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[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I used to call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction “dessert.”  Of all the monthly sf digests, it was the cleverest, the one most willing to take risks, and the most enjoyable reading.  Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a slow but decided trend into the realm of “literary quality.”  In other words, it’s not how good the stories are, or how fun the reading – they must be experimental and erudite to have any merit.  And if you don’t get the pieces, well, run off to Analog where the dumb people live.

A kind of punctuation mark has been added to this phenomenon.  Avram Davidson, that somber-writing intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge and authorial credits that take up many sheets of paper, has taken over as editor of F&SF from Robert Mills.  Five years ago, I might have cheered.  But Davidson’s path has mirrored that of the magazine he now helms: a descent into literary impenetrability.  Even his editorial prefaces to the magazine’s stories are off-putting and contrived. 

I dunno.  You be the judge.

Gifts of the Gods, by Jay Williams

The premise of Gifts isn’t bad: aliens come from the stars to find Earth’s most advanced nation, and it turns out they’re the most primitive, technologically.  It’s three shades too heavy on the sermon, and it fails by its own rules (i.e. one can lambast states as a whole for not being perfectly self-actualized, but surely there are a thousand qualifying people within any given country that fulfill the ET’s requirements).  But then, these aliens seem to have shown up just to rub our noses in it.  Advanced indeed.  Two stars.

The Last Element, by Hugo Correa

Editor Davidson touts Sr. Correa as a brilliant find from Chile.  Sadly, this meandering piece involving (I guess) space soldiers who are undone in their attempts to mine a psychotropic mineral from a distant planet, feels incompletely translated from the Spanish.  It reads like an Italian sf film views.  Two stars.

The End of Evan Essant… ?, by Sylvia Edwards

A cute piece, more The Twilight Zone than anything else, about a fellow who is so determined to be a nebbish that he psychosomatically disappears.  It’s no great shakes, but at least it has a through line and is written in English.  Boy, my standards have dropped.  Three stars.

Shards, by Brian W. Aldiss

The editor advises that one give this story time to make sense lest you judge it prematurely.  He has a point.  This piece innovatively describes a traumatic out-of-body experience, and when you know the context, it’s not bad.  On the other hand, the context is laid out with surprising artlessness especially given the effort Aldiss puts into the first part (which is only readable in hindsight).  Three stars for effort, though your meter may hover at one star through most of the actual experience.

The Kit-Katt Club, by John Shepley

Something about a young, serious boy who abandons his starlet mother’s dissipated hotel life to frequent a bar with a literal menagerie of clientele.  I didn’t understand this story, nor did I much like it.  Maybe I’m just bitter at being made to look foolish.  Two stars.

To Lift a Ship, by Kit Reed

One of the few bright lights of this issue is Reed’s take on love, hope, greed, and despair involving two test co-pilots of a psionically driven aircraft.  I love how vividly we see through the eyes of the protagonist, and the subtlety (but not to the point of obtuseness!) with which the story unfolds.  Four stars.

Garvey’s Ghost, by Robert Arthur

I haven’t seen much from Arthur lately.  His stories have all been pleasant, fanciful fare and this one, about a most contrary ghost and the grandson he haunts, is more of the same.  Three stars.

Vintage Wine, by Doris Pitkin Buck

The English professor from Ohio is back, this time with a piece of ‘cat’terel (as opposed to the canine variety, which is not as good) that I actually quite enjoyed.  Four stars.

Moon Fishers, by Nathalie Henneberg

Charles Henneberg was a popular French fantasist who, sadly, passed away in 1959.  His wife, with whom he collaborated, has taken it upon herself to flesh out a number of remaining outlines for publication, Damon Knight providing the translations.  She has written well before, but her talents fail her this time.  This tale of time travel, Atlanteans, and ancient Egypt fails to engage at all.  One star.

The Weighting Game, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor takes on the subject of elements and how we determined their mass.  Just discovering that elements had mass was a critical step in understanding the nature of atoms.  Sadly, this article is really a highly abridged and much compromised version of his excellent book, The Search for the Elements, which came out two months ago.  I recommend you grab a copy and skip this article.  Still, substandard Asimov is still decent.  Three stars.

Test, by Theodore L. Thomas

A vignette about failing a driving test.  There’s the germ of a good story here, but the ending is too abrupt and affected to work.  Two stars.

Three for the Stars, by Joseph Dickinson

This piece is noteworthy for having one of the least intelligible Davidson prefaces.  Other than that, its a rather overwrought story about a chimp sent to Mars and back, and the scars he bears of the Martians he met.  Satire or something.  Two stars.

***

This issue ends up with a lousy 2.4 star score – by far, the worst magazine of the month, and possibly the worst F&SF I’ve read!  It’s a disappointing turn of events.  F&SF used to be the smart sf mag, and last month’s issue was a surprise stand-out.  With the arrival of Davidson, F&SF seems to be careening back toward smug self-indulgence.  I see that the back cover no longer has pictures of notables heaping praise on the book.  I wonder if they’re jumping ship… 

[May 23, 1960] Month’s End (June 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Astounding so good this month, I suppose it was too much to ask that Fantasy and Science Fiction would also be of high caliber.  While it’s not a bad issue, it’s not one of the better ones, either.

Charles Henneberg (who I understand is actually a Parisian named Nathalie) has the best story of the bunch, The Non-Humans, translated by Damon Knight.  This is the second story the team has published in F&SF, and it is far better than the previous one.  It’s a lovely historical tale of an Italian renaissance painter and the androgynous alien with whom he falls in love.  An historical personage has a supporting part; his identity is kept secret until the end, though the half-clever can deduce it before finishing.

Britisher H.F. Ellis offers up Fireside Chat, a reprint from Punch.  It involves a haunted house and leaves the reader wondering just who are the ghosts, and who are the current residents?

I know many of my readers are Howard Fast fans, but his latest, Cato the Martian is not among his best.  For the past fifty years, the Martians have listened to our radio broadcasts and watched our television programming with avid interest and increasing concern.  A certain Martian lawmaker, nicknamed after the famous anti-Carthaginian Roman, concludes each speech with “Earth must be destroyed!” until, finally, he gets his comrades in litigation to agree.  The ensuing war does not turn out well for the dwellers of the Red Planet. 

It’s not really science fiction.  If anything, it’s perhaps the other side of the coin to Earthmen Bearing Gifts, in which the Martians eagerly await the arrival of their Terran neighbors, but with a similar ending.

The Swamp Road, by Will Worthington, is an interesting After-the-Bomb piece about a community held together by a bitterly strict Christian doctrine a la Salem, Massachusetts.  Every so often, one of the citizens changes, developing a second eyelid and otherwise adapting to a dessicated, alien world.  When the change happens to the storyteller and his love, they are forced out of the village and must learn the true nature of their metamorphosis.  It’s a good, atmospheric yarn, though I feel it could have been longer.  Some subjects deserve more than just a taste.

Some, on the other hand, don’t deserve the space.  Slammy and the Bonneygott is the story of an alien child who crosses dimensions in a tinker toy spaceship and plays with a few children for an afternoon.  It was apparently written by a neophyte named “Mrs. Agate,” and the plot was provided by her six-year old son.  One can tell.

Avram Davidson has two settings: amazing and passable.  The Sixth Season is a passable story about a small crew of humans stuck on an anthropological expedition to a backwoods alien-inhabited world for 200 days.  They endure five miserable seasons–can they survive the sixth?

It reminds me of my days growing up in the desert community of El Centro.  I used to lament that we had four seasons like everyone else, but they were Hot, Stink, Bug, and Wind.  That’s not being entirely charitable, of course.  We had a balmy Winter, too.  For about two weeks.

Asimov’s column this month is Bug-eyed Vonster.  No, it has nothing to do with aliens; it’s how the good Doctor remembers the term BeV.  It is an abbreviation for “Billion electron Volts,” a unit of electric energy commonly encountered when discussing cosmic rays and atom smashers.  I learned what Cerenkov radiation is (the radiation given by particles going faster than the speed of light in a given material).

Cliff Simak’s The Golden Bugs takes up most of the rest of the book.  This time, he trades the poetic farmlands for the prosaic suburbs for the story’s setting.  A swarm of extraterrestrial crystal turtle-beetles ride into town on an agate meteorite and begin to wreak havoc on an average American family.  It’s fun while it lasts, but it ends too abruptly, and there isn’t much to it.  It’s the sort of thing one cranks out between masterpieces.

Finally, there is the nigh impenetrable Beyond Ganga Mata by John Berry, a space-filler originally published in The Southwestern.  A fellow travels to India, meets a holy man, journeys for a year, and meets him again.  Perhaps it was simply the lateness of the hour, but had the story not been blessedly short, I’d have had trouble finishing the magazine.

For those who like to keep score, this issue of F&SF was, depending on how you average things, earned between 2.78 and 2.88 stars.  Compare that to Galaxy, which got between 3 and 3.13 stars, and Astounding, which earned exactly three stars even.

Though it could be argued on the numbers that Galaxy was thus the better magazine, and it was certainly the biggest, I’m going to give the June 1960 crown to Astounding.  All of the fiction was decent to very good, and it’s not Janifer, Anvil, and Berryman’s fault that Campbell wrote a stinker of a “science” article.  Plus, Charley de Milo was the choice story for the month.

Continuing my analysis, this means that the Big Three magazines (counting Galaxy and IF as one) each took the monthly crown twice–all of them tied.  And that’s why I keep my subscriptions to all of them.

A more depressing statistic: there was only one woman author this month, and she wrote under a male pseudonym!

By the way, remember Sputnik 4?  The precursor to Soviet manned space travel?  Well, it looks like the Communists won’t be orbiting a real person any time soon.  In an uncharacteristically candid news announcement, the Soviets disclosed that the ship’s retrorocket, designed to brake the capsule for landing, actually catapulted the craft into a higher orbit.  It’ll be up there for a while.  Oh well.

See you soon with a book review!

[Jan. 2, 1960] Happy New Year! (January 1960 F&SF)

Good Lord, is it already 1960?

When I started this endeavor in 1958, I had only a vague notion what it would look like and how long it would last.  Over the past year 14 months, Galactic Journey has settled into what I hope is a consistent, yet varied, mature column.  Moreover, I have suspicion that this column will last just about as long as I do, as I see no reason to ever stop.

It is hard to imagine Galactic Journey with bylines dated with futuristic years like 1965 or 1972 or 1988, but why not?  Perhaps one day, instead of San Diego, Seattle, or Sapporo, the dateline will read Sinus Rorus, Syrtis Major, or Saturn.

Returning to the present, it must be 1960, for that is the date on the current Fantasy and Science Fiction, January to be exact.  Actually, the February issue has already arrived, but that’s a topic for a future week.  In the meantime, let’s see what the first F&SF of 1960 has to offer:

Poul Anderson is back with another Time Patrol story, The Only Game in Town.  This time, Everard and his faithful Indian companion (I kid; Salgado is quite a well-developed and co-equal character) are dispatched to the American Southwest in the 13th century to stop, get this, a Mongol invasion.

It’s not so silly as it sounds.  In fact, it sounds downright plausible that the Mongols could, after conquering China, send a scouting expedition to the New World.  It didn’t take many horsemen to conquer the Aztecs, and the Mongols were a formidable race, to be sure.  What makes this story interesting, aside from the fine writing and evocative setting, is Everard’s dawning realization that the Time Patrol’s mission may not be as pure as once thought.  The Time Cops are told they are to preserve the original timeline, but in this story, they appear to be meddling for meddling’s sake rather than fixing damage caused by others.

I look forward to learning more about the secret agenda of Everard’s future employers.

Then we have A Divvil with the Women, apparently a resubmission of an earlier story once published in a lesser magazine.  It’s by Eric Frank Russell (slumming as “Niall Wilde”), and it involves an unpleasant fellow who makes a deal with the devil—with disastrous results, of course.  My, but these stories are popular these days!  It’s no longer than it needs to be to deliver the punchline, which is a blessing (pun intended).

Damon Knight has translated a piece from F&SF’s French edition: The Blind Pilot by Charles Henneberg.  Sadly, the thing is only half-translated or something; it’s well nigh unreadable, and I didn’t make it past the first few pages.  Oh well.

Reginald Bretnor, who writes the execrable Ferdinand Feghoot puns in F&SF under a pseudonym, has a very silly short-short (“Bug-Getter”) that, you guessed it, ends in a pun.  I must confess that I did laugh, so it couldn’t have been all bad.

For once, Asimov has a decidedly unremarkable article.  It’s called Those Crazy Ideas, and it segues from a discussion of Asimov’s personal creativity to observations on how scientific creativity can be maximized.  Fluffy.

Cliff Simak’s Final Gentleman just barely misses the mark.  Quite a long tale for F&SF, it is one of those excitingly creepy tales with a prosaic payoff.  In this case, a respected author retires after 30 years only to find that the trappings and details of his life are largely imaginary, sort of a psychic cloak that surrounds him, altering his surroundings and himself to seem more refined and engaging than they actually are.  I found this notion compelling.  After all, I often swathe myself in a fantasy, pretending to be decades in the past.  I complete the illusion by listening to old music, using obsolete slang, wearing out-of-date clothing.  It is a conceit in which I engage to better understand a bygone era for historical purposes, and simply to have a fun invisible refuge from the real world.  Hey—it’s cheaper than heroin.

But in Simak’s story, the psychic hoodwink is perpetrated solely to influence the course of history through an implausible Rube Goldberg chain of interactions.  I was disappointed, but you may feel differently.

A Little Girl’s Christmas in Modernia, by Ralph Bunch, is next.  In this future, we gradually trade in our flesh parts for metal as we grow older.  Bunch’s tale features a fully human moppet and her mostly-converted parents in the kind of inconsequential story I’d expect to find in a slick.  I suppose they needed a Holiday-themed story to fill out this issue.

What do you do when an alien weather probe crashes into your backyard?  You bake it, of course, and thus unintentionally forestall an extraterrestrial invasion.  G.C. Edmondson’s The Galactic Calabash is fun, though it took me several sessions to get through the short story, largely because I always picked it up at bedtime.

Rounding out the magazine is the quite good Double Double, Toil and Trouble by Holley Cantine.  An anarchist turned recluse decides to take up magic, eventually learning the secret to doubling anything.  It starts out well enough, but the ending provides a cautionary tale against dabbling in the Dark Arts.  Holley Cantine, I understand, is a bit of a political theorist, and Double has a deeper message wrapped in a gentle fiction coating. 

And so the January 1960 F&SF ends as it began with a four-star story.  In-between, there lies a muddle of uncharacteristic unevenness such that the whole issue clocks in at a mere three stars, the same as this month’s Astounding.

That just leaves us with the January IF, whose reading is in progress.  In the meantime, I’ll soon have a report on my latest excursion to the drive-in with my daughter.  It don’t all gotta be highbrow, after all.

Happy New Year!

Note: If you like this column, consider sharing it by whatever media you frequent most.  I love the company, and I imagine your friends share your excellent taste!

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



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