A real turkey (October 1959 Astounding; 8-27-1959)

When last we left off with the September 1959 Astounding, things were looking awfully bleak.  The star-o-meter stood at a limp 2 stars, and I had poor hopes of raising the needle.

I am happy to report that things got better.  Well, “happy” is too strong a word.  I can honestly say that the quality improved, but I wouldn’t have bought the magazine on the strength of its latter half.

Algis Budrys has the best story of the issue, no surprise there.  His The Sound of Breaking Glass is the post-apocalyptic tale of a woman who has been holed up in a well-defended service station for twenty years as the world has slid into anarchy due to the widespread use and abuse of the drug, Lobotimol.  Said medication makes the imbiber wholly vulnerable to suggestion–not the prescription for a healthy society.  Originally a therapeutic pharmaceutical, it became a weapon that was cheap and ubiquitous. 

Well-written and chilling, like most of Budrys’ work.

The short-short article by Lt. James W. Owen, Fiction? Reality! is about the realization of arctic exploration gear that was posited as science fiction in a previous Chris Anvil story (Sellers’ Market).  Brief, but decent.

Amazingly, Randall Garrett’s other story (under the pen-name of David Gordon), …or your money back! is not terrible.  It’s actually pretty good, even though it is yet another story with the Heironymous Machine as its gimmick.  In this tale, though, it is used to enhance psychokinetic powers to cheat at gambling.  The sheer implausibility of the device is used as a legal defense by the perpetrator.  A cute twist. 

Finally, On handling the data, by newcomer M.I. Mayfield, is a depiction of one side of a correspondence exchange in which a graduate student makes an exciting discovery and then subverts it to gain his doctorate.  I’m not quite sure I got the point, so I’m hoping my smarter readers can enlighten me.

All told, the latter half raised this issue into 2.5 star territory, which is as low as Astounding has gone this past year (it’s never broken the 3 star mark, sadly).  Read it at your peril.

In two days–the September 1959 IF!  And then on to the new stuff… October!

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What happened to 1-6? (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; 8-25-1959)

Some movies are made with a huge budget and are expected to be big blockbusters.  Others are made on a shoestring and have much more variable luck.  I’ve taken a chance on a lot of “B-Movies” simply because their subject matter included science fiction and or fantasy topics.  I’m happy to announce that the lastest such experience, watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, was a completely satisfactory experience.

Sinbad has been in the theaters since last Thanksgiving.  Thankfully, movies have reasonably long runs, and Sinbad was such a success that it’s no wonder it is still playing.  My daughter and I saw it in a real cinema, rather than a drive-in, to get the full experience. 

For those who don’t know, Sinbad the Sailor is the protagonist of seven tales in 1001 Arabian Nights.  He’s a bit of an Arab Ulysses, discovering wondrous things on his sea trips.  What I first noticed about Sinbad is how pretty it is, with glorious color, and costumes, sets, and monsters designed to take full advantage of it.

Sinbad and Perissa, the heroes of the movie

Sinbad starts right in the action with Sinbad’s crew stopping at the island of Colossa to reprovision, only to be assaulted by a one-eyed half-satyr giant referred to as a “Cyclops.”  It’s truly a special effects triumph, thanks to the stop-motion expertise of one Ray Harryhausen.  I understand he spent 11 months on the optics in Sinbad, and they are excellent.

The Cyclops

Sinbad rescues the wizard Socura, who loses his magic lamp (complete with genie) in the escape.  Socura insists that Sinbad return to Colossa for it, but Sinbad has a more pressing errand to run–to transport his lovely fiancee, Perissa, to Baghdad.  Their marriage will preserve peace between the Caliphate and the belligerent realm of Chandra, Perissa’s father being the king of the latter, and Sinbad being a prince of the former.

The wicked Socura

Once in Baghdad, Socura makes increasingly insistent demands to be transported back to Colossa, ultimately shrinking Perissa to a few inches in height (though he makes sure to have an alibi so he is not implicated).  Socura promises to restore Perissa if he is returned to Colossa, where he has the components to make a restorative potion.  Sinbad reluctantly agrees.

Itty Bitty Perissa

I shan’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Harryhausen’s effects remain the star attraction.  He convincingly animates a genie, a two-headed roc, a dragon, more cyclopses, and even a fighting skeleton.  The plot is rather childish, as befits a fairy tale, and the dialogue and acting are no great shakes.  On the other hand, I greatly appreciated Perissa, who is daring and fun and saves the day several times.  She is as much the hero as Sinbad.

The skeleton fight

So head out to the movies and enjoy this film.  It has its problems, but there’s no arguing that it is a delightful romp and a spectacle second to none.

Next time, I promise, the rest of Astounding, which isn’t quite as bad as the first half, despite containing more Randy Garrett.

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Big and Little Booms (Discoverer VI and Little Joe 1; 8-22-1959)

You certainly can’t fault the Air Force for lacking persistence.  The flyboys launched yet another in the ill-fated Discoverer series on the 19th.  This was the sixth time a “biological specimen” capsule was sent up for the purpose of catching it when it came back down, not that the Air Force has put anything living inside the capsule for several launches.  Like its predecessor, Discoverer V, the probe made it into a polar orbit, but the retro-rocket that was supposed to send the capsule back to Earth failed to work properly.  Air Force engineers have determined that the malfunctions are due to the extreme cold encountered at the edge of space.

NASA’s not having much luck, either.  As we’ve discussed before, our nation’s civilian space agency is working feverishly on its first manned space capsule, called Mercury.  There are lots of moving parts to such a momentous undertaking.  You’ve got two types of boosters for the missions (Redstone and Atlas for sub-orbital and orbital missions, respectively–they were going to use a Jupiter, too, but canceled the mission as superfluous).  You’ve got the capsule, itself.  You’ve got the global tracking system.  You’ve got the pilots, themselves.

There are other details–smaller, but no less important.  For instance, the Little Joe booster (really a cluster of four Sergeants, like the kind you find at the top of a Juno) has been developed to test the Mercury capsule on short hops.  Yesterday, Little Joe 1 stood poised for take-off.  Its mission was to test out the Mercury escape tower, which is designed to lift the spacecraft’s passengers to safety in the event of an early booster malfunction. 

Well, it didn’t work.

The rocket had been sited at Wallops Island, where we launch sounding rockets from.  It had been pointed at the Atlantic Ocean tilted at a sharp degree angle in order to simulate a challenging abort.  35 minutes to launch, there was a whoosh, and crewmen and photographers scrambled for cover.  The Little Joe didn’t go anywhere, but the escape tower took off with its capsule payload, flew about 2000 feet into the air, then jettisoned the capsule.  Thud.

They’re still trying to figure out what went wrong.

At least Explorer VI is still working.  In fact, I hear that the spacecraft may already have used its onboard camera to take the first picture of the Earth from outer space!  More news on that as it comes in.

See you in three days with the rest of… ugh… this month’s Astounding.

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The Worst (September 1959 Astounding; 8-20-1959)

People seem to enjoy extremes.  The first to do this.  The best at doing that.  The most exciting.  The brightest.  The darkest.

If you’re wondering why I failed to write on schedule, day-before-yesterday, it’s because I was wrestling with the worst.  Specifically, the worst magazine I’ve had to trudge through since I began this project in 1954.  Let me tell you: there was nothing to enjoy about it.

I speak of the September 1959 issue of Astounding.  Not only are the stories (at least those I’ve thus far read) thoroughly dull, but they have that sharp stamp of Campbellian editing, or pandering, which causes them to have the same tedious, nonsensical elements.

Take That Sweet Little Old Lady, by “Mark Phillips,” a pseudonym so phoney, I knew Randall Garrett had to be involved.  Sure enough, Mark Phillips is Randy and a fellow named Laurence F. Janifer.  It’s a drab, unamusingly droll stream-of-consciousness story about a detective and his quest to find a psionic spy.  In the course of his investigations, he meets a dotty esper convinced that she is an immortal Queen Elizabeth.  Joy of joys, this is only the first of a two-part serial.

As for the Campbellian twist, much reference is made to psionic devices that are part electronic and part symbolic.  This is a nod to Campbell’s obsession with “Heironymous Machines,” devices that measure “non-electromagnetic radiation,” using electric circuits that appear to have no function and could, it is boasted, be replaced by pen-and-ink diagrams of those same circuits without affecting the ability of the machine.

Well, I can’t disagree with that.

Chris Anvil continues to make solid 2-star stories that fill blank spots in the pages of AstoundingCaptive Leaven is about the effect an interstellar traveler had on a primitive civilization, uplifting it to a very specialized sophistication so that it could produce parts to repair the traveler’s spaceship.  Not a bad idea, I suppose, but executed in so dull a fashion that I fairly had to reread the whole tale to remember the plot.

Finally, even Murray Leinster disappoints with his A Matter of Importance, in which Leinster’s characteristic employment of short sentences annoys to distraction.  Ostensibly a story about an interstellar police rescue mission, it’s really an opportunity to point out that the human form is the most natural of forms for intelligent creatures, that the Solar System is the most typical of planetary systems, and the predictions of a canny protagonist always come out to be correct. 

Fatuous determinism.  You can have it.

I’m dreading the rest of this issue, and the next one, to be honest.  I’ll read them, because I feel I’ve a contract with you, my good readers, but I can’t promise not to skim.

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Trifecta (Discoverer V; Beacon 2; Titan failures; 8-15-1959)

The Air Force launched the fifth in its Discoverer series on August 13.  Like the last one, there were no passengers on-board (though the recovery capsule was bigger this time around).  Unlike the last flight, this one actually made it into polar orbit after its early afternoon launch from the deserts of California.  The second stage worked properly, and a tracking station in Kodiak, Alaska (as in “the State of”) registered Discoverer’s healthy “beep-beeps.”

The plan was to eject the 300-pound recovery capsule after orbit #16 and attempt to catch it in mid-descent.  Unfortunately, what goes up does not always come down.  While a fleet of recovery ships and planes milled about impatiently in the Pacific Ocean, the capsule’s retrorocket fired the craft upwards rather than back to Earth.  It is still in orbit, where it will remain for a long time.  It’s a good thing there weren’t any passengers (not that they would have survived anyway; I understand that the capsule’s internal temperature was far lower than expected, and any rodentnauts would have ended up micicles).

Continuing in the vein of mission fizziles, Beacon 2, a 12-foot balloon satellite design to measure atmospheric density in orbit (there is air up there–just extremely tenuous), failed to orbit when the upper stages of its Juno II rocket misfired due to premature fuel depletion on the first stage.  It was a repeat of the failure of the first Beacon on October 23, 1958, which I did not cover for some unknown reason.  In that case, the upper stages of the Juno I rocket fired too early. 

Not quite a space shot, there was a third noteworthy rocket failure this week.  At the Atlantic Missile Range yesterday, there was a triple-launch of new missiles: the Thor IRBM, which has been heavily employed both as a military system and as a launch system, the Polaris sub-launched missile, and the new Titan ICBM.  The first two had good launches, though the camera package in the nosecone of the Thor has not been recovered from the Atlantic ocean.  The Titan blew up on the stand, however.

Still, while it is disappointing to read about so many failures in one week, it is exciting that launches are occurring so frequently.  Moreover, Explorer VI continues to do yeoman’s work in orbit, supplanting Sputnik III (which failed in early May) as the most advanced space laboratory.

Next time–Astounding (packed with… yech… Garrett)!

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Momentum stalled (October 1959 Galaxy; 8-13-1959)

I really enjoy the broadness of Galaxy’s 196-page format.  It allows for novellas and novelets, which is a story size I’ve come to prefer.  F&SF has lots of stories per issue, too, but they tend to be very short.  Astounding likes serials, which can be fine if they’re good, but dreary if they’re not.  I mentioned last time that this month’s issue was looking to be a star all through.  Let’s see if that prediction held true.

All pictures by Dick Francis

Wilson Tucker’s King of the Planet certainly did not disappoint.  You may remember that Tucker wrote the excellent Galaxy novel, The City in the Sea.  His writing skills are on full display in the instant story, about a old old man who has outlasted all of his comrades. and now lives a solitary existence in a mausoleum, the one remaining survivor of a colony of humans.  Every so often, he is visited by other humans from faraway stars.  They question him, conduct surveys, and then they leave, puzzled at the self-styled king’s longevity and solitude.  King is the story of one such visit.  There is an interesting, religious twist at the end; what is your take?  Let me know, would you?

Silence, by Englishman John Brunner, is also fine reading.  Abdul Hesketh has been the captive of the inhuman Charnogs, with whom humanity has been at war with for decades, for 28 years.  When he is at last rescued, his mind has been thoroughly damaged by the ordeal, and his treatment at the hands of his saviors, which amounts to near-torture as they attempt to pry useful intelligence from him, is anything but therapeutic.  A little let down by the ending, but a fascinating psychological exploration.

Sadly, the last two stories are not up to the standard set by the rest of the magazine.  Elizabeth Mann Borgese, polymath daughter of the famed German philosopher, Thoman Mann, has never written anything I really liked, and True Self is no exception.  It is a story of plastic surgery and feminine beautification taken to an absurd level.  A worthy topic of satire, but not a very engaging piece.

Lastly, “Charles Satterfield” (co-editor Fred Pohl, presumably working for peanuts) has a rather mediocre novelette (Way Up Younder) set on a future colony world with a decidedly Ante-bellum Southern culture with robots standing in for Black slaves.  It’s not bad; it just sort of lies there.

Where does that leave us with the star tally?

Sadly, the last two stories dropped the issue from 4 to 3.5 stars.  A pity, really.  What’s better?  A tight, good issue, or a less-good longer issue?
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The momentum of quality (October 1959 Galaxy, first part; 8-11-1959)

Last year, Galaxy moved to a bi-monthly format.  Coincident with that was a drop in writer rates per word.  I had had concerns that there would be a corresponding drop in quality.  Thankfully, this year’s issues have been of consistently high quality.

All pictures by Dick Francis

Moreover, Galaxy really isn’t a bi-monthly anymore.  Inside the front cover of this month’s (October) issue is a full-page advertisement for IF magazine, which is now owned by the same publishers, has the same editors, and appears in Galaxy’s off months.  Quacks like a duck; sounds as if Galaxy is a monthly, and every other month, is an oversized issue, to boot.

One of the reasons Galaxy can still fill its pages is that both the editor (H.L.Gold) and his brother (Floyd Gold, known as Floyd Gale) are both fair writers in their own right.  Their opening novella, co-written under the pseudonym “Christopher Grimm,” is called Someone to Watch Over Me, and it is almost excellent.

Len Mattern is a space merchant, seasoned from decades of meandering from star to star in a tramp freighter.  His obsession is the high-class prostitute, Lyddy, and Len has spent his entire adult life amassing sufficient wealth to wed her, which he does at the story’s beginning.  The rest of the tale is told mostly in flashback.  In this universe, traversing hyperspace has the most unsettling effect on travelers: they become unnatural beasts with tentacles and extra eyes.  All but the most hardened spacer must knock her/himself out for the journey or suffer profound psychological trauma.

Mattern, however, has discovered that hyperspace is a destination, as well as a conduit, and it is inhabited.  Moreover, some items that are useless in our dimension become highly valuable in the other, and vice versa.  Mattern becomes the first to establish trade relations with the horrible but peaceful aliens.  One of them even accompanies Mattern for the next decade of highly lucrative commerce, becoming a combination best-friend and perpetual shadow.

If the story has any flaw, it’s a sort of dismissive view of women, though, to be fair, one of the best characters is the alien queen, at once beautiful and terrible.  My favorite line: “I see no reason…why a male should be deemed incapable of ruling, provided he is under careful supervision.” 

Worthwhile reading.  I’m glad the Gold brothers are writing as well as editing.

E.C. Tubb’s Last of the Morticians is short and unremarkable, about two undertakers weathering a lack of business resulting from the recent advent of immortality.  Their solution: bury something other than people!

Willy Ley’s article this month is a little scattered, but the latter two thirds (he has split the column in three this time) is quite good.  And bad Ley is still fine reading.  I especially liked his piece on “Zilphion,” a now-extinct Graeco-Roman spice plant.

Last for today is the very good “A Death in the House,” by Cliff Simak.  Simak is a very uneven writer, I have found, but when he’s on top of his game, he is a real stand-out.  Death is reminiscent in tone and subject of Dickson’s E Gubling Dow from May’s Satellite, but far better in in execution.  In this tale, Old Mose (whom, until I saw the illustration, I pictured as Black), is a lonely farmer whose heart is big enough to rescue a rather repulsive alien that he finds mortally wounded on his property.  It’s really quite a beautiful story with a rather happy ending.  In stark contrast to Garrett, Simak actually kept me up until I’d finished!

From what I can tell, the rest of the magazine is excellent, too.  This issue may well earn the coveted four star rating.  Only Galaxy has managed this feat of consistent quality in 1959, though excellent stories have appeared in other magazines, of course.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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Earthbound Pioneer (Explorer VI; 8-08-1959)

We are now in the second phase of the Space Race.

Decades from now, people will debate over the exact date of the turning point.  Some will argue that it started when countries started sending rockets to the moon, leaving the shackles of Earth’s orbit.  Others will say that spaceflight didn’t leave its infancy until humans had been sent into space.

But, I contend that a whole new ballgame opened up yesterday with the launching of Explorer VI.

This latest satellite is, in some ways, just an evolutionary step.  Its payload of experiments is little different from the slew of instruments carried by its predecessors, the Air Force Pioneers.  It’s got geiger tubes and scintillators for measuring cosmic rays, magnetometers for mapping Earth’s magnetic fields, a micrometeroid detector, and a crude TV camera–all devices that went up on the ill-fated Pioneer II.

But, the probe also has an impressive array of solar cells affixed to four paddle wheels that make Explorer look like a little windmill.  Moreover, the satellite is equipped with two communications systems.  One of them is analog, like those employed by all previous satellites, in which information is communicated by modulating the amplitude and/or frequency of transmissions, like your AM or newfangled FM radio.  The other is digital using nothing but streams of ones and zeroes.  This method is far less prone to error and noise, and it uses bandwidth more efficienctly, requiring less power.

A digital system is above and beyond the needs of an orbital probe, so why bother including it?  Because Explorer VI is a test-bed.  A spacecraft very much like it will be launched to Venus some time in the near future, and it will need a digital system to communicate from that vast 25 million mile distance.

Until Explorer VI, we were launching little experiment packages.  Now, we have a bonafide orbital scientific and engineering laboratory in space, the results of which will revolutionize where spaceflight goes from here.

A natural extension of this is that I don’t have this satellite’s results for you yet.  Unlike my other columns, where I’ve been able to sum up a mission and its findings generally in one article, Explorer VI is going to collect mountains of data, and it will take time to sort it out. 

So stay tuned! 

P.S. The October 1959 issue of Galaxy has come out.  I’m half-way through and will be telling you all about it next week.  Come join me in my journey (but try not to send me letters about it until I publish the articles).

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East meets West (September 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, second half; 8-04-1959)

A thousand pardons for my lateness.  It is partly to blame on mundane matters taking precedence, and partly to blame on my magazines showing up late this month.  Perhaps laziness is also a factor.  It’s languidly warm this Summer.

We left off half-way through this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Fifth in the line-up is Will Stanton’s Who will cut the Barber’s Hair? It is the very definition of a two-start story; I’ve had to go back several times to remember what it was even about.  In brief, a human from the far future, when creativity has disappeared, takes over a hayseed’s body to experience a bizarre cocktail party and feel the full gamut of human emotions.  Utterly forgettable.

On the other hand, newcomer Joanna Russ’ Nor Custom Stale stayed with me far longer than it ought to have given the silliness and simplicity of the premise.  A husband and wife shut themselves into a near-immortal house with the ability to generate Air and Food in limitless quantities.  They discover that adhering to an extremely regular schedule every day contributes to longevity.  In fact, the couple end up sleep-walking through thousands, if not millions, of years until the ultimate end of the Earth in a fashion recalling Leiber’s A Pail of Air.  I don’t know why I liked it so much, but I did, and I look forward to more by Ms. Russ.

Robert Graves’ Interview with a Dead Man is a cute reprint from 1950 about an embalmed fellow who still finds time to write.  It’s over almost as quickly as it begins, and it seems mortar for bricks, but I enjoyed it.

The Makers of Destiny, by Edward S. Aarons, is a direct sequel to his The Communicators, although it is so different in tone and content that I’d forgotten until recently, when I looked through my catalog of stories.  The world is rather fascinating–the Ten Day War erupts between East and West when an American bomber inadvertently bombs Moscow near the end of the century.  The United States and the Soviet Union are reduced to barbarism for decades, and the rest of the world shuns the erstwhile superpowers as pariahs.  Slowly, painfully, the United States reforms as a loose confederation with the aid of a group of psionically adept “Communicators.” 

In the instant story, Private Mugrath is a soldier of the Northern Union fighting in the last battles of the 15-year Civil War, which has waged since 2050.  But he is more than that–he is an esper under the control of the Communicators.  Their goal is to alter the course of history through the creation of squad of psychic superhumans–but there is resistance, and whether that resistance is some fundamental property of the universe or a traitor in the organization, is unknown.

I liked it a lot.  Evocative, dramatic.

Last up is Leslie Bonnett’s Game with a Goddess, a delightfully lusty (though oblique) tale of the ravishing of a comely acolyte by the Goddess of Love.  There aren’t many stories dealing with the mythology of the Orient, and this story does a great job of conjuring the setting and style. 

Apropos of nothing, have you read Robert van Gulik’s Chinese Detective novel, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee?  It is excellent and lots of fun, a recreation of Ching dynasty mysteries set in the Tang dynasty. 

That’s that for this issue.  A unremarkable but not unpleasant 3-star issue.  See you in two days.  I’m sure I’ll have something for you!

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Dreams of Summer (September 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, first half; 7-28-1959)

Hello, all.  I’d meant to report on the newest issue of IF, but the fershlugginer thing hasn’t arrived yet.  My Fantasy and Science Fiction is in my hot little hands, however, and it is off to a strong start.  Fasten your seatbelts!

The cover is quite lovely, and in fact, it is available for purchase if you are so inclined.  It features the next-generation upper stage being designed as we speak to turn the Thor and Atlas missiles into powerful orbital boosters.  The rocket is called “Vega.” I have heard rumblings, however, that the thing may not actually make it to fruition as the Air Force has a very similar booster in the works, and what’s the point of inventing the wheel twice, simultaneously?

Heading the issue is Edgar Pangborn’s The Red Hills of Summer.  Mr. Pangborn has not written very much—looking through my records, I see he did a whimsical story for Galaxy called Angel’s Egg way back in 1951.  Summer is almost excellent, the story of a generation ship arriving at an inhabitable planet after a 15-year journey.  The stakes are high—Earth has become bombed-out and nigh unlivable.  Four members of the crew, evenly divided by gender, must conduct a preliminary survey to ensure that the destination, called Demeter, will support the 300 colonists.

The ecology is a little too undeveloped to be plausible, and also a bit too terrestrial.  But the writing is sound, the situations tense and interesting.  It doesn’t quite hit 5 stars as it trails off more than ends.  Perhaps Pangborn will turn this into the opening section of a novel, which would be quite readable.

Asimov’s article is on infinity, and the many different types of infinite counting.  Engaging, but dry.

The next piece is called Quintet and is a bit of an experiment.  There are five pieces, two poetry and three prose, one of which was penned by a pre-teen, and the rest by four distinguished authors.  We’re supposed to guess who wrote what.  All of the prose pieces have substantial spelling and grammatical errors of a patently unbelievable nature.  This is, I suppose, an attempt to portray the writings of a juvenile.  They go too far, though, to be fair, correspondence written by my current employer look quite similar.  The conceit makes the pieces well-nigh unreadable.  I’m going to guess that the youngster penned one of the pieces of poetry (I’m guessing it’s the first of two).  We’ll see if I’m right next month.

Finally, for today, we have The Devil’s Garden, a “Murchison Morks” story by Robert Arthur, the same fellow who brought us Don’t be a Goose (and of similar vintage).  It is a light-hearted but creepy story of telepathic transference of pain as a form of punishment.  The resolution is satisfying and a little (but not very) surprising.  I enjoyed it.

In two days, I’ll have the rest for you.  Thus far, we’re in 3-star territory.

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