[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)

by Gideon Marcus

It doesn’t take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy.  Why Galaxy?  Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it’s 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I’ve seen in a long while.  Come take a look with me – I promise it’ll be worth your while.

First up is A Planet Named Shayol, by Cordwainer Smith.  Smith’s is a rare talent.  There are few writers who not only excel at their craft, but they somehow transcend it, creating something otherworldly in its beauty.  Ted Sturgeon can do it.  I’m having trouble thinking of others in this class.  Almost every Smith story has this slightly lilting, 10% off-plane sense to it. 

Shayol is set in the far future universe of the “Instrumentality,” a weird interstellar human domain with people on top, beast creatures as servants, and robots at the bottom of the social totem pole.  This particular novelette introduces us to the most peculiar and forbidding of Devil’s Islands, the planet Shayol.  Just maintaining one’s humanity in such a place of horrors is a triumph.  The story promises to be a hard read, yet Smith manages to skirt the line of discomfort to create a tale of hope with an upbeat ending.  Plus, Smith doesn’t shy from noble woman characters.  Five stars.

Robert Bloch comes and goes with little stories that are either cute, horrific, or both.  Crime Machine, about a 21st Century boy who takes a trip back to the exciting days of gangster Chicago, is one of the former variety.  Three stars.

Another short one is Amateur in Chancery by George O. Smith.  A sentimental vignette about a scientist’s frantic efforts to retrieve an explorer trapped on Venus by a freak teleportation mishap.  Slight but sweet.  Three stars.

I’m not quite sure I understood The Abominable Earthman, by Galaxy’s editor, Fred Pohl.  In it, Earth is conquered by seemingly invincible aliens, but one incorrigible human is the key to their defeat.  The setup is good, but the end seemed a bit rushed.  Maybe you’ll like it better than me.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science article is about the reclaimed lowlands of Holland.  It’s a fascinating topic, almost science fiction, but somehow Ley’s treatment is unusually dull.  I feel as if he’s phoning in his articles these days.  Two stars.

Art by Dick Francis

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, is another swing and miss.  An interesting premise, involving a race that reproduces parthenogenetically via musical stimulation, is ruined by a silly ending.  Two stars.

Jack Sharkey usually fails to impress, but his psychic first contact story, Arcturus times Three, is a decent read.  You’ll definitely thrill as the Contact Agent possesses the bodies of several alien animals in a kind of psionic planetary survey.  What keeps Arcturus out of exceptional territory is the somehow unimaginative way the exotic environs and species are portrayed.  Three stars.

If you are a devotee of the coffee house scene, or if you just dig Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, then you’re well acquainted with the Beat scene.  Those crazy kooks with their instruments and their poetry, living a life decidedly rounder than square.  It’s definitely a groove I fall in, and I look forward to throwing away my suit and tie when I can afford to live the artistic life.  Fritz Leiber’s new story, The Beat Cluster is about a little slice of Beatnik heaven in orbit, a bunch of self-sufficient bubbles with a gaggle of space-bound misfits — if you can get past the smell, it sure sounds inviting.  I love the premise; the story doesn’t do much, though.  Three stars.

Last up is Donald Westlake, a fellow I normally associate with action thrillers.  His The Spy in the Elevator is kind of a minor masterpiece.  Not so much in concept (set in an overcrowded Earth where everyone lives in self-contained city buildings) but in execution.  It takes skill to weave exposition with brevity yet comprehensiveness into a story’s hook – and it does hook.  Westlake also keeps a consistent, believable viewpoint throughout the story, completely in keeping with the setting.  I find myself giving it five stars, for execution, if nothing else.

Add it all up and what do you get?  3.3 stars out of 5, and at least one story that could end up a contender for the 1961 Hugos (I really enjoyed the Westlake, but I feel it may not be avante garde enough for the gold rocket).  Now that’s something to smile about!

14 thoughts on “[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)”

  1. A good bunch. Thank you very much for sharing it. I’d distinguish the MarkCliffordian Jack Sharkey for its original life forms, though it depresses as well as impresses. The Westlake isn’t that fresh basically, but the writing and details are so good…

    The Herbert is very well written, too. I think it’s meant to be a shaggy werewolf story.

    1. Re: Sharkey, the life forms are almost interesting.  I feel like he needed about 10% more creativity (i.e. colloidal sacks of fluid shouldn’t look and behave like people).

      I’m glad you liked the Herbert more than me.

      Yes, the Westlake subject matter is not brilliant, but the way he does it is textbook.

  2. Before I even got past the table of contents, I wanted to take this magazine and wave it under the noses of the folks at F&SF and tell them, “This is what an all-star issue looks like!” I’ve heard of all these authors and they’ve all proven that they can write decent to great stories. Mind you, I want to see new authors, but don’t give a mag where half the people are publishing their first stories and tell me it’s “all-star”.

    The Cordwainer Smith was fascinating, though for my money not quite up to the last couple of stories we’ve seen from him. But those were so excellent, that “not quite up to that standard” still means very good.

    The Bloch was cute, but I have to wonder about a parent with that experience leaving a machine like that where his son can find it. George Smith’s story was a nice little problem story, but I found the resolution weak.

    I actually found Ley’s article more readable than a lot of what he’s written of late. Maybe it was because I’ve been to a lot of the places he was writing about. I was surprised, though, that he didn’t mention that Goethe’s “Faust, Part II” was about Dutch land reclamation.

    Herbert and Sharkey were readable filler. Herbert’s senior anthropologist was hard to believe. Sharkey’s story was really more connected three vignettes. (And it took me a while to realize that the first page was part of this story.)

    I really liked the Leiber. The idea that space isn’t going to be all gleaming metal and flat-topped military astronauts is an interesting one. Other than spaceports being about a disreputable as regular ports are here on Earth, you don’t see this sort of thing. Let’s have more science fiction where the future feels lived in.

    The Westlake was also fun. Something of an old-fashioned setting, but biting and modern finish.

    1. I also enjoyed the Willy Ley science article, but then I spent several years in the Netherlands as a teenager and have visited many of the places he described.  I’ve sailed on the Hollandse Diep, driven across the Afsluitdijk and visited the reclaimed Flevoland province.

      I now live across the border in Germany, but due to the closeness of the North Sea, I’m very aware of the dangers of storm floods. Therefore I predict that we will see many of the Dutch plans come to fruition and similar schemes in other country, though not before more lives are lost to storms and floods. In fact, I fear we may be due a very bad one soon.

  3. The lead editorial was interesting.  The notion of just going to some kind of computer database, even over the telephone, and asking it for information is an extraordinary idea.  No more running to the encyclopedia!

    I’m crazy about Cordwainer Smith, so of course I loved “A Planet Named Shayol.”  There’s a lot of darkness in Smith’s future, almost as if humanity has to go through Purgatory to better itself.

    “Crime Machine” was merely a bagatelle, but had some worthy satire.  Right from the start I made the connection with bad guys of the Old West being thought of as heroes, thanks to television Westerns.

    “Amateur in Chancery” did not impress me at all.  I found it too full of wild implausibilities.  (You send somebody to Venus but don’t warn her not to open the airlock?)

    “The Abominable Earthman” was OK, not great.  It held my interest, but nothing special.

    The Ley article may have been a little dry (pun intended), but the subject matter is fascinating.  Such a far-sighted attitude is needed for space exploration!

    More later.

    1. Ah, but the smell of books, the coziness of sitting in a comfortable chair surrounded by whole shelves of them – can a computer reproduce that?

  4. It seems as if you like “Spy in the Elevator” more than Westlake did. He’s recently published “Don’t Call Us, We’ll call You” in Lupoff’s fanzine “Xero”, complaining about his increasing dissatisfaction with having to skew his stories for different sf editors. Most of it is about John Campbell, but there’s this comment:

    “when Frederik Pohl took over Galaxy, my agent suggested that I aim a story at him . . . So I researched. I read the introductions to all the Pohl-edited Star Science Fiction series, and I reread the first and last sentence of every Frederik Pohl story I had around the house . . . and then I wrote a Frederik Pohl story.“The Spy in the Elevator. A Pohl title and a Pohl story, and a very silly inspid story it was, but by that time I was getting cynical. Pohl bought it.”


    The latest issue of “Xero” has some comments by Pohl himself about editing Galaxy and Westlake while Avram Davidson suggests that Westlake may just have a more successful career as a crime writer:


    – matthew davis

  5. “Mating Call” was so-so.  I was able to figure out what was going to happen to the human observers pretty quickly.  As you noted, the punchline ending is just dumb, and makes nonsense of the whole story.

    “Arcturus Times Three” was very imaginative and vivid, and I gladly went along for the ride.  At first I thought there wouldn’t be much of a point to the various adventures, but the ending packed a pretty powerful wallop.

    “The Beat Cluster” may not be the most plausible vision of space stations, but I found it utterly charming.

    “The Spy in the Elevator” was enjoyable, and a classic “Galaxy” style satire.

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