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 outré 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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The City of Force (April 1959 Galaxy; 2-06-1959)

If you are a devout follower of my column, you know that I love First Contact stories.  From Arthur C. Clarke to William Tenn, I love a good yarn about the meeting of two races.  Lucky for me, Daniel Galouye (a fairly seasoned writer from Louisiana), has delivered a solid, if not outstanding, addition to my library of such stories.

The City of Force kicks off the April issue of Galaxy.  Here’s the set-up: not too far in the future (it can’t be too far–the conversational slang is all straight out of today’s movies), incorporeal spherical aliens show up and blow up all of our cities.  They set up shop, erecting cities of their own.  These cities are just as insubstantial as the aliens.  They are towering, radiant, multi-hued things, whose walls of force shift to fulfill every need of the aliens, from shelter to sustenance.  Humanity is left to scratch out a primitive existence in the wilderness.  Any attempt to use electricity is met with vindictive zapping. 

Except some humans have figured out how to live inside the cities.  They have discovered that the alien force fields are activated by thought–any sentient thought.  And so the humans live within the walls of the alien city like rats.  Their life is virtually idyllic.  There is plenty of food, and it tastes like whatever one wants.  The force fields mold easily into furniture and even conveyances.

Of course, every so often, the aliens try to exterminate the human vermin, just as we might do with rats, but the risk is considered worth it.

Enter Bruno, a young man from one of the wilderness tribes.  His destination is one of the cities.  His intention: to make contact with the aliens and convince them that we are sentient and deserve to be able to coexist on Earth.  Once in the city, he discovers he has a particular affinity for force field manipulation, and a few experiments establish his ability to convert harmless yellow and green constructs into explosive red ones. 

At first, the city-dwellers welcome Bruno and try to convert him to their posh style of living.  Bruno eats better than ever before, falls in love, and nearly succumbs to temptation.  But only nearly.  Spurning the trappings of comfort, Bruno redoubles his efforts to make contact despite the danger.  When his attempts are at last successful, the story reaches a genuine climax of excitement.

Unfortunately, what ensues is rather rushed and disappointing.  Once communication is established, the aliens lose all of their mystery and become rather pedestrian human analogues.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I wish Galouye had written a longer story and kept the aliens more mysterious.  Tenn did a better job in Firewater.

Still, there are a lot of good ideas in this story.  The force cities are very well realized and interesting.  The aliens are suitably alien throughout most of the story.  The characters are reasonably well realized, though their incessant use of modern slang is jarring, particularly when the story is supposed to take place several hundred years in the future.

Next up–the rest of the magazine… unless events overtake me again.  Let’s hope the news is better next time.



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When the music died (2-03-1959)

The music died yesterday.

When I started reading science fiction back in 1950, we were in what I called a “music blight.”  The bouncy swing tunes of the war years had gone overripe.  Schmaltzy ballads and crooning filled the airwaves.  For a while, I didn’t even bother to turn the radio on, so sure was I that nothing of note would be playing.

Then, around 1953, I discovered “Black” stations (as opposed to “White” stations).  There was the energy and passion I had been looking for: Negro performers fusing blues and bluegrass and jazz into something that didn’t even yet have a name.

But Negro stations aren’t that common, and the White stations are stronger out here.  Then, around ’55, rock ‘n’ roll jumped the color tracks and careened into the mainstream.  Bill Haley was the pioneer, and of course Elvis.  Negro luminaries like Chuck Berry followed.  “Oh Mine Papa” was banished to make way for “Maybellene.”  It was a renaissance of music, not a little aided by the influx of sounds from south and southeast of the border (Latin, Cubano, Calypso).  Gradually my radio came to be on all the time.

Rockabilly was one of the first and still one of the strongest branches of rock ‘n’ roll.  Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison… these are all household names.  But perhaps the greatest rockabilly performer of them all was Buddy Holly. 

Holly was versatile, mixing in folkish refrains a la The Everly Brothers with his toe-tapping rockabilly tunes.  “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “It’s so Easy,” “Every Day” The list goes on for miles, and he’d just gotten started.  Just 22 and newly married, he was set to write the musical landscape of the 1960s.

And now he’s gone.

Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) exploding onto the scene last year with his sizzling rendition of the Mexican traditional song, “La Bamba,” and his ballad, “Donna,” has sold a million copies.  He was just 17, a high-school drop-out, and had just starred in his first movie.  Valens could have brought a latin touch to rock n’ roll just as Presley and Haley had popularized Negro music.

But now he’s gone.

24-year-old J. P. Richardson was better known as The Big Bopper.  His novelty rock n’ roll song, “Chantilly Lace,” was the third-most played record last year.  A disc jockey by trade, he’d taken a break to make it big and tour with Holly and Valens.

All three of them had just entertained a thousand fans at the Surf ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  They then got on a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza bound for Fargo, North Dakota for gig last night.  They never made it.  Shortly after take off, the plane crashed killing all aboard (including the 22-year old pilot, Roger Peterson).

Today, my heart is so sick, I can barely type.  I know I’m sharing this emotion with millions of people around the nation, around the world.  I cannot even fathom the blow that has been dealt to music.  This is one of those unforeseeable events that changes the course of history and will always have us pondering “what if?”  and “if only.” 

I apologize for the break in schedule.  I just felt it important that I lower the flag of this column to half-mast in honor of the passing of these three musicians. 

Rest assured that my show will go on.  Put “That’ll be the Day” on the Victrola, have a good cry, and hang in there.  I’ll be back day-after-tomorrow.



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Ol’ Reliable (April 1959 Galaxy, First Part; 2-02-1959)

Reading Galaxy is like coming home.

Galaxy is the only science fiction magazine that I have bought consistently since its inception.  For nine years, I have read every story, enjoyed every Willy Ley article, perused every Bookshelf column, reviewed every Gold editorial.

There are some who say that Galaxy’s heyday was the first half of this decade, and that the story quality has deteriorated some (or perhaps the content simply isn’t as revolutionary as once it was).  Editor Gold is famously exacting and difficult to work with, and now he’s paying less for content.  The magazine is down to a bimonthly schedule, and Gold is still suggesting there might be a letters column (padding at best, a slog at worst).

And yet…

Galaxy is consistent.  I rarely feel as if I’ve suffered when I close its pages.  I haven’t read any offensive Garrett or Silverberg stories in Gold’s magazine, and the Leiber stories Gold publishes are the good ones.  When Bob Sheckley appears in print, it’s usually in Galaxy.  Of course, this consistency results in a kind of conservatism.  The tone of the magazine has not changed in a decade even though the world around it has changed significantly.  It is not a liability yet, but as new authors and new ideas arise, I hope Galaxy can adapt to fit our new science fiction culture.

Enough blather.  My April 1959 Galaxy has arrived, and it’s time to tell you about it!

As usual, I’ve done a lot of skipping around.  My practice is to eat dessert first (i.e. the authors I know and love) and then proceed to the main course. 

First up was Ley’s excellent, if dry, article on the Atlantic Missile Range.  These days, you can’t go a week without hearing about some new missile launch, and the twin but not identical facilities of Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base are usually the launch point.  Ley gives a detailed account of his experiences witnessing a recent Atlas test.  It is a good behind-the-scenes.  Ley also describes “failures” philosophically explaining that they are always learning experiences even when they don’t achieve their mission objective.  Easy for engineers to understand, not so easy for those who hold the purse-strings.

I then, of course, jumped to “Finn O’Donnevan’s” (Robert Sheckley’s) The Sweeper of Loray.  Unscrupulous Earther wants to steal the secret of immortality from a race of “primitives” and gets more than he bargained for.  It’s a dark tale, especially the betrayal at the hands of his partner for the sake of preserving a thesis (similar in concept if not execution to Discipline by Katherine St. Clair). 

J.T. McIntosh can always be relied on to turn out a good yarn, and his Kingslayer does not disappoint.  Terran spacer has an accident while ferrying royal tourists and ends up in an alien pokey.  Can he get out?  Does he even want to?  The story does rely on a bit of silliness to keep the reader in the dark about the spacer’s fate until the very end, but it’s worth reading naytheless.

Finally for this installment, there is Cordwainer Smith’s When the People Fell.  The title says it all, but you’ll have to read the story to understand what it means.  The Chinese figure prominently in this tale of Venusian colonization, which should come as no surprise when you know that Smith is one of the world’s premier sinologists and godson of none other than Sun Yat-Sen!  A haunting story, it is also a commentary on the Chinese people and government… as well as a cautionary tale.  I don’t know if Chairman Mao would approve.

That’s that for now.  More in two days, like clockwork!



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What IF (the bad news; 1-31-1959)

Wow!

I do declare, the February 1959 IF really is something else.  Not a stinker in the book, and some truly excellent stuff.  If if had always been like this, I think it would have dislodged Astounding and jostled its way into the top tier of science fiction digests.

Without further ado…

The other day, I read in the newspaper that Andrei Gromyko (the Soviet foreign minister) lauded the strength of the Communist Bloc, stating that the counterbalance of the two superpowers actually insured against an atomic apocalypse.  Be that as it may, I don’t see how we can live persistently at two minutes to midnight without snapping some taut nerves.  The Last Days of L.A., by George H. Smith, is a brutal second-person piece about cracking up under the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.  I’d be very interested to see statistics on this phenomenon, because I bet it is happening quite often. 

I advise you not to read this piece right before going to sleep. 

Have you heard of Rosel George Brown?  She’s an up-and-comer, and Virgin Ground is her third published story.  It is a spin on the “pioneer spouse” trope: in this case, it’s brides for Mars.  This is another dark story with an unhappy ending, but there’s no question but that it’s well-written. 

I found Discipline, by Katherine St. Clair, to be excellent.  It is a tale of archaeological rivalry, but with a setting in space.  One has to wonder how often it happens that scientific integrity is squandered to preserve an attractive thesis.  In this story, one man’s pride spells another’s doom, but the ending is pleasantly unexpected.

Another newcomer is David R. Bunch.  His In the Jag-Whiffing Service is good, funny stuff, but it is so short that to tell you anything about it would spoil the whole thing.  Take my word for it.  Better yet, read it yourself.

Star of Rebirth, by Bernard Wall (of whom I’ve never heard; perhaps he is an incognito Damon Knight), is one of the few rays of light in this rather dark set of stories.  Set far in the future after a devastating nuclear war, it is a convincing and touching piece following the leader of a tribe of primitive survivors.  I liked it a lot.

Finally, you’ve probably all heard of Cordwainer Smith.  His No, No, not Rogov! is a piece of present-day scientifiction (yes, that word is still in vogue) about a husband-and-wife science team working in the Soviet Union; their super-secret work into the field of electric clairvoyance yields unexpected results.  Of all of the stories in this magazine, I predict this one may go down in history as a classic. 

I think I can see a trend in Damon Knight’s editorial choice.  Most of these tales are bleak things, though they are of indubitably good quality.  However, there is just enough hope leavening the mix to make the book palatable.  In any event, it is clear that Mr. Knight was a solid choice to navigate IF out of the sales doldrums.

Except I did promise you bad news, didn’t I?

Just after I’d picked up this magazine, I learned that publisher James L. Quinn is throwing in the towel.  IF is for sale, and there’s no telling when (or if) the magazine will resume publication.  It’s really a shame.  Mr. Knight really hadn’t had a chance to bring the magazine back from the brink, and I’m sure that he could have.

On the other hand, I don’t think his stable of authors will quit writing.  Maybe Galaxy will get enough material to go back to a monthly format.  Fingers crossed!

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for…. I’m not sure yet.  I’m playing this one by ear!



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IF only… The Good News (1-29-1959)

Wrapping up my tour of Kaua’i, here are some pictures I took on the south shore estate of Robert Allerton, whose hospitality is as tremendous as his philanthropy (science fiction-related stuff to follow).

For this installment, I’ve got something a little different.  It’s also the good news half of a good/bad news combination. 

If is a science fiction magazine that has been around since 1952.  Amongst the several dozen that have existed throughout the decade, it is perhaps (outside of The Big Three) the best.  I haven’t followed it very closely, and that’s why I missed the big news.

Two issues ago, Damon Knight (acerbic critic and often brilliant writer) was tapped for the job of editor.  I didn’t find out until a couple of weeks ago, by which time, I’d missed the opportunity to buy the October and December 1958 issues.  February 1959 was still on the stands, however, and I took it with me to Kaua’i. 

Perhaps it’s just the rosy glow imparted from having read mostly on the lovely Kalapaki beach, but it’s really good.  I’ve gotten through the first five stories, and they shall be the topic of today’s discussion.

It is, of course, with trepidation that I read the opening piece, Pipe Dream by Fritz Leiber.  As I’ve explained before, I used to like Fritz a lot (who can forget the brilliant A Pail of Air, which appeared in Galaxy many years ago).  His stuff of late, however, has been pretty lousy.  To be fair, it all appeared in F&SF, so that may have something to do with it.  Anyway, Pipe Dream, about the creation of artificial life, is slickly written and atmospheric, but it’s also disturbing and unpleasant, and perhaps not in the way Fritz intended.  I didn’t like it, though I imagine many would.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Wind People is almost a winner.  It is a haunting tale of a ship’s medical officer who elects to remain on a presumably uninhabited planet rather than expose her newborn child to the risks of hyperdrive travel.  Bradley writes powerfully, and the mystery presented as the protagonist and her son make tentative and increasing contact with the furtive natives of the planet is exciting and engaging.  The ending, however, is a let-down.  One had to wonder if Bradley intended for the story to go in a different direction, one in which the editor was afraid to go.  You’ll have to read it and see.  At least it’s by a woman, stars a woman, and takes place in a universe where women make up half of a starship crew.  Progress!

I’ll skip story #3 until the end, as I’ve got a lot to say about that one.  Number four is The Man who tasted Ashes by Algis Budrys.  This is only the third story of his that I’ve read, and the second really good one; I’m going to look forward to more from him (and perhaps pick up earlier ones I’ve missed).  If ever there was an anti-hero, it is the viewpoint character for this story: a petty political intriguer-for-hire who is contracted by an extraterrestrial concern to facilitate World War III.  Good stuff.

Next up: Love and Moondogs by Richard McKenna (a career Navy man who got a writing degree on the G.I.Bill—now there’s the American Way!) This is a silly story about the lengths some might go in the pursuit of their cause, however frivolous, and the hypocrisy often inherent therein.  In this case, the object of outrage is a Soviet moon-muttnik.  Gentle, pleasant satire.

Now back to story #3: The Good Work by relative newcomer Theodore L. Thomas.  Remember when I talked about overpopulation in stories and the laughably small numbers most authors bandy about as too much for our planet?  Well, Thomas doesn’t play around—there are 350 billion souls inhabiting his Earth, and their life is accordingly regimented and drab.  It’s a satirical anti-utopia (a dystopia?).  The core of the story is the search for meaningful work in an age when everyone has just enough, and everything is automated.  The story has one hell of a barbed punchline.

I think this story is particularly relevant given that we are, I believe, on the cusp of a dramatic change in our economy.  Before the industrial revolution, virtually everyone in the United States was employed in the agricultural sector.  By the early 1800s, the industrial and service sectors began to rise as machines created jobs and allowed for the distribution of wealth; this was balanced by a drop of employment on the farm.  Around 1900, employment in the agricultural sector had dropped to 35%, tied with the service sector and only slightly above the industrial sector.  Industrial sector employment rose to a peak of 37% around 1950, and it has begun a gradual but steady decline since.  Agricultural employment was at just over 10% in 1950, and it is plummeting fast.  Service sector employment makes up the rest.

Projecting out another 50 years, agricultural employment will decline logarithmically, with a limit of zero as time goes to infinity.  Industrial employment may take longer, but with mechanization and (ultimately) roboticization, that sector will also see declining employment.  That leaves the service sector, which means that in the end, our economy will consist of nobody making anything, and everyone doing something for each other.  Except, in the future, I imagine machines will also be my servants.  So what will anyone purchase in 50 years to drive the economy?  How will anyone work?  Perhaps we’ll all be scientists and artists in 2009.  More likely, we’ll develop artificial needs for useless products.  Radio advertising has already been honed to a fine art, and the ad execs are figuring out the television advertising game pretty quickly. 

Maybe we’ll all be employed making advertisements.  That sounds fulfilling.

Anyway, I promised good news, so in summation, If with Damon Knight at the helm promises to be a fine magazine. 

The other shoe will drop on the last day of this month…



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

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