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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Kelly Freas

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

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

Despoiler of the Golden Empire by Randall Garrett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on the 12th!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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