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by Victoria Silverwolf
The pace at which innovations are arriving in these modern times is dizzying. This month alone, a remarkable array of novel products appeared:
A new commercial aircraft, the Boeing 727, made its first flight. It differs from the earlier 707 in having three jet engines rather than four. Intended for short and medium-length flights, it can use shorter runways at smaller airports than the older model requires.
The Coca-Cola Company introduced Tab, a new diet soft drink, in competition with Royal Crown Cola’s Diet Rite. An IBM 1401 computer generated more than 185,000 four-letter words containing one vowel as possible names for the product. The winning name, shortened from “tabb,”sometimes appears as “TaB,” with the first and last letters capitalized.
The Feminine Mystique is a recently published book by Betty Friedan that may lead to a new women’s movement, similar to the fight for voting rights in the early years of this century. It challenges the idea that the most fulfilling roles for American women are as housewives and mothers.
While we welcome all these new things, we should also remember the old. Telstar 1, which now seems like a part of history, although it launched only seven months ago, has ceased operating. Radiation in the Van Allen belt destroyed its delicate circuitry.
Popular music also featured a mixture of old and new in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers reached the top of the charts. Many listeners may not have realized that this catchy folk song is a remake of a tune first recorded by Cannon’s Jug Stompers way back in 1929. This revision of an old song yielded the Number One position later in the month to something brand new, Hey Paula, as sung by a duo calling themselves Paul & Paula. In my opinion, this is a case where newer isn’t better.
Fittingly, half the stories in the latest issue of Fantastic appear in print for the first time, while the other half date back to the previous century.
Physician to the Universe, by Clifford D. Simak
One of the biggest names in science fiction begins his most recent story in a mysterious fashion. A man awakes in a dark place with little memory of his past. Little by little, he remembers what happened to him. This is a future world where robots enforce strict health regulations. The man’s crime is failing to take care of himself. His punishment is exile to an island in the middle of a vast swamp. With two fellow prisoners, he undertakes the long and dangerous journey across the wilderness to freedom. Slowly, he recalls the extraordinary thing that happened to him as a child, and the important reason he must return to his home. This is a complex story, told with multiple flashbacks. Some scenes are full of lyrical beauty. One might quibble that the ending is sudden, and that the author makes use of too many speculative themes for a story of this length, but overall it’s compelling. Four stars.
A Question of Re-Entry, by J. G. Ballard
A major British author offers a science fiction version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in his latest story. A United Nations official travels deep into the South American jungle in search of a spacecraft that crashed there five years ago. He finds a tribe of Indians ruled by a white man who knows more about the missing vehicle than he admits. Ballard has a gift for vivid description, and the jungle setting truly comes to life. The plot is less effective, but adequate. Three stars.
An Apparition, by Guy de Maupassant
We begin a trio of reprints with this 1883 story, translated from French. An elderly man recounts the ghostly encounter he experienced as a young soldier. There’s not much else to this tale of the supernatural, which is really just an anecdote. Two stars.
The Wet Dungeon Straw, by Jean Richepin
Also from 1883, and also translated from French, this macabre little story involves a man held prisoner for decades. He becomes obsessed with drying out the wet straw on which he lies, exposing each piece to the tiny bit of sunlight he receives each day. This project takes many years, and leads to an ironic conclusion. Three stars.
His Natal Star, by Austyn Granville
This bagatelle from 1891 features an astronomer as its protagonist. The star under which he was born draws near the solar system, and its gravity causes him to be drawn toward it. The only purpose of this bit of absurd science is to show the fellow floating upside down in his home. One star.
Nine Starships Waiting, by Roger Zelazny
We return to new fiction with the longest story yet from this prolific young writer. It’s difficult to offer a synopsis of this confusing tale. Suffice to say that a super-assassin is sent to prevent a fleet of spaceships from conquering a planet. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and the assassin undergoes a strange change of identity, so the plot is difficult to follow. The story is overwritten at times, with many literary allusions. Two stars.
This disappointing issue, with a few bright spots, proves that both the old and the new contain good and bad.
[P.S. If you registered for WorldCon this year, please consider nominating Galactic Journey for the “Best Fanzine” Hugo. Your ballot should have arrived by now…]