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[March 10, 1962] Mail Call! (The April 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

If there is any true measure of fame, it might well be the amount of fan mail you get.  Many stars employ services to plow through their truckloads and give each missive personal response.  Jack Benny came out on his TV stage last night holding a giant sack of fan mail – of course, it was really filled with trash and old cans… 

Galactic Journey’s popularity lies somewhere inbetween; we do get our fair share of postcards, but I haven’t needed to hire help to read them…yet.  Truth be told, it was for these correspondences that I started this column.  I love meeting you folk – you start the most interesting conversations! 

Science fiction magazines get letters, too.  Many of these digests feature letter columns: Analog, IF, Amazing, and Fantastic.  The two notable hold-outs are Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy.  I suspect the main reason for F&SF is lack of space, it being the shortest of the monthly mags.

Galaxy‘s reasoning is more complex.  In fact, its editors (first H.L. Gold, now Fred Pohl) have polled readers to see if they wanted a lettercol.  In the last 12 years’ of the magazine’s existence, the answer has always been no.  Ironically, as much as I love talking to fellow fans, I think I’m in agreement (though I do like letters in comic books).  More room for stories!

Speaking of which…have a look at the stories that came out in this month’s quite good Galaxy, dated April 1962:

A Planet for Plundering, by Jack Williamson

Things start a bit slowly with our lead novella.  Wain Scarlet is an anachronism – an atavistic maladjust in an interstellar society of humans.  Where his countrymen are universally beautiful in form and thought, Scarlet is ugly and venal.  Dispatched to the remote star system of Sol to determine whether or not to melt the Earth to use as a galactic stoplight, his sole concern is which of the parties involved can bribe him the most.  Even the revelation that the third planet of the system may well be the ancestral home of humanity means little to him.

Jack Williamson has been around a long time, and his pulpish instincts often creep to the fore in this tale of first contact.  Planet has moments of engagement, and the protagonist is delightfully anti-heroic, but the rough patches bog it down.  Two stars.

Tail-Tied Kings, by Avram Davidson

Davidson, now editor for F&SF, continues his slide into mediocre self-indulgence.  If you recall Miram Allen Deford’s Oh Rats! from issue before last, you’ve got the plot of this one – superrats escape from captivity, poised to take over the world from their bipedal erstwhile masters.  Not unreadable (like some of Davidson’s other recent stuff), but why bother rehashing the same story?  And so soon?  Two stars.

Star-Crossed Lover, by William Stuart

Ah, but then we have William Stuart, who rarely disappoints and usually delights.  This Galaxy veteran offers up a fun, tongue-in-cheek tale of romance between a loveable schlub and an eager-to-please, highly wanton ET.  What could go wrong when you’ve got the literal woman of your dreams?  You’ll have to read and find out.  Four stars.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

Everyone’s favorite German returns this bi-month with a piece on shaped charges.  These are explosive shells whose effectiveness is multiplied by how the powder inside is molded.  Pretty fascinating stuff, actually, but the letter Q&A portion afterward is lackluster.  Three stars.

The Long, Silvery Day, by Magnus Ludens

You ever have one of those perfect days?  When everything goes just perfectly?  Ever wonder if someone was behind it?  The impressively named Magnus Ludens is a brand new author, and he hits a triple his first time at bat.  Four stars for this charming story.

Big Baby, by Jack Sharkey

If Stuart is a name that raises expectations, Sharkey’s is one that lowers them.  Big Baby is the next in his series starring Jerry Norciss, a telepathic member of the Contact service.  His job is to jump into the minds of beasts on various planets to learn more about the local ecology.  It’s not a purely scientific mission – there’s always a colony in trouble.  The tidbits about the lonely, junkie-esque life of the esper are compelling, but Baby‘s menace isn’t as interesting as the ones in his last story, there’s far too much exposition, and the solution is clumsily rendered.  Two stars.

Gourmet, by Allen Kim Lang

I’ve no particular reason to like Gourmet, about a spacer who can do wonders with algae rations – but I do.  Perhaps it’s because I fancy myself a gourmand, or because Lang is pretty good with the typewriter.  Either way, it’s a swell story.  Four stars.

Founding Father, by J.F. Bone

Did the slaveowners think they were righteous?  Do the Whites who lynch Blacks feel good about what they do?  Founding Father puts us in the minds of a pair of reptilian aliens who investigate modern-day Earth.  Their ship has insufficient fuel for the return trip, so they place mental taps into a married couple and compel them to collect some. 

What ensues is a difficult read, particularly if mental coercion is your weak point.  There is no happy ending, and the enslaved’s resistance is slowly, methodically destroyed.  Yet the slavemasters are not uncivilized.  Their actions are justified, at least to themselves.  And it’s all rendered with a somewhat insouciant touch, appropriate given whose viewpoint we see through.  Chilling.

This is an awfully hard piece to be objective about.  It’s a cruel story, all the more shocking for its lightness of tone.  But I think it’s deliberate.  I’ve read enough of J.F. Bone to be assured that he knows what he’s doing.  If you finish Father without having addressed your feelings about slavery, racism, and the indignity of nonconsensual control, then you’re either not getting the point, or you may have no soul.  Tough stuff, but worthy.  Four stars.

Moondog, by Arthur C. Clarke

About an astronaut and the dog who saves him, even over a distance spanning hundreds of thousands of miles, several years, and the veil of life.  This is a rather pedestrian tale from perhaps the most preeminent of British sf authors, but to be fair, I’m more of a cat lover.  Three stars.

So there you go – a jumbo-sized issue of Galaxy that finished on the good side of decent.  Something to write home about?  I leave that to you to decide…

[April 8, 1961] Variety pack (May 1961 IF)

The nice thing about a science fiction magazine (or anthology) as opposed to a novel is if you don’t like one story, you might like the next.  Once you start a bad novel, your only options are to drag yourself through it or give it up unfinished.  And you can’t very well review an unfinished novel, can you?

Galaxy’s sister magazine, IF, is not as good, on the average, as the other members of the Big Four (including F&SF and Analog).  But because it is a digest, occasional stories surprise and delight.  There’s one gem in this month’s issue of IF, and a few other diverting tales.

Not the first one, though.  J.T. McIntosh tends to save his dreck for the lesser mags, and his That’s the Way it Goes is a thinly redressed pioneer story grafted onto a Malthusian future.  Science fiction has to be at least a little visionary if not progressive.  Way fails at both, though to its credit, it’s not unreadable; just unimpressive.  Two stars.

William Stuart’s Out of Mind has an interesting concept: a planet of telepaths who present to you the experience you most want to have.  As one might expect, it is a dangerous world, indeed, for those who ever want to return home.  It’s done in a droll satirical fashion that I didn’t care for, but you might.  Two stars.

I think Frank Banta must be new, as I haven’t encountered his name before.  The Connoisseur is a sad, humorous story about an off-course colony ship.  It doesn’t tread new ground, but it is pleasant and short.  Three stars.

Seven Doors to Education is the jewel of this issue.  It is the third story by newcomer Fred Saberhagen, and I think it’s my favorite thus far.  A young postal worker with no particular talents or prospects is abducted by unknown forces and presented with a series of increasingly difficult puzzles.  Why him?  And to what end?  A genuinely engaging story with a satisfying conclusion.  Four stars.

The Useless Bugbreeders may be James Stamers’ best story to date.  That’s not necessarily high praise given his track record of two and three star submissions, but this particular story, about an attorney attempting to spare a planet in the way of interstellar freeway construction, is silly fun.  Three stories.

Cinderella Story, the second story I’ve read by Allen Kim Lang, retains his breezy style.  It works in this tale, of a young woman federal agent who is sent to investigate a most peculiar bank.  It scores points for featuring a strong female lead, and for spotlighting the sexism women have to endure in the workplace (though I can’t be certain if Lang did so deliberately or unconsciously).  Three stars.

Ending with a whimper, the last story is Jack Sharkey’s The Flying Tuskies of K’niik K’naak — basically, about the comeuppance of an upper class big-game hunter by his mistreated servant.  Again, it’s a science fiction story with no science fiction.  I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s just not that good.  Two stars.

That puts us at 2.75 for the whole book, but if you start on page 50 and quit around page 124, you’re actually in for a fine read.  And that’s 75 more pages of good fiction than I’ve published this month!

[August 29, 1960] One shoe down (October 1960 Galaxy, 1st half)

There is an old saw: “Just when I got my mule to work without being fed, she up and died on me!”

At the end of 1958, Galaxy editor H. Gold announced that his magazine was going to a bi-monthly publication schedule.  He did not mention that he was also slashing writer pay rates in half.

Last issue, Gold crowed about his stable of fresh new authors who would carry the torch of science fiction creation.  And, of course, there is plenty of room for the new authors now that the old names have departed for greener pastures.

Is this how a great magazine dies?  Not with a bang, but with a whimper?  You may disagree with me, but the October 1960 issue of Galaxy feels like a throwback.  A lesser mag from the mid ’50s.  Let me show you the first half of the issue, and you’ll see what I mean.

Allen Kim Lang opens things up with his novella, World in a Bottle.  The premise is an interesting one: take a group of people with no resistance to diseases (such people exist today).  Put them together in a sort of commune.  What are the sociological and practical implications?  What kind of life can they expect to have?

Some of the story rings true, particularly the feeling of imprisonment and the lack of attraction for one’s fellow commune residents.  This isn’t science fiction–this is what’s happening right now on the kibbutzim in Israel.  What kills the story, for me, is the breezy style and the overly neat finish at the end.  It’s a pity–Lang has been good enough to get printed in F&SF.  I’m sure he could turn out better.

The Hills of Home, by Alfred Coppel, originally came out in Future Science Fiction back in 1956.  It reads like an inferior version of Sturgeon’s sublime The Man who lost the Sea, but I guess Coppel’s came first, so perhaps Sturgeon’s is a polish-up.  In any event, it’s a clunky piece, but not horrible.  It does show that Galaxy is now resorting to reprints to fill its pages.  That’s probably not a good sign. 

Marshall King is, as far as I can tell, a complete newcomer to science fiction.  His Beach Scene, about a cute little alien who can stop time, is rather engaging.  The creature’s encounter with a band of rapacious human colonizers is bittersweet.  Mostly bitter.

Willy Ley seems to be coasting these days.  His latest article, The Air on the Moon, is not a stand-out.

Then we’ve got James Stamers’ The Imitiation of Earth, positing a sort of planetary sentience that deliberately fosters the evolution of life.  This is Stamers’ fourth published story, and Gold has bought every one of them.  I’ve noted in my reviews of his last three that his work tends to be forgettable stuff with occasional interesting ideas mixed in.  He continues this trend with his newest story, which starts out in a quite compelling manner, but ends prosaically. 

That brings us to newcomer Andrew Fetler’s Cry Snooker, a satiric tale about the havoc wreaked on a suburban town by an experimental little flying machine.  It reads like a lesser Rosel George Brown story.  Heavy on the domestic banter, crude with the lampooning.

Now, things could turn around quite suddenly in the second half of this month’s issue, but thus far, we’re looking at a 2.5 star issue.  It would be a crying shame if Galaxy, once my favorite science fiction digest, ended up below Astounding!

In happier news, I met a lot of wonderful folks at the local science fiction convention last week.  One of them was dressed up as the new member of the family from Krypton, Supergirl.  Well, it turns out she is a local, and she sent me a photo to share with my fans.  Meet Janel, everyone!