist jumps to that conclusion awfully quickly).  About the most noteworthy aspect of the story is the illustration provided by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin.  The style is very recognizable.

License to Steal, by Louis Newman, is this month’s “Non-fact” article, Galaxy’s attempt at humor.  I wish they’d stop bothering.  In summary: alien obtains a License to Steal, abducts an apartment building from Earth, sells its inhabitants off as willing slaves (read “guests”) to a very pleasant family, and then runs into legal troubles. 

I did rather enjoy W.T. Haggert’s Lex, about a fellow who invents an automated factory that ultimately develops intelligence and becomes his “wife.”  The science behind the invention seems pretty sound (a combination of organic and electronic computing), and I’m happy to see a robot story that doesn’t end in disaster, though this tale’s end is bittersweet.

William Tenn’s The Malted Milk Monster, about a fellow who gets trapped in a deranged girl’s dream world, is suitably horrifying but not terribly rewarding. 

Finally, rounding out the issue is Fred Pohl’s The Waging of the Peace, a “funny” story about the dangers of outlawing advertisement in conjunction with building automated factories.  I skimmed, truth to tell.

The best part of the latter half of this month’s book was Floyd Gale’s review of Mario Pei’s The Sparrows of Paris, a modern werewolf tale.  For those of us who are fans of Pei’s linguistic work, it’s a treat to learn that he also does fiction.

Not that interesting today?  My apologies.  I’ll be better next time…

(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.

Four blind mice (Discoverer III;6-04-1959)

It’s a bad time to be an experimental animal, if there ever was (or will be) a good one.

The Air Force launched Discoverer III last night with a payload of four plump black mice.  As you know, if you read the papers or my column, Discoverer is a satellite program for shooting missions into polar orbit (i.e. over the poles, ultimately covering the entire Earth) ostensibly for the purpose of sending biological specimens into space and then recovering them in a detachable capsule. 

Of course, a polar orbit is particularly good for reconaissance, and a detachable capsule can carry film as well as mice.  I’m sure the Soviets aren’t buying the “space science” angle any more than I am.  Still, if we get any science out of the program, that’s an added bonus.

Unfortunately, the mice of Discoverer III can’t catch a break. Last week, the launch was scrubbed because telemetry from the mice had ceased.  The technicians thumped on the nose cone, thinking the mice were asleep.  They were, in fact, dead, having eaten the krylon coating of their cages.

A few days later, the launch was scrubbed when the nose cone sensors returned a 100% humidity level.  Turns out that the mice had urinated on the sensors (a similar incident looks to have happened on one of last year’s Thor-Able flights).

Yesterday, the rocket finally launched, but the second stage of the Thor-Hustler rocket flipped the payload and drove it straight into the Pacific ocean.  Nothing could have survived that. 

I understand that this incident has piqued the ire of several organizations promoting the ethical treatment of animals, particularly as this comes right on the heels of a suborbital Jupiter test flight on May 28, which had the monkeys, Able and Baker, as unwitting passengers.  Though the mission was a success, I have it on good authority that Able died the other day after an unsuccessful surgery to remove an electrode.  Six months before, a similar flight resulted in the death of its passenger, Sam the monkey.  I wonder if the Air Force will abandon the pretense of the bio-medical mission and just launch cameras from now on.

So that’s that.  I believe there’s another Discoverer launch scheduled in a few weeks along with another Vanguard shot.  I’ll report on them if and when they happen.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this month’s Galaxy, and I’ll finish up my report on the August issue in two days!

In the meantime, let’s hoist a glass to our intrepid, lost rodentnauts.  You deserved better.

(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.

The pen is mighty painful (August 1959 Galaxy, Part 1; 6-02-1959

Just what is this world coming to?

Reading this month’s edition of Galaxy, it was hammered home just how far our linguistic standards have fallen.  Have you ever read a letter from the last century?  Even the prose from the most humble of fellows is lyric and articulate.  And while the published fiction might sometimes be a bit purple, there’s no denying the facility the authors had with our language.

And now?  I’m only half-way through the August 1959 Galaxy, and I’ve spotted “there” for “their” as well as “effect” for “affect.”  I thought this magazine was supposed to be edited.

I’m overreacting, you say.  I know what the writer meant–what’s the big deal?  Here’s my deal: we pay a contractor to build a house properly, we pay a doctor to do an operation correctly, and we pay a wordsmith to write competently.  If our literary experts can’t be bothered to communicate clearly, that will inevitably lead to a trickle-down of linguistic sloppiness.  Half a century from now, who knows how far standards will decline?

That’s about my gripe quota for the month.  I’m happy to say that the actual content of the magazine is pretty good, malaprops aside.  I assume you’ve all picked up an issue so we can compare notes.

Cliff Simak hasn’t written anything I’ve loved since Junkyard, but his latest, No Life of Their Own is pretty solid.  Four kids, at least two of them quite alien, share a rural summer together several centuries in the future.  Their pastimes are pretty timeless, though with some notable exceptions, largely derived from the alien nature of the children and their families.  It’s not an entirely idyllic setting–all of the farmers in the area are suffering from a run of unmitigated bad luck, whereas the meanest cuss of them all seems to be blessed.  There’s a reason, and the kids find it out. 

Warning: There is a little bit of cruelty to a cat.  Rest assured, however, that the cat is not unduly damaged, and the malefactor gets a comeuppance.

Newcomer Michael Shaara contributes Citizen Jell.  If you were a fugitive with the ability to do tremendous good, but only at the cost of your freedom, what would be your tipping point?  That’s the subject of Shaara’s ultimately heartwarming story.

Willy Ley has another excellent article, this time on the solar orbit of Mechta, the Soviet lunar probe.  I must say, I have to admire a fellow who can remain the first item on my monthly science fiction read list for a decade.

Finally (for today), there is The Spicy Sound of Success, by the prolific Jim Harmon.  For some reason, interstellar explorers become afflicted with transphasia (the swapping of sensory inputs–taste for sound, etc.) when scouting a new world.  This story involves a daring rescue and an interesting first contact. 

Join me next time for a round-up of this double-sized, bi-monthly edition… unless the Air Force’s impending space shot stops the presses!

(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.

Something new (June 1959 Astounding; 5-28-1959)

One of the main reasons I read science fiction is to see something truly new.  I don’t just want to see a view of the future–I want to see a brand new culture, or a completely alien creature, or an innovative take on psionics.  Only science fiction (and fantasy) really can do this, and even then, writers are often locked into tropes informed by the current world they live in.

The June 1959 issue of Astounding is pretty good.  More significantly, it has got a lot of neat ideas that I had not seen before.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

by Van Dongen

The opening story is Cat and Mouse, by Ralph Williams.  Williams has been writing since the late 30s, and his craft is finely honed with this excellent tale of an grizzled Alaskan outdoorsman, his cat, and the alien pest he is (unwittingly) recruited to eradicate.

Many factors make this story so good: Ed Brown, aged 60, is well developed.  Williams captures the stiffened limbs but heightened wisdom of an older protagonist.  The portrayal of both the Alaskan and off-planet wildernesses is vivid, as one might expect, Williams being a resident of Homer, Alaska.  But it’s the alien race, the Harn, that is the stand-out element.  The not-quite-sentient creature is actually a symbiotic tribe of species, or perhaps the same species with differing pre-natal modifications to produce a variety of offspring classes: to wit, there is a central, immobile “brain,” stinging units designed to bring down prey, carrier units that are mostly leg and sack designed to bring food to the brain mass, and fighting units whose role is to defeat larger adversaries.

Brown is just barely up to the task of vanquishing the alien menace, and it is a nail-biting battle of cunning to the end.  Sadly, this story may turn out to be Williams’ swan song.  It is my understanding that the fellow passed away very recently on a fishing trip in the 49th state.  I will have to seek out more offspring of his pen; if they are all of this quality, the world has lost a treasure.

by Van Dongen

I enjoyed All Day September by Roger Kuykendall.  It’s an almost slice-of-life (and I love slice-of-life) account of several weeks on the Moon after a meteor shower savages a moon base and leaves a prospector stranded out in the airless lunar desert.  The prospector’s salvation, and indeed that of the lunar population as a whole, is his discovery of frozen water in caves hidden from the sun.  This is an exciting concept that I’ve never seen in science fiction or science.  The general assumption is that the moon is bone-dry, but it is certainly plausible that there could be stores of water, either primordial or from ice comet impact.  The only strain to my credulity came when it was learned that the prospector carried no radio because local transmitters had too short a range (acceptable–there is no ionosphere on the moon to bounce AM waves), but transmitters that used Earth relays were too bulky.  It would seem to me that, if we establish a population on the moon, we’d precede it with satellites in orbit that could be used for communication.

Transfusion, by Chad Oliver, is a strange story.  The premise is that a galaxy-spanning race of humans found itself bested by a savage, implacable foe, and its only hope was to seed a small colony of brain-wiped people on an out-of-the-way planet (Earth) and hope that this new society might come up with a completely innovative way to fight humanity’s enemy.  As a test, the starfaring humans salt the planet with fossils of Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, Australopithecines, etc.–basically every member of our evolutionary tree, along with colonies of great apes.  The idea is that once we discover that we’ve been hoaxed, we are ready to do battle with the aliens.

It’s a silly idea, but reasonably well executed.  Humanity invents time travel in the early 1980s, goes back in time to do some physical anthropology, and catches the starfaring aliens in the act.  Traveling back to the present, the story’s protagonist determines that his old anthropology professor is, in fact, an emissary of the old humans (the last).  The professor tells his student the whole story and gives him the keys to his spaceship with its advanced technology.  I would guess that between the ability to time travel and fly faster than light, humans will be well-nigh unstoppable. 

Perhaps we’ll become the implacable scourge.

by Freas

Finally, we have the silly Unborn Tomorrow, by Mack Reynolds.  A private eye is sent to Oktoberfest to find time traveling tourists.  Not only does he find them, but they keep slipping the detective mickeys and sending him back in a time loop to ensure that their cover is never blown.  All the dick has to show for his efforts is a massive hangover and memories of three trips to Bavaria.  He wisely refuses a fourth time around.  The slightest of the bunch, but still decent.

Of course, there are virtually no female characters to be seen.  On the other hand, as I’ve said before, if you can’t do it right, it’s best not to try.  Despite the absence of the half of the human race from this issue, it’s still a good book–let’s call it 3.5 stars.

My bi-monthly Galaxy came in.  Expect that to be the topic day-after-tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!

(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.

Let’s do the numbers (June 1959 Astounding; 5-23-1959)

I’m about half-done with this month’s Astounding, but since that half largely comprises the second third of Dorsai!, and because I don’t want to give anything away before it’s complete, there’s not much fiction on which to report today.

But that doesn’t mean I’m out of material… 

Four months ago, I wrote about Astoundings unique habit of publishing the results of reader surveys of fiction appearing in the magazine.  I then compared what the readers thought of the November and December issues of Astounding and what I thought.

The numbers are out again, this time for the January and February issues, and the results are similar.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

When I reviewed the January issue, I noted that, with the exception of To Run the Rim, and Seedling, the magazine had been awfully unimpressive.  The problem with Editor Campbell’s scoring system is that it only compares the stories to each other rather than on an absolute scale.  That said, on my card, I put Rim first and Seedling second. 

Well, the rest of the readers agreed that Seedling was #2, but they put the tedious Study in Still Life on top.  I just can’t wait for Campbell to put more turgid “funny” tales in his mag.  To Run the Rim finished fourth, behind the fatuous Deadlock; Robin Hood’s Barn and By New Hearth Fires came in a distant fifth and sixth.  The fact that the highest scoring story only got a 2.84 suggests that, as with the December issue, readers were unimpressed with the crop and were voting ranking based on the story they liked least (rather than which one they liked most).

The February issue was a better one, and the readers’ opinions were more in line with my own.  Murray Leinster’s Pirates of Ersatz (Part 1) was the favorite at 2.03 followed closely by Silverberg’s Hi Diddle Diddle!.  As you’ll recall from my review, I actually liked that story quite a bit despite it being Silverberg, and despite it being one of the “funny” stories.  Within two paragraphs, I am found out as a hypocrite.  Ah the shame.

The jingoistic but good Stoker and the Stars came in a solid #3, while the medicore Missing Link and Accidental Death round out the list at a distant 4th and 5th.  Sadly, Leonard Lockhard’s satirical look at patent law, The Professional Touch, did not even make the list.

I’ll be very interested to see the numbers for the April issue, which demonstrated a marked increase in quality.  Then we’ll really see how the ratings compare.

In the meantime, I’ll have more on this month’s Astounding in a few days, and by then, all of July’s issues should have arrived in my mailbox.  Here’s hoping I’ll have more space shots to discuss, too.

(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.

Approaching midnight (Alas, Babylon; 5-21-1959)

Two years ago, the Soviet Union demonstrated the ability to lob an H-bomb across the globe.  Overnight, it was clear that anywhere on the planet could be destroyed with just 15 minutes’ notice, if that.  This year, the United States will base Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in Europe within range of the Soviet Union, and the Russians will feel that same Sword of Damocles.  Never mind that America’s Strategic Air Command has more bombers now than ever, and one can be fairly certain that the Soviet counterpart is at a historical high, as well.

Civilization could all come crashing down at a moment’s notice.  It’s a reality we’ve lived with since that first artificial sun blossomed over the desert of New Mexico, but it’s never been closer, more tangible. 

An atomic holocaust has been the subject of numerous novels and short stories since the late 1940’s, but until this year, there had not been a grittily realistic portrayal of a nuclear exchange and the subsequent struggle for survival.

Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was released just two months ago, and it has already caused a well-deserved stir.  It is, quite simply, sublime.  With its strong grasp of the technology of the nuclear war machine, its savvy of human interactions in a post-apocalyptic setting, and its unadorned yet somehow gentle depictions of the well-drawn characters, it is a one-sitting page turner.

In brief: Randy Bragg is a dilletante resident of the sleepy resort and fishing town of Fort Repose, Florida.  After an abortive flirtation with politics (his defeat attributable to his soft line on segregation), he lives a rather aimless life.  His brother, Mark, is a senior intelligence officer at America’s missile command center in Cheyenne Mountain.  The book opens on December 3, 1959, with the two world Superpowers on the brink of war.  Mark warns Randy that war is imminent and sends his family (wife, two children) to live in Fort Repose.

And not a moment too soon.  Within six hours of Helen, Ben Franklin, and Peyton’s arrival, Florida and the rest of the nation are hit with several bombs, knocking out first communications and then electricity.  Within a day, Fort Repose is reduced to a pre-Industrial oasis in a radioactive hell. 

Randy quickly becomes the leader of his local group, which includes not just him and his brother’s family, but his strong, liberated girlfriend, Elizabeth, her parents, Randy’s black gardener and maid, the maid’s husband, a young doctor, Dan Gunn, and a retired Admiral, Sam Hazzard.  Together, they become the hope of Fort Repose, assuring its shaky survival over the course of the year after the attack.

Pat Frank sets the stage with care and a nail-biting sense of inexorability; the bombs don’t fall until page 91, after we have become intimately familiar with most of the book’s protagonists.  The hurdles that the residents of Fort Repose must overcome are plausible.  The solutions are reasonable.  The ending is bittersweet, but tinged with a little hope, and perhaps the best that could be expected.

What impresses me the most about this book is its progressive character.  There are several strong woman characters (Helen; Elizabeth; Peyton; Randy’s ex-girlfriend, Rita; the town telegrapher, Florence; the town librarian, Alice; Missouri, the maid), and the book is a strong indictment of racial prejudice, along with the legal practices stemming therefrom.  It is a book about the triumph of human spirit, as exemplified by all of the species’ members.

Is that a strong-enough recommendation?  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstand and get yourself a copy. 

(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.

The Walking Dead! (Invisible Invaders; 5-19-1959)

What could be better than a trip to the movies?  A trip to a good movie, I suppose.  Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

A few days ago, my daughter and I went out for what has become a routine treat: a night flick at the drive-in.  We arrived too late for the main feature, but the “B” movie was Invisible Invaders, a putatively science fiction film.  I’m sad to report that this was easily the worst of the films I have had the pleasure to report upon since I started writing this column.

The eponymous invisible invaders are rapacious imperialists.  Having conquered the moon and its former inhabitants(!) some 20,000 years ago, they have now turned their sights on Earth.  Before destroying us outright, they give humanity an ultimatum to surrender within 24 hours.  This is easily the best part of the movie.  You see, the aliens, being invisible (not just the creatures, but their spaceships as well), can’t actually impress us with their presence; therefore, they must inhabit bodies to communicate.  This is revealed when the newly deceased Dr. Carl Noymann visits the moral Dr. Adam Penner, who has recently quit his job as a weapons scientist on principle.  Dr. Noymann/invisible alien delivers his threat and lurchingly departs.

Of course, no one believes Dr. Penner, except for his daughter, Phyllis, and her would-be paramour, the wimpy John Lamont.  24 hours later, the aliens start blasting the Earth (after one last warning, broadcast via radio), beginning an impressive string of disaster stock footage, one appearing to go back to the 1871 Chicago Fire!

In desperation, the remaining scientists of the world are ordered into underground bunkers to come up with a way to defeat the aliens.  Enter Major Bruce Jay, a pile of beef assigned as military escort.  He quickly wins his way into Phyllis’ heart (my daughter made gagging noises at this), especially when he cold-bloodedly shoots a nervous farmer just because the farmer asked for a ride.  But the farmer gets his revenge by quickly becoming a member of the aliens’ walking dead brigade.

In the underground bunker, Major Jay hatches a plan to spray acrylic plastic over one of the corpses to capture it.  He ventures out in a beekeeping suit (to ward off radiation–the corpses are radioactive, natch), and secures one of the zombies after a struggle.  Fortunately, the folks inside the bunker get to watch the whole thing on television as there are remote cameras that capture the entire scene.  You know, the kind of cameras that dramatically edit together events for the remote viewers.

It is quickly determined that certain annoying sounds cause the aliens to give up the ghost, quite literally.  Armed with a sound cannon, our heroes drive off into the swarm and defeat them.  Victory for humanity!

All of this is linked with an intrusive and redundant narration, the kind that is inserted when it is realized in post-production that not enough film was shot to make a coherent movie. 

The closing message of the movie is the idea, driven home by our friend, the narrator, that an alien invasion is sufficient common threat to unite the squabbling countries of Earth, though for how long is an open question.  I remember my father telling me long ago that, were he ever elected President, his first action would be to hoax an attack from outer space so as to end war on Earth.  Clever fellow, dear ol’ dad.

So that’s that.  Really just an excuse for a bunch of middle-aged fellows to stagger about menacingly.  It’s a cheap special effect, so I imagine movie-makers will come up with more opportunities to present such spectacles with titles like Day of the Living Dead! or The Dead Walk! Can’t wait.

Next week, my little girl and I will be heading back to the movies; until then, I’ve got plenty of fiction on which to report.  And it’s a damnsight higher in quality than Invisible Invaders!

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.

The shape of things to come!  Part 2 (New rockets; May 17, 1959)

My cup runneth over!

When I started this column, I had worried that the increasing paucity of new science fiction would mean I’d run out of things to write about.  Now, here we are seven months later, and I have a back-log of items on which to report.  I suppose I shall just have to write constantly to get it all out.  I hope you don’t mind…

First in the queue, I wanted to wrap up the Homer Newell article I reported on five days ago, about America’s new stable of rocket boosters.  Last time, I talked about the new rockets expected to be in used by 1960.  Now, let’s press on a few more years into the future for a truly exciting sneak peek.

With the exception of the Vanguard and (soon-to-be) Scout, all of our space rockets are really borrowed military missiles.  But as time goes on, we will see more purpose-built boosters that will be more powerful and efficient.  The first true space rocket vehicles will be second stages designed to go on the Atlas ICBM, currently our biggest military missile. 

The smaller of them, the Vega, is a purely civilian design that will be developed from the first stage of the Vanguard.  The Atlas-Vega will to launch satellites into geo-stationary orbit for the first time.  A bit of explanation as to the import of this: the Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours.  The period of a satellite’s orbit is dependent solely on its distance from Earth–the closet the satellite orbits, the shorter the period.  Right now, our best rockets can barely get satellites into a low orbit with a period of about 90 minutes.  But the Atlas-Vega will propel satellites up to a height where the period matches the period of the Earth’s rotation.  This means the satellites will, to a ground observer, appear to be stationary (or at least will wobble about around a fixed place in the sky).  Arthur Clarke wrote about the value of these satellites more than a decade ago; they will be way-stations for global communications.

An even bigger stage is the Centaur, which will launch truly massive payloads to the moon and to the planets.  By the middle of the next decade, expect orbiting laboratories around Earth’s closest celestial neighbors.  To me, this is more exciting than sending a person into space, who probably won’t be able to do much but give entertaining color commentary.

The real wave of the future is likely to be Von Braun’s new brainchild–the Saturn family of rockets.  These boosters are being developed completely from scratch and will be an order of magnitude bigger than anything currently in the pipeline.  The biggest of them, the Nova, will be capable of landing 20 tons on the moon in one go!  We may well see people on the moon by 1967. 

My favorite part of the article is Dr. Newell’s personal appeal to us, the citizen-scientists of the nation, to send in proposals for experiments.  NASA is brand-new, and they need all the help they can get to develop not just the hardware, but the ideas that will drive the creation of the hardware.  It’s scientific democracy and it’s greatest, and perhaps it will prove an advantage over the Soviet system.

Day-after-tomorrow: Invisible Invaders!  There are A-movies, and there are B-movies.  This was not an A-movie.  The popcorn was yummy, though!

(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.

No hands, ma! (5-16-1959)

Like a doofus, I washed two of my left-handed braces without washing my rights.  I can’t type long without them, so tonight’s update will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sorry, folks!  Instead, I shall saunter to the drive-in with my daughter.  Maybe I’ll catch a late-night sci fi flick to write about…

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

Farewell, older brother (June 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction;5-14-1959)

We live in such exciting times that it’s no wonder science fiction is flourishing.  It seems not a month goes by without some kind of space shot, and yet we’re still perhaps years away from the first manned orbit (not to mention a lunar jaunt).  Science fiction lets us see the headlines of tomorrow long before they are thrown onto our doorstep.

Of course, not all science fiction deals with space, and not all science fiction magazines deal exclusively in science fiction.  The latter half of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction comprises naught but fantasies.

Not that this is a bad thing.  With Berlin under siege, Israel and its neighbors barely restrained from coming to blows, Cuba in the throes of revolution, any kind of escape is a welcome one.

Most of the rest of this month’s ish is taken up by Philip Jose Farmer’s The Alley Man, a gritty, rambling story that is as hard to take as it is to put down.  It spotlights the grubby life of the what may be the last of the Neanderthals consigned, like the rest of his race, to survive off the scraps cast off by the superior Homo Sapiens Sapiens.  Not that Old Paley is any dumber than us.  Quite the contrary.  While he has the rough manner and speech as might be expected of the lowest of the lower economic class, he is a fine raconteur and rather wise. 

No, what did in the Neanderthals 50,000 years ago, was the loss of their chieftain’s sacred headpiece (and the fact that Neanderthals were worse shots with the bow and arrow).  Over the millenia, the Neanderthals have slowly dwindled away, until just one remained (though it appears there are plenty of half-breeds and quatroons around).  Old Paley is a garbage scavenger who lives with a half-Neanderthal woman called “Gummy” and a physically blemished former socialite intellectual named Deena with a fetish for rough treatment.

Enter Dorothy, the aide of a physical anthropologist, who befriends Old Paley to study him.  It becomes clear over the course of the story that she becomes rather attracted to him (in part due to the powerful stench of the Neanderthal, like “a pig making love to a billy goat on a manure pile,” but laden with powerful pheremones), but theirs is not fated to be a happy relationship.  In fact, the resulting love quadrangle is all kinds of dysfunctional and, ultimately for Old Paley, fatal.

But you can’t deny it’s well-written and compelling.

There are three remaining odds and ends: an interesting article on orbits, Satellite Trails by Ken Rolf, about not just the course satellites take around the Earth, but the interesting and sometimes unintuitive patterns they make to ground observers (something like Ptolemy’s epicycles); Charles Finney’s Iowan’s Curse, a cautionary tale about the karmic danger of being a Good Samaritan; and Robert Young’s Production Problem, a short-short about a creativity shortage in the far future.  They fill the pages, but are not particularly noteworthy.

I think that leaves us at an uninspiring 3.5 or so for the issue.  The lead story is very good, and Alley Man is worth reading, I suppose, but the rest is lackluster.

But you can decide for yourself!  And should.  Until next time (and do stay tuned–I have many interesting updates to come).

(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.