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[February 23, 1962] Material Reading (March 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The coverage for John Glenn’s orbital flight was virtually non-stop on the 20th.  My daughter and I (as many likely did) played hooky to watch it.  During the long countdown, the Young Traveler worried that the astronaut might get bored during his wait and commented that NASA might have been kind enough to install a small television on the Mercury control panel.

But, from our previous experience, we were pretty sure what the result of that would have been:

CAPCOM: “T MINUS 30 seconds and counting…”

Glenn: “Al, Mr. Ed just came on.  Can we delay the count a little bit?”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “You are on internal power and the Atlas is Go.  Do you copy, Friendship 7

Glenn: “Al, Supercar‘s on now.  Just a little more.”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “The recovery fleet is standing by and will have to refuel if we don’t launch soon…John, what’s with the whistling?”

Glenn: “But Al, Andy Griffith just came on!”

So, TV is probably out.  But a good book, well…that couldn’t hurt anything, right?  And this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction was a quite good book, indeed.  Witness:

Jonathan and the Space Whale, by Robert F. Young

Two years ago, Mr. Young began an issue of F&SF with a bang.  He does it again with Whale.  Young is a master of writing compelling relationships between two utterly alien beings – in this case, that between a restless, aimless young man of many talents, and the space whale that swallows him whole.  Great stuff.  Five stars.

Wonder as I Wander: Some Footprints on John’s Trail Through Magic Mountains, Manly Wade Wellman

It is hard to pack a lot of wallop into a half-page vignette, but I must say that Wellman has pulled it off here – repeatedly.  Footprints is a set of short-short shorts designed to be interstitials for a collection (due to be published later this year) of stories about John the balladeer, a Korea veteran with a silver-stringed guitar and a facility with white magic.  Some are truly effective, and all are worthy.  Five stars.

The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity, by Fritz Leiber

Friends is a readable story with a stingless tail.  I suspect Leiber is past his prime, riding on his name rather than putting much effort into things.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIX, by “Grendel Briarton”

One of the more contrived and less funny of Reginald Bretnor’s punnish efforts. 

A War of No Consequence, by Edgar Pangborn

This, then, is the jewel of the issue.  Pangborn’s last tale of a young redheaded runaway from the Eastern seaboard of a bombed-out America, was sublime.  This one is just about as good, only being inferior for its shorter length.  A great story of the futility of war, and the bonds it can forge among ostensible enemies.  Five stars.

The 63rd St. Station, by Avram Davidson

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, about a staid, devoted brother who contemplates leaving his shut-in sister for a new love at the age of 45.  The ending is rendered extremely obliquely, and I suspect it makes more sense to a New Yorker familiar with subway trains and such.  Not bad, but a little too opaque.  Three stars.

(Per the editor’s blurb at the front of the issue, Bob Mills is stepping down as editor and turning over the reins to Mr. Davidson.  Given the latter’s penchant for the weird and the abstruse, recently to the detriment of his stories (in my humble opinion), I have to wonder if this will take the magazine in a direction less to my taste.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see.)

Communication by Walter H. Kerr

There is not much to say about this rather purple, but still pleasant, poem about a certain race’s limitations and strengths in the realm of communication.  Three stars.

That’s Life!, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor (will the friendly banter between Asimov and his “Kindly Editor” continue under the new regime?) has turned out an entertaining and informative piece this month, in which he attempts to present an accurate definition of life.  It’s a fine lesson in biology with some neat bits on viruses.  Four stars.

The Stone Woman by Doris Pitkin Buck

I really want to like Mrs. Buck, an esteemed English professor from Ohio, who has seen several science fiction luminaries in her class.  This latest piece, a poem, reinforces my opinion that her stuff, while articulate, is not for me.  Two stars.

Shadow on the Moon by Zenna Henderson

Henderson’s The People stories have always been personal favorites, and the last one, Jordan, was sublime.  Shadow, on the other hand, falls unexpectedly flat.  It follows the tale of two siblings who enlist themselves in an endeavor to take themselves and kin back into space – to the Moon, particularly.  All the elements of a People piece are there: the esper-empowered, alien-born humans; a well-drawn female protagonist; the sere beauty of Arizona; the light, almost ethereal language.  Somehow, the bolts show on this one, however, and there isn’t the emotional connection I’ve enjoyed in previous Henderson stories.  Three stars.

Doing my monthly mathematics, I determine that the March F&SF garnered an impressive 3.8 stars.  Astronaut Glenn certainly could have whiled away the long pre-launch hours (not to mention all the previous scrubbed launches) with a lot worse reading material.

Next up…what’s likely to be worse reading material (but who knows?): the March 1962 Analog!

[February 7, 1962] Funny Business (March 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

Dying is easy; comedy is hard.

These famous last words, ascribed to many a noted actor on his deathbed, are probably apocryphal.  Even if nobody ever really uttered them before taking his last breath, they do suggest the difficulty of provoking amusement in one’s audience.  This is at least as true of speculative fiction as of the stage.

A quick glance at the Hugo winners, for example, reveals that only one humorous piece has won the prize.  Eric Frank Russell’s 1955 Astounding short story Allamagoosa, a comic tale of bureaucratic foul-ups, stands alone among more serious works. 

This is not to say that there are not many talented writers as dedicated to Thalia as to Melpomene.  From the wit of Fritz Leiber to the satire of Robert Sheckley, from the whimsical musings of R. A. Lafferty to the tomfoolery of Ron Goulart, readers in search of smiles and belly laughs have many choices.  In less adept hands, unfortunately, humorous science fiction can degrade into childish slapstick and sophomoric puns.

The March issue of Fantastic is dominated by comedy, so let’s take a look at it with a light heart.

Lloyd Birmingham’s silly cover art seems to have been the inspiration for the lead novelette.  The introductory blurb for Robotum Delenda Est! by Jack Sharkey proudly announces that we are about to enjoy a farce, so I was expecting something closer to the Three Stooges than Oscar Wilde.

Written with tongue firmly in cheek, the opening sections of the story take the form of a report on an unusual incident.  A robot suddenly appears on Earth, seemingly from nowhere.  As it makes its way eastward across the United States, from Arizona to Washington, D.C., stopping now and then to steal electricity from power lines and guzzle gasoline from service stations, all attempts to communicate with it or stop it end in failure.  Its motivation remains a mystery until the end of the story, after much chaos ensues.

I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this story.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the author maintains a mock serious tone throughout, which highlights the absurd aspects of the plot.  The revelation of the robot’s intention was clever and surprising.  Three stars.

These robotic hijinks are followed by another humorous tale.  I was unsure whether to review the first half of Joyleg, a short novel by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson which is scheduled to conclude next issue.  After some thought, I decided to go ahead.  I’m glad I did, because the pleasure of reading it doesn’t come from its fairly simple plot, which would have left me in suspense for a month, but from its wry tone and spritely style.

During a routine meeting of the Congressional Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, a pair of representatives of opposite political parties, both from the state of Tennessee, discover that a man with the unlikely name of Isachar Z. Joyleg has been receiving a monthly pension of eleven dollars for some time.  The Democratic representative, a man, is outraged that he is being paid such a paltry sum.  The Republican representative, a woman, demands proof that he has served during wartime or was disabled in the line of duty, lest the government’s money be wasted. 

(In case any of my readers who do not happen to reside in the Volunteer State, as I do, think it unlikely that a member of Congress from Tennessee would be either a Republican or female, allow me to point out a couple of facts.  The First and Second Congressional Districts, located in the northeastern part of the state, have been firmly Republican since the 1880’s, unlike the rest of the state, which can be thought of as part of the Solid South.  As far as the possibility of a woman holding that position goes, the current representative from the First District is Louise G. Reece, who took that position upon the death of her husband, the previous officeholder.  The fictional Congresswoman in the story is said to be a widow, and the reader is apparently supposed to assume that her background is similar.)

Further research reveals that Joyleg has been receiving these payments at least as far back as the Civil War, beyond which there are no records.  The Republican sees this as a clear case of fraud, while the Democrat imagines the possibility of a veteran of the War Between the States more than a century old, barely surviving on a tiny pension.  Since the microscopic community in which he resides is on the border between their two districts, each one claiming that it belongs to the other, they both decide to pay a visit to investigate the situation.

The rest of this half of the novel is taken up with the difficult journey to Joyleg’s extraordinarily remote home, via train, automobile, mule, and foot.  Much of the story’s comedy comes from the culture shock between the politicians from Washington and the country folks in the deepest part of the backwoods.  Fortunately, the local inhabitants never become stereotypical hillbillies, and the authors seem to have a certain amount of respect for their traditional, no-nonsense ways.

Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the collaborators’ evident delight in words for their own sake.  In addition to the unusual name of the title character, we have such things as railroad cars with designations like Monomotapa and Gondwanaland.  When we finally meet Joyleg, he speaks in archaic language.  Unlike much dialect in fiction, which is often tedious to read, Joyleg’s speeches are always lively and colorful.

I look forward to the second half, and I’d be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money – eleven dollars, perhaps? – that the two bickering representatives will wind up in each other’s arms.  Three stars.

Editor Cele Goldsmith offers us another first story in this issue, with Decision by Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.  This brief story begins with a politician making a speech which is interrupted by a shout from the crowd.  We quickly shift point of view to a group of characters in charge of departments like Audio and Visual who seem to be controlling the politician’s actions, and who face a crisis.  You’ll probably figure out who what’s going on, but the story’s idea is an interesting one.  Three stars.

This issue’s Fantasy Classic is The Darkness on Fifth Avenue by Murray Leinster, reprinted from the November 30, 1929 issue of Argosy.  It’s a crime story with a mad scientist who has invented a gizmo which creates total darkness, allowing criminals to terrorize New York City without being seen.  There’s plenty of action, but I found it tedious.  The story is also full of stereotypes.  We have the heroic cop, the wisecracking girl reporter, the heavily accented German scientist, and, most embarrassingly, the cowardly Negro elevator operator.  It may be of historical interest as a part of the early career of a major figure in science fiction, but it’s not enjoyable to read.  One star.

I was greatly enjoying this issue until I got to the last story, and I’m not trying to be funny.

[January 27, 1962] Bumps in Road (February 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s been a topsy turvy month: Snow is falling in coastal Los Angeles.  Castro’s Cuba has been kicked out of the Organization of American States.  Elvis is playing a Hawaiian beach bum.  So it’s in keeping that the latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction is, well, uneven.

Luckily, the February 1962 F&SF front-loaded the bad stuff (though it’s a bumpy ride clear to the end), so if you can make it through the beginning, you’re in for a treat – particularly at the end.  But first…

The Garden of Time is the latest from Englishman J. G. Ballard.  This tale of an enchanted chateau on the brink of ransack is long on imagery but short on substance (like many pieces in F&SF).  You may find it lovely; I found it superfluous.  Two stars.

The latest Ferdinand Feghoot (XLVIII) is slightly less worthy than the mean, for what that’s worth.  A pun that fails to elicit a groan, but merely a tired sigh, is hardly a pun at all.

Avram Davidson has completed his descent into impenetrability.  Once a reliable author, somber and profound, his work has been increasingly odd.  His latest (The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off Eye Street) is a parallel universe magical send-up of our present day.  I think.  He manages to pack more nonsense per square word than ever before, and even Street’s paltry 2000 or so words are too many.  One star.

One Into Two, by J. T. McIntosh, is something of an improvement: quick and pleasant reading.  However, if the best story you can make of a matter transmitter/duplicator is a “perfect crime” piece, you’re not thinking too hard.  Three stars.

I’d call Walter H. Kerr’s Gruesome Discovery at the 242nd St. Feeding Station the least kind of doggerel, but I happen to like canines.  I’ll just give it one star and leave it at that.

Pirate Island, by Czech Josef Nesvadba, is a reprint from behind the Iron Curtain.  I rather enjoyed this bitter tale of a frustrated privateer in the era of Morgan.  Something about its lyrical irony appealed.  Nothing at all of the stodginess I rather expected from the Eastern Bloc.  Four stars. 

Jesus Christ seems to be a popular topic this month, He having also made an appearance in Amazing’s …And it was Good.  In Richard Matheson’s The Traveller, a professor journeys back to Golgotha with the intention of simply taking notes, but becomes compelled to save the hapless martyr.  It grew on me in retrospect, as much Matheson does.  Four stars.

We take a bit of a plunge then, quality-wise.  Ward Moore is a long-time veteran of F&SF, and his last story, The Fellow who married the Maxill Girl was a poetic masterpiece.  Rebel, a twist on the newly minted “Generation Gap,” but with the roles reversed, isn’t.  Two stars.

Barry Stevens’ Window to the Whirled, like Ballard’s lead piece, is overwrought and underrealized.  It’s a hybrid of Clifton’s Star Bright (geniuses will themselves cross-wise across time and space) and Jones’ The Great Gray Plague (only by leaving boring ol’ science behind can one be free), and I really wanted to like it…but I didn’t.  Two stars.

Even Isaac Asimov’s science fact article, Superficially Speaking, about the comparative surface areas of the solar system’s celestial bodies, is lackluster this month.  Of course, even bland Asimov is pretty good reading.  Three stars.

Lewis Turco has a few poetic snippets ostensibly from the mouths of robots in Excerpts from the Latterday Chronicle.  They are in English; they are not long.  And this ends what I have to say about them.  Two stars.

Novice Matthew Grass offers up The Snake in the Closet, a story that presents exactly what’s on the tin, and yet is clearly a metaphor for…something, I’m sure.  Not a bad first effort, and some may find it poignantly relevant.  Three stars.

All of this is but frivolous preamble to the jewel of this issue.  Edgar Pangborn is a fellow who has been too long away from the sff digests, and his The Golden Horn is one of those perfect stories, at once gritty and beautiful.  Set in post-WW3 America. It is a tale of friendship and betrayal, love and lost innocence, lusterless life and sublime sonority.  It’s just that good, okay?  Five stars.

So went February 1962, and F&SF, with its final score of 2.8 stars, ends up tied with Fantastic and Galaxy (though it gets distinction for having the best story).  Analog, at 2.1 stars, was the worst.  Amazingly, Amazing was the best with 3.3 stars.  Some of you may disagree with this judgment (I know Pawn of the Black Fleet was not to everyone’s taste) but I stand by John Boston’s judgment, both because I must, and because our tastes have proven not to be too different.

Of 33 fiction pieces, just one was woman-penned.  A sad state that no doubt contributed to this month’s comparative dip on the star-o-meter.  However, it looks like Zenna Henderson and Mildred Clingerman will publish next month, so that’s something to look forward to. 

Stay tuned for the next Ace Double and January’s space race round-up!

[September 29, 1961] Slim Pickings (October 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines.  Over the decade that I’ve been subscribing, I’ve fallen into a habit.  I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies).  I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding.  I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last.  This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests– my dessert for the month, as it were. 

These days, the stories aren’t as good.  Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won’t review until it finishes next month.  As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication).  Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who is not exactly a science fiction author but dabbles in the arena, leads with Harrison Bergeron.  It’s a deceptively juvenile satire against Conformity and Communism, and while it may not impress upon first reading, it stays with you.  Four stars.

One of my favorite new authors is Rosel George Brown, and I have to give her credit for being willing to take chances.  The Ultimate Sin, however, is a bit avante garde for me.  Something about a social misfit interstellar explorer who finds a planet where gravity depends on whim rather than mass, and where the entire ecology is a unit, its pieces constantly consuming each other and exchanging knowledge in the process.  I didn’t like it at first, but as with the first story, I found it engaging in retrospect.  Three stars.

Charles G. Finney’s The Captivity isn’t science fiction at all; it’s more an analysis of captivity on humans, particularly when they discover that they aren’t really captives at all.  What is there left to push against when external forces are removed?  Only each other, and themselves.  Three stars.

Robert E. Lee at Moscow is Evelyn E. Smith’s attempt at satire this issue.  She’s produced some real doozies, but this one, an extreme logical extension of turning our political ambassadors into cultural ambassadors, falls flat.  There is a laugh-inducing line on the last page, however.  Two stars.

The half-posthumous team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth bring us The World of Myrion Flowers, which tells the tale of a driven Black philanthropist whose attempts to raise a cadre of Negro executives end unhappily.  The moral: it’s best when a disdained class doesn’t have too clear an idea of what the favored class thinks of them.  I can only imagine what insanity I would derive from having telepathy while living in 1930s Germany.  Three stars.

Isaac Asimov hasn’t written much fiction lately, and when he does, it tends to be old fashioned.  So it is with The Machine That Won the War, a very slight computer-related piece that probably got accepted more out of respect for the author than for its quality.  Two stars.

Meanwhile, George Langelaan, the Paris-born Britisher who penned The Fly in ’57 brings us The Other Hand, a macabre story of digits that move as if possessed, compelling their owners to strange activities.  Rather overwrought and archaic.  Two stars.

If Asimov’s fiction fails to impress, his fact remains entertaining.  That’s About the Size of It is all about the comparative sizes of Earth’s animals, all done logarithmically for easy data manipulation.  It turns out that people are medium-biggish creatures, all things considered.  Four stars.

The Vat is Avram Davidson’s latest, featuring a bit of alchemy and misadventure.  Short but readable.  Three stars.

Grendel Briarton’s latest pun, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIV, is as always, perhaps a bit more.

And that leaves us with Dickson’s Naked to the Stars (Part 1 of 2), which I’ll cover next week.  All in all, a 3-star issue that will not revulse but neither will it much impress.  Faint praise, indeed.

[August 13, 1961] Predicting the Future (September 1961 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Everyone who writes has got an agenda, but Science fiction writers may be the most opinionated of authors.  That’s because their pigeon involves prediction, which in turn, is a personal interpretation of current trends.  They can’t help but express their own biases in their work.  And so we have Robert Heinlein and his penchant for plugging love of cats, libertarianism, and nudism (not necessarily in that order!).  Dr. Asimov denounces anti-scientific themes in his works.  It is no secret that I advocate for the equal representation of women and minorities.

John W. Campbell, editor of the monthly science fiction digest, Analog, is a big fan of psi – the ability of the human mind to alter matter.

Psi is one of those “pseudo-sciences.”  To date, I don’t think there has been a scrap of compelling research as to the existence of ESP or telepathy or precognition, save in the parlors of the less reputable carnivals.  Yet it can make for interesting storytelling, a sort of modern magic.  I don’t mind it so much in my stories, any more than I mind Faster than Light space travel, which is just as baseless.

That said, Campbell, who has more power projection than a single writer, is a psi fanatic.  It’s rare that an issue of Analog appears without at least one psi-related story, and most have several.

Like this month’s, the September 1961 issue:

I’ll skip over part 1 of Harry Harrison’s serial, Sense of Obligation, saving its review for after its completion.  That brings us to Donald Westlake’s short They Also Serve.  If you read Asimov’s The Gentle Vultures, about a bunch of pacifist aliens patiently waiting for humanity to blow itself up so that they could take up residence on our planet, then you’ve essentially read Westlake’s story.  It’s exactly the same plot.  Convergent evolution or recycling?  One star.

Up next is a novella by an unlikely duo: The Blaze of Noon by Randall Garrett and Avram Davidson.  My disdain for the former is well documented, but I have also noted that, when he writes with a buddy, the results are often pretty good.  Set in the far future, after an intragalactic civil war has left Earth’s outer colonies unvisited for three centuries, Blaze chronicles the attempts of a fellow named Tad to build a teleportation grid on the backward world of Hogarth.  Said planet was a metal-poor pleasure planet 300 years ago, and it has since regressed to rough feudalism.  The reasoning behind making Hogarth the first world to bring back into the fold is that, if reconnection can be accomplished under the least favorable of conditions, it can be done anywhere.

Teleportation grids require metal.  As all of Hogarth’s warlords jealously guard their own meager hoards, Tad must resort to refining magnesium and sodium from seawater, a tedious process that takes the better part of a year.  During the grid’s construction, pressure builds up between the area’s political factions, each wanting control of the build site and its increasing trove of precious metal.  On the eve of the grid’s completion, a struggle breaks out, and lusty warriors cleave into the grid’s magnesium-clad sodium beams with stone implements, attempting to steal pieces.  During a rainstorm.  The result is a chemical inferno that devours the grid and its assailants.

A decidedly downbeat ending is averted when the head of the local Barons, who foresaw the grid’s greed-fueled destruction, celebrates the fiery death of the most avaricious nobles.  Now, he believes, the stage is set for the more level-headed nobles to give up their stores of iron for the building a proper grid, one that can help everyone.

It’s a good story.  I particularly liked that Tad is unable to maintain his smug disdain for the provincial Hogarthians (which might have been the case in other stories appearing in Analog; Campbell likes his smug).  One aspect of Blaze I found puzzling, however.  Throughout the story, there is absolutely no mention of any women.  Not a single one.  To write forty pages of prose, involving a cast of thousands, and not portray a single female requires serious dedication.  Perhaps this is not misogyny but an actual prediction – in the future, humans will reproduce via a masculine form of parthenogenesis?  Four stars.

(Sadly, this is the one story in this issue on which I have been unable to secure reprinting rights.  I am in contact with the author, and I will notify you if and when this change.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for its anthologizing, though there is no guarantee you will live to see it…

Captain H.C. Dudley is back with a science fact article, Scientific Break-throughs.  Unlike Dudley’s last one, which was rather crack-pot, his latest is a genuinely interesting piece on the myriad sub-atomic particles that have been discovered in the last decade.  Beyond electronics, neutrons, and protons, there are even smaller neutrinos and mesons and who knows what else.  There may well be no end to the layers of atomic structure, at least until we get to the turtles.  Three stars.

I promised psi, and the last third of the magazine delivers.  Walter Bupp returns with Modus Vivendi, a continuation of his previous stories set in a future where a neutron bomb blast has caused the birth of hundreds of “Stigmatized” or psi-endowed people.  I like Bupp’s take on the societal factors that stem from having a sub-race of different, superior humans; I appreciate the parallels he draws with our current inequality issues; I’ve enjoyed Bupp’s stories in the past.  However, something about the writing on this one, a bit too consciously colloquial, made Modus tough sledding.  Two stars.

Finally, there is Darell T. Langart (Randy Garrett, again) and his Fifty Per Cent Prophet.  This is also a sequel, featuring The Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research: an agency of psi enthusiast kooks with a secret, truly psionic society within.  Prophet is about a parlor prognosticator who turns out to have a true touch of second sight.  The story’s first few pages, told from the point of view of the not-quite-sham, suggest we might be treated to a nuanced character study.  Sadly, Garrett abandons the clairvoyant for his more typical omniscient and (Campbell’s favorite) smug style. 

I wonder if Davidson wrote Prophet’s beginning.  Two stars.

I’m not a psychic, but I’m willing to make a prediction about the October 1961 Analog: It’ll be another middlin’ quality issue, and it will feature at least one story about psionics.  Anyone want to take that bet?

[July 27, 1961] Breaking a Winning Streak (August 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

Take a look at the back cover of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.  There’s the usual array of highbrows with smug faces letting you know that they wouldn’t settle for a lesser sci-fi mag.  And next to them is the Hugo award that the magazine won last year at Pittsburgh’s WorldCon.  That’s the third Hugo in a row. 

It may well be their last.

I used to love this little yellow magazine.  Sure, it’s the shortest of the Big Three (including Analog and Galaxy), but in the past, it boasted the highest quality stories.  I voted it best magazine for 1959 and 1960

F&SF has seen a steady decline over the past year, however, and the last three issues have been particularly bad.  Take a look at what the August 1961 issue offers us:

Avaram Davidson and Morton Klass’s The Kappa Nu Nexus, about a milquetoast Freshman who joins a fraternity that hosts a kooky set of time travelers.  Davidson’s writing, formerly some of the most sublime, has gotten unreadably self-indulgent, and William Tenn’s brother (Klass) doesn’t make it any better.  One star.

Survival Planet, by Harry Harrison, features the remnant colony of the vanquished Great Slavocracy.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s mostly told rather than shown, the book-ends being highly expositional.  Three stars.

Vance Aandahl, as one of my readers once observed, desperately wants to be Ray Bradbury.  His Cogi Drove His Car Through Hell has the virtue of starring a non-traditional protagonist; that’s the only virtue of this mess.  One star.

Juliette, translated from the French by Damon Knight (it is originally by Claude-François Cheiniss), is a bright spot.  It’s a sort of cross between McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and Young’s Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used Car Lot.  I found it effective, written in that Gallic light fashion.  Four stars.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you the point of E. William Blau’s first printed story, The Dispatch Executive.  Something about a bureaucratic dystopia, or perhaps it’s a special kind of hell for office clerks.  Hell is right, and here’s hoping we don’t see Blau in print again.  One star.

Then we have another comparatively bright spot: Kit Reed’s Piggy.  Per the author, it is “the story of Pegasus, although I don’t remember that his passengers spouted verse, and a mashup of first lines from Emily Dickinson, whom I admired, but never liked.”  There’s no question that it’s beautifully written, but there is not much movement as regards to plot.  Three stars.

A Meeting on a Northern Moor, Leah Bodine Drake’s poem on the decline of Norse mythology is evocative, though brief.  Murray Leinster’s The Case of the Homicidal Robots is a turgid mystery-adventure involving the spacenapping of dozens io interstellar vessels.  Three and two stars, respectively.

Winona McClintic is back with Four Days in the Corner, some kind of ghost story.  It’s worse than her last piece, and that’s nothing to be proud of.  Two stars.

Then we have Asimov’s science fact column, The Evens Have It, on the frequency of nuclear isotopes among the elements.  The Good Doctor’s articles are usually the high point of F&SF for me, but this one is the first I’d ever characterize as “dull.”  Three stars, but you’ll probably give it a two.

Rounding things up is Gordon Dickson’s The Haunted Village, about a traveler who vacations in a village whose inhabitants are hostile to outsiders.  The twist?  There is no outside world – only the delusion that such a thing exists.  Dickson is capable of a lot better.  Two stars.

I often say that I read bad fiction so you don’t have to.  This was especially true this month.  While Galaxy was quite good (3.4 stars), both Analog and F&SF clocked in at 2.2. 
For those of you new to the genre and wondering why they should bother (why I should bother), I promise – it’s not all like this.  Please don’t let it all be like this…

Coming up next: The sci-fi epic, Mysterious Island!

[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 26, 1961] Dessert for last (May 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Del Shannon’s on the radio, but I’ve got Benny Goodman on my hi-fi.  Say…that’s a catchy lyric!  Well, here we are at the end of April, and that means I finally get to eat dessert.  That is, I finally get to crack into The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  While it is not the best selling science fiction digest (that honor goes to Analog by a wide margin), it is my favorite, and it has won the Best Magazine Hugo three years running.

So what kind of treat was the May 1961 F&SF?  Let’s find out!

Carol Emshwiller returns with the lead story of the issue, the sublime Adapted.  It can be hard to resist the incessant mold of conformity, even when blending in means losing oneself.  Emshwiller’s protagonist loses the battle, but, perhaps, not all hope.  Four stars.

The somber Avram Davidson teams up with unknown Sidney Klein (perhaps the idea man?) with The Teeth of Despair.  It’s a cute but forgettable story involving a cabal of underpaid professors, a loser with a metal dental plate, a quiz show, and something that isn’t quite telepathy.  Ever wonder how Van Doren did it?  Three stars.

All the Tea in China is offered up by Reginald Bretnor, the real name behind the Ferdinand Feghoot puns (q.v.).  Watch as despicable Jonas Hackett, a mean cuss who wouldn’t commit a kind act for the entirety of the Orient’s signature beverage, is given what for by Old Nick.  Nicely told.  Three stars.

Somebody to Play With, by Jay Williams, is a compelling story with a brutal sting in the tail.  It may make sense for the adults of a tiny colony on an alien world to be overly cautious, but does the desire for security warrant genocide?  Telling from a child’s point of view, Williams skillfully conveys the claustrophobia of the outpost, the wonder of the strange world, the thrill of making an extraterrestrial friend, and the heartbreak of betrayal by one’s closest kin.  Four stars.

I know nothing about C.D. Heriot save that I imagine he is British.  He writes Poltergeist in an affected manner that almost, but not quite, dulls the impact of this story of a neglected pre-adolescent who conjures up her own malicious playmate.  In the hands of Davidson, it’d rate four or five stars; in this case, just three.

Stephen Barr’s Mr. Medley’s Time Pill is By His Bootstraps all over again, and it commits the same sin: telling both sides of a time loop story.  We already know what will happen after reading the first half; what is the point of conveying it twice?  Two stars.

Country Boy is the latest in G.C.Edmondson’s Mexican-themed tales, a direct sequel to Misfit.  As is often the case with Edmondson, the story is clever, but the banter isn’t, though he tries.  Too hard, really.  Three stars.

Heaven on Earth is The Good Doctor Asimov’s science contribution for this issue, on the measurement of the celestial sphere and its resident stars.  It’s all about degrees, base-60 number systems, and an Earth-sized planetarium.  I love his mathematical articles; I feel he often does his best work with what could be the most sterile of subjects.  Four stars.

The Flower is 11-year old Mildred Possert’s submission.  Editor Mills thinks she shows promise, and I don’t disagree.

Henry Slesar gives us The Self-improvement of Salvatore Ross, involving a fellow who can bargain for anything – including physical traits.  He swaps a broken leg for pneumonia, his hair for cash, and so on.  The twist ending is a bit out of nowhere, but it’s a good story nonetheless, the sort of thing that might get adapted for The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

The appropriately named Final Muster is, indeed, the last story in the book (and the inspiration for the issue’s cover).  I believe this is Rick Rubin’s first effort, and he hits a triple right out of the box.  The premise: by next century, war is such a specialized, abhorred profession that soldiers are frozen in stasis and thawed only when needed.  This is a volunteer corps whose ranks are filled with combatants who cannot find joy in peaceful civilian life.  But what happens when war ends entirely?  A thoughtful story whose only fault is that it perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough in its projections.  Four stars.

With dessert finished, we can now run the numbers.  This issue came out at 3.3, edging out this month’s Analog (3), and IF (2.75).  Analog had the best story of the month (Death and the Senator).  There was one (count them) woman writer out of 21 stories, an abysmal score. 

A lot of space news coming up soon what with Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, or John Glenn scheduled to be the first American in space on May 4th.  Stay tuned!

[January 2, 1961] Closing out the month (the January 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

If you are in the accounting profession, you are familiar with the concept of “closing the books,” wherein you complete all your reconciliations and regard a month as finished.  Here at the Journey, Month’s End does not occur until the last science fiction digest is reviewed.  Thus, though the bells have already rung for the new year of 1961, December 1960 will not officially end until I get a chance to tell you about the latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

It’s an uneven batch of stories, but definitely worth wading through the chaff for the wheat.  Avram Davidson’s The Sources of the Nile combines both in roughly equal proportions.  The story begins with an encounter between the narrator, a down-on-his-luck writer, and a haggard old fellow who once was able to predict the whims of fashion with uncanny accuracy.  Is it precognition?  Time travel?  Excellent taste?  No–as the protagonist learns, the source of his success is a modest family in a modest apartment that just seems to know.  Next year’s popular books, next year’s clothing fads.  Well, the narrator is denied certain fortune when, after a glimpse of this locus of prescience, he loses contact with the family.  He is thus doomed, like the guy who tipped him off, to search the world for this holy grail.

Davidson has adopted an avante garde style these days.  At first, I was much impressed.  After a dozen pages of over-cute overexertion, I was tired of it.  I applaud innovation, but not at the expense of readability.  Three stars.

Then we have Vance Aandahl’s The Man on the Beach, sort of a poor man’s The Man Who Lost the Sea.  Aandahl is not Ted Sturgeon, and his short tale, of an astronaut who lost his ship to murderous aborigines, somehow misses the mark.  Two stars.

But then there’s the ever-reliable Cliff Simak with Shotgun Cure, in which an ostensibly benevolent alien visits a country doctor (how Cliff loves those rural settings!) and offers him a cure for every illness in the world.  There’s just one catch: it also lowers the intelligence of the cured.  What price health!  A fair idea told in excellent Simak style.  Four stars.

Charles De Vet’s The Return Journey is also worthy: What recourse exists when a colony of Terrans expands beyond the boundaries set by treaty with the native aliens?  Sometimes the winning move is never to have played.  Four stars.

Rehabilitated, by Gordon Dickson, is a cross between Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Sturgeon’s More than Human.  A fellow seems ill-suited for work in the modern (read: near future) era.  He is rescued from a life of crime by a do-gooder outfit that rigorously trains him for a new profession: planetary colonist.  But it turns out that he is wholly unqualified for the job, having an IQ of just 92.  What was the point, then?  The organization is actually a network of telepathic misfits, all suffering from some degree of mental illness, from instability to retardation.  Working together, they maintain a balance such that each member’s strengths compensate for another’s weaknesses.  The training for colonization was just a a sort of dry run.  I have “Three stars” listed in my notes, but upon reflection, I think I’ll bump it up to Four. 

This trio of excellence is followed by a twosome of mediocrity.  William Eastlake’s What Nice Hands Held is a story of romance, infidelity, poverty, status, and magical realism in an heterogeneous Indian lodge.  Again with the trying too hard.  The other is Robert Young’s silly Hopsoil, about Martians visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth and raising a most unusual crop in our oddly fertile soils.  Two stars for both.

Asimov’s article this month, Here it Comes, There it Goes, is a bit of a disappointment.  It’s a summary of one of the current fads in cosmology, the idea that matter is created and disintegrated continuously, and that’s how the Universe is, always has been, and always will be.  The Good Doctor’s arguments (which are, to be fair, not his) are not particularly compelling.  Three stars.

F&SF is trying out poetry again.  Lewis Turco’s A Great Grey Fantasy didn’t strike my fancy.  Perhaps it will strike yours.  Two stars.

Rounding out the issue is a tour de force from an author who has been on fire these days, Poul Anderson.  Time Lag is a gripping novelette of the attempted conquest of one Terran colony by another.  It is told from the point of view of Elva, a married mother from the peaceful, apparently pastoral planet of Vaynamo.  Her husband is killed and her village savaged by an advance party of Chertkonians lead by the ruthless Captain Bors.  Elva is forced into the position of Bors’ mistress, and while Bors is not particularly cruel about it, we are never made to forget that Elva is an unwilling partner. 

Interstellar travel is a relativistic affair in this story.  The journeys between Vaynamo and Chertkoi take fifteen years of objective time even though they take only weeks of subjective time.  Thus, Time Lag is told in a punctuated series.  Through Elva’s eyes, we get a glimpse of the overcrowded and polluted Chertkoi, stiflingly authoritarian and caste-conscious.  Elva is taken along for the second assault on Vaynamo, in which the capital is atomized from orbit.  She bravely confers with a captured general under the guise of extracting intelligence and learns that the Vaynamonians, possessed of a highly advanced science themselves (as one would expect; they did come from star-travelling stock), are not quite so helpless as the Cherkonians have surmised.  Elva uses her position as consort to the increasingly prestigious Bors to obtain a degree of succor for the Vaynamonian captives, though her efforts are never entirely successful. 

The third assault from Chertkoi is the last.  Thousands of ships, the fruits of the labor of billions of oppressed souls, are unleashed against Vaynamo, a planet with a population of just ten million.  Bors, now a Fleet Admiral, is certain of his victory.  But is it really assured?

What elevates this story above a simple good-versus-evil story is the parallel drawn between the planetary and personal conflicts.  Elva has been enslaved, but she has not been defeated.  Her strengths go far beyond the blatantly visible.  Bors never breaks her; in fact, Elva quickly becomes his master, though he is never aware of the fact.  Similarly, Vaynamo does not need to win by matching the vulgar rapacity of Cherkoi; rather, the world relies on compassion, deliberateness, and immense inner strength.

Time Lag is a refreshingly feminine story from a feminine viewpoint, something which Anderson has been getting pretty good at.  I appreciated that there was no suggestion of taint upon Elva for her plight.  Like Vaynamo, she endured violations and pain, but she emerged an unbroken heroine. 

Five stars.

That comes out to an aggregate of 3.25 stars making F&SF the winning digest for the month (IF was just behind at 3.2, and Analog trailed far behind at 2.5).  I think IF wins the best story prize, however, with Vassi, and IF certainly wins the “most woman authors” award, with two (the only ones to appear in all three magazines).

And now 1961 can truly begin!

[Nov. 28, 1960] Odds and Ends (the December 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Here’s a math problem for you, kids!  If more than half of your magazine is taken up by a 2-star short novel, how likely is it that you’ll still end up with a good issue?

Answer: not very.

I’m used to Fantasy & Science Fiction having a long table of contents page.  This one (the December 1960 issue) comprises just ten entries, and all save the Asimov article are vignettes.  I wonder if we’ll be seeing a slew of larger stories now that Editor Mills has depleted his stock of tiny ones.

Anyway, it’s quality, not quantity that counts.  So how was the quality?

Winona McClintic is a sporadic contributor to the magazine, and she offers up The Way Out of Town, in which an infestation of snakes blocks all of the vehicular arteries in and out of every city in the (unidentified) state.  They cause havoc, widespread and personal, as one might expect. 

That’s about it; the story is over almost as it starts.  Mills says in the prologue, “Readers who like only those stories with beginnings and middles and ends, in which everything is clearly explained,may not be fully satisfied with the following.”  He’s right!  Two stars.

Up next is Rope’s End, by Miriam Allen deFord.  The premise is excellent: a Terran accidentally kills an alien on the extraterrestrial’s world.  His sentence is to wear a rope around his neck for twenty years–one that is constricted every year.  I like everything about it but the ending; and it’s not even the ending that bothers me so much as the protagonist’s inability to suspect how things would turn out given how much time he devoted to the problem.  Three stars.

Avram Davidson has a two-pager about sexually frustrated teens whose unfulfilled desires channel into a powerful psychokinetic talent.  Called Yo-ho, and Up, it is silly and rather difficult to read.  Two stars.

I don’t usually go for poetry, but Rosser Reeves (who is, apparently, a businessman by day) has a nice piece on alternate worlds called Infinity.  I dug it.  Four stars.

Speaking of digging, The Beatnik Werewolf is (I believe) the first effort by Dan Lindsay.  What’s a shaggy vegetarian hepcat…er…dog to do when he falls in love after two hundred years as a lone wolf?  Cute, if inconsequential.  Three stars.

Dr. Asimov’s article is on dolphins and echo-location this month.  A could-be fascinating topic, particularly the bits about the ability to produce sound being used for navigation long before its purposing for communication.  But the good doctor seems rather scattered this time around.  Three stars.

The last piece is a reprint from a literary mag New World Writing #16 called The Listener by John Berry.  It’s not really science fiction or fantasy, but I enjoyed it a lot, this tale of the meeting between an itinerant fiddler and an old, old lighthouser.  Four stars.

Using my trusty slide rule, this all adds up to about 2.5 stars.  A less than auspicious end of the year for what is normally my favorite science fiction magazine.  It’s a good thing the competition was in excellent form this month.

See you at the end of the month for a review of November, a preview of December, and a space-based peeping tom whose presence we can all be thankful for.