Tag Archives: chris anvil

[Jan. 25, 1961] Oscillating circuit (the February 1961 Analog)

John Campbell’s science fiction magazine continues to defy my efforts to chart a trend.  Following on the heels of last month’s rather dismal issue, the February 1961 Analog is an enjoyable read.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

It took me a little while to get into Everett Cole’s lead novella, The Weakling, but once I understood what he was doing, I was enthralled.  Cole paints a world in which people with psi powers dominate those without.  It is a planet of slave-owning aristocrats who can force people to do their bidding through mental will alone.  The viewpoint character is Barra, scion of a noble family.  His ascension to lordhood was accidental, caused by the premature deaths of his father and brother.  Without the aid of an array of potent psychic enhancers, he would be barely more powerful than the “pseudo-men” he controls. 

Weakling is the account of this bitter, cruel man, contemptuous of the slaves he resembles, jealous of his psychically more powerful peers, who entices rich merchants to his estate, murdering them for plunder.  The story can be hard to read at times, but it is an excellent insight into the mindset of the 19th Century slave-owner (and thus an indictment of the sentiment that still prevails over much of the modern South).  Four stars. 

Teddy Keller’s short, The Plague, is more typical Analog fare.  When a sickness sweeps the nation, with no apparent rhyme or reason to its epidemiology, one doctor must race against time to find a cure.  The solution is contrived and rather silly.  Two stars.

Freedom, the latest in Mack Reynolds’ slew of stories set in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, is a horse of a different color.  Once again, Reynolds expertly conveys the character of life behind an Iron Curtain where Communism has achieved its economic goals, but not its social ones.  In this tale, we see how difficult it is to extirpate a desire for intellectual freedom once it has taken root.  I appreciate the evenhandedness with which Reynolds evaluates both the East and West.  I also liked the romantic element, portrayed as between two equals unencumbered with conservative moral values.  Four stars.

Campbell trumpeted his expanded coverage of science fact in his magazine, and it seemed a worthy experiment at the start.  I’m always happy to see more Asimov articles, after all.  But recently, the “non-fiction” portion of the magazine has been devoted to self-penned articles on the editor’s hobbies or favorite crackpot inventions.  We get a blessed break from these with a short photo-feature showing rockets of the past and present.  Too short to garner a rating.

I don’t think I quite got H.B. Fyfe’s The Outbreak of Peace, a short short that takes place at an interstellar peace conference.  I even read it twice.  Would someone explain it to me, please?  Two stars (for now).

At last, we have Chris Anvil’s latest, The Ghost Fleet.  A space fleet commander is forced to ignominious flight when the enemy strikes with an unbeatable weapon.  Can he recover his honor (and save the day) with an audacious gambit?  It’s good, if something of a one-trick pony.  Three stars.

The issue finishes off with the conclusion to Occasion for Disaster, which I previously covered.  All told, the book clocks in at a slice over three stars, which is perfectly acceptable for 50 cents of entertainment. 

Now let’s see if this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction can top that.

[June 2, 1960] Fewer is Less (July 1960 Astounding)

What makes a story worth reading? 

As a writer, and as a reader who has plowed through thousands of stories over the past decade, I’ve developed a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Some writers cast a spell on you from the first words and maintain that trance until the very end.  Others have good ideas but break momentum with clunky prose.  Some turn a phrase skillfully, but their plots don’t hold interest.

I find that science fiction authors are more likely to hang their tales on plot to the exclusion of other factors.  This is part of the reason our genre is much maligned by the literary crowd.  On the other hand, the literary crowd tends to commit the opposite sin: glazing our eyes over with experimental, turgid passages.

A few authors have managed to bridge the gap: Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, Daniel Keyes.  And, in general, I think the roster of science fiction authors, as they mature, are turning out better and better stuff.

Sadly, Astounding is rarely the place you’ll find them.

After last month’s decent issue, I had looked forward eagerly to this one, the July 1960 edition.  It’s not unmitigatedly horrible, but it does sink back into the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Campbell’s magazine.  Let’s take a look:

Poul Anderson, with whom I’ve had a rocky relationship over the last decade, begins a new serial called The High Crusade.  It’s about a 14th century English town that gets attacked by an alien scout ship.  Surprisingly, the “primitive” residents manage to overpower the alien crew and commandeer their ship, which they then sail across the suns to another alien outpost, where they defeat a contingent of the more technologically advanced aliens.

Now, this is the kind of story editor Campbell loves: plucky humans defeating inferior space aliens.  I suspect that the humans in Crusade will face increasingly ridiculous odds, always coming out on top.

This should bother me.  On the other hand, the story is really quite well written, with an excellent use of archaic language, a fair depiction of the age, and compelling characters.  Moreover, I have the faintest suspicion that Anderson is satirizing Campbell’s fetish, hence my prediction that the story will be ever more over-the-top.

Sadly, this incomplete tale is the high point of the book.  Chris Anvil is up next with The Troublemaker.  It starts out promisingly, involving an interstellar cargo ship and the seditious new cargo inspector who joins the crew.  The fellow has a knack for dividing and conquering, causing friendships to disintegrate and morale to plummet.  But the Captain’s solution for the problem comes out of nowhere and is thus unsatisfying.  Which brings me back to my preface.  Writer tip #1: Foreshadowing is important.  No one likes a mystery novel where the murderer is not presented before the detective explains whodunnit.  A good writer introduces concepts earlier in the story if they are to be used later. 

Onto the next story.  Its author, Dean McLaughlin, has been writing for various digests over the past decade.  I know I’ve read a few of his stories, but they do not stand out in my memory.  In any event, his The Brotherhood of Keepers leaves much to be desired.  In this case, characterization is utterly subverted to an involved, somewhat odious plot.  There is a race of near-sapient upright seals on a harsh alien world.  They are on the brink of becoming sentient, and a human outpost has been established on their planet, despite the uncomfortable conditions, to watch the transition.  There are three main characters, all made of the same grade of carboard. 

You have the fatuous, bleeding heart animal rights activist who wants to bring an end to the suffering of the “floppers,” both at the hands of their environment and the scientists (who employ them as slaves and vivisect them every so often).  You have the xenophobic scientist who pushes all of the activist’s buttons in the hopes that this will bring about a relief mission, allowing the floppers to be “saved” before they become truly sentient.  Finally, you’ve got the outpost chief.  He grieves for the cruel plight of the floppers, but he feels it would be more cruel to deny them their destiny of intelligence.

On the face of it, this could have been a very interesting story.  Aside from the truly hackneyed portrayal of the characters, I took umbrage with the way the floppers were treated by the humans.  Granted, the most egregious comments made by the scientist character (“they’re only animals,” he says of creatures smarter than chimpanzees) were probably designed specifically to goad the activist, but they must reflect, at least in part, the deeply held sentiments of his fellow researchers.  As any sociologist would tell you, the best way to study a society probably does not involve murdering its members.

Asimov has a fair sequel to his article on animal phyla, published month before last.  This one is called, appropriately enough, Beyond the Phyla.  The good doctor makes some interesting speculation on the next evolutionary steps humanity might take.  They will not involve physical adaptations, he opines, but rather a level of social cohesion that will transform our race into a larger, integrated whole.

It’s a pity that Isaac doesn’t write fiction anymore; I imagine folks will be lifting his non-fiction ideas and turning them into stories soon.

Finally, we have Subspace Survivors, by the renowned Doc Smith, himself.  All due respect to an admitted titan of the field, this is not a very good story.  It’s something of a relic from the pulp era, this tale of nine survivors on a wrecked interstellar vessel, four of whom are psionically gifted (of course).  Writer tip #2: Description should be incorporated seamlessly into a narrative, not obtrusively inserted in-between bits of action. 

There are two women in this story.  They acquit themselves rather well against two of the castaways, who turn out to be bad men, but for the most part, they are content to be submissive child incubators, comforted in times of distress by their lantern-jawed officer husbands.  Feh.

I recently exchanged letters with a fan who expressed his dislike for magazines with only a few, longer stories.  I told him that I didn’t mind them so long as the stories were good.  But, I am starting to take his point.

See you shortly with more fiction reviews!

[May 20, 1960] Three for Four (June 1960 Astounding)

Astounding, the venerable science fiction digest, has often been my monthly whipping boy.  Today’s article is going to be a bit different because, apart from one noteworthy, execrable exception, the June 1960 Astounding was actually quite good.

Much of the magazine is taken up by Part 3 of the enjoyable “Mark Phillips” effort, Out Like a Light.  There are only three other fiction entries in this issue, all novelette/novella-sized.

Chris Anvil’s Star Tiger leads the pack.  A colony is wiped out completely by an invisible enemy.  Is it an alien invasion?  An incorporeal monster?  Or some new permutation of biology?  The mystery is the best part of this story. 

Anvil is an author who started out mired in mediocrity, and who seems to be improving with effort.  However, despite some good description and atmosphere throughout much of this tale, he still ends it with that sort of droll, wrapped-in-a-bow fashion that feels perfunctory.  A story should be more than just the “gimmick.”  Not bad, though.

Charley de Milo is a minor masterpiece by Laurence Janifer (who co-wrote Out Like a Light).  It features a man born without arms, who has learned to use his feet with tremendous dexterity: comb his hair, light cigarettes, etc.  He makes a comfortable and enjoyable living as bally performer for a carnival freak show.  But when a friend creates a cure for lost limbs, his audience drops off precipitously.  Charley is faced with the hard choice: continue as a low-rent freak or be “cured” and start off from scratch as a normal person–at age 41.

This story raises a lot of poignant questions.  If one is handicapped and comfortable with one’s disability, is a cure always desirable?  If one can be cured, will society have less tolerance for the voluntarily crippled, be less supporting of those who refuse to be cured?  I have a minor disability, myself: I am somewhat color-blind.  It has never been much of a hindrance; in fact, I often find it amusing.  But, imagine if, someday, a set of glasses were invented that would enable me to see as “normal” people do.  Would I take the opportunity?  I’m actually not all that sure.  I am physically different from most people, and it has shaped my world.  It is part of my identity.  I don’t know that I want to lose that. 

I’ve always maintained that the measure of a story is the extent to which it makes you think about the points raised afterwards.  By that standard, this is definitely a 4-star tale.

Last of the three is John Berryman’s Vigorish, though he wrote it as Walter Bupp, same name as the story’s protagonist.  Interestingly, the lead is also a handicapped person.  His right arm is essentially useless, and its lack of functionality contributes to his ability to wield telekinesis with a fine degree of control.  He is employed, practically enough, to watchdog casinos when it looks like someone is using psionics to bend the odds her/his way.

There are a lot of stories featuring psi powers in Astounding, but this one is done better than most.  Give it a try.

Now, for those wondering about my comment in the first paragraph, it’s time for that other shoe to drop.  I’ve observed before that Astounding’s science fact column is the lousiest among the Big Three digests.  Not surprising given that the competition is Isaac Asimov and Willy Ley (and when the Astounding column is any good, it’s usually written by a pinch-hitter named… Isaac Asimov).

This month, Campbell has put it upon himself to write his own column.  It’s a long, whiny screed in defense of the (deservedly) much maligned Norman Dean, inventor of the “Dean Drive” that, purportedly, converts rotational acceleration to linear acceleration thus creating a reactionless drive.

Well, no one’s seen it work.  Even Campbell hasn’t seen it work.  But Campbell blames the lack of government and private interest in Dean’s engine on bureaucratic myopia… or perhaps something more sinister and collusionary.

I recognize and respect Campbell’s contributions to the genre, but he’s the embarrassing half-senile old uncle of our community.

Happy 57th birthday (tomorrow) to pulp icon Manly Wade Wellman.  He has not written much as late, so the Journey has only covered one of his stories, but it was a good one.

[April 21, 1960] Roads not taken (May 1960 IF)

If there’s anything this month’s IF, Science Fiction proves, it’s that you get what you pay for.

Last year, Galaxy editor, H. L. Gold, cut story rates in half to 2 cents a word.  Shortly thereafter, he took over the helm of the promising but unsuccessful digest, IF.  Its quality has been in steady decline ever since, and I can only imagine that he pays IF writers even less.

IF‘s name is ironic.  Under the stewardship of Damon Knight, it had a short-lived renaissance culminating in the February 1959 issue.  Had this continued, IF might be the leader of the current, heavily winnowed, crop of science fiction digests.  Alas, such a history can only be contemplated, never directly perceived.

Why all the doom and gloom?  The May 1960 IF is definitely the worst issue I’ve read to date.  While not unmitigatedly bad, it never rises above the passable.  In detail:

Chris Anvil’s lead novella, The Tourist Named Death is a bland and amateurishly written interplanetary spy romp with lots of action but little depth.  It is written in a style I like to call sequential: “Bob did this.  Then he did that.  He saw this and reacted like this.  Then he did that.”  I’d think that, by now, Mr. Anvil would have matured past this level of ability.  But, perhaps for a penny a word, he doesn’t much care to apply himself.

James Bell is a brand-new author whose Freshman effort, Thirty Degrees Cattywonkus, is barely passable.  A fellow, upon exploring his new house,discovers that a parallel dimension is impinging on his, but not quite orthogonally.  The promising premise degenerates quickly.  Maybe next time.

Then you’ve got When Day is Done by part-time minor-leaguer, Arnold Castle.  The story, about businessmen who engage in simulated big-game hunting after work, would be an interesting first chapter to a longer tale, but as a stand-alone, there just isn’t enough there.

C.C. MacApp is another greenhorn whose first-ever story is A Pride of Islands.  I had trouble following this story, perhaps because it failed to ever engage me, but I believe it is about the descendants of a wrecked spaceship crew who have reverted to savagery.

Now, to leaven my harshness, I will say that it’s great that Gold (and his executive officer for IF, Fred Pohl) are giving new authors a chance.  With the folding of so many science fiction digests in the last decade, the authors of tomorrow have had precious few venues in which to hone their craft. 

I just wish they’d hurry up and get better…

The first solid story of the issue comes from the reasonably consistent Philip Jose FarmerHEEL is basically Homer’s Illiad with a science fiction twist: the Gods are really interstellar television producers filming a decade-long epic.  The Greeks and Trojans are just hapless pawns dancing to the tune of a Director they know only as Zeus.

by Virgil Finlay

It’s a cute concept, and as I’m currently rereading the plays of Aeschylus, I’m particularly receptive to classically themed works.  On the other hand, there is a dashed-off feeling to the story.  I don’t think Farmer strained himself putting this one together.

Back to the crop of new authors, A.M.Lightner’s (Alice Martha) first story (I believe) is A Good Day for the Irish.  A Terran entomologist (a refreshingly female protagonist) emigrates to a paradisical colony only to find it in the midst of a terrible blight.  Could the cure be the very infestations she had been enlisted to prevent?  This is another story that might have benefited from greater length. 

Finally, we have Charles Fontenay’s novelette, Matchmaker.  It is an engaging, if unremarkable, piece about the extreme measures to which a government will resort to ensure the computer-ordered union of two otherwise unfated individuals.  On a side note, I liked the vacuum-powered letter delivery systems.  I can imagine such systems being commonplace in the near future.

Thus, the May 1960 IF ends on a stronger note than it began, but all told, it’s a pretty unimpressive magazine.  I’ll keep my subscription, of course.  There is precious little out there right now, and perhaps things will get better.  Hope springs eternal.

See you soon, and if you have any opinions on these pieces, whether or not they are in line with mine, please drop me a line.  I welcome all comments.

[Feb. 12, 1960] Pulling up (Mar. 1960 Astounding)

It had to happen some day–Astounding has pulled itself out of a nose dive, for now.

Last time, I discussed the most excellent serial, Deathworld.  Still, a single good serial does not a good issue make.  Thankfully, Campbell has at long last, and after a merciless rough patch, delivered a quite readable book.

J.T. McIntosh can always be relied upon to provide entertainment; his lead novella, Immortality for Some is no exception.  In the future, society’s most worthy, the 10% with sufficient talents and/or accomplishments to make the cut, are allowed to undergo “Rebirth.”  This process erases all memories and restores the body to an adolescent stage of physical development.  The special person gets to live again in a sort of cloned reincarnation. 

But what happens when one of the world’s intellectual elite doesn’t want to cheat death?  This is a world that doesn’t want to lose a cultural treasure, and it takes an exceptional person, indeed, to evade Rebirth.

Strongly written, with the first half written from the point of view of an aged woman pianist of superlative talent giving her last concert before Rebirth; the second stars the aforementioned fellow—a seemingly unremarkable caretaker whom the musician befriends.  It’s worth your time.

And now, I shall surprise my audience by saying with a straight face that I actually enjoyed Randall Garrett’s contribution to this issue: In Case of Fire….  In this far future, the sprawling Terran Empire cannot afford to send its best and brightest as ambassadors to less-esteemed stations.  The story opens on a remote, unimportant world whose embassy is staffed with barely functional neurotics.  Yet in that insanity lies the key to ending an interstellar war.  Garrett manages to be somewhat clever and to not offend.  Quite an accomplishment for him.

Chris Anvil’s Shotgun Wedding is another of his unremarkable space-fillers about an alien race whose plan to disrupt humanity by flooding the market with clairvoyant television backfires.  One bit I liked, however, was the depiction of pen pals from different countries using their television screens to correspond across thousands of miles.  When the world is finally wired into OMNIVAC, decades from now, I imagine we’ll see such a phenomenon.

Editor Campbell has been trying to make a go of the slick non-fiction section of his magazine for several months.  This issue is the first with readable articles, the first of which is Mars: A Summing Up by R.S. Richardson (perhaps better known by his nom d’plume, Philip Latham).  Mr. Richardson does an admirable, if slightly dry, job of comprehensively summarizing the current state of knowledge regarding the mysterious Red Planet. 

We’ve enjoyed three relatively close approaches to Mars over the past six years, the likes of which will not recur until 1971, by which time we will probably have sent at least one probe to investigate close-up.  As a result, scientists have amassed a bonanza of information.  Yet it is still unknown whether or not Mars has life, though if it does, it must be of a very low order.  The most exciting work has been done by the astronomer A. Dolfuss, who has determined the nature of Martian soil to examination of its polarization (the non-randomness of the angle of vibration of light that reflects from it).  That we’ve learned so much about Mars is, of course, a marvel in and of itself.  To quote the author, “To tell anything about a body that never comes closer than thirty-five million miles taxes your ingenuity to the utmost.”

Dr. Asimov was also tapped to provide an article after a long hiatus from Astounding’s pages.  Microdesign for Living, about the biochemical synthesis of proteins, is not one of his better pieces, which is to say that is readable but not memorable.

Poul Anderson (as his Astounding alter-ego Winston P. Sanders) wraps things up with a short piece called The Barrier Moment.  Scientists may not know why one can’t go back in time more than three years, but a philospher believes he has the horrifying answer.  Perhaps there isn’t any time to go back to…

All told, the March 1960 Astounding clocks in at a respectable three-and-a-half stars.  That is the best this magazine has been since I started rating the issues in January 1959.  I sincerely hope Campbell can keep this up!

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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[Dec. 17, 1959] Same ol’ Same ol’? (January 1960 Astounding)

There are times that I feel I could trot out the same Astounding review every month.  It would go something like this:

“Editor John Campbell continues to showcase Human-First, psionic stories with young male protagonists and virtually no female characters.  The table of contents features Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, and Murray Leinster.  Yet again, the magazine is a disappointment.”

For the most part, the above summary would serve this month, but there is a kicker at the end of this review.

Skipping the first part of a serial by a fellow of whom I’ve never heard (a Harry Harrison), the issue opens up with one of Murray Leinster’s weaker outings, Attention Saint Patrick.  Leinster is often excellent, but in this one, he’s just boringly droll, telling the story of an Irish space colony that relies on giant serpents to control its vermin problem—in this case, little dinosaurs with diamond teeth. 

by Bernklau

Then we have the truly ridiculous A Rose by Other Name, a Chris Anvil story about how the removal of military and jingoistic jargon from our vocabulary makes it impossible to go to war.  Not good.

Campbell has tried to make his magazine more respectable by including a slick paper non-fiction segment starting this month.  Frank Foote and Arthur Shuck penned Solid Plutonium Headache about the technical and physical difficulties associated with working this dangerous radioactive material.  A more boring article I have never read, which is a shame because there’s nothing wrong with the subject matter.  Until Campbell finds himself an Asimov or a Ley, I think his non-fiction section won’t be worth much—particularly as the slick paper is not at all absorbent.

Poul Anderson’s The Burning Bridge, about a fleet of interstellar colony ships on a 40-year trip to settle a new world, is decent.  Recalled by Earth nearly a few years into their flight, the fleet’s Admiral must determine whether or not they will return or press on.  The cast is nicely international, and women play an important (though oddly segregated) part.

by Bernklau

Then we have The Garrett, in this case Viewpoint.  A fellow dreams himself into the future and discovers a strange new world before snapping back to his original time.  The now-typical Randallian gimmick is that the person is a famous figure from the past, and the destination is now-ish.  It’s not as bad as it could have been, but Garrett loses a star just for being Garrett.

Finally, we have The Silverberg: Stress Pattern.  This story is hard to rate because there are really two things going on here.  On one hand, we have the story of a sociologist and his assistant wife (no doubt inspired by Bob Silverberg’s wife and partner, Barbara) and the slow unraveling and subsequent recovery of their lives.  The characterization and writing are quite good, and I was carried along for the entirety of the tale’s 30 pages.

On the other hand, in the end, the story is a rather ham-fisted argument against the leveling qualities of increased socialism (small “s”) and social welfare.  The message of the story is that while we might keep the lower classes fat and happy, the secure smart people are just going to get bored and restless.  While such an argument could be made against a uniform public school curriculum, and while in true Socialism, the only way to get ahead is to cheat, I don’t think things can progress in America as Silverberg contests.  Moreover, that part just feels tacked on to tickle Campbell’s fancy.  It has that “secret society knows all the answers and can manipulate humanity like a machine” conceit I generally find tiresome.

Still, Bob is coming along.  I think if he tried writing for another magazine, he could put his talent for prolific writing and good portrayals toward making something truly good.  He’s not Randy Garrett, even though he works with him regularly.

All told, it’s a 2.5 star issue.  But I promised a kicker: the serial, Deathworld, is excellent so far, and I’m keenly anticipating next month’s installment.  You’ll have to wait until next February to get the review, but I think it will be a good one!

Stay tuned!

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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[Nov. 22, 1959] …with a whimper (December 1959 Astounding wrap-up)

Good morning, dear readers.  Based on the incidence of fan mail, it appears you now number nearly half a dozen (unless, of course, it’s just you, Laurose, writing in under a number of pseudonyms; if that be the case, I’m still grateful).

And now comes the moment you have all been waiting for: my review of the December Astounding.  Did this issue top the last in terms of sheer awfulness?  I’m afraid not.  The magazine is, in fact, back to its old low but passable standards.

I mentioned last time that Randall Garrett has the lead novella in this issue.  The Destroyers starts off well enough.  Slowly, even compellingly, Garrett describes a group of farmers in a barony on one of the more backward planets in the galaxy.  The placid cycle of years is disturbed by the news of impending interstellar war.  When it does break out, the conflict seems far away and does not immediately disturb the peaceful farmers.  But over time, the fight comes closer and closer to home until the barony is taken by the conquerors, and the planet surrenders.

So what’s wrong with this story?  Garrett, as you know, is fond of the historical parable.  In Despoiler of the Golden Empire, he writes rather praisingly of Pizarro’s murderous conquest of Peru with the “twist” being that the readers were meant to think the story was one of science fiction rather than historical fiction. 

About half-way through The Destroyers, I started to worry that he was doing it again.  When he spoke of the invaders’ blockade and the plucky captains who dared run it, I began to look for other Civil War parallels.  Sure enough, the conquerors come from the north, they represent an industrialized society preaching equality and freedom, they are superior technologically.  The “South” wins at first but inexorably starts to lose.  Their country is split in two.  The war ends with the taking of the capital.

Even this would be fine except for the story’s punchline.  The Union colonel who comes to accept the baroness’ surrender (yes—by this time, Randy has named the invaders “The Union”) announces to the farmers that they are all free, and that now they can earn money and get an education.  And what is the reaction of the farmers (read: Negro slaves)?

Horror!  All of their needs had been tended to under the old regime.  They had been happy, had had purpose and direction.  What, oh what, would they do with money and education and freedom?

That smell assailing your nostrils is last night’s dinner.  My apologies.  I don’t think I need comment further other than to observe that it may be impossible for Randy to write without offending.  But I guess he keeps Astounding‘s target demographic happy…

On to happier, or at least less saddening, entries.  Chris Anvil’s Mating Problems, about how a colony deals with the aftermath of two crises by combining their ill effects, is not bad.  I note that Anvil likes stories about pioneering colonials, and I do too.  At some point, he’ll write an outstanding one, perhaps.

Les Collins has a non-fiction article entitled How to write Science faction, a rather glibly written description of the technical writing field.  Perhaps the best part of the column is a list of ten technical paragraphs in need of editing.  Collins invites those who are able to properly fix a majority of them to contact him for a possible job opening.  I’m tempted.

George O. Smith’s The Big Fix is kind of fun.  In a world where everyone is psionic, how does one keep the gambling “honest?”  And once that puzzle is solved, how does one rig the game?  The story even features, though doesn’t star, a cigar-chomping tough gal, though she ends up a romantic interest, sadly.  The dialogue consciously imitates the over-verbose New York gangster dialect featured in the recent hit, Guys and Dolls.  The conceit is either cute or annoying.  I suppose it depends on your mood.

I skipped Part Two of Everett Cole’s The Best Made Plans since I could not finish Part One.  I think it’s a futuristic ignominy to imperial throne story, but I can’t be certain.

Last, and fairly least, is Tell the Truth, by E.C. Tubb.  In this story, humans are confronted with a stronger, aggressive alien foe (that looks just like us).  As a prelude to conflict, both races agree to exchange a single representative who will serve as the exemplar of the species.  Based on the examination of said ambassador, the choice between peace and war will be made.

Of course, the humans are able to select the exact right person to hoodwink the aliens.  It turns out that the aliens are wholly logical and, thus, deduce from the ambassador, who sells military toys to children, that Earth is a highly armed camp whose youth are trained from birth to be soldiers.

It’s a typical Campbellian piece, and it makes no sense.  For one thing, the aliens are trained from birth to be soldiers.  Moreover, much is made of the fact that the ambassador cannot lie (for the aliens are experts in preventing deception); therefore, the conclusion that the aliens make is inescapable.  One would think that these aliens, who clearly have a profound knowledge of deceit, would recognize the cheap ploy for what it was.  After all, the ambassador may be telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean his masters are obligated to.

At least I’ve saved dessert for last—the December F&SF is next up, and with its reading, I will have an entire year’s worth of magazines from which to choose this annum’s Galactic Stars.

See you soon!

Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.

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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[Sep. 24, 1959] Cruising at the bottom (October 1959 Astounding)

I had planned on breaking up the rest of this month’s (October 1959) Astounding into two parts, but seeing how there are only four pieces of fiction, albeit long ones, I’ve decided to give it all to you in one blow.

Chris Anvil continues to put out the most mediocre stuff imaginable.  These are the stories I’d expect to see in Imagination, if “Madge” were still around.  The Law-Breakers is the cover story for this issue, and it really is barely worth the space it takes.  Two invaders from a race of extremely humanoid aliens attempt to infiltrate the Earth using sophisticated invisibility technology.  All of their predecessors have failed on these missions, so the stakes are high.  As it turns out, the Terrans are ready for the invaders, trailing them wearing cloaking fields of their own.

Once captured, the invaders are offered a deal—become citizens and their sentence will be reduced from felony sabotage to a host of petty misdemeanors.  Along the way, we get some fatuous smugness about how Earth is better than the aliens because it is a planet of multiple competing civilizations rather than a single, united race.  It took me three sittings to finish the story, which is saying something for a 30-page story.

Story #2 is even worse: The Unspecialist, by unknown Murray F. Yaco, features a pilot and co-pilot of a small scout ship accompanied on their mission of reconnaissance by a “Bean Brain,” a seemingly useless fellow who, nevertheless, contributes valuable expertise in a particular pinch.  The gotcha of the story (a disappointing trope of science fiction that I thought had died out) is learning the former profession of the unspecialist.  Dull, dull, dull.

I was thus rather pleasantly surprised by the third story, Dodkin’s Job, by the old hand, Jack Vance.  Somehow, I have a soft spot for dystopian stories with highly regimented societies.  Not so much the predestined occupation stories, like Asimov’s Profession, but more the totalitarian tales where people are pigeonholed into horizontal layers of privilege and are constantly trying to climb out.

In this one, Luke is a 40-year old born with ample opportunities, but due to his nonconformist nature, he finds his career a sordid succession of demotions until he finds himself a Level D Flunky assigned to clean sewers.  When a new labor directive is passed down to return his shovel to the central office every day, thus wasting three hours of his own time, Luke decides to petition the authorities.  Up the ladder he goes, to the very top, and then back down to the prestige-less clerk levels whence the impetus for the decision came.  There, he finds the true secret of bureaucracy—that data is power, and it is the presenter of data who really has the power, not the decision-makers who can only make decisions based on the data presented. 

It’s a story that kept me up past my bed-time, and, as a person who presents data for a living, a very instructive piece, to be sure!

That leaves us with Part 2 of That Sweet Little Old Lady, by Mark Phillips aka Randall Garrett.  As you know, I’m rather predisposed against Mr. Garrett, but I did stick it out through both installments, this tale of telepaths, espionage, FBI agents, and renaissance costumery.

In short, there is an information leak somewhere in America, and it’s up to Agent Malone to find it.  Along the way, he teams up with a host of insane telepaths, all of whom are non-functioning with the exception of one who believes herself to be an immortal Queen Elizabeth I.  She insists that her entourage dress appropriately, and I now understand why Randy dressed up as Henry VIII for Wondercon—he was really dressing up as Agent Malone (or Malone was designed to look like Randy playing Henry VIII).

Anyway, it’s a flippantly written who-dunnit.  It’s not offensive, and I was able to finish it in a reasonable amount of time, but it was the literary equivalent of Saltines—bland and not particularly satisfying.  Also, I’m getting rather tired of Kelly Freas—how many wrinkles does an illustrated person need, anyway?

Thus ends another 2.5 star Astounding.  This makes the biggest spread between magazines I’ve seen in a month–compare to 3.5 for Galaxy, 4.5 for F&SF.

That’s that for magazines this month, though I’ll do an Astounding Analytical Laboratory stop press in a couple of days.  Next month, we’ve got another Astounding, F&SF, and IF.  Also, a host of anticipated space shots, probably a movie or two, and a new science fiction/fantasy/horror anthology debuting in about a week: The Twilight Zone.
See you soon!

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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The Worst (September 1959 Astounding; 8-20-1959)

People seem to enjoy extremes.  The first to do this.  The best at doing that.  The most exciting.  The brightest.  The darkest.

If you’re wondering why I failed to write on schedule, day-before-yesterday, it’s because I was wrestling with the worst.  Specifically, the worst magazine I’ve had to trudge through since I began this project in 1954.  Let me tell you: there was nothing to enjoy about it.

I speak of the September 1959 issue of Astounding.  Not only are the stories (at least those I’ve thus far read) thoroughly dull, but they have that sharp stamp of Campbellian editing, or pandering, which causes them to have the same tedious, nonsensical elements.

Take That Sweet Little Old Lady, by “Mark Phillips,” a pseudonym so phoney, I knew Randall Garrett had to be involved.  Sure enough, Mark Phillips is Randy and a fellow named Laurence F. Janifer.  It’s a drab, unamusingly droll stream-of-consciousness story about a detective and his quest to find a psionic spy.  In the course of his investigations, he meets a dotty esper convinced that she is an immortal Queen Elizabeth.  Joy of joys, this is only the first of a two-part serial.

As for the Campbellian twist, much reference is made to psionic devices that are part electronic and part symbolic.  This is a nod to Campbell’s obsession with “Heironymous Machines,” devices that measure “non-electromagnetic radiation,” using electric circuits that appear to have no function and could, it is boasted, be replaced by pen-and-ink diagrams of those same circuits without affecting the ability of the machine.

Well, I can’t disagree with that.

Chris Anvil continues to make solid 2-star stories that fill blank spots in the pages of AstoundingCaptive Leaven is about the effect an interstellar traveler had on a primitive civilization, uplifting it to a very specialized sophistication so that it could produce parts to repair the traveler’s spaceship.  Not a bad idea, I suppose, but executed in so dull a fashion that I fairly had to reread the whole tale to remember the plot.

Finally, even Murray Leinster disappoints with his A Matter of Importance, in which Leinster’s characteristic employment of short sentences annoys to distraction.  Ostensibly a story about an interstellar police rescue mission, it’s really an opportunity to point out that the human form is the most natural of forms for intelligent creatures, that the Solar System is the most typical of planetary systems, and the predictions of a canny protagonist always come out to be correct. 

Fatuous determinism.  You can have it.

I’m dreading the rest of this issue, and the next one, to be honest.  I’ll read them, because I feel I’ve a contract with you, my good readers, but I can’t promise not to skim.

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Less than astounding…  (July 1959 Astounding; 6-23-1959)

I suppose it was too much to hope for two good issues of Astounding in a row.  The magazine that Campbell built is back to its standard level of quality, which is to say the bar is not very high.  Still, I read the stories so you don’t have to (if you don’t want), so here’s all the news that fits to print.

Randal Garrett’s But I don’t think isn’t horrible.  It’s actually genuine satire, about a ordnance evasion officer (a “Guesser”) who ends up inadvertently jumping ship during shoreleave.  He is the denizen of a lawfully evil and hierarchical society, and the story is all about the miserable things he does and that are done to him in large part due to this evil culture.  It’ll leave a dirty taste in your mouth, like old cigarette butts, but I think it was actually intentional this time. 

It’s not exactly downhill from here, but there aren’t exactly heights, either.  The next story, Broken Tool, by Theodore L. Thomas, is a short piece about a candidate for the Space Corps, who ends up washing out because he, ironically, doesn’t have enough attachment to his home planet of Earth.  A “gotcha” story, the kind I might expect to find in one of the lesser magazines… not that they exist anymore.

I generally like Algis Budrys, and his Straw, about an entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became the Big Man of the underwater community of Atlantis, isn’t bad.  It’s just not terribly great. 

Isaac Asimov has an interesting article entitled, Unartificial elements, explaining how all of the elements humans have managed to synthesize actually do exist in nature, albeit in rather small amounts.  This was the best part of the magazine.

There are two stories after the last installment of Dorsai, which I reviewed last time.  Chris Anvil’s Leverage is a mildly entertaining story about colonists dealing with a planet’s ecosphere that has a single-minded, but fatally flawed, vendetta against the settlers.  Another low-grade story I’d expect in Imagination or somewhere similar.

Finally, we have Vanishing Point, by C.C. Beck, the illustrator for D.C.’s Captain Marvel.  It’s all about what happens when an artist learns the true nature of perspective.  Cute, but, again, not much to it.

Campbell published the user reviews for March and April 1959.  I won’t go into great detail, but suffice it to say, Leinster’s Pirates of Ersatz topped both months.  But in March, Despoiler of the Golden Empire got #2, whereas my favorite, The Man Who Did Not Fit was bottommost.  The April results were less disappointing–Now Inhale got #2, and Wherever You Are got #3.  I probably would have swapped the places, but I suppose a female protagonist is too much for Analog readers to swallow comfortably.

Lots of space launches coming up–a Vanguard and a Discoverer, so expect some launch reports this week!

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