Tag Archives: cordwainer smith

[Sep. 10, 1962] Leading by Example (the terrific October 1962 Galaxy)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Thirteen years ago this month, amidst the post-war boom of science fiction digests, Galaxy Science Fiction was born.  Its editor, H.L. Gold, intended his brainchild to stand above and apart from the dozens of lesser mags (remember those days of abundance?) with progressive and smart strictly SF stories.  He succeeded — Galaxy has showcased some of the best the genre has to offer, as well as a fine science fact column penned by Willy Ley.  The consistency of quality has been remarkable.

Two years ago, Fred Pohl, a bright authorial light already, took the helm from the ailing Gold.  If anything, he has improved on excellence, continuing to coax fine works from established authors and interesting pieces from new ones.  It helps that he, himself, can fill the pages with good material and often does….though I have to wonder if he gets paid when he does that.

If you were to pick any single issue to turn someone on to Galaxy (or to science fiction in general), you could hardly do better than to give them the latest issue (October 1962) of Galaxy.  Not only isn’t there a clunker in the mix, not only does it feature a new Instrumentality story by the great Cordwainer Smith, but it includes part one of an incredible new novel by the editor.

Wow.  I think I threw in more superlatives in the last three paragraphs than I have in the last three months.  I guess it’s time to show you what all the hubbub’s about:

The Ballad of Lost C’mell, by Cordwainer Smith

Many authors write in a consistent world.  Some are developed following an individual through her/his life in a series of stories.  Others might take place in a common setting but feature different protagonists.  Smith has introduced his Instrumentality universe through oblique flashes.  Each piece involves wildly different places and characters, each with a limited view of things.  Only after reading several of them does one get an idea of the nature of Smith’s creation.

Thousands of years from now, Earth has seen global empires rise and fall.  The current ruling entity is the Instrumentality, a council of pure-humans ruling over the people-citizens and genetically altered animal-subcitizens.  Technology caters to virtually every need; the world enjoys a purely service-based economy with the Underhumans providing the services.  For humans, Earth is a beautiful, magical place filled with strange wonders.  For the animal-people, enslaved to the pure humans, life is a struggle and punishments harsh.  We are beyond the familiar subtext of racism/chauvinism that suffuses Western stories – the relationship between the races hearkens to the rigid castes of Asia.  The animal-men may be cast in human mold, but their treatment is peremptory, inhumane.  And the humans are blithely unaware that their creations have the capacity to rebel…

C’mell is the most straight-forward of Smith’s Instrumentality stories, and it gives the sharpest insight, to date, of the world he’s created (though it by no means reveals all of its secrets).  As always, it displays Smith’s mastery of the craft, mixing showing and telling, romance and austerity, far-future and relatability.  Smith is an author who doesn’t put pen to paper unless it’s for a four or five-star story, and C’mell is no exception.  Five stars.

Come Into My Cellar, by Ray Bradbury

We’ve seen the plot where intelligent fungus take over humanity through forced symbiosis in Aldiss’ Hothouse stories.  Bradbury gives us a much more conventional setup, where the evil mushrooms send spores of themselves via mail-order catalog to be grown and ingested.  A nicely written but dumb story, and it has the same ending as All Summer in a Day, which is to say, Ray doesn’t bother to end it.  Three stars – about as good as Bradbury (not really an SF author) ever gets.

The Earthman’s Burden, by Donald E. Westlake

A competent if somewhat forgettable story of an arrogant, resurgent Terran star empire and the lost colony that promises to be more trouble than it’s worth to conquer.  There’s pleasant satire here, particularly of the buffoonish Imperials, but nothing we haven’t seen before.  In fact, I rather expected to find this piece in Analog (you’ll see why).  Three stars.

For Your Information: End of the Jet Age, by Willy Ley

A generation ago, propeller planes were the way to travel.  Now that they’ve been eclipsed by the jets, one has to wonder just how long our 707s and DC-8s will last before they are, in turn, replaced by the next mode of transportation.  Ley gives us an excellent preview of rocketplane travel in the 1980s as well as a spotlight on a living fossil and answers to readers’ questions.  Four stars.

A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede

Speaking of series, Doede has a third story in his tale of teleporting humans , who have exiled themselves from Earth using subcutaneous matter transmitters that work at the speed of thought.  This latest piece involves a dilettante archaeologist who’ll brave offending the Gods and even risk death to dig an ancient, abandoned site on Alpha Centauri II.  Another piece that shouldn’t work (why does the native speak perfect English?), but Doede always pulls it off.  Four stars.

How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon

Resigned to an 18-year hitch, the solo operator of a Martian atmosphere seeder resorts to building his own companions to preserve his sanity.  It’s a little bit McIntosh’s Hallucination Orbit (one wonders if the events of the story are really happening) tinged with Sheckley-esque satire and robotics.  But Harmon is not quite as skilled as either of these authors, and so the story ends up like most of Harmon’s work, never quite hitting the mark.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 1 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

How fragile our interconnected, technological world is.  How easy it would be for a few malicious demons, selectively possessing our bodies at propitious times, to utterly disintegrate our society.  Fast forward two years, after the world has reverted to feudal savagery.  Communities larger than the village are impossible.  Religion has revived in a last-ditch attempt to protect humanity from bodily appropriation.  One ex-engineer, name of Chandler, is on trial for a heinous assault he most assuredly committed, but which wasn’t his doing.  What justice can he find in a world where the dispensers of justice can, at any time, cease being themselves?

Pythons is a brutal, uncomfortable story, crushingly bleak.  It’s not the sort of thing I would normally go for, and I definitely caution against it if mind control pushes unpleasant buttons.  Yet Pohl executes the thing deftly, and he holds out the barest sliver of hope to keep you going.  I have no idea how Pythons will conclude, but if the latter half is as good as the first, we’ll have a minor masterpiece on our hands.  Four stars (for now…)

Roberta, by Margaret St. Clair

Roberta explores the lengths one might go to erase the wrongness they feel exists in themselves – and the possibility that it is impossible to escape that wrongness.  It is the first story I’ve read that explores the concept of transsexualism, and while it is not a positive story, it is an interesting one.  Three stars.

Bimmie Says, by Sydney J. Van Scyoc

While we’re on the subject of changing physical form, is it possible to be transCarnivorous?  In other words, what if cats and dogs can be made mutually intermalleable?  And if pets can be transformed, why not people?  Van Scyoc’s story is clearly inspired by Keyes’ hit, Flowers for Algernon, whose excellence it does not quite reach.  Still, it’s not bad, and I’m glad to see Sydney’s continuing her promising career.  Three stars.

Who Dares a Bulbur Eat?, by Gordon R. Dickson

Last up is the second in the adventures of the interstellar ambassadorial couple, Tom and Lucy Reasoner — a sort of Hammett’s Nick and Nora meets Laumer’s Retief.  In this installment, the Reasoners are tasked with attending a diplomatic banquet to find the weakness in the newly discovered Jacktal empire, a rapacious regime more powerful than the Terran Federation. 

It’s a bit of a muddle, and the title fairly spoils the piece, but the conclusion is great fun and worth the price of admission.  Three stars.

All told, this comes out to a 3.5 star issue, none of it tiresome, much of it amazing.  I am also happy to see that F&SF will not have the monopoly on woman writers this month.  It’s issues like this that buoy me through the lousy patches (like last month’s Analog).  I mean, suffering for art is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to have nice things to say!

Next up, let’s see how the October 1962 Amazing stacks up.  See you then!




[June 10, 1962] A star shall rise (July 1962 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I’ve said before that IF Worlds of Science Fiction is sort of a poor sister to Galaxy Science Fiction.  Since 1959, they’ve been owned and run by the same team; IF pays its writers less; the quality used to be markedly lower on average (with occasional stand-outs).

We seem to be entering a new era.  The July 1962 IF was a cracking read once I got past the first story, which was short anyway.  Not only were the stories fairly original, but even where they weren’t, the writing was a cut above.  And not in that arty, self-indulgent way that F&SF deems “literary,” but in a real way that emphasizes characterization.  It’s a departure from the mode of the 50s, particularly the lesser mags, where the focus was on the gimmick, with the actors playing second-fiddle to the plot.  Plus, Ted Sturgeon has made a permanent home here, which is always a good sign.

So read on – I think you’ll enjoy the trip.

Aide Memoire, by Keith Laumer

This latest story in the Retief saga is definitely the weak point of the ish.  Our omnipotent, long-suffering interstellar diplomat is sent to resolve a violent generational gap amongst a race of turtles.  It seems that members of this long-lived race grow shells as they age.  The agile young ones have been whipped to an irreverent fervor by humanity’s enemy, the Groaci.  It’s paint-by-numbers satire, and the Retief shtick, when unsupported by an interesting plot, wears thin.  Two stars.

From Gustible’s Planet, by Cordwainer Smith

Gluttonous, nigh-invulnerable ducks from another planet invade the Earth.  The result is not so much oppression as incessant annoyance.  I’m not sure where, or even if, it really fits into his “Instrumentality” universe, though it ostensibly is set there.  Anyway, the normally sublime Smith is reduced to offering us what is essentially a one-joke story, but it’s Smith, so it’s still worth reading.  Three stars.

The Chemically Pure Warriors, by Allen Kim Lang

A caste of humans have been bred to be septically pure, as clean of and as vulnerable to bacteria and viruses as any bubble baby.  Yet, they have also been trained for generations as humanity’s space troopers.  Such is their indoctrination that a movement has risen amongst them that they are the superior race, and the “Stinkers” or baseline humans, must ultimately be exterminated.

Warriors takes place on the colony world of Kansas where a battalion of these sterilized soldiers are based in the midst of a Japanese-extracted group of pastoral “Indigenous Humanoids.”  When one of the troopers attempts to go native, this proves the catalyst for a short-lived but terrible conflict between the two groups. 

IF experiments not only with writers and concepts, but with story lengths.  The novella just isn’t that common a format, but it works nicely here.  There is enough time to portray the spit-and-polish roboticism of the soldiers, the gentle Buddhism of the Japanese (the culture and language of whom is reasonably accurately portrayed – I have to wonder if Mr. Lang has spent some time overseas).  Warriors owes much to Dickson’s Naked to the Stars, or perhaps the time is simply due for a pacifistic sf movement.  My favorite passage:

“The ultimate breakdown in communication is silencing one side of the dialogue…  That’s why killing a man is the ultimate sin; it removes forever the hope of understanding him.”

Four stars.

Uncle Sam’s Time Machine, by Theodore Sturgeon

Seems old Ted was hosting a bunch of Scouts at his house, and their clocks had run down.  All were agog when he dialed into 2500 Khz on his radio and the ticking of the time station, WWV, filled the house.  Within 60 seconds, they knew exactly what time it was – to the billionth of a second!  Sturgeon was so pleased with the reaction of the boys that he decided to write in to the government to find more about the broadcaster.  The goldmine of information they sent him astounded and delighted him, so he passed it onto us.

Now you may feel differently about this article, but I loved it.  It doesn’t hurt that I am a Ham Radio fanatic, Morse-code fluent, and I tune into WWV (and its Hawaiian counterpart, WWVH) at least weekly.  But anyone can appreciate the sheer volume of information the Bureau of Weights and Measures squeezes into those clicks, tones, and messages you can hear if you tune in.  And they’re improving on the signal all the time.  A fine example of our taxpayer dollars at work, and a fun Sturgeon piece to boot.  Five stars.

The Recruit, by Bryce Walton

In the near future, a young punk is drafted into a government police force.  He swaggers through his role until the time comes to conclude his mission, a mission which is not clearly spelled out until the end.  The “teener’s” duty is a tantalizing mystery, and the conclusion is well set up.  It’s a brutal, vivid story by a fellow best known for his decades of pulp tales.  Recruit feels kind of like Sheckley on a dark day.  Four stars.

All That Earthly Remains, by C. C. MacApp

Amid the turmoil of a recent right-wing revolution in an Andean nation, a half-Hispanic American scientist is dispatched to the mountains to investigate a mysterious explosion.  The blast has exposed an underground complex, home to fantastic technologies.  Are its builders demons?  Aliens?  Or something more?

Ten years ago, this would have been a simple “gotcha” tale.  In MacApp’s hands, it’s a carrier wave for the interpersonal drama of a handful of the opposing personalities sent to explore the tunnels.  The enduring question they are presented – if there is concrete proof of God, will that make us all Atheists?  Four stars.

A Bad Town for Spacemen, by Robert Scott

A short, effective piece whose only failing is the rather clumsy expositional bit near the end.  But I like the sentiment, the double-meaning, and the otherwise strong implementation.  Four stars.

***

So there you have it.  An excellent 3.7 star issue, which is only really marred by the truly awful illos, which I suspect are mostly padding for length.  Definitely worth subscribing, as Editor Fred Pohl exhorts you to do at the magazine’s conclusion.  What are you waiting for?

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

[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

It doesn’t take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy.  Why Galaxy?  Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it’s 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I’ve seen in a long while.  Come take a look with me – I promise it’ll be worth your while.

First up is A Planet Named Shayol, by Cordwainer Smith.  Smith’s is a rare talent.  There are few writers who not only excel at their craft, but they somehow transcend it, creating something otherworldly in its beauty.  Ted Sturgeon can do it.  I’m having trouble thinking of others in this class.  Almost every Smith story has this slightly lilting, 10% off-plane sense to it. 

Shayol is set in the far future universe of the “Instrumentality,” a weird interstellar human domain with people on top, beast creatures as servants, and robots at the bottom of the social totem pole.  This particular novelette introduces us to the most peculiar and forbidding of Devil’s Islands, the planet Shayol.  Just maintaining one’s humanity in such a place of horrors is a triumph.  The story promises to be a hard read, yet Smith manages to skirt the line of discomfort to create a tale of hope with an upbeat ending.  Plus, Smith doesn’t shy from noble woman characters.  Five stars.

Robert Bloch comes and goes with little stories that are either cute, horrific, or both.  Crime Machine, about a 21st Century boy who takes a trip back to the exciting days of gangster Chicago, is one of the former variety.  Three stars.

Another short one is Amateur in Chancery by George O. Smith.  A sentimental vignette about a scientist’s frantic efforts to retrieve an explorer trapped on Venus by a freak teleportation mishap.  Slight but sweet.  Three stars.

I’m not quite sure I understood The Abominable Earthman, by Galaxy’s editor, Fred Pohl.  In it, Earth is conquered by seemingly invincible aliens, but one incorrigible human is the key to their defeat.  The setup is good, but the end seemed a bit rushed.  Maybe you’ll like it better than me.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science article is about the reclaimed lowlands of Holland.  It’s a fascinating topic, almost science fiction, but somehow Ley’s treatment is unusually dull.  I feel as if he’s phoning in his articles these days.  Two stars.


Art by Dick Francis

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, is another swing and miss.  An interesting premise, involving a race that reproduces parthenogenetically via musical stimulation, is ruined by a silly ending.  Two stars.

Jack Sharkey usually fails to impress, but his psychic first contact story, Arcturus times Three, is a decent read.  You’ll definitely thrill as the Contact Agent possesses the bodies of several alien animals in a kind of psionic planetary survey.  What keeps Arcturus out of exceptional territory is the somehow unimaginative way the exotic environs and species are portrayed.  Three stars.

If you are a devotee of the coffee house scene, or if you just dig Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, then you’re well acquainted with the Beat scene.  Those crazy kooks with their instruments and their poetry, living a life decidedly rounder than square.  It’s definitely a groove I fall in, and I look forward to throwing away my suit and tie when I can afford to live the artistic life.  Fritz Leiber’s new story, The Beat Cluster is about a little slice of Beatnik heaven in orbit, a bunch of self-sufficient bubbles with a gaggle of space-bound misfits — if you can get past the smell, it sure sounds inviting.  I love the premise; the story doesn’t do much, though.  Three stars.

Last up is Donald Westlake, a fellow I normally associate with action thrillers.  His The Spy in the Elevator is kind of a minor masterpiece.  Not so much in concept (set in an overcrowded Earth where everyone lives in self-contained city buildings) but in execution.  It takes skill to weave exposition with brevity yet comprehensiveness into a story’s hook – and it does hook.  Westlake also keeps a consistent, believable viewpoint throughout the story, completely in keeping with the setting.  I find myself giving it five stars, for execution, if nothing else.

Add it all up and what do you get?  3.3 stars out of 5, and at least one story that could end up a contender for the 1961 Hugos (I really enjoyed the Westlake, but I feel it may not be avante garde enough for the gold rocket).  Now that’s something to smile about!

[May 21, 1961] Pineapple Upside-down Month (June 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Have you ever heard/seen Karl Orrf’s Carmina Burana?  It’s an opera of sorts, the performance of a set of medieval poems to music.  It is likely that you’re at least familiar with its opening number, the catchy Oh Fortuna!.  Well, having seen Carmina, I can tell you that even Orff knew there wasn’t much to the rest of the piece – as evidenced by the fact that Oh Fortuna! gets performed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end.  You can snooze through the rest.

This month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction is like Carmina: a tremendous beginning followed by a largely snoozeworthy remainder.  I suppose that, if you want to complete the analogy, you can simply read the opening piece again after finishing the book.  You probably will.

For Cordwainer Smith’s Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.  Most tales of the future are either frustratingly conventional or completely opaque.  Not so in Boulevard, which features a world dominated by “Instrumentality”, an omniscient computer dedicated to the happiness of humanity.  16,000 years from now, after a placid, highly regulated existence, people are, at last, offered the luxury of uncertainty (or at least the illusion thereof). 

With just a few subtle strokes of his pen, Smith presents the trappings of an alien yet utterly believable world: the trio of reborn humans, programmed to think themselves French; the compelling homunculi, servant animals bred into a mockery of the human shape; the servile androids; the contrived movie-set surroundings; the ancient, decayed ruins of the old technology.  Moreover, Boulevard has a great story, the quest for meaning in a predestined world.  It’s a masterpiece – evocative and brilliant.  Five stars.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Crime on Mars is an adequate (but not exceptional) little art heist mystery.  I find it interesting that he publishes these very straight sf stories here rather than other, perhaps more suited, mags.  Perhaps there wasn’t room in the other digests (or perhaps F&SF pays the best rates!) Three stars.

George, on the other hand, by John Anthony West, is a dreadful slog: a henpecked husband slowly succumbs to a creeping paralysis over the course of an evening; the story is told mostly in shrill exchanges between the afflicted and his spouse.  One Star. 

Doris Pitkin Buck’s Birth of a Gardener is another domestic dispute piece with some vague nonsense about anti-matter.  Although Gardener makes good use of Buck’s personal expertise in horticulture, her knowledge of science is less complete.  Two stories.

Mark Twain’s reprinted A Curious Pleasure Excursion, an advertisement for a comet ride in the style of the great ocean cruises of the last century, is clever and funny — an all-too-brief island of quality in an sea of dreck (to continue the sailing metaphor).  Four stars.

Go for Baroque is the second woman-penned piece in the magazine, by mystery writer Jody Scott.  I think it’s about a crazy time traveler who cures the sane of our world with his chaotic, exuberant madness.  Maybe.  It’s hard to tell.  It is written in this “modern” style that I see more and more in more literary places, half stream-of-consciousness, half nonsense.  I really don’t like it.  Two stars.

By popular demand, I include this month’s pun-ishment, the latest tale of Ferdinand Feghoot.  Read at your personal peril.

Older writers are interesting.  They tend to stick to old techniques and tropes even as they adapt them to current themes.  Miriam Allen Deford’s, The Cage, reads like a Lovecraft tale, complete with a mad scientist regaling a young reporter of his horrifying plan.  In this case, it is the breeding of a race of super-insects to supplant humanity in the event of a nuclear war.  But the author somehow elevates the story to something more than the sum of its parts, steering it subtly to a thoughtful conclusion.  Three stars.

What do you get when you combine the carefree misogyny of Randall Garrett with the increasingly impenetrable prose of (the once masterful) Avram Davidson?  Why, Something Rich and Strange, about a connoisseur of seafood and women who sails off to find a mermaid to love, a task at which he is ultimately successful.  With many pages devoted to lurid descriptions of pescatory cuisine, I had a strong suspicion that the tale would end with the protagonist eating his fishy sweetheart.  Rather, it turns out that the siren is an old hag with, nevertheless, admirable culinary talents.  The punchline is thus, “She’s not much to look at, but she sure can cook!”  One star.

So perhaps I may end up owing my friend, Mike, a beer or two after all, since he may be right that 1961 will not be F&SF’s year to win the Best Magazine Hugo.  Normally my favorite of the Big Three SFF digests, F&SF came in at the bottom of the heap this month at just 2.75 stars.  Compare this to Analog’s 3 stars, and Galaxy’s stellar 3.5 stars. 

On the plus side, this month saw the most stories by women: four out of twenty-two.  I won’t call it a trend until I see this proportion again, of course.  Interestingly, the top contenders for Best Story were both written by Cordwainer Smith.  Maybe the fellow should start his own magazine…

[March 9, 1960] First shoe of the month (April 1960 Galaxy, 1st half)

Good old Galaxy magazine.  Dependable, occasionally brilliant, very thick.

So thick, that I traditionally break down my review of each bi-month’s issue into two articles, and who am I to buck tradition?  Without further ado, the April 1960 Galaxy.

First up is Earl Goodale’s Success Story, a surprisingly entertaining satire on an interstellar soldier’s life and career.  It’s sort of a cynical answer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  I don’t know much about Mr. Goodale—this is only his second story, as far as I can tell.

Clifford Simak must have a number of expensive bills to pay, for he’s published quite a number of stories this year already.  His latest, Condition of Employment, about a down-on-his luck engineer who is desperate to make one last flight home to Mars, is not as good as All the Traps of Earth, but better than The Gleaners, both of which came out last month (in F&SF and IF, respectively).  I particularly liked the disdain which the story’s protagonist felt for the ominpresent, oppressive greenery of Earth.  I feel some empathy—I grew up in the desert, and I find an unbridled environment of foliage (and its attendant insect populations) unsettling rather than attractive.

The Nuse Man is back, compliments of author Margaret St. Clair.  The Airy Servitor, about a thought-activated invisible butler much akin to Aladdin’s genie, is a lot of fun.  My favorite line: “Bert and Franny wore expressions suitable to persons who have just seen a dining room explode.”  Beware itinerant salesmen from the future bearing gifts they don’t understand.

When I saw Cordwainer Smith’s name on the cover, I became quite excited.  After all, his No, no, not Rogov was a tour de force.  The Lady Who Sailed the Soul has the trappings of a good story, it has the subject of a good story, but somehow it fails to be a good story.  This tale of the first and only relativistic interstellar spaceship pilot is overwrought and somehow anti-feminist despite having feminist protagonists.  Perhaps because they are such caricatures.  I also dislike stories where women are motivated solely by love for their man.


by DILLON

Finally, we have James Stamers’ Solid State, a dull tale of crystalline teleportation (as in using enlarged crystal lattices as vessels for instant transit) that I barely remembered even just after reading.  They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

That’s it for this batch.  See you when the other shoe drops!

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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Ol’ Reliable (April 1959 Galaxy, First Part; 2-02-1959)

Reading Galaxy is like coming home.

Galaxy is the only science fiction magazine that I have bought consistently since its inception.  For nine years, I have read every story, enjoyed every Willy Ley article, perused every Bookshelf column, reviewed every Gold editorial.

There are some who say that Galaxy’s heyday was the first half of this decade, and that the story quality has deteriorated some (or perhaps the content simply isn’t as revolutionary as once it was).  Editor Gold is famously exacting and difficult to work with, and now he’s paying less for content.  The magazine is down to a bimonthly schedule, and Gold is still suggesting there might be a letters column (padding at best, a slog at worst).

And yet…

Galaxy is consistent.  I rarely feel as if I’ve suffered when I close its pages.  I haven’t read any offensive Garrett or Silverberg stories in Gold’s magazine, and the Leiber stories Gold publishes are the good ones.  When Bob Sheckley appears in print, it’s usually in Galaxy.  Of course, this consistency results in a kind of conservatism.  The tone of the magazine has not changed in a decade even though the world around it has changed significantly.  It is not a liability yet, but as new authors and new ideas arise, I hope Galaxy can adapt to fit our new science fiction culture.

Enough blather.  My April 1959 Galaxy has arrived, and it’s time to tell you about it!

As usual, I’ve done a lot of skipping around.  My practice is to eat dessert first (i.e. the authors I know and love) and then proceed to the main course. 

First up was Ley’s excellent, if dry, article on the Atlantic Missile Range.  These days, you can’t go a week without hearing about some new missile launch, and the twin but not identical facilities of Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base are usually the launch point.  Ley gives a detailed account of his experiences witnessing a recent Atlas test.  It is a good behind-the-scenes.  Ley also describes “failures” philosophically explaining that they are always learning experiences even when they don’t achieve their mission objective.  Easy for engineers to understand, not so easy for those who hold the purse-strings.

I then, of course, jumped to “Finn O’Donnevan’s” (Robert Sheckley’s) The Sweeper of Loray.  Unscrupulous Earther wants to steal the secret of immortality from a race of “primitives” and gets more than he bargained for.  It’s a dark tale, especially the betrayal at the hands of his partner for the sake of preserving a thesis (similar in concept if not execution to Discipline by Katherine St. Clair). 

J.T. McIntosh can always be relied on to turn out a good yarn, and his Kingslayer does not disappoint.  Terran spacer has an accident while ferrying royal tourists and ends up in an alien pokey.  Can he get out?  Does he even want to?  The story does rely on a bit of silliness to keep the reader in the dark about the spacer’s fate until the very end, but it’s worth reading naytheless.

Finally for this installment, there is Cordwainer Smith’s When the People Fell.  The title says it all, but you’ll have to read the story to understand what it means.  The Chinese figure prominently in this tale of Venusian colonization, which should come as no surprise when you know that Smith is one of the world’s premier sinologists and godson of none other than Sun Yat-Sen!  A haunting story, it is also a commentary on the Chinese people and government… as well as a cautionary tale.  I don’t know if Chairman Mao would approve.

That’s that for now.  More in two days, like clockwork!



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What IF (the bad news; 1-31-1959)

Wow!

I do declare, the February 1959 IF really is something else.  Not a stinker in the book, and some truly excellent stuff.  If if had always been like this, I think it would have dislodged Astounding and jostled its way into the top tier of science fiction digests.

Without further ado…

The other day, I read in the newspaper that Andrei Gromyko (the Soviet foreign minister) lauded the strength of the Communist Bloc, stating that the counterbalance of the two superpowers actually insured against an atomic apocalypse.  Be that as it may, I don’t see how we can live persistently at two minutes to midnight without snapping some taut nerves.  The Last Days of L.A., by George H. Smith, is a brutal second-person piece about cracking up under the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.  I’d be very interested to see statistics on this phenomenon, because I bet it is happening quite often. 

I advise you not to read this piece right before going to sleep. 

Have you heard of Rosel George Brown?  She’s an up-and-comer, and Virgin Ground is her third published story.  It is a spin on the “pioneer spouse” trope: in this case, it’s brides for Mars.  This is another dark story with an unhappy ending, but there’s no question but that it’s well-written. 

I found Discipline, by Katherine St. Clair, to be excellent.  It is a tale of archaeological rivalry, but with a setting in space.  One has to wonder how often it happens that scientific integrity is squandered to preserve an attractive thesis.  In this story, one man’s pride spells another’s doom, but the ending is pleasantly unexpected.

Another newcomer is David R. Bunch.  His In the Jag-Whiffing Service is good, funny stuff, but it is so short that to tell you anything about it would spoil the whole thing.  Take my word for it.  Better yet, read it yourself.

Star of Rebirth, by Bernard Wall (of whom I’ve never heard; perhaps he is an incognito Damon Knight), is one of the few rays of light in this rather dark set of stories.  Set far in the future after a devastating nuclear war, it is a convincing and touching piece following the leader of a tribe of primitive survivors.  I liked it a lot.

Finally, you’ve probably all heard of Cordwainer Smith.  His No, No, not Rogov! is a piece of present-day scientifiction (yes, that word is still in vogue) about a husband-and-wife science team working in the Soviet Union; their super-secret work into the field of electric clairvoyance yields unexpected results.  Of all of the stories in this magazine, I predict this one may go down in history as a classic. 

I think I can see a trend in Damon Knight’s editorial choice.  Most of these tales are bleak things, though they are of indubitably good quality.  However, there is just enough hope leavening the mix to make the book palatable.  In any event, it is clear that Mr. Knight was a solid choice to navigate IF out of the sales doldrums.

Except I did promise you bad news, didn’t I?

Just after I’d picked up this magazine, I learned that publisher James L. Quinn is throwing in the towel.  IF is for sale, and there’s no telling when (or if) the magazine will resume publication.  It’s really a shame.  Mr. Knight really hadn’t had a chance to bring the magazine back from the brink, and I’m sure that he could have.

On the other hand, I don’t think his stable of authors will quit writing.  Maybe Galaxy will get enough material to go back to a monthly format.  Fingers crossed!

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for…. I’m not sure yet.  I’m playing this one by ear!



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