[September 18, 1962] On the Precipice (October 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Are the times changing?

Summer threatens to change to Fall, and the kids are going off to high school and college.  Is this just another turn of the wheel, or are we on the verge of something different, what Historian of Science Thomas Kuhn might call a new “paradigm?”

I had this feeling once before.  In ’53, right after Korea, and after Stalin died, America seemed poised on the edge of an unprecedented era of stability.  Well, really stagnation.  The pendulum had swung heavily in the direction of conservatism.  Black soldiers had come home from the war and were being treated worse than ever.  Ditto women, who had for a while gotten to enjoy some of the rights of men while they were off to war.  The swing music from the prior two decades had gotten overripe and shmaltzy, only somewhat mitigated by the western, blues, and latin music I was able to tune into on nights with clear reception.  The one truly bright spot was science fiction, which had been booming since the late ’40s.

Then rock and roll hit, and boy was it a breath of fresh air.  Sure, you couldn’t hear Black songs on White stations, but there’s no color bar on the airwaves.  Fragile 78 records gave way to durable 45s.  The vacuum tube started to step aside for the transistor.  We were building the missiles that would soon blast us to orbit.  At the same time, sf started to wane.  We went from forty magazines to six over the course of the decade. 

This, then, has been the recent paradigm.  Here we are nine years later, but Elvis and the Everley Brothers still dominate the airwaves.  A new President has asked us what we could do for our country, not what it could do for us; tasking us to go to the Moon before the decade is out, but Black men must still fight even for the right to go to school or ride a bus in much of the nation.  There are now ten thousand Russian troops in Cuba and ten thousand American soldiers in South Vietnam, but are these transitory brush fires or the tip of a belligerent iceberg?

Are the 1960s going to be a continuation of the 1950s?  Or are we overdue for a new epoch?  You tell me.  I’m no soothsayer. 

I suppose in one way, the shift has already happened.  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has become quite different since new editor Avram Davidson took over earlier this year.  It’s not bad, exactly, but it has meandered even further into the literary zone.  This has rendered one of my favorite mags almost unreadable on occasion.  The October 1962 issue does not have this problem, for the most part, but it’s not great.

Enough dilly-dallying.  Here’s the review:

A Kind of Artistry, by Brian W. Aldiss

The son of a baroque and decadent far future Terra journeys across the galaxy to make contact with a most unusual alien intelligence.  Upon his glorious return, he must decide if he has the strength to break the stultifying conditioning of his inbred upringing.

Aldiss wishes he were Cordwainer Smith, and he just isn’t.  Nevertheless, despite some rough patches, there are some good ideas here.  The extraterrestrial has a wildly implausible biochemistry, but the meeting of species is genuinely gripping.  Three stars.

There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, by Robert F. Young

Overpopulation continues to be the theme of many of our current science fiction stories.  A common concept is the idea that excess population can be shipped to the stars, but as any student of history knows, neither England, Spain, France, Portugal, nor any other country ever became empty as a result of colonization.  We can’t expect spaceships to change that equation. 

Neither does Young.  His story is cute, if one-note, holding our interest for as long as the idea can be stretched.  Three stars.

Twenty-Four Hours in a Princess’s Life, With Frogs, by Don White

What if all the fairy-tale princesses were pals, all living together in Hans Christian Andersonville with intersecting storybook plotlines?  Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel… the whole neurotic gang of them.  Don White explores that possiblity in a clever, funny piece that makes me hope that Disney never tries to combine its franchises.  What a mess that would be!  Four stars.

Inquest in Kansas (A Modern American Ballad) by Hyacinth Hill

The unknown Ms. Hill (I understand she may be Virginia Anderson) has a poetic piece about a woman seduced from her home and family by a unicorn.  Whether you find it horrifying or liberating depends on how you infer her life history.  Two stars, as it didn’t grab me.

Measure My Love, by Mildred Clingerman

What a fascinating, almost excellent, but ultimately disappointing piece this was.  Dodie is a youngish spinster whose actress cousin, Althea, has a penchant for melodramatic love affairs.  When Althea’s irresistible romantic nature meets the immovable, unwinnable affections of a married man, Dodie takes her cousin to the local witch, Maude, to cure her of her of broken heart.  Turns out the “witch” is more than meets the eye, but it’s an open question whether or not her panoply of equipment can remedy Althea’s condition. 

Clingerman is one of the most seasoned veterans our field, and her work has a pleasantly old-fashioned tone to it — appropriate both for the era (just post-war) and the protagonist portrayed.  The story moves you along the plot, slowly unfolding things to maintain your interest.  What hurt Measure for me was that, near the end, Maude mentions that she might also be able to cure Dodie’s “little problem,” hitherto undiscussed but strongly hinted at.  But then the problem turns out to be something completely different from what I expected (given the close relationship of the cousins, and Dodie’s unending patience where things Althea-related are concerned). 

I wonder if I guessed wrong, or if the ending was changed at the editor’s insistence for being a bit too…unconventional.  Either way, it turned a four-star story into a three-star one.  I’m probably being unfair, but unsatisfying endings sit poorly with me.

Slow Burn, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor touches on one of my favorite scientific topics — the theory of Phlogiston and how its research eventually led to the discovery of oxygen.  It’s one of those fascinating models that almost but not quite got things right, like impetus theory in the 13th Century ultimately led to the concept of momentum.  I mentioned Kuhn’s “paradigms” earlier, and Phlogiston is a perfect example of the concept.  Four stars.

The Unfortunate Mr. Morky, by Vance Aandahl

One of my readers once said that Mr. Aandahl really wants to be Ray Bradbury.  Surely, there must be loftier goals.  In any event, this incomprehensible piece about the connection between time travel and the profusion of milquetoast personalities isn’t worth your time.  On the other hand, it’s only a few pages, so you might as well see why I gave it only one star (and perhaps you’ll disagree with me).

The Journey of Joenes (Part 1 of 2), by Robert Sheckley

At long last, Bob Sheckley has come back to us.  It’s my understanding that he’s been writing mainstream mysteries and such, which probably pays better than sf.  His latest work, which Editor Davidson says is a hacked up version of the novelized form due out later this year, follows the adventures of Joenes, an American ex-power engineer raised in Polynesia.  His pilgrimage to the Mainland to find his destiny is a series of satirical vignettes told from a foreign and futuristic perspective that turns the story into a kind of dark Canterbury Tales.

It’s a fun read, though I hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Sheckley is better at short stories than novels, so the format plays to his strengths.  I do have to wonder why F&SF prints chopped up novels to fill up half of two consecutive magazines.  I expect that of Ace Doubles, not a high-end digest.  Three stars so far.  We’ll see what happens.

And so we find ourselves on the other side of another issue.  On the face of things, it seems to reinforce the trend that F&SF is in a new and duller era.  Will we soon have enough data points to know if the larger world has changed, too?




12 thoughts on “[September 18, 1962] On the Precipice (October 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)”

  1. I liked the opening and closing stories in the magazine better than you did, it seems.  I found the Aldiss fascinatingly weird and complex.  In a typical issue, it would be the highlight.

    However, I am absolutely crazy about “The Journey of Joenes,” which I think is a satire worthy of being placed on the same shelf as Swift and Voltaire.

    1. Agree with Victoria on the merits of Aldiss’s story, lean towards her view on Sheckley.  I think you underrate them both.

  2. I’m afraid I do disagree with you: about the Aandahl. I find it a fun piece of fluff, maybe a trifle long for the joke, but still a smooth bit of writing.

  3. Twenty-Four Hours in a Princess’s Life, With Frogs, by Don White sounds absolutely charming, an could possibly make the basis for a weekly TV series.  It could be called the Princess Diaries or perhaps Once Upon a Time?

      1. You can only see a crossroads of history in your rear view mirror.  There are certainly some brewing conflicts both domestically and internationally in which the oppressed have had enough and are rising up.  They actually believed all that stuff we and others put out during and right after World War II about freedom, equality, democracy, self-determination, etc., and expect those in charge to deliver on it, or at least get out of the way.  Fat chance!  It should make for interesting times if nothing else.

  4. The Don White story idea is fun, and I agree it could be reused at greater length in other media, but rather than TV, I’d suggest it’s a natural for a relatively “mature” comic book series.  (A TV version might have trouble with believable representations of all of the active talking animals, monsters, etc. the idea would require, and it would be constrained in the “how sexy and/or how violent” scenes could appear.)

    Of course, “mature” comic books are pretty thin on the grounds these days, but I suspect in the future they will be relatively common, and not just some sort of fables.

    1. And I should add that any writer who would commit to an extensive comic book series on that basis would have to be a bit of a showoff, so it might be a matter of having to find a willing ham to fill the bill.

  5. I’ve read everything but the Sheckley. The first thing I noticed is that they really need to get their typesetter some new glasses. I’ve never seen so many b/h, c/e, and the occasional n/u switches in a professional publication.

    I’ve said before that I often want to like Aldiss better than I do. This story is not one of those times. I found it almost unreadable and dull. And it really did read like an attempt to be Cordwainer Smith. That’s not the sort of thing I expect from an established writer with his own voice.

    The Young story was pleasant, if forgettable. I found the White story to be much the same. Even now, I had to thin hard to remember how it ended. That makes it difficult for me to rate it as high as four stars.

    The poem was interesting. Thought-provoking, if nothing else.

    “Measure My Love” started strongly, but faded in the stretch. Not only the problems the Traveler mentions, but there are hints at the beginning that never really pay off. This one left me frustrated, more than anything.

    Dr. A’s article was enjoyable. Alas, I felt as though he was whitewashing Newton a bit. The man was an out and out alchemist. Not to mention his efforts to calculate the end of the world (if I remember correctly, we still have a good 5000 years). The Good Doctor also neglected to mention Lavoisier’s unfortunate end at the hands of the Terror. Still, an enjoyable article.

    I have no idea what to make of the Aandahl story.

    So, without the Sheckley half-novel, not a terrible issue and a good bit better than we’ve been seeing from Davidson. Maybe things are looking up.

    As to the larger question, I suppose we are heading into an era of change. If nothing else, all those kids born in the immediate post-war era are starting to graduate from high school. It may take a few more years, but they’re going to start making their mark soon. And let’s hope that Heinlein was wrong when he called what’s coming the Crazy Years.

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