[September 20, 1961] Theme and Variations (October 1961 Fantastic)

As promised, a surprise article from a surprising source.  Victoria Silverwolf has been an asset to this column for three years, providing commentary that might as well have been an article in and of itself (not to mention being 95% in alignment with my views).  Imagine my joy when Ms. Silverwolf offered to contribute an article every month.  Since to date I have only been able to cover four of the six major science fiction digests, we decided that Vic’s greatest contribution would be in the coverage of another.  And so, for your viewing pleasure, a review of the October 1961 Fantastic from our newest Mistress of the Weird…

by Victoria Silverwolf

Greetings from the night side. Our esteemed host has invited me to step out of the shadows and offer some thoughts about the literature of the uncanny, of the unnatural, of the unimaginable.  Shall we proceed? Take my hand, and don’t be afraid of the dark.

Fantastic magazine – or, to use its complete title, Fantastic Stories of Imagination, not to be confused with Fantastic Adventures or Fantastic Universe — has had a checkered career during its nine-year lifetime.  Started as a publication dedicated to literate fantasy fiction, much like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it soon had to attract readers from its older sister, Amazing Stories, by printing more science fiction.  Unfortunately, low payment rates, the glut of science fiction magazines during the 1950’s, and indifference from management resulted in contents of poor quality. 

This situation showed signs of improvement a little less than three years ago when Cele Goldsmith, originally hired as a secretary and general assistant, rose to the position of editor for both magazines.  She has improved the quality of the publications by introducing readers to talented new authors such as Keith Laumer, Ben Bova, and David R. Bunch, as well as bringing Fritz Leiber out of retirement with a special issue of Fantastic featuring no fewer than five new stories from that master of speculative fiction.  It remains to be seen whether Goldsmith’s editorship will lift the magazines’ sales out of the doldrums.  One sign of hope is the fact that, for the first time since the Hugo Awards were initiated, Amazing Stories was nominated for Best Professional Magazine in 1960 and 1961.

With an optimistic mood, therefore, let’s take a look at the latest issue of the younger sibling.  By coincidence, it neatly divides into two halves, each dealing with a particular theme.

The first part of this issue involves the survival of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.  The cover art by Alex Schomburg (a Goldsmith favorite) for Robert F. Young’s novelette Deluge II might lead one to expect a simple retelling of the legend of Noah.  Fortunately, the story is much more complex than that. 

In a future world where most people have fled to the stars in the face of radiation storms, those who remain are of mixed race, except for a few stubborn whites who refuse to integrate.  Known as “apartheids,” these people barely survive like cavepeople, while the rest of the humanity lives in decadent luxury in Old York (formerly New York, now that there is another New York on a distant planet), the only city of any size left on Earth.  The radiation has left these people sterile, but with greatly extended lifetimes.

It should be noted here that all this background information is only revealed bit by bit over the course of the story, avoiding clumsy lumps of exposition.  Other speculative concepts, such as instantaneous teleportation anywhere on Earth, and “time windows” that allow one to view any event in the past, are introduced as the story progresses, and all prove to be relevant.

The plot begins with the protagonist, a man of mixed race who predicts that a gigantic flood is going to destroy all remaining life on Earth, coming across a female apartheid in the hunting preserve he owns.  Since trespassing on the preserve (and killing one of the animals for food) is punishable by death, he convinces her to become his mistress instead.  (In this society, this doesn’t necessarily imply anything sexual.  Wives and mistresses are both status symbols in a world which is even more patriarchal than out own.) In one of the story’s many ironies, the “pure white” woman has much darker skin than the mulatto protagonist, even though she addresses him with the harshest of all racial insults.

Much more happens in this darkly satiric tale, which rewards careful reading.  Three stars.

Humanity faces another crisis in The Mother, a reprint from 1938 by pioneer science fiction author David H. Keller, M.D.  (He always seemed to use his medical degree in his byline.) Appearing originally in a fanzine of very small circulation, this story is likely to be new to almost all readers.

Due to its age, I expected this to be a primitive example of “scientifiction” from the pre-Campbell era.  As predicted, it begins with the characters discussing their situation in an old-fashioned method of exposition.  The population of the Earth has been greatly decreased by an illness known only as the Mysterious Disease.  A man and woman of superior mental and physical health have been selected to produce dozens of offspring, as part of an effort to repopulate the planet with the best possible children.  The ending of this brief story is unexpectedly gentle and touching, raising it to two and one-half stars.

Since this issue contains the second half of Manly Banister’s novella Magnanthropus, I decided to play fair with the author and seek out a copy of the previous issue in order to read the entire story.  It turns out that the very detailed synopsis of the first half included in the new issue would have been sufficient. 

In the late twentieth century, a future of atomic cars and enforced leisure, a vast cataclysm brings Earth in collision with a planet from another dimension.  The protagonist, along with a young boy and a twenty-five-year old “girl,” makes his way across this bizarre new land in search of a mysterious man whom he is pursuing for reasons not even he understands.  All kinds of strange encounters result, from fairy-like butterfly people to an enclave of telepathic superhumans.  Some readers will enjoy the breakneck pace of this wild adventure.  It never bored me, but I found the plot too chaotic for my taste.  Two stars.

The second half of the issue deals with the familiar theme “crime does not pay.” In the oddly titled tale A Cabbage Named Sam, John Jakes offers us another decadent future, where there is no need to steal for wealth, so thieves practice their trade just for the glory of getting away with it.  A lower class man and an upper class woman set out to steal rare art from a luxurious mansion, which happens to be located at the gigantic, fully automated cabbage factory of its owner.  It isn’t long before the man winds up among the cabbages being processed into coleslaw.  If the intent is comedy, it’s very dark indeed.  Two stars.

“The Last Druid” by Joseph E. Kelleam provides proof that Fantastic hasn’t completely lost its roots in fantasy.  Set in the kind of magic-filled world that never existed except in the pages of Weird Tales, this is the story of two thieves who foolishly enter the domain of a druid to steal a giant ruby, as well as to ravish the beautiful white-skinned woman said to dwell there.  As you might expect, they pay for their nefarious intent.  This kind of tale depends on the author’s style to create an exotic and eerie mood.  Although not as elegant and witty as Leiber’s accounts of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, this journey into a supernatural setting is effective enough for its brief length.  Two and one-half stars.

We turn to another classic kind of fantasy, the horror story, in David Ely’s Court of Judgment.  Yet another warning against theft, this tale deals with a fellow who cheats another out of a valuable painting, which is said to carry a curse.  You won’t be surprised by anything that happens, but it’s quite well written.  Three stars.

Overall, this issue earns a respectable, if not outstanding, two and one-half stars.  There are no masterpieces to be found, but no worthless stories either.  The way in which the authors tackle similar themes in very different ways provides ample evidence that there is no limit to fantastic stories of imagination.

(I suspect Victoria’s 2.5 is a 3 for me.  After consultation with the author, I shall revise the Star score, if necessary.)

6 thoughts on “[September 20, 1961] Theme and Variations (October 1961 Fantastic)”

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this interesting issue with us; and we’re certainly glad to learn you’ll be posting regularly.

    The least fantastic story, Dr Keller’s, is definitely my favourite. Beside the gentle and moving end, I like the idea that women’s crafts helped their intelligence.

    Despite the hi-tech trappings, the Jakes strikes me as more horror or even crime. Definite wallowing, there.

  2. Knowing this was coming, I sought out this issue. Overall, it felt a lot darker than any of the Big 3, and a couple of times there was some rather strong language that surprised me. I don’t know if this is typical of Fantastic or not. I suppose we’ll find out in the months to come.

    All in all, my assessments run pretty closely to Victoria’s, though I skipped over the Banister. (He’s written a few things over the years, but he’s primarily a fan.) I might have liked “The Last Druid” a little better than Victoria, but other than that I think we agree.

    But what really caught my attention was the editorial by Norman Lobsenz. He discusses a scientific article which suggests adapting human beings for life in space and on other worlds through the use of implanted machines to help them breathe, metabolize, withstand radiation, etc. The term used is “cyborg”, derived from cybernetic organism (and I word I felt myself grasping for in response to a story here last year sometime). He then asks whether this man-machine hybrid would be more than human or less and promptly concludes that they would be, in his words, sub-human. He’s even sickened by the idea.

    I found myself deeply bothered by that attitude. Do my reading glasses make me less human? And am I then restored to that blessed state when I take them off so I can see things beyond the end of my arm? What about an amputee with a prosthetic leg or arm, and what if that prosthetic were far advanced over what we have today and could function just like the real thing? Is the editor contending that accident, injury, or disease can rob us of our humanity? Too many of the sentences in this paragraph end in question marks, so I won’t go on with ideas like machines to replace damaged hearts or kidneys. No, I do have one more question for Mr. Lobsenz: If those things don’t make you less than human, where do you draw the line?

    1. Just a factor to consider. Reading glasses etc don’t supplant any of the human body, but support it. Even with something you’d think peripheral to one’s self image as a limb, patients report feeling dehumanised. How much more so with organs that give us the emotions and feelings which are part of being human.

      Myself, I think it would be more efficient to engineer such supplementaries as doffable clothing.

      1. > doffable clothing

        Or rebreathers and S.C.U.B.A. gear, or hang gliders, or skis…

        Of course all those can be removed and stored away when not in use.  A perfected artificial heart, knee joint, or pancreas… if it was good enough, who would know?  Or for that matter, who would care?

        But technology is moving merrily along, and Dow Corning recently announced silicone “breast implants” which they claim will be available to plastic surgeons and their customers early next year.  Breast implants may sound like a ridiculous idea, but I expect there won’t be any shortage of customers.

  3. It is an absolute thrill to appear in the pages of “Galactic Journey.”

    I may be less generous with my stars than our host, so allow me to explain my entirely subjective system.

    * = A worthless story, that annoyed me because of the time I wasted reading it.

    ** = A story which passed the time without impressing me.

    *** = A good story.

    **** = An excellent story.

    ***** = A rare classic.

    I hope this clears things up for the sake of future calculations.
    An “average” story — one that gets an “OK” from me — is two and one-half stars.

    I was also troubled by the tone of the editorial.  I believe that Lobsenz is mostly a figurehead, and that Goldsmith has full responsibility for choosing the art and fiction.

    I see that I am behind in my reading.  On to Analog!

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