by John Boston
Life is full of happy surprises! At long last Amazing has crossed a line: nothing in the the February 1962 issue is worse than three stars, and the average is a little higher. Read on; I think you’ll agree that there is much to enjoy in this, the first magazine of the month:
Mark Clifton’s serial Pawn of the Black Fleet concludes in this issue. It continues Clifton’s series about Ralph Kennedy, a corporate personnel director (as was Clifton) who appeared in four stories from 1953 to 1957 dealing with various psi manifestations. Back then, Clifton appeared so often in Astounding that some called it the Clifton House Organ, though most of his recent work has appeared elsewhere.
Here, Kennedy is mistakenly dragooned into a job as Extraterrestrial Psychologist for the Space Navy, where he quickly learns the game of bureaucratic aggrandizement. There are no extraterrestrials to psychologize at first, but soon enough a flight of black disks (the titular “Black Fleet”) appears, striking terror and sowing confusion until radiant globes show up and spectacularly dispatch them in what only Kennedy realizes is a complete put-on. The aliens from the globes then manifest as five regular guys with heavy Texas accents, communicating frankly only with Kennedy. After a brief interlude at Blair House, they go sightseeing around the Earth, irrigating deserts, making paths through jungles, and making Siberia and similar places livable as they go. Then they depart, letting everything revert to its prior condition, telling the world that now you know what needs to be done and how to do it, and we’ll catch you later when you develop star travel and come visit us. A subplot involves the machinations of Harvey Strickland, a media mogul resembling a cartoon of William Randolph Hearst on stilts, a comically evil figure, and obese to boot (confirming his awfulness, apparently).
This novella’s worth of plot is larded with extensive and heavy-handed satirical screeds about federal bureaucracy and its status obsessions, the military, the gullibility and prejudices of humanity at large, and similar subjects, some voiced or enacted by the characters (especially Strickland), but most in the authorial voice. One rant about the military mind consumes more than a page of text. (Now we know why this did not appear in Analog: nobody but the editor gets to rant at that length.) Clifton has apparently given up on “Show, don’t tell.” Some of these bloated lampoons are quite well written and therefore amusing, but collectively they become tedious, though their effect cannot be conveyed without quoting more than is manageable in the cramped quarters of this long-haul vessel. Satire of bureaucracy is nothing new in Clifton’s work (see the previous Ralph Kennedy stories), but this one is less like being pricked with a needle and more like being beaten over the head with a sandbag. Satire has yielded to self-indulgent and over-the-top misanthropy. See for yourself when, as the magazine promises, a version appears next month from Doubleday as When They Come from Space. Three stars.
The lead story is Poul Anderson’s Third Stage, a near-space and near-time opera featuring two astronauts who get stuck in orbit in the Van Allen belt. Someone has to go outside the vehicle and clear the blocked valve, taking a fatal radiation dose. Which one? How to decide? (The General bucks it to the President.) Also featured is an obnoxious TV guy who is harassing the astronauts’ families for human interest shots. Capably and tensely done, but mechanical. Three stars.
Third Stage is illustrated by another hardware-intensive hyper-literal cover, this one with a fillip: the space capsule is presented in cutaway, like something in Popular Mechanics. Conceivably, artist Alex Schomburg is being subtler than he seems: the TV guy at one point displays a cutaway of the capsule on the air, described similarly to the cover. So maybe it is meant to present an image of an image—appropriate to the media-centric aspect of the story.
Amazing’s “Classic Reprint” series is selected from the magazine’s early days and introduced by Sam Moskowitz, the leading (virtually the only) historian of the genre. This issue’s Classic is Missionaries from the Sky by Stanton A. Coblentz, prolific in the 1920s and ‘30s, and known as a satirist. And, based on my reading of several novels, a right old bore. At short length, however, Coblentz’s verbose and antiquated style is more tolerable.
Rand the electronic scientist has a new invention, which he shows to his assistant Denison:
“ ‘You behold here a Micro-Crystalline Televisor,’ explained Rand, surveying his invention proudly. ‘The first of its kind ever created.’ ”
“ ‘Micro-Crystalline what?’ I gasped.”
Rand has managed to contact Mars, learning and teaching the respective languages, and the Martians are horrified to learn that Earth still has nations and wars, not to mention inequality and starvation. They have offered to pop over and set us right, if Rand will just give them the go-ahead and direct them to a flat place to land. He agonizes about the boons of peace and equality versus the loss of freedom until he finally flips, melodramatically smashing his equipment and burning his notes, a now-mad scientist in a better cause than usual. Three stars for this reasonably pleasant and charming relic.
The remaining fiction items read as if they had wandered over from Amazing’s companion Fantastic. A. Earley, apparently a new writer, contributes And It Was Good, a religious allegory in which somebody who seems to be Jesus returns to a post-apocalyptic war-ridden world and lightens the burdens of a few hopeless deserters from different countries’ armies until he gets blown up by a grenade. Usually I have no patience with this kind of thing, but it is so well written and visualized, and light-handed despite its overtness (parse that if you dare), and so different in flavor from the rest of the magazine, I’m giving it four stars.
John Jakes, by contrast, is a veteran of Amazing since 1950, with 50+ low-impact stories in the SF magazines and several dozen more elsewhere. He perpetrates the cheerfully grotesque Recidivism Preferred, in which dashing thief Mellors (no relation, I’m sure) has been reduced after apprehension to a dull and withdrawn clerk in Lumpkin’s Emporium. But he is visited by three surreally cartoonish characters who prove determined to break the conditioning that has rendered him both law-abiding and vacuous. This is comedy so black as to be Stygian, and would rate higher were it not for the silly and deflating revelation of the rescuers’ motives. Too bad. Maybe someday a more ambitious writer can make something of the tradeoff between therapeutic rehabilitation and mental and moral freedom. Three stars.
Sam Moskowitz has another in his series of “SF Profiles,” this one titled Theodore Sturgeon: No More Than Human. Remarkably, the latest Sturgeon work mentioned is More Than Human, published in 1953; there is no reference to any of his numerous subsequent short stories and novelettes, or to his recent novels The Cosmic Rape (1958) or Some of Your Blood (1961), except for a general acknowledgment of his “steady literary production…with a continuous striving for higher achievement.” Nonetheless, it’s an interesting account of Sturgeon’s life and earlier career, with speculation about why he’s been doing so well recently, and there’s nothing else like these articles. Four stars, as much for ground-breaking as anything else.
So ends an above-water issue, and just in time to return to my less exciting (for once) school-related reading. Until next month!