Tag Archives: Ben Bova

[June 13, 1962] THE SINCEREST FORM? (the July 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

The July Amazing starts off ambiguously, with Stonehenge on the cover—often a bad sign, you could find yourself in Atlantis if you’re not careful.  But it illustrates A Trace of Memory, a new serial by the reasonably hardheaded Keith Laumer, so we may be spared any deep wooliness.  I’ll defer reading and comment until it’s complete.

So what else is there?  Excepting the “Classic Reprint,” this is the Literary Pastiche issue of Amazing.  The first of three short stories is The Blonde from Barsoom by Robert F. Young, featuring an aspiring fantasy writer whose work is virtually plagiarized from Edgar Rice Burroughs, as we are shown entirely too clearly.  It is vivid, because he has a knack for projecting himself into Burroughs’s world, and it soon enough occurs to him that maybe he could project himself into a more pleasant and less strenuous world.  Two stars for this slick but annoying trifle.

Then there is Richard Banks’s The Last Class, a Zola pastiche, which we know because it is subtitled (With Apologies to Emile Zola), and the blurb-writer helpfully adds that Zola wrote a similar story of the same title set just after the Franco-Prussian War.  This version is set in a regimented future world where people seem to live underground and get around via matter transmitter, and features a schoolteacher who tells her students about the Twentieth Century, when people were free, and gets caught at it.  It’s pretty well done, except that the teacher is referred to throughout as Miss Hippiness because she has big hips.  Would anyone refer to a sympathetic male central character as Mr. Beergutty or Mr. Hairybackish?  It’s an annoying distraction from an otherwise reasonably commendable story, holding it at three stars. 

This Banks—not to be confused with the more established and prolific Raymond E. Banks—has published one prior story in F&SF and one that sounds pretty SFnal (Roboticide Squad) in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

In between these two is William W. Stuart’s A Prison Make, in which a guy wakes up in a disgusting institutional setting which proves to be a jail, charged with something that he doesn’t remember—but in this world, law enforcement can rummage around in your mind, and they can damage your memory doing it.  He’s got a lawyer—a robot on wheels in very poor repair who doesn’t hold out much hope.  The story is about his adjustment to his absurd and outrageous situation, and if it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s a downmarket SF rendition of Kafka’s The Trial.  As with the other stories, you don’t have to figure it out on your own, since the blurb-writer refers to it as a “Kafkaesque tale.” Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, or at least the most interesting.  This one too is well done if a little heavyhanded in places, but without any stupid missteps like Mr. Banks’s character-naming gaffe.  Four stars.

So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have SF writers emulating great mainstream writers of the past.  Who’s next?  I hear James Joyce is kind of interesting.  Just—please—no more Hemingway.  (See Hemingway in Space by Kingsley Amis from last year’s Judith Merril “best of the year” anthology.)

Interestingly, there is no editorial comment other than in the blurbs on the fact that three of the five fiction items here are overtly derived from the work of other authors.

The “Classic Reprint” this month, G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s The Chamber of Life from the October 1929 Amazing, is actually pretty good.  Once more we have the nearly omnipresent plot device of this old SF: ordinary guy is invited by scientific genius to check out his invention, and trouble follows.  But Wertenbaker could write: he had a plain and understated style which compares well to the clumsier and more stilted diction of some of his contemporaries, and he avoids the tiresome digressions of the recent Buck Rogers epic.  Here the invention is the ultimate motion picture: all senses are engaged and the viewer is precipitated into an encompassing hallucinatory world, in this case, a regimented utopian society of the future.  This guy was ahead of his time; too bad he hung it up in 1931, after only half a dozen stories.  Four stars.

Ben Bova contributes another science article (the second of four, we are told), The Three Requirements of Life in the Solar System, which is better organized and more to the point than the one in the previous issue.  The three requirements are a “building block atom” for construction of large molecules, a solvent medium in which large molecules can be built, and an energy exchange reaction.  On Earth, these are of course carbon, water, and hydrogen-oxygen respectively.  Bova then runs down the possibilities for life on each of the planets (for Mars, “almost certainly”; for Venus, “quite possibly”; Jupiter “might”; and the rest, “probably not” or worse).  That “almost certainly” is a surprise; but Bova asserts, “Even the most conservative astronomers will now grudgingly admit that some form of plant life no doubt exists in the greenish areas of the Red Planet.” That’s certainly news to me.  Three stars.

Bova’s articles, by the way, are illustrated by Virgil Finlay (unlike Frank Tinsley’s, which had at most diagrams or badly printed photos)—an interesting conjunction.  Finlay illustrates this month’s sober rendition with something like a fanged lobster with tentacles (“Artist’s rendition of author’s conception of Jovian sea-creature”), and last month he presented a pageant of DNA, the animal kingdom from trilobite to H. Sapiens overlaid with the double helix, its meticulous detail badly betrayed by Amazing’s mediocre printing.

***

One other item of interest appears in Or So You Say, the letter column: one Julian Reid of Canada takes Mark Clifton to task at great length for the misanthropy of his recent stories in Amazing, and compares them knowledgeably and unfavorably with Clifton’s earlier work.  Clifton replies at almost the same length, asserting variously that he was just kidding, he venerates humanity and that’s why he bothers to needle it, and his mail is running fifty to one favorably about those stories. 

***

And, looming inescapably, in inexorable pursuit . . . B_______ B_________.

(Don’t miss your chance to see the Traveler LIVE via visi-phone, June 17 at 11 AM!  A virtual panel, with Q&A, show and tell, and prizes!)

[May 15, 1962] RUMBLING (the June 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Oh groan.  The lead story in the June 1962 Amazing is Thunder in Space by Lester del Rey.  He’s been at this for 25 years and well knows that in space, no one can hear—oh, never mind.  I know, it’s a metaphor—but’s it’s dumb in context and cliched regardless of context.  Quickly turning the page, I’m slightly mollified, seeing that the story is about Cold War politics.  My favorite! 

Only a few weeks ago, one of my teachers assigned us all to write essays about current affairs, to be read to the rest of the class.  Mine suggested that the government of China is no more to be found on Taiwan than the government of the United States is in London, and it might be wise to drop the current pretense keeping Taiwan in China’s United Nations seat, along with the fantasy of invading mainland China and reinstating Chiang Kai-shek to the power he couldn’t hold on to.  After I had read this, one of the other students turned to me and said, “John . . . are you a communist?” I assured him I am not, but in hindsight, I should have said, “That’s right, Jimmy.  I get my orders straight from Albania.”

Compared to this black and white comic-strip world-view, Thunder in Space is a masterpiece of sophistication—it’s at least on the level of the Sunday funnies, which are in color.  (A few colors, anyway.) There are two nuclear-armed space stations, the US Goddard and the Russian Tsiolkovsky.  An apparent accident destroys the Soviet space fleet, and the American government refuses to help out by resupplying their station unless they unilaterally disarm it. 

But our boys in space are having none of it, and our and their space crews realize they have more in common with each other than with their governments, so there’ll be some changes made.  This feel-good fable for SF fans and other technophiles is not especially plausible—the response of governments to insurrection on military bases in low orbit would likely be speedy and definitive—but the story is reasonably readable and conventionally well-assembled, and refreshing in the acknowledgment that our leadership may be as brutal and ruthless as theirs.  On the other hand, del Rey can’t let the title go, and there are annoying attempts to justify it, such as one character’s declaration that “Most of the thunder down there is caused by the chained lightning we’re carrying up here.” Three grudging stars.

Near-future political problems also preoccupy Tom Purdom in The Warriors, in which a foreign mercenary force is struggling to get to the airport despite the resistance of the local forces.  But violence has been abolished!  So the contending mercenary armies maneuver respectively to evade and to block each other, since touching in combat is now a crime, and the result is a taut narrative of bobbing and weaving.  This all seemed silly and annoying at first, but maybe that’s the point: we’ve got to do something to abolish warfare as we know it, and if not this, what?  Got a better idea? 

So it’s at least thought-provoking: but there’s something else to think about here too.  The casus belli is the USA’s attempt to spirit away the African country Belderkan’s resident genius, Doctor Warren, whose inventions have helped make Belderkan prosperous; the locals are trying to get to him to persuade him to change his mind. 

Right now, we’re in the age of decolonization.  Almost 20 countries have become independent in the last couple of years; Algeria will vote on independence in July, after years of bloody warfare.  But will their independence be real, or just another guise for the exploitation of their resources by more powerful countries?  Consider the former Belgian Congo, which elected someone a little too independent for some tastes, who was quickly deposed and murdered in a rebellion sponsored by the ex-colonial power (and, it is rumored, by others, maybe including us).  I’m not sure Purdom meant to evoke all these concerns, or if he just needed a plot motor, but either way, the result is to his credit and mitigates the story’s weakness as fiction.  Three stars.

But enough of politics; let’s have something gaudy and irresponsible.  The most well-turned piece of fiction here is from J.G. Ballard, though Passport to Eternity is not among his best.  It’s a trifle about an affluent, bored future couple trying to decide where to go on vacation.  Each option is more ridiculous than the last, and then the options show up uninvited at their house with their sales pitches.  It ends badly. 

This hectic lampoon is mostly a satire on the profligate and disjointed invention of much grade-B SF.  Ballard refers to clothing made of “bioplastic materials,” then: “Upstairs in her wardrobes the gowns and dresses purred on their hangers like the drowsing inmates of some exquisite arboreal zoo.” Or: “She was a Canopan slave, hot-housed out of imported germ, a slender green-skinned beauty with moth-like fluttering gills.” So: amusing, but in an hour you’ll be hungry again.  The story’s first line, “It was half past love on New Day in Zenith and the clocks were striking heaven,” recalls the famous first line of Orwell’s 1984.  Is Ballard comparing the tyranny of excessive consumer choice to the tyranny of Big Brother?  Beats me.  Three stars, plus for style and minus for content.

(Note that in this one-dimensional rating system, the middle rating covers a multitude of sins and virtues in various combinations.) [One dimensional indeed! (ED)]

This month’s Classic Reprint is a cut above the usual: ridiculous, but amusingly so, rather than stupidly or offensively.  The Council of Drones by the mysterious W.K. Sonneman, from the October 1936 issue, follows a standard plot of the times: ordinary guy, Fred, living on his father’s farm, is invited by his friend the brilliant scientist to see his invention; things go wrong; perilous adventures ensue.  This time it’s “Cross-Rays, with Lifex Modulation”: swapping of human consciousness with other organisms.  Fred’s father keeps bees, so obviously Fred’s consciousness should be swapped with a queen bee’s.  But the promised five minutes turns into hours and days.  Fred is in despair.  But then his father comes, smoking the hive and stealing the honey, and Fred, enraged, goes bee, as it were. 

He persuades the other bees to go along with his schemes, first of self-defense and then of . . . why not . . . world domination, much assisted by the fact that bees from the eggs the queen lays after the insertion of human intelligence are themselves pretty intelligent.  This is all done straight, or at least straight-faced, with a number of apiaristic footnotes along the way.  Sam Moskowitz’s introduction praises the author’s “intimate knowledge of the bee society,” plausibly speculates that he was a beekeeper himself, and touts the value of “scientifically informative science fiction.” (Come back Lamarck, all is forgiven!) Three charmingly archaic stars.

Ben Bova is back, this time with a science article, Extra-Terrestrial Life: An Astronomer’s Theory.  It is a somewhat rambling and disorganized article touching on how life arose on Earth and what it might look like elsewhere, by way of much biochemistry, emphasizing this DNA stuff we are starting to hear a lot about.  But Bova is an engaging writer and there’s a lot of interesting information here.  Three stars. 

Bova is also featured in the editorial, complete with low-resolution photo, making me wonder whether he is about to replace the unfortunately dull Frank Tinsley as the regular science-monger.  Incidentally, the astronomer of the title is Bova, employed as a “technical communications executive,” but also described as “an ardent amateur astronomer.”

Sam Moskowitz contributes another “SF Profile,” this one The Saintly Heresy of Clifford D. Simak.” It’s reasonably perceptive and informative, but—like his profile of Theodore Sturgeon—it neglects Simak’s excellent recent stories while dwelling in detail on his apprentice work of the 1930s, with no mention, for example, of his well-received novels Ring Around the Sun (1953) and last year’s Time Is the Simplest Thing.  And Moskowitz’s clumsy and often outright ungrammatical writing is even more noticeable than usual.  Three stars.

And finally . . . to break the three-star monotony . . .

Bndct Brdfrt.

[April 20, 1962] Boot Camp (May 1962 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction magazines are not created equal.

Every editor brings her/his own slant to their magazine’s theme.  For instance, Cele Goldsmith strikes an old-fashioned chord, reviving classics from the Pulp Era in Amazing and Fantastic.  Fred Pohl keeps things reliable (if not exceptional) in Galaxy, but showcases new and innovative works in IF.  Before it went under, Fantastic Universe devoted much ink to flying saucer stories and articles.

And as you will soon see, Analog is preoccupied with psychic powers and pseudo-scientific quackery (a redundant phrase?).  Viz, the May 1962 issue:

Anything You Can Do! (Part 1 of 2), by Darrell T. Langart

As you might have guessed, Mr. “Langart”‘s name is really an anagram for Analog perennial, Randall Garrett (this is another way magazines are differentiated – they each have a stable of regular authors).  Generally, when Garrett uses a pseudonym, it means he’s got another piece in the magazine; more on that later.

Anything is a surprisingly (for Garrett) capable story about a single alien invader, and the man who is recruited and intensively trained to stop the extraterrestrial’s acts of violence and theft.  It’s the second time one of his stories has featured gifted identical twins, one of whom has a disability which turns out to be an asset (see The Foreign Hand-Tie.  It is also a story that very well could take place in the same universe as the recent “Ship Named MacGuire” series.  So far, it’s shaping up to be a good short novel.  Four stars.

The Next Logical Step, by Ben Bova

Recent author Ben Bova (who prefers to describe a genius as “a regular Galileo” rather than “a regular Einstein”) hasn’t turned in anything particularly impressive to date.  Step is about a military wargaming computer that delivers a full-sensory experience, one that almost inevitably depicts even small brushfire wars ending in global conflagration.  Simulated Mutually Assured Destruction.  Nice concept, but heavy handed and perfunctorily executed.  Two stars.

Nor Iron Bars a Cage…, by Johnathan Blake MacKenzie

I’m not sure that this piece of crime fiction, in which an American and British team of detectives track down a child molester, really belongs here.  It starts promisingly enough, but then just sort of degenerates into mediocrity, particularly the eight pages of psychological exposition at the end.  I also did not appreciate the lumping of child rapists and gay people – according to the recent eye-opening television special on homosexuals, The Rejected, perhaps as much as 40% of the population is queer to some degree, and all of them are human beings with a normal distribution of traits (negative and positive).  Two stars.

By the way, I’m pretty sure Mr. “MacKenzie” is Randall Garrett in disguise.  The story has his fingerprints on it, and he’s already appeared pseudonymously earlier in the issue.

The Fourth Law of Motion, by Dr. William O. Davis

Editor Campbell is always trying to prove that the “Dean Drive,” a purportedly reactionless engine that would overturn the laws of physics as we know them, is a legitimate invention.  To that end, he’s enlisted the aid of a Dr. Davis, the head of a Connecticut paper company.  At first, I dismissed the article as hot air, but I think it does make some interesting points (even if they probably don’t support the efficacy of Dean’s Drive).

Davis suggests that Newton’s famous equation, F=ma, needs to be modified to reflect that, when an object is accelerated, it doesn’t do so all at once.  The force pushes on the object’s nearest components first, and the impact then ripples along the object in a wave until the whole thing is in motion.  Basically, physical bodies can respond to forces “out of phase” with each other.  This is not a revolutionary concept – there’s even a name for it: “starting transient.” 

That this jerk or change in acceleration could have other effects is interesting, and I’d like to know more about them.  But my college training was in physics.  For the rest of you, I suspect this dry explication on the third derivative of position will be must-skip material.  Two stars.

Sight Gag, by Larry M. Harris

Mr. Harris is really Laurence M. Janifer, who is not only a regular at Analog, but frequently writes in collaboration with Mr. Garrett.  I’ve liked some of his stuff very much, but this gimmick story about a vengeful fellow who goes after a psionic G-Man reads like something out of the early 50s.  Three stars, since it’s decently told.  No more, because of the hoary format.

Look Before You Leap, by Donald E. Westlake

This one opens so well, with a terrified Air Force boot teleporting from a particularly harrowing episode of Basic Training and then, in equal fright, zapping right back.  He is the latest result (victim) of a controlled stress test conducted by a certain Colonel.  The officer’s goal is to sieve out the psionically gifted by monitoring the most difficult situation a human can face this side of the battlefield.

Sadly, by about halfway through, the story ends up twice as padded as it needs to be, and the compounding of indignity and torture upon the recruit in an attempt to make him duplicate his initial feat is both unpleasant and unrealistically shrugged off at the story’s end.  Two stars.

***

2.6 stars and a grinding slog.  I feel like I’ve just spent a week in Basic.  Well, there’s always next month…

[December 19, 1961] AMAZING . . . NOT YET (the January 1962 Amazing)

[Several months ago, I put out the call for someone to help me review the two science fiction digests I didn’t have time to read: Fantastic and Amazing, both edited by young Cele Goldsmith.  I’ve generally considered them the least of the sff magazines, but given how few of them are left these days, I reasoned that they could not be entirely worthless.  Moreover, I want Galactic Journey to provide as complete a picture of the genre as I can, covering virtually every story produced in this country (and many in the UK as well!) Hence, my delight when super-fan Victoria Silverwolf took up the pen and started reviewing Fantastic

Now, a second long-time Journeyer, precocious John Boston, has also responded.  As 1962 begins, we now have all of the big periodicals presented.  Read on and see what’s you’ve missed…]


by John Boston

As a a maladjusted high school freshman in a reactionary and pious small town, I’m always glad of the opportunity to get away, if only for a little while.  Mostly, that means a flight of fancy facilitated by a trip to the library stacks or, if I’ve got a couple of bits, the newsstands.  And now, the Journey affords me a chance to reach all of you, the fellow travelers who follow this column. 

What I have for you today is the January 1962 Amazing Stories, subtitled Fact and Science Fiction.  For some years, this magazine has been slowly digging itself out of a hole of purposeful mediocrity, with much improvement — but it’s not quite at ground level yet.

The headliner in this issue is Mark Clifton’s serial Pawn of the Black Fleet, to be discussed when it concludes next month.  The issue actually leads off with a novelette, The Towers of Titan by relatively new author Ben Bova.  On Titan, humans have found a number of towers full of extraterrestrial machinery, still running after a million years, operation and purpose incomprehensible.  There’s a scientific puzzle, solved scientifically (at least enough to fool me).  Of course, there is a bit of serendipity, and there’s no question the solving process is beneficial to protagonist Dr. Lee’s romance with Elaine the resident archaeologist.  This is a clever and well constructed piece of hard-science SF, written in a determinedly plain style with considerable facility, which is both good news and bad.  It’s good when Bova is describing scientists discussing their findings and research methods, which otherwise could get pretty boring, but bad when he wallows in handy cliches. 

Visiting the towers:

“He could feel it again—the alienness, the lurking presence of an intelligence that scorned the intruders from Earth.”

After telling Elaine that his wife has left him:

“Do you still love her?”  Elaine asked. 

“I don’t know.  I don’t think I know what love is, anymore.  All I know is, on that long trip out to Vega, when I had nothing to do but sit and think, it wasn’t Ruth I was thinking about.  It was you.”

“Oh . . .”

And of course in the next paragraph, “she was his, at least for a while.”

Actually, it all fits.  This is only Bova’s second SF magazine appearance, but he has published the Winston juvenile The Star Conquerors, the flap copy of which reveals that he’s been a technical editor for Project Vanguard.  He is also now a screenwriter for a scientific educational outfit.  So he’s experienced at word-slinging with a premium on clarity as well as appealing to the least common denominator.  He may have a bright future in hard-science SF if he can lose some of the schmaltz.  Weighing cleverness and obvious enthusiasm against cliches, three stars.

These Towers are depicted on the cover, by Ed Emshwiller, which typifies the current look of Amazing: colorful, sharp-edged, cartoony, and emphasizing hardware — in this case the characters’ space suits and helmets (Elaine’s spacesuit being rather tight-fitting).  The previous year’s covers almost all prominently feature spaceship, space station, or launch facility.  They are all a trifle crude, garish, and frankly unimaginative compared to most of their current competition.  Compare, especially, this Emsh cover to his subtler, better-rendered and generally more interesting work for F&SF (say, his last three covers for 1961). 

The most interesting fiction here is J.G. Ballard’s The Insane Ones.  Ballard has been prolific and well received in the British SF magazines, but this is his first appearance in an American magazine; he is known here only via the Judith Merril annual anthologies and the short-lived US reprint of New Worlds.  His work displays a preoccupation with psychological themes, and this is no exception: an ultraconservative world government has outlawed mental health treatment.  Everybody has the right to be insane, but remains criminally responsible for conduct.  The result: “psychotics loitering like stray dogs in the up-town parks, wise enough not to shop-lift or cause trouble, but a petty nuisance on the cafe terraces, knocking on hotel-rooms at all hours of the night.”

Dr. Gregory, just released from prison for continuing to practice psychiatry, encounters a troubled young woman who kills herself when she can’t get any help from him.  Then he finds a disturbed young man, Christian, rifling his suitcase for barbiturates to keep himself from trying to kill the leader of the government.  Gregory yields and renders covert and cursory treatment—and Christian then sets off to kill the world leader, saying he is completely rational and someone has to do it.  He drives off, with Gregory chasing after him, yelling “Christian, you’re insane!”  This is not one of Ballard’s best: the idea is interesting but underdeveloped at this short length.  But even in this minor and facile (that word again) story Ballard’s style is vivid and incisive and one hopes that he will now appear regularly in the US.  Three and a half stars.

Miriam Allen de Ford’s SF career comprises some three dozen stories over the past decade or so, and yet is almost an afterthought.  Her 50-year-plus career has emphasized mystery fiction and true crime, with a detour through Big Little Books, authoring such titles as Astronomy for Beginners and What Great Frenchwomen Learned About Love.  In her spare time, she was an early disseminator of birth control information (when you could go to jail for it), and did some field work for Charles Fort.

If only de Ford’s writing were as fascinating as her life must have been.  The Akkra Case is blurbed as “a criminologist’s lecture-report” and it reads like one.  A young woman is found murdered in the rarely-entered Central Park in “Newyork I” in a diluted Brave New World-ish future: murder is nearly unknown, no one works until age 25 and then they can retire at 45, and a “healthy system of sexual experimentation” has replaced all the old hang-ups.  But the murder victim was a virgin, and that’s the clue: she and family were involved with the Naturists, a subversive cult opposed to all modern practices including sexual freedom. 

Yeah, but who killed her?  Her younger sister cracks the case, and the solution turns out to be as uninteresting as the lead-up.  En passant, the Naturists were rounded up, locked up, and then lobotomized, and it’s a measure of how detached the presentation is that one can’t really tell what de Ford thinks about that, or anything else in the story.  Two stars, being generous.

We are not done with de Ford.  The Editorial consists mostly of the text of a speech by de Ford on SF criminology, in which she describes three of her other stories, which sound no more interesting than this one. 

[ED: I have not read these stories, but I’ve generally found DeFord’s work more engaging than Mr. Boston does.  Perhaps these are bad examples…or perhaps I’ve encountered the good ones]

The Mars Snooper by Frank Tinsley, is a rather basic description of the engineering problems involved in getting a spaceship to Mars and back.  It’s a piece of straight exposition and nothing more.  Three stars.

Interestingly, this Tinsley, who has contributed several such pieces to Amazing, started out as an artist, providing cover and interior illustrations for pulp magazines, then art and text for a comic strip, then text and illustrations for articles in Mechanix Illustrated, and now in Amazing with text and a single illustration.

The remaining story is Inconstancy by Roger Dee (Roger D. Aycock), whose 50 stories in the SF mags since 1949 have had little discernible impact.  This one certainly has none.  Mars and Earth, their populations having common ancestry, exchange ambassadors, who are going to have to remain away from home for a couple of years.  The Martian ambassador, selected to look Earth-ish, is introduced to a nice young woman, and the Earth ambassador, selected to look Martian, hits it off with the Mars ambassador’s wife.  Problems solved!  One star to this piece of filler.

So: the fiction here, exclusive of the serial, yields an overall rating of a little under two and a half stars.  The best one can say of this issue is that it shows promise: promise of more Ballard and better Bova. 

[I’ll take promise.  It’s more than Analog delivers much of the time!]