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[June 14, 1961] Time is the simplest thing… (The Fisherman, by Clifford Simak)

Girdling the Earth are bands of deadly radiation, the Van Allen Belts.  They form a prison, an eggshell that humanity can never pierce.  Embittered, the human race turns inward.  Psychic powers come to the fore.  At first, the psychically endowed paranormals (“parries”) use their gifts for a lark or for profit.  Over time, the world comes to hate these deviants, forcing them into ghettos and isolated towns.

All except for the rare few employed by Fishhook, an agency that has opened up the stars through other means.  Fusing technology and innate power, the “Fishermen” project their minds across the light years and explore other worlds.  They bring back wondrous gifts of technology, which are sold in Fishhook-owned centers called “Trading Posts.”  The Fishermen encounter a riot of experiences: things of incomprehensible beauty, things of unspeakable evil.  The most rigidly enforced rule is that the Fishermen must retain their humanity; any taint of alien, any hint of going native, and they are cloistered in a community that is, for all intents and purposes, a gilded cage.

All of which are just abstract concerns to Shepherd Blaine, a veteran Fisherman, tourist of a hundred worlds, until the day he encounters the pinkness: a sprawling, shabby, impossibly old creature who tells him, “Hi Pal.  I trade with you my mind…”

Clifford Simak’s four-part serial, The Fisherman, just wrapped up in this month’s Analog.  It is the chronicle of Blaine’s escape from Fishhook and his journey on the lam through the Dakotas as he attempts to reconcile his human self with the near-omniscient alien that has take up residence in his mind.  Blaine gains an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe as well as some mastery of time, “the simplest thing” the pinkness assures him.  All the while, he is pursued by antagonist forces.  One side wants to integrate the parries into society; the other would see them destroyed. 

If you’re a fan of Cliff’s, you know that he excels at writing these intensely personal stories, particularly when they have (as this one does) a rural tinge.  The former Fisherman’s transformation into something more than human is fascinating.  Blaine’s voyage of self-discovery and self-preservation is an intimate one, a slow journey with a growing and satisfying pay-off.  The parallels with and satires of our current issues with racial inequality (with “parries” being the stand-in for Blacks, Latins, Communists, Beatniks, etc.) are poignant without being heavy-handed.  The pace drags a little at times, and Simak adopts this strange habit of beginning a good many of his sentences with the auxiliary words “for” and “and,” which lends an inexorable, detached tone to the proceedings. 

Still, it’s an unique book, one that I suspect will contend for a Hugo this year.  It single-handedly kept Analog in three-star territory despite the relative poor quality of its short stories and science articles. 

Four-and-a-quarter stars.  Don’t miss it when it comes out in book form.

[May 14, 1961] Friendly disputes (June 1961 Analog)

I’ve got a long-running feud going on with Mike Glyer, editor of the popular fanzine, File 770.  Well, feud is probably too strong a word given that we’re good friends and avid mutual readers.  In fact, we usually get along quite well.  All fans are united by love for the genre and our status as oddballs, after all.  But Mike and I just can’t seem to agree on Analog, a monthly science fiction magazine.

Here are the indisputable facts: Analog is the elder statesman of the digests; it pioneered real sf back when all the other outlets were pushing pulp adventure.  Analog has the biggest circulation of any of the current digests, somewhere around 200,000 per month. 

Now for the disputable ones.  Analog is the most conservative of the mags.  It’s generally Terran-centric, with Earthlings portrayed as the most cunning, successful beings in the galaxy (which is why, of course, most aliens look just like us).  While the serialized novels in Analog are often excellent, the accompanying short stories tend to be uninspiring.  The science fact columns are awful.  Editor John Campbell’s championing of psionics and reactionless engines (in real-life, not just fiction), crosses into the embarrassing.  All these factors make Analog the weakest of the Big Three magazines, consistently lagging in quality behind Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Of course, Mike disagrees.  He’s even wagered that Analog will take the Hugo award for Best Science Fiction Magazine this year.  I think he’s dreaming.  F&SF has won three years in a row, and barring some unexpected decline in quality, it will do so again. 

I’ll take that bet, Mike Glyer!  Two beers to your one.

As evidence for my case, I present this month’s Analog, dated June 1961.

I will give Campbell credit where it is due.  While women are rare in Analog (as they are everywhere in published sf lit), Campbell does make an effort to “discover” female authors.  That’s how we got the delightful Pauline Ashwell, and now we have the promising Leigh Richmond.  Her first story, Prologue to an Analogue, involves a coven of witches that solves world crisis after world crisis with their televised incantations.  Is it sorcery, technology, or something entirely different?  A story that manages to be both Campbellian yet also pretty neat.  Three stars.

I’m not sure why L. Sprague de Camp’s Apollonious Enlists was included.  Normally, Sprague writes fun, light fantasy.  This piece is non-fiction, an essay on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Ptolemaic Egypt, with some pointed parallels drawn with our modern methods of government.  I guess there weren’t any fiction vignettes handy to fill the 8-page slot.  Two stars.

Fallen Angel shows us a far future in which the Terran dominion is but a small corner of a larger Galactic Federation.  We have something of an inferiority complex as, compared to the blond, perfect Grienan, leader race of the Federation, humanity seems barely out of childhood.  In fact, we have only made it as far as we have thanks to “Experiment,” an anarchistic enclave in which humans express their base impulses until they are thoroughly tired of them.  Only a small proportion of the population are truly incurable, and they become permanent residents.  It’s a program that seems barbaric to the rest of the civilized galaxy and is ridiculed accordingly.

In Angel, the aristocratic Grienan are taken down a peg when its ambassador volunteers to go through Experiment and loses all of his highfalutin culture and manners, almost losing his very humanity (Grienanity?) See?  Terrans really do know best!

High is a prolific writer who’s hitherto stayed on the British side of The Pond.  His latest work does little to recommend that he emigrate.  Two stars.

Lloyd Biggle Jr. is like a Cepheid star – highly variable.  His latest, Monument, may be the high point of his career to date.  I wasn’t optimistic.  The set-up involves a backward paradise planet, populated by (of course) completely human aliens, a marooned Terran who vows to protect the natives from a rapacious Earth Federation, and the inevitable coming of the representatives of said polity.  There’s no real science fiction in this tale of classic exploitation – you could transplant the “aliens” to an island in the Pacific Ocean and replace the Federation with the United Nations (and, perhaps, that’s the point; I prefer my analogies slightly less direct).

And yet.  It’s a well-told story, engaging throughout, and it’s fundamentally an honest one.  There are no gimmicks or silly twists.  Just a series of interesting scenes, compelling characters, and a problem to be solved.  Four stars.

The science fact this month, George Willard’s The Complex Problem of the Simple Weather Rocket starts well enough, describing the armada of radio balloons deployed daily by meteorological agencies, but it quickly degenerates into a fannish gush, recommending a switch to little sounding rockets based on the machines currently employed by model rocket enthusiasts.  Kind of a pointless article, especially given that weather balloons are cheap, and now they are augmented by the TIROS weather satellites with their hourly photos.  Two stars.

That leaves the third installment of Cliff Simak’s very good serial, The Fisherman, which I won’t review until it’s all done next month.  Running the numbers, Analog clocks in at a straight three of five stars: acceptable, but not astonishing.  Certainly not Hugo material.  At least not this year…

Sneak preview: Last night, the Young Traveler and I went to the drive-in to take in George Pal’s latest, Atlantis: the Lost Continent.  It was a hoot, and we’ll tell you all about it next time…on Galactic Journey!

[February 10, 1961] Two for two!  (March 1961 Analog)

Analog (my errant fingers keep wanting to type “Astounding”) was even better than last time.  This particular copy is a seasoned traveler, having ridden with me to the lovely shores of Kaua’i and back.  At long last, I’ve finished reading, and I can tell you about it.  A sneak preview: there’s not a bad piece in the book!

In lieu of a serial, nearly half of the issue’s pages are taken up with Mack Reynold’s novella, Ultima Thule.  My nephew, David, was so enamored with this one that he specifically recommended it to me in a recent letter.  It’s the story of Ronny Bronston, an agent employed by the mysterious Section G, responsible for maintaining mutual non-interference between the 2000 member planets of the Galactic Federation.  Bronston is sent on the trail of “Tommy Paine,” an elusive agitator who travels from planet to planet, upending the various status quos.  Can you figure out who Paine really is?  I particularly liked Bronston’s ‘assistant,’ the highly capable, and delightfully reproachful Tog Lee Chang Chu.  Reynolds never has trouble writing good female characters.  Three stars.

Cliff Simak is back with another rustic-themed story, Horrible Example.  Can a robot programmed to be the town drunk rise to be more than the sum of his code?  A sensitive piece in that inimitable Simak style.  Four stars.

G. Harry Stine used to be a professional rocketeer—until his calls to action in response to Sputnik rubbed his superiors the wrong way.  Now, he is a technology evangelist.  In his latest piece, Sub-Mach Rockets, he explorers the much neglected field of rocketry at speeds below the speed of sound.  Makes me want to build a baby missile or two!  Three stars.

The next piece was written with tongue firmly in cheek, a bit of engineering fluff by Maurice Price descriptively entitled, An Introduction to the Calculus of Desk-Cleaning.  See Price illustrate the correlation between engineer output and desk-based chaos; it’s surprisingly informative!  Four stars.

Next, we’ve got one of those “non-fact” articles, though it’s just billed as fiction.  The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel, by Arthur W. Orton, is a science fictional interpretation of the biblical book of Ezekiel.  It’s as good an explanation for that bizarre book as any!  Three stars

Now, I admit it.  I am biased toward stories of interstellar travel with ships and captains and interesting situations.  Poul Anderson’s Hiding Place is a wonderful puzzle cloaked in all the trappings I like: a refreshingly multi-racial starship crew finds itself trapped in deep space between a pirate fleet and a quickly diminishing provisions supply.  Only by making contact with a friendly alien ship do they have a hope of seeing the fires of home.  Unfortunately, said alien ship, a zoological vessel with a menagerie of beasts for its cargo, takes the humans for pirates and hides in the animal cages.  Can the terrestrials discern the sentient creatures from their beasts and plead their case in time?  Five stars.

That all adds up to a 3.5 star issue—well worth the half dollar you’ll fork over at the newsstand (less if you buy a subscription, which, if the quality continues to be this good, might be a fine investment).

Aloha!

[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!

[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!