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[Oct. 26, 1961] Fading Fancy (November 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn’t satisfy like it used to?  I’m a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could.  That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee…mmm. 

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn’t done it for me.  The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold.  The flavor doesn’t seem as bold, the crust as crispy.  I’ve started giving dessert menus a serious peruse.  Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert — saved for last and savored.  These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don’t look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did.  This month’s, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:

Keith Laumer is an exciting newish author whose work I often confuse with Harry Harrison’s — probably because Retief reminds me of “Slippery Jim” diGriz.  Laumer has a knack for creating interesting sentient non-humans.  He gave us intelligent robot tanks in Combat Unit, and this month, he gives us sentient, symbiotic trees in Hybrid.  It’s a story that teeters on the edge of greatness, but its brevity and rather unpleasant ending drag it from four to three stars.

The Other End of the Line is the first new story from Walter Tevis in three years.  Ever wonder what happens if you break a bootstrap paradox (i.e. one where your future self gives your present self a leg up)?  Well…it’s not a good idea.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Rick Rubin is back with his second story, the first being his excellent F&SF-published Final MusterThe Interplanetary Cat is a weird little fantasy involving an incorrigible feline with an insatiable appetite.  It’s almost Lafferty-esque, which means some will love it, and some will hate it.  I’m in the middle.  Three stars.

Faq’ is the latest by George P. Elliott, whose Among the Dangs was a minor masterpiece.  Elliott’s new story is in the same vein — a Westerner who finds a fictional yet plausible tribe of people, alien from any we currently know.  It’s got a nice, dreamy style to it, but it lacks the depth or the powerful conclusion of Dangs.  Three stars.

Doris Pitkin Buck is another F&SF new author.  Green Sunrise, like Buck’s last work (Birth of a Gardner), Sunrise features a lovers’ squabble between a scientist man and a non-scientist woman.  Once again, the language is evocative, but the plot is weak, the impression fleeting.  Two stars.

The Tunnel Ahead is an overpopulation dystopia-by-numbers tale by Alice Glaser.  Cramped living conditions?  Check.  Algae-based food products?  Check.  Drastic, random population reduction methods?  Check.  Two stars?  Check. 

Randy Garrett’s been skulking around F&SF lately, but I don’t know that it has been to the magazine’s benefit.  Mustang is essentially Kit Reed’s Piggy, but not as good.  Two stars.

Dethronement is Isaac Asimov’s latest article, a sort of screed written in response to a bad review of his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science by biologist Barry Commoner.  The latter objected to the former’s obliteration of the line between non-living and living matter.  This, Commoner maintained, destroyed the field of biology entirely.  The Good Doctor explains that finding bridges between disciplines does not destroy the disciplines any more than bridging Manhattan with the other four burroughs of New York makes Manhattan no longer an island.  It’s a good piece.  Four stars.

Alfred Bester covers Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in his books column.  He didn’t like it either. 

John Updike has a bit of doggerel about scandalous neutrinos called Cosmic Gall.  It is followed by Algis Budrys’ rather impenetrable article on science fiction, About Something Truly Wonderful.  Both rate two stars. 

Part 2 of Gordy Dickson’s Naked to the Stars rounds out the otherwise lackluster issue.  It deserves its own article, but you’re going to have to wait for it, since Rosemary Benton and Ashley Pollard will be covering some exciting scientific developments, first.  I’ll give you a hint — they involve the biggest rocket and the biggest boom.

[Sep. 12, 1959] Best of the Best (October 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, second part)

Statistics are (is?) fun.  There is a simple joy to compiling data and finding patterns.  Since the beginning of the publishing year, i.e. issues with a January cover date, I have been rating stories and magazine issues in aggregate.  This is partly to help me remember the stories in times to come and also to trace patterns of quality.  In a couple of months, I plan to have my own mini-Hugo awards; perhaps one of you might help me think of a catchy name.

I use a 1 to 5 star rating system, and until this month, individual issues varied between aggregate ratings of 2.5 and 3.5.  But this month, the October 1959 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction broke the curve scoring an incredible, unprecedented 4.5 stars.  That’s about as close to perfection as I can imagine, and I strongly urge all of you to get your hands on a copy while they remain at newsstands.

I talked about the first third of the book last week.  I’ve since finished the rest, and the quality has not dipped an inch. 

To be sure, Charles G. Finney’s The Gilashrikes is only decent.  A biologist mates his gila monster to his shrike, and the resulting hybrid, in an attempt to make up for their ignoble provenance, become the town moralists, enforcing virtue to an increasingly annoying degree.  I know of Finney from the much raved-about Circus of Dr. Lao, and Gilashrikes has a similar, whimsical quality.

Operation Incubus, by Poul Anderson, on the other hand, is fantastic in both senses of the word.  A newlywed magician couple, one a lycanthrope, the other an adept (relearning her trade after losing the maidenhood that was the source of much her power) go on a honeymoon only to run afoul of demonic predators.  It’s lyric, tasteful, and impacting.  Also very exciting.  It also paints a universe much like ours, but with magic more intertwined with our lives.  Highly recommended.

Hassoldt Davis’ The Pleasant Woman, Eve is a Garden of Eden story starring God and the Wandering Jew discussing how to get the first humans to make more of themselves independently.  It’s very good, but it could have used an extra paragraph.  Perhaps space concerns dictated the abrupt ending.

The Pi Man is Alfred Bester’s latest tale of a haunted, pursued psychic.  In this case, the protagonist is sensitive to karmic patterns, and he must do good and hateful things, in turn, to maintain balance in the universe.  It’s very strangely written, and it took me a few pages to get into it, but I found the journey ultimately rewarding.

Finally, for the short stories at least (and they are all under 16 pages in length to accommodate Heinlein’s serial) is Avram Davidson’s Dagon.  I must confess that I did not quite understand this rather ominous tale of an American soldier’s rise to virtual Godhood in post-War China.  As the fellow becomes more powerful, he becomes more detached from reality, in the end becoming an intangible viewpoint on the world.–a literal goldfish in a bowl.  Perhaps that is the point—with power comes a loss of free will and agency.  Or perhaps it was just a comeuppance delivered by a mischievous old Chinaman.

As for the novel, Heinlein’s Starship Soldier, the first half is excellent, particularly in contrast to Dickson’s recent military serial, Dorsai!.  Oh, it’s got its share of Heinlein preaching through the mouths of characters, but he has to get it out somewhere.  I’ll devote a full article to the story next month.

As a teaser for the next article, I’ve just learned that the Soviets have launched their second lunar probe.  It only takes half a day to get there, so we’ll know if it was a success in short order!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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Fire from the Sky (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-10-1959)

Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I’d wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I’m glad I did.  Damn that Anderson, anyway.  How dare he write a good story!  Now I can’t justify skipping him.  But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn’t dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved.  A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom before final departure.  Sad.  Good.

Avram Davidson’s The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust.  A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor.  The only “gift” from their new overlords is perfect health.  How does one escape?

I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot.  It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned.  It is also unexpected.  The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven’t quite received it in the mails yet.  I’ll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson’s The Sky People.  As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation.  Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don’t like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different.  There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan.  It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying “Meycan” Empire, south of Tekas and north of S’america.  Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century.  The eponymous “Sky People” are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of “Canyon.”  Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target–the Meycans.  Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania. 

Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good.  Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources.  I don’t know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester’s Will You Wait?.  The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue?  4 stars?  4 and a half?  Definitely a good read worth picking up–if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!



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