Tag Archives: arthur c. clarke

[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…

[Oct. 5, 1961] Half Full (November 1961 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

A long time ago, back in the hoary old days of the 1950s, there was a science fiction magazine called Satellite.  It was unusual in that contained full short novels, and maybe a vignette or two.  Satellite was a fine magazine, and I was sorry to see it die at the end of the last decade. 

Novels still come out in magazines, but they do so in a serialized format.  This can be awkward as they generally extend across three or four magazines.  Several magazines have started publishing stories in two parts, a compromise between Satellite and the usual digests.  Fantasy and Science Fiction does that, but it also hacks the novels to bits, and they suffer for it. 

IF, which is Galaxy’s sister magazine, had not flirted with this format until this month’s, the November 1961 issue.  This means a novella-sized chunk of a story and a handful of shorter ones.  That makes for a briefer article than normal this time around, but I think you’ll still find it worth your time.  Let’s take a look!

Masters of Space, the aforementioned two-part novel, is an interesting throwback, stylistically.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise given its provenance: E.E. “Doc” Smith, possibly the brightest light in space opera of the 20s and 30s, is one of its two authors; the other is E. E. Evans, another old hand who passed away in 1958.  Masters stars a crew of Terran colonist/scientists that encounters a race of androids, immortal servants of a prior offshoot of humanity that had once conquered the stars.  The novel is told in a flippant sort of shorthand, a bunch of banter reminiscent of 1940s film dialogue.  The colonists are evenly divided by sex, and much of the book is devoted to their romantic escapades.  It’s weird and anachronistic writing, which I enjoyed for the first forty pages, but which is increasingly wearing thin.  Two stars.

Albert Teichner brings us Sweet Their Blood and Sticky, a subtle mood piece about an atomically razed Earth and its one remaining monument to humanity: an automated taffy-making machine.  It’s just long enough to make its point, and it’s a good sophomore effort for this new writer.  Three stars.

At The End of the Orbit is the latest by Hugo-winning Arthur C. Clarke, who has been writing quite a lot lately.  Orbit starts out like an episode of Michener’s TV show, Adventures in Paradise, featuring a South Seas pearl diver.  Things go in a decidedly dark direction when said aquanaut discovers a Soviet capsule at the bottom of the ocean.  Four stars, but it’s not a happy piece.


by Gaughan

Patrick Fahy, like Teichner, turns in his second story (at least to my knowledge), The Mightiest Man.  Alien race conquers humanity and, as in Wells’ classic, is laid low by microbes.  But not before empowering one traitorous man with immortality and the ability to control minds.  His fate, and that of those he encounters, comprise another unpleasant (but not unworthy) tale.  Three stars.

Fortunately, for those who like happy stories, like me, the next story is Keith Laumer’s Gambler’s World.  It’s another installment in the adventures of Retief, the Galaxy’s most irreverent and capable diplomat/super spy.  Can Retief foil a coup attempt on a provincial planet?  Can he best the most fiendish games of chance ever devised?  Can he make you laugh with his antics?  I think you can guess the answer.  This is my favorite Retief story to date.  Four stars.

The issue wraps up on a lame note with Kevin Scott’s brief Quiet, Please which I, frankly, did understand or particularly enjoy.  Two stars.

All told, that’s 3.11 on the Star-o-meter, which is pretty good for IF these days.  Pretty good for anyone, really, and good enough to remain among my subscriptions.

Stay tuned for an unusual super-powered article in just a couple of days…

[September 15, 1961] DISASTER ON THE MOON (Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust)


By Ashley R. Pollard

August may have started with cool weather but it ended with a bit of heat wave for the August Bank Holiday weekend.  So I did get to sit on the beach eating ice-cream and reading a good book, and in this case having the pleasure of reading Arthur C. Clarke’s latest A Fall of Moondust, of which John Wyndham has said, “The best book that Arthur C. Clarke has written.” A high praise indeed.

I have been a fan of Arthur’s work after reading his novella, which first appeared in Startling Stories, called Against the Fall of Night.  I’ve also been fortunate to have had the pleasure of meeting him.  For those of you who follow my writing here I can also recommend, if you want a taste of the man’s humour, his short story collection Tales from the White Hart.  The title of which is play on the name of the original pub that The London Circle used to frequent.

Arthur C. Clarke’s latest book probably cements his reputation as one of the key science fiction authors of our age; the others being Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.  His breakout novel, if you will indulge me in describing it as such, was arguably Childhood’s End, which was released in 1953.  It describes the arrival of the Overlords on Earth to guide humanity and ends with the transcendence of mankind into something more than human.  This was followed by my favourite novel of his The Deep Range in 1957, which tells how a former astronaut becomes an aquanaut, and describes the adventures arising from farming the sea.

So the question is, does A Fall of Moondust live up to John Wyndham’s effusive praise?

The story starts with Captain Pat Harris describing the passengers boarding the Moon’s first cruise ship.  It is the Selene, run by The Lunar Tourist Commission, which sails the Sea of Thirst: a sea made of superfine dust that a vessel can float on.  Clarke manages to effectively evoke the other-worldliness of the moon, while at the same time setting a scene that could be have taken place on any cruise ship on Earth, with a largely mundane set of tourists.  The setting roots the fantastical elements into something familiar, making the adventure that follows extremely plausible, of when a holiday of a lifetime turns into a disaster.

Clarke intertwines the unfolding of the voyage with snippets of the world that the people come from and the development of his future society’s technology, including fusion and solar power.  Overall, the world of Moondust is optimistic about the future of mankind, almost cosy — up to the point when disaster strikes.

The catastrophe is a moon quake.  It creates a whirlpool that envelopes the Selene beneath 15 metres of dust.  But this is no story of hysteria, rather it is one of courage in the face of adversity, driven by the underlying belief that problems can be solved.

The story is effectively told from various viewpoints.  The story opens describing the voyage of the crew and passengers of the Selene.  After the disaster we are then taken to the viewpoint of the people searching for the lost ship, who have to come up with a way of getting everyone off safely.  Clarke masterfully describes the problems on both sides, and the various solutions that are undertaken as the clock counts down toward eventual doom — when everyone aboard the Selene will die from lack of oxygen.

Everything is cooly set-up, but then Clarke defies the readers’ expectations, piling problem on top of problem.  The experience is intense, as one wonders what will happen next.  But Clarke manages to keep racking up the tension, teasing the reader with solution only to reveal that there is more going wrong from unintended side-effects.  For example, leaking water from the Selene’s water tanks seeps into the dust and unbalances the ship, which further hinders the rescue operations.

Technology may well enable fantastic things like cruises across the dust seas of the Moon, but it is not omnipotent; you cannot defy the laws of physics, and the exploration of this distinction is where the novel excels.  The characters agency is constrained by what is possible, and in this way the story reminds me of The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, except that Moondust is no maudlin tale of the consequence of stupidity, but rather a paean to reason and engineering.

So is this the best story that Arthur C. Clarke has written?  My answer is probably not, but there again Childhood’s End and Deep Range are hard acts to follow.  Moondust is a tour de force he delivers here, an excellent SF suspense-thriller.  The story drew me in and I sat and read it in a single day.  I imagine you will, too, some fine late summer day.

[May 21, 1961] Pineapple Upside-down Month (June 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Have you ever heard/seen Karl Orrf’s Carmina Burana?  It’s an opera of sorts, the performance of a set of medieval poems to music.  It is likely that you’re at least familiar with its opening number, the catchy Oh Fortuna!.  Well, having seen Carmina, I can tell you that even Orff knew there wasn’t much to the rest of the piece – as evidenced by the fact that Oh Fortuna! gets performed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end.  You can snooze through the rest.

This month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction is like Carmina: a tremendous beginning followed by a largely snoozeworthy remainder.  I suppose that, if you want to complete the analogy, you can simply read the opening piece again after finishing the book.  You probably will.

For Cordwainer Smith’s Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.  Most tales of the future are either frustratingly conventional or completely opaque.  Not so in Boulevard, which features a world dominated by “Instrumentality”, an omniscient computer dedicated to the happiness of humanity.  16,000 years from now, after a placid, highly regulated existence, people are, at last, offered the luxury of uncertainty (or at least the illusion thereof). 

With just a few subtle strokes of his pen, Smith presents the trappings of an alien yet utterly believable world: the trio of reborn humans, programmed to think themselves French; the compelling homunculi, servant animals bred into a mockery of the human shape; the servile androids; the contrived movie-set surroundings; the ancient, decayed ruins of the old technology.  Moreover, Boulevard has a great story, the quest for meaning in a predestined world.  It’s a masterpiece – evocative and brilliant.  Five stars.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Crime on Mars is an adequate (but not exceptional) little art heist mystery.  I find it interesting that he publishes these very straight sf stories here rather than other, perhaps more suited, mags.  Perhaps there wasn’t room in the other digests (or perhaps F&SF pays the best rates!) Three stars.

George, on the other hand, by John Anthony West, is a dreadful slog: a henpecked husband slowly succumbs to a creeping paralysis over the course of an evening; the story is told mostly in shrill exchanges between the afflicted and his spouse.  One Star. 

Doris Pitkin Buck’s Birth of a Gardener is another domestic dispute piece with some vague nonsense about anti-matter.  Although Gardener makes good use of Buck’s personal expertise in horticulture, her knowledge of science is less complete.  Two stories.

Mark Twain’s reprinted A Curious Pleasure Excursion, an advertisement for a comet ride in the style of the great ocean cruises of the last century, is clever and funny — an all-too-brief island of quality in an sea of dreck (to continue the sailing metaphor).  Four stars.

Go for Baroque is the second woman-penned piece in the magazine, by mystery writer Jody Scott.  I think it’s about a crazy time traveler who cures the sane of our world with his chaotic, exuberant madness.  Maybe.  It’s hard to tell.  It is written in this “modern” style that I see more and more in more literary places, half stream-of-consciousness, half nonsense.  I really don’t like it.  Two stars.

By popular demand, I include this month’s pun-ishment, the latest tale of Ferdinand Feghoot.  Read at your personal peril.

Older writers are interesting.  They tend to stick to old techniques and tropes even as they adapt them to current themes.  Miriam Allen Deford’s, The Cage, reads like a Lovecraft tale, complete with a mad scientist regaling a young reporter of his horrifying plan.  In this case, it is the breeding of a race of super-insects to supplant humanity in the event of a nuclear war.  But the author somehow elevates the story to something more than the sum of its parts, steering it subtly to a thoughtful conclusion.  Three stars.

What do you get when you combine the carefree misogyny of Randall Garrett with the increasingly impenetrable prose of (the once masterful) Avram Davidson?  Why, Something Rich and Strange, about a connoisseur of seafood and women who sails off to find a mermaid to love, a task at which he is ultimately successful.  With many pages devoted to lurid descriptions of pescatory cuisine, I had a strong suspicion that the tale would end with the protagonist eating his fishy sweetheart.  Rather, it turns out that the siren is an old hag with, nevertheless, admirable culinary talents.  The punchline is thus, “She’s not much to look at, but she sure can cook!”  One star.

So perhaps I may end up owing my friend, Mike, a beer or two after all, since he may be right that 1961 will not be F&SF’s year to win the Best Magazine Hugo.  Normally my favorite of the Big Three SFF digests, F&SF came in at the bottom of the heap this month at just 2.75 stars.  Compare this to Analog’s 3 stars, and Galaxy’s stellar 3.5 stars. 

On the plus side, this month saw the most stories by women: four out of twenty-two.  I won’t call it a trend until I see this proportion again, of course.  Interestingly, the top contenders for Best Story were both written by Cordwainer Smith.  Maybe the fellow should start his own magazine…

[April 18, 1961] Starting on the wrong foot (May 1961 Analog)

Gideon Marcus, age 42, lord of Galactic Journey, surveyed the proud column that was his creation.  Three years in the making, it represented the very best that old Terra had to offer.  He knew, with complete unironic sincerity, that the sublimity of his articles did much to keep the lesser writers in check, lest they develop sufficient confidence to challenge Gideon’s primacy.  This man, this noble-visaged, pale-skinned man, possibly Earth’s finest writer, knew without a doubt that this was the way to begin all of his stories…

…if he wants to be published in Analog, anyway.  One might suggest to John Campbell that he solicit stories with more subtle openings.  To be fair, the May 1961 isn’t actually that bad, but every time a piece begins in the fashion described above, I feel like I’ve discovered a portal to 1949’s slush pile.

Case in point is Chris Anvil’s Identification.  I know Chris has got a good story in him somewhere, but not when he submits to Campbell.  This tale is about the use of actual bugs, psychically linked to a human operator, to eavesdrop on and prevent potential instances of crime.  It’s not a bad premise, but the story is too padded at the beginning and end, and too clunky in the middle.  Two stars.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Death and the Senator, on the other hand, is very good.  What evil irony for an anti-space politician when it turns out that space offers the cure to a fatal heart condition.  An intense, personal story, with some plausible speculation on the world circa 1976.  Four stars.

I can perhaps forgive Join our gang? for being Sterling Lanier’s first piece.  It is the distillation of all that is wrong with Analog — not only is the Terran Empire the strongest force in the universe, but the animals of Earth are the toughest in the universe.  And preventative genocide is acceptable diplomacy.  I can’t make this up, folks!  Two stars.

The teeter-totter goes up again with James Schmitz’s Gone Fishin’, as one might expect given his quite good Summer Guests from a couple of years back.  It starts out with the same hoary formula, but where it goes is quite surprising.  It’s basically the The Door through Space concept done right.  Three stars; there’s gold in there, but it gets docked for the slow beginning and the somewhat know-it-all air at the end.

There’s a G. Harry Stine “non-fiction” article.  It’s not worth reprinting, this piece about how science fiction writers are too conservative in their predictions given how fast everything is moving these days.  He includes a bunch of asymptotic curves that indicate, among other things, that we will have hyperdrive by 1980 and crushing overpopulation by the end of the century.  I believe that one should not interpret the trends of the last two decades as representative of a sustainable pace; rather, they represent a quantum jump to a new plateau.  In support of this observation is Enovid, the new “birth control” pill that will, mark my words, blow a hole in Malthusian population growth predictions.  Two stars.

The rest of the magazine comprises Part II of Cliff Simak’s promising The Fisherman, which I won’t spoil at this time.  All told, it’s a 3-star mag — imagine how much higher it could be if Analog’s authors could figure out a better way to start their stories!

Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue. 

[Sep. 18, 1960] Keeping things even (October 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

I’ve said before that there seems to be a conservation of quality in science fiction.  It ensures that, no matter how bad the reading might be in one of my magazines, the stories in another will make up for it.  Galaxy was pretty unimpressive this month, so it follows that Fantasy and Science Fiction would be excellent.  I am happy to say that the October 1960 F&SF truly is, as it says on the cover, an “all star issue.”


from here

“After-the-Bomb” stories always appeal to me.  I like stories about starting with a clean slate, rebuilding, and pushing onward.  Thus, James Blish’s The Oath, this month’s lead novelette, starts with an advantage that it, thankfully, never gives up.  In this story, an atomic apocalypse has decimated humanity, which has reverted to subsistence farming.  Specialization is virtually impossible, in part because most of the specialists were slaughtered early on by a resentful populace.  But everyone needs a doctor, and in one remote part of the former U.S.A., an erstwhile copywriter becomes an amateur pharmacologist.

In doing so, he attracts the attention of a real doctor, a recruiter for one of the few bastions of civilization left standing.  The resulting dialogue is a compelling one that gives the reader much to think about.  What is a doctor without the Hippocratic Oath?  Is it better to be a demigod among savages than an intern amongst professionals?  What is more important: fulfillment of personal dreams or serving a larger community?  Excellent stuff, if a bit speechy.  Four stars.

Something, in which an elderly antiquities curator comes face to face with an ancient evil presence, is brought to us by Allen Drury.  He won the Pulitzer this year for his novel, Advise and Consent.  Atmospheric, it’s a mood piece more than a story piece.  Three stars.

Arthur C. Clarke, the hybrid who stands precisely in the gap between scientist and fictioneer, brings us the rather archaic-seeming Inside the Comet.  The crew of the Challenger, dispatched to investigate a comet, become trapped in its coma when the ship’s computer breaks down.  Without the machine to compute orbital calculations, the ship might never get home.  Until, that is, a canny crewman teaches his shipmates to use abaci.  The description of the comet feels quite current, scientifically, and I like the idea of humans being able to rely on low technology solutions when the advanced options have failed.  It’s just a bit dated in its structure and with its gimmick ending.  Three stars.

The least of the issue’s stories is Poul Anderson’s Welcome, featuring a fellow who time travels from modern day to five centuries in the future.  He is received as an honored guest, which is why it takes him so long to realize the crushing poverty in which most of the world lives.  The kicker at the end is the reveal that the future’s elite literally dine on the poor.  Readable satire treading ground long since flattened by Swift and Wells.  Three stars (barely).

But then we have From Shadowed Places from that master, Richard Matheson.  The premise is simple: an adventurer in Africa offends a witch doctor and is hexed with a fatal curse.  Only the help of a woman anthropologist / part-time ju ju practitioner can save him.  It’s a perfect blend of horror, suspense, social commentary, and erotica–the kind that made Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man a book for the ages.  Extra praise is earned for having a strong Black woman as the focal (if not the viewpoint) character.  This story definitely pushes the envelope in many ways.  Five stars.

I’m happy, as always, to see Katherine MacLean in print.  Interbalance, her first tale in F&SF, is a meet cute set in Puerto Rico some twenty years after the Bomb has wiped out most of the world.  More is at stake than simple romance, however–it is a clash between the straightlaced mores of the old world and the liberated, survival-minded culture of the new.  Delightfully suspenseful.  Four stars.

A quick dip in quality accompanies Howard Fast’s tale, The Sight of Eden, in which Earth’s first interstellar travelers find themselves barred from a park-like pleasure planet.  It seems that humans are unbiquitous in the Galaxy, but only Earthlings are nasty and violent.  The planet’s caretaker offers no words of advice to cure the peculiar ailments of our species; he just sends the Terrans packing.  Fast tells the story well enough…I just don’t like what he has to say.  Three stars.

Asimov has a good article this month, Stepping Stones to the Stars, about the halo of icy objects in our solar system orbiting so far out that it takes a year for the light of the Sun to reach it!  Too dim to see, we only know about these little planets because, every so often, one gets nudged out of its orbit such that it careens into the inner solar system.  As it approaches the sun, its volatile contents sublime, creating a dramatic glowing tail.  And so, these inconspicuous bodies become comets.  If one thinks of this cloud of comets-to-be as the edge of our solar system, and if we presume that our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri, hosts a similar cloud, then our systems are probably less than two light years from each other.  It’s a fascinating revelation, and it makes me feel similarly to when I discovered that the Soviet Union and the United States are just twenty miles apart…by way of Alaska.

By the way, both James Blish and the good Doctor have come to the conclusion that Pluto has no moon of significant size.  They thus urge people to save their good underworld-related names for the 10th and 11th planets, should they ever be discovered.

Back to fiction, writing duo Robert Wade and William Miller, writing as Wade Miller, offer up How Lucky We Met.  We’ve all heard of were-wolves, but what happens when the condition is more subtle and constant than the traditional malady?  Four stars.

Finally, Philip Jose Farmer once again has the concluding novella.  A Few Miles is the fourth in a series detailing the life of ex-con and current-monk, John Carmody.  Carmody and Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” have a lot in common.  They are both canny former criminals for whom the transition to law-abiding citizen is not 100% complete.  In this story, the good Brer John is given orders to sojourn to the planet “Wildenwoolly,” presumably to demonstrate his worthiness for ascension to the priesthood.  He does not even make it halfway through his hometown of Fourth of July, Arizona, thwarted by a series of increasingly difficult obstacles. 

I imagine Farmer will compile all of these stories into a book someday.  It will be a good one.  Four stars.

All told, this has been the best issue of F&SF of the year, with a needle quivering solidly above the 3.5 mark.  A good way to end this month’s digest reading.  Stay tuned for a review of Ted Sturgeon’s new book, Venus Plus X!

[June 11, 1960] Fool me once… (July 1960 Amazing)

If there is any innovation that defined the resurgent science fiction field in the 1950s, it is the science fiction digest.  Before the last decade, science fiction was almost entirely the province of the “pulps,” large-format publications on poor-quality paper.  The science fiction pulps shared space with the detective pulps, the western pulps, the adventure pulps.  Like their brethren, the sci-fi pulps had lurid and brightly colored covers, often with a significant cheesecake component.

Astounding (soon to be Analog) was one of the first magazines to make the switch to the new, smaller digest format.  Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and a host of other new magazines never knew another format.  By the mid-’50s, there were a score of individual science fiction digests, some excellent, some unremarkable.  It was an undisputed heyday.  But even by 1954, there were signs of decline.  By the end of the decade, only a handful of digests remained.  The “Big Three” were and are Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy (now a bi-monthly alternating production with a revamped version of IF).  Also straggling along are Fantastic Stories and Amazing, the latter being the oldest one in continuous production.

My faithful readers know I don’t generally bother with the last two titles.  Although some of my favorite authors sometimes appear in them, the overall magazine quality is spotty, and my time (not to mention budget!) is limited.  Nevertheless, Rosel George Brown had a good story in Fantastic last month, and this month’s Amazing had a compelling cover that promised I would find works by Blish, Bone, Clarke, and Knight inside. 

I bit.  This article is the result.

Last time I covered Amazing, I noted that the magazine was a throwback both in writing style and plots.  Things haven’t changed much.  Though there are a couple of decent stories in here, I wouldn’t buy a subscription based on what I read. 

In brief:

J.F. Bone has written some fine stuff.  Noble Redman, about a psionically endowed, red-hued Earthman who teams up with a Martian lowlife (both of them humans), is not one of his best tales, but it’s inoffensive 3-star fare.

A good portion of the book is taken up with William F. Temple’s novella, “L” is for Lash.  This is pure early ’50s stuff: a retired cop named Fred (I don’t think we ever learn his last name) is haunted by the criminal he put away decades before, and who was interned for life on Venus.  The convict somehow managed to escape, go on a robbing spree, and attain eternal youth and invulnerability to boot.  The protagonist’s solution is not only implausible, it’s actually inconsistent. 

I’ll spoil things for you: Lash, the criminal, has perfect telekinetic control of everything around him.  Missiles, A- Bombs, guns, all are ineffective against him.  We are told later in the story that the first of Lash’s murders had been designed to look like an accident.  He had angered a fellow to the point of firing on Lash, but Lash had gimmicked the assailant’s gun to fire backward, thus killing its owner.  At the end of Lash, the hero visits the Scotland Yard crime museum (is there such a place?) to view this unique weapon.  He then uses his powers of prestidigitation to swap his current gun for the gimmicked gun.  When Lash inevitably shows up to force Fred to kill himself, the gun shoots backwards and hits Lash. 

Perhaps Lash was taken by surprise.  I can forgive that.  But there is sloppy writing here.  Before the swap, Fred rewires his standard gun to stun rather than kill its targets.  After the swap, he wires the gun back for killing.  Except the trick gun had never been set to stun.  An author and her/his editor really should proofread a work before it is printed.  I understand that Temple wanted to keep the reveal a secret until the end, but this was just sloppy.

If you liked David Bunch’s A Little Girl’s Xmas in Modernia, set a world where, as people mature, they swap out their fleshly components for robotics, then you might enjoy Penance Day in Moderan.  This one involves an annual meeting of generals; they wage war on each other in a casually enjoyable way the other 364 days of the year.  Bunch’s suite of satirical stories has largely been published in Fantastic and Amazing, so I’ve missed them.  If you like them, seek them out!

Murray Yaco, who helped contribute to the poor quality of the October 1959 Astounding is back with the mediocre Membership Drive, about the first contact between an all-too humanoid alien and modern humanity.  The ending particularly bothered me for its callous treatment of the one female character; you may feel differently.

One of the reasons I’d purchased the magazine was the non-fiction article by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke.  A New Look at Space is not really a factual article in the style of Ley or Asimov.  Rather it’s just a four-page puff piece explaining how great Space is and how soon we’ll get there.  I’m not sure what occasioned him to write this space-filler.  Disappointing.

It turns out that the Blish story, …And all the Stars a Stage, is actually the fourth part of a four-part serial.  The description didn’t grab me–male hero leads a rebellion against a stifling matriarchy, so I won’t seek out the other three parts.

Finally, the Knight (Damon, that is).  Time Enough, or Enough Time, depending on whether you believe the Table of Contents or the story’s title page, is a decent coda to the issue.  In the near future, a psychiatrist invents a kind of time machine.  Whether it actually allows one to go back in time or simply return to an episode in one’s personal history is left vague.  The story focuses on an individual who attempts to rewrite an humiliating episode from his middle-school days, one that the patient feels is responsible for his problems in adulthood.  He is unsuccessful in his mission.  His doctor gently reminds his patient that the failures of the past are sometimes best left forgotten, and efforts better spent on improving the present person.  Nevertheless, the patient resolves to keep trying until he succeeds.  “There’s always tomorrow,” the patient states, the irony being that the patient is using his tomorrows to adjust the past rather than to forge a new future. 

It almost goes without mentioning that women are virtually nonexistent, and there are no female writers.  Amazing is still the most conservative of the digests, even more so than Astounding.  I’ve predicted its demise for some time, yet it manages to defy my expectations.  Maybe there are few enough digests now that Amazing‘s share of the market is big enough to sustain it.  Or perhaps its 35 cent price tag, the lowest of the digests, is the secret to its survival.

Childhood’s End (10-22-1958)

Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you’re so inclined, and I’m generally not) is a cliché.  Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I’d read nothing by the fellow.

This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707.  My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle.  Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover. 

And just barely.  Jets are fast.  It’s hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3.  And that was only a decade ago!

The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke’s best-seller, “Childhood’s End.” I can’t tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can’t chide me anymore for my illiteracy.

Here’s what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order.  It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style.  This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand. 

For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto.  For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters.  Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous.  Still, it is a very fine book.

And I shan’t tell you any more than that.  Because first and foremost, it is a mystery.  Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries.  It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that Childhood’s End is very original and never dull.

I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day.  It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot.  Moreover, Clarke’s future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day.  It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke’s vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.

Disturbing stuff… but then Clarke’s book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff.  Pick it up!  You won’t regret spending four bits.

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