Tag Archives: cyril kornbluth

[January 12, 1962] Odd one out (February 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction is a broad genre.  It includes hard scientific, nuts-and-bolts projections that read like modern tales with just a touch of the future in them; this is the kind of stuff the magazine Analog is made up of.  Then you’ve got far out stuff, not just fantasy but surrealism.  The kind of work Cordwainer Smith pulls off with such facility that it approaches its own kind of realism.  In this realm lie the lampoons, the parables, the just plain kooky.  They get labeled as “science fiction,” but they don’t predict futures that could actually happen, nor do they incorporate much real science.  Rather, they end up in the sf mags because where else would they go?  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction showcases this type as a good portion of their monthly offerings (appropriately enough — “Fantasy” is in the name).

Galaxy magazine has always trod a middle road, delivering pure scientific tales, fantastic stories, and pieces of psychological or “soft” science fiction that fall somewhere in between.  It’s that balance that is part of what makes Galaxy my favorite magazine (that and stubborn loyalty – it was my first subscription). 

The first Galaxy of 1962, on the other hand, veers heavily into the fantastic.  Virtually every story presented has a distinct lack of grounding in reality.  Does it work?  Well…see for yourself.

Fred Pohl and his lately deceased frequent partner Cyril Kornbluth wrote a whole lot together.  In fact, I think they’ve published more since Kornbluth’s death than while he was alive!  I have to think Pohl is doing most of the work on Kornbluth’s outlines, but perhaps there’s something mystical going on.  Anyway, Critical Mass is the latest from this duo, a satirical “if this goes on” piece combining the mania for construction of bomb shelters and the public passion for baseball.  An entertaining piece though lacking in nuance.  Three stars.

LaGrange points, those places of gravitational stability involving two celestial bodies, were the topic of a recent Asimov piece.  Willy Ley now discusses them in his latest science column, For Your Information: Earth’s Extra Satellites.  There’s interesting stuff here though I’m afraid the Good German no longer has the gift for presentation that the Good Doctor possesses.  Three stars.

Shatter the Wall is an odd piece by newcomer, Sydney Van Scyoc.  Television, now taking up entire walls of houses, has become the object of the world’s attention.  In particular, a prosaic domestic drama featuring four stars whom everyone tries to emulate.  Wall reads like a dream, and if taken in that way, is a neat story.  I found it a little too off-kilter to really connect, however.  You might feel differently.  Three stars.

There’s a new hobby I’ve discovered called “board wargaming.”  Players do battle using cardboard chits representing military units and a set of rules considerably more involved that those of, say, Chess or Checkers.  Avalon Hill, a publishing company, started the fad with Tactics II, a simulation of modern strategic warfare, and recently followed it up with a D-Day game and a couple on Civil War battles.

Now, imagine if the world stopped settling their differences with armed conflicts and instead resorted to simulated fighting. 

That’s the premise of James Harmon’s The Place Where Chicago Was.  All war is simulated, presumably facilitated by computer.  Big cities are not actually destroyed in enemy pseudo-attacks.  Rather, they are simply quarantined for twenty years and left to fend for themselves.  Residents are forbidden to leave; outsiders are restricted from entering.  To enforce the peace, giant psycho-transmitters are set up that broadcast pacifistic thoughts to the populace. 

It’s such an implausible idea that I have to think Harmon is attempting some kind of satire.  On the other hand, it doesn’t read like satire.  It’s well written, but I don’t quite know what to make of it.  Three stars.


by Cowles

The Martian Star-Gazers is a “non-faction” piece by Ernst Mason, whom I’ve never heard of.  It tells the sad story of the erstwhile inhabitants of the Red Planet, done in by their fear of the heavens.  I appreciated Mason’s take on Martian constellations, particularly their contrast with terrestrial counterparts.  Three stars.

Algis Budrys writes deep, thoughtful stuff with a somber edge.  The Rag and Bone Men features a stranded alien intelligence that has taken over the Earth but only wishes to be able to go back home.  Terran science simply isn’t up to the task, and neither are the mind-slaved humans who labor at it.  A weird, perhaps overly poetic story.  Three stars.

Ed Wellen is back with another non-faction “Origins” piece, Origins of Galactic Fruit Salad.  A catalog of intergalactic service decorations, it’s in the same vein as his last piece: Origins of the Galactic Short-Snorter.  Sadly, unlike that work, Galactic Fruit Salad commits the cardinal sin of any comedic piece – it’s not funny.  One star.

The Big Engine, by Fritz Leiber, is solipsism done backwards.  The world is a giant machine, all of its pieces playing preordained parts save for the few components that become self-aware.  There’s not much to this story, but I must confess that I found it all the more memorable for having read it on a busy street corner, where the thrum of Leiber’s mechanical world was most immediate.  Three stars.

The balance of the issue comprises Part 2 of Poul Anderson’s Day after Doomsday, which as I said in my last article, was disappointing in comparison to the promising first half. 

While I applaud the effort toward experimentation in this issue, the result is an oddly monotonous clutch of stories, no “real” sf here.  Each of the tales might have been decent sandwiched between traditional stories, but they become an abstract, off-putting blob in unrelieved combination.  Galaxy would do well to return to its heterogeneous mix of sf types; I think trying to beat Analog or F&SF at their own games would be a bit of a forlorn hope.

See you in two with a “Fantastic” update!

[July 15, 1961] Saving Grace (The August 1961 Analog)

Recently, I told you about Campbell’s lousy editorial in the August 1961 Analog that masqueraded as a “science-fact” column.  That should have been the low point of the issue.  Sadly, with one stunning exception, the magazine didn’t get much better.

For instance, almost half the issue is taken up by Mack Reynold’s novella, Status Quo.  It’s another of his future cold-war pieces, most of which have been pretty good.  This one, about a revolutionary group of “weirds,” who plan to topple an increasingly conformist American government by destroying all of our computerized records, isn’t.  It’s too preachy to entertain; its protagonist, an FBI agent, is too unintelligent to enjoy (even if his dullness is intentional); the tale is too long for its pay-off.  Two stars.

That said, there are some interesting ideas in there.  The speculation that we will soon become over-reliant on social titles rather than individual merit, while Campbellian in its libertarian sentiment, is plausible.  There is already an “old boy’s club” and it matters what degrees you have and from which school you got them.  It doesn’t take much to imagine a future where the meritocracy is dead and nepotism rules.

And, while it’s hard to imagine a paperless society, should we ever get to the point where the majority of our records only exist within the core memories of a few computers, a few revolutionaries hacking away at our central repositories of knowledge could have quite an impact, indeed! 

Flamedown, by H.B. Fyfe is a forgettable short piece about a spaceman who crashes onto the surface of a Barsoomian Mars and is trailed by a lynch mob of angry Martians.  There is a twist at the end, but it’s a limp one.  Two stars.

I don’t know who Walter B. Gibson is, but his impassioned defense of psionics in our legal system, The Unwanted Evidence, is wretched.  It reads like a series of newspaper clippings from the back page of the newspaper, or maybe one of those sensational books on UFOs and mystic events that are in vogue.  One star.

Analog perennial Randall Garrett, an author I tend to dislike (yet one of Campbell’s favored sons) gives us Hanging by a Thread, about an interplanetary ship holed by a meteor.  It could have been engaging, but the smug, detached tone, and the overly technical and uninteresting solution make this a dreary read.  Perhaps even Garrett knew he could do better; maybe that’s why he penned this one under the name “David Gordon.”  Two stars.


by Douglas

Laurence Janifer also appears a lot in Analog, often paired with Garrett (either as a true duet, or just side by side).  He’s usually the better of the two, but Lost in Translation is a typical lousy “clever Terrans beat aliens” story, not worth your time.  Again, it’s pseudonymous (Larry M. Harris), perhaps on purpose.  Two stars.

This is a pretty damning litany, isn’t it?  A series of 2-star stories and a pair of 1-star “science fact” articles.  Is there any reason I don’t just toss this issue into the kindling box?

There is.

Cyril Kornbluth shuffled off this mortal coil far too soon, some three years ago.  He wrote a lot, both by himself and with partners.  Perhaps his most famous partnership was with Fred Pohl, who now runs Galaxy and IF magazines.  The Pohl/Kornbluth pair is best known for their novels, including the acclaimed The Space Merchants, but they also produced a plethora of short stories.  Interestingly, many have only reached print after Kornbluth’s death.  I can only imagine these were skeletal affairs that Pohl has recently completed.

The Quaker Cannon, their latest piece, is very good.  It’s the story of First Lieutenant Kramer, a veteran of a war fought in the 1970s, between East and West.  In this war, he had been captured by the Communists and subjected to complete sensory deprivation as a torture and interrogation technique.  Unlike most of his captured compatriots, he neither went incurably mad nor held out until death.  He simply resisted as long as he could, then he cracked and gave up what he knew.  He was later repatriated.

Now 38 and still a First Lieutenant despite years of service, blacklisted from any significant role, he is suddenly recruited into Project Ripsaw: a new attempt to invade Asia.  As the commanding general’s aide-de-camp, he oversees Ripsaw’s growth from a cadre of three to an organization of hundreds of thousands, privy to all of the unit’s secrets and plans. 

As the vast force prepares to invade, Kramer learns of “The Quaker Cannon,” a parallel invasion unit that exists only on paper.  Its purpose is to serve as a blind to confuse the enemy as to the real plan.  The Soviets call this kind of deception maskirova, and it’s worked time and time again.

Just prior to D-Day, Kramer is betrayed to the enemy.  In short order, the Lieutenant is back in the “Blank Tank,” all of his senses completely deadened.  Hours pass by in seconds, each a drag on his sanity.  Though Kramer’s defiance is admirable, his ultimate submission, as before, is only a matter of time.  He, of course, divulges the Ripsaw plan in its entirety.  When Kramer returns to coherence, he is back home.  Rather than being punished for his lapse, he is given a high honor.

Ripsaw was the ghost.  “The Quaker Cannon” was the real invasion.  Kramer’s confession was all part of the plan.  The story ends with that reveal.

In the hands of Randall Garrett, or even Mack Reynolds, the focus would have been on the gimmick, to the detriment of the story.  Pohl and Kornbluth let Kramer be the narrator, albeit in a third person fashion.  They paint a vivid portrait of a battle-fatigued soldier, almost numb to life (as though he never left the Blank Tank) until Ripsaw gives him purpose again.  We are made to feel his anxiety at the thought and ultimately the reality of returning to the Blank Tank.  We feel disgust at his being used as a tool, yet we also fundamentally understand why.  Cannon is not a triumphant story.  It is a beautifully told, weary story of a weary man, not only capturing the psyche of a battered soldier, but also the perversity of the military structure and mentality.

Hard stuff, but it deserves five stars. 

So, as a whole, the issue gets just 2.2 stars.  Nevertheless, thanks to that half-posthumous pair, the August 1961 Analog will be reserved a place on my shelf, not in the garbage. 

[April 30, 1961] Travel stories (June 1961 Galaxy, first half)

My nephew, David, has been on an Israeli Kibbutz for a month now.  We get letters from him every few days, mostly about the hard work, the monotony of the diet, and the isolation from the world.  The other day, he sent a letter to my brother, Lou, who read it to me over the phone.  Apparently, David went into the big port-town of Haifa and bought copies of Life, Time, and Newsweek.  He was not impressed with the literary quality of any of them, but he did find Time particularly useful.

You see, Israeli bathrooms generally don’t stock toilet paper…

Which segues nicely into the first fiction review of the month.  I’m happy to report I have absolutely nothing against the June 1961 Galaxy – including my backside.  In fact, this magazine is quite good, at least so far.  As usual, since this is a double-sized magazine, I’ll review it in two parts.

First up is Mack Reynolds’ unique novelette, Farmer.  Set thirty years from now in the replanted forests of the Western Sahara, it’s an interesting tale of intrigue and politics the likes of which I’ve not seen before.  Reynolds has got a good grasp of the international scene, as evidenced by his spate of recent stories of the future Cold War.  If this story has a failing, it is its somewhat smug and one-sided tone.  Geopolitics should be a bit more ambiguous.  It’s also too good a setting for such a short story.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column immediately follows.  There’s some good stuff in this one, particularly the opening piece on plans to melt the Arctic ice cap to improve the climate of the USSR (and, presumably, Scandinavia and Canada).  Of course, if global warming happens on schedule, we won’t need any outlandish engineering marvels to make this happen; we can just continue business as usual.  Hail progress!

I also appreciated Ley’s reply to one of his fans, who asked why he rarely covers space launches anymore.  His answer?  They come too quickly!  Any reporting would have a 4-5 month delay – an eternity these days.  It’s hard enough for me to keep up.  Four stars.

The Graybes of Raath is Neal Barret, Jr.’s third story in Galaxy.  It should be a throw-away, what with the punny title, the non-shocker ending, and the hideous Don Martin art.  But this tale of a well-meaning immigration agency attempting to find the home of a family of itinerant alien farmers is actually a lot of fun.  Barrett is nothing if not consistent.  Three stars.

Now here’s a weird one.  Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth have a new duet out called A Gentle Dying.  Now, the two have worked together for many years; that’s not the surprising part.  Nor is the fact that the story, about an incredibly elderly and beloved children’s author’s last moments, is good.  No, it’s strange because Kornbluth has been dead for five years!  I can only imagine that Pohl (now de-facto editor of Galaxy, per last month’s F&SF) dusted this one off after having waited for the right venue/slot-size.  Three stars.

Last up is R.A. Lafferty’s absolutely lovely The Weirdest World.  Can a marooned alien blob find sanctuary, even happiness, among aliens so strange as those that live on Earth?  I’ve always kind of liked Lafferty, but this one is his best to date, with its gentle writing, and its spot-on portrayal of cross-species telepathy.  Five stars.

This column began with travel, and it ends with travel.  My wife and I are in Las Vegas for a weekend, enjoying the food and the sights.  Sinatra doesn’t seem to be at the Sands right now, but that’s all right.  We’ll catch Ol’ Blue Eyes another time.

While we were here, we ran into Emily Jablon, a famous columnist and Jet Setter who spends much of her time flitting across the world.  She gave us some tips on travel that were new even to us!  Of course, we introduced her to Galactic Journeying, and what better way than with this month’s Galaxy?

Wrapping up the December 1958 Galaxy (10-30-58)

On a walk down the block on a warm autumn afternoon, I finished the rest of the December 1958 Galaxy.  I’d worked my way backward from the end, as I’d wanted to finish the next installment of “Time Killer.”  Thus, I got to the lead novella, “Join Now” by Finn O’Donovan, last. 

Both the name and the style were familiar.  18 pages into the tale, I recalled that O’Donovan is a pen name for Robert Sheckley.  It is obvious from the writing style that it’s a Sheckley story, and given that Time Killer is being serialized in the same issue, I am not surprised Galaxy used a pseudonym.

Of course, this means that of the 142 pages, a good half of them were penned by Sheckley.  Galaxy is becoming Satellite (a bi-montly magazine which features a full-length, though short, novel plus a short story or two)!

Being a Sheckley short, it’s great.  It’s not science fiction, per se, or perhaps you might call it soft science fiction.  This is the kind of stuff Galaxy pioneered and Sheckley excels at.  This particular tale is about a “Splitter,” one of class of people in the future who splits his/her personality into three parts: the aggressive “id,” the conscientious and dull “superego,” and the fun-loving “libido.”  The superego remains in its own body while the other two parts are put into super-realistic androids. 

Traditionally, the polite superego stays on overcrowded Earth while the libido heads to Mars, which is mostly a fleshpot and tourist resort.  The tough id heads out to Venus, a wide-open jungle frontier.  Sheckley’s tale follows superego-bearing Crompton, as he travels to Mars and Venus, desperate to re-unite with his other parts. 

I think my favorite parts of the story involve Crompton’s libido-bearer, Loomis, and his speeches justifying his hedonistic lifestyle by which he makes fine money as a gigolo and escort.  There’s compelling satire here:

“Today everything is biased toward the poor as though there were some special virtue in improvidence.  Yet the rich have their needs and necessities, too.  These needs are unlike the needs of the poor, but no less urgent.  The poor require food, shelter, medical attention.  The government provides these admirably. 

But what about the needs of the rich?  People laugh at the idea of a rich man having problems, but does the mere possession of credit exempt him from having problems?  It does not!  Quite the contrary, wealth increases need and sharpens necessity, often leaving a rich man in a more truly necessitous condition than his poor brother.” 

To the question, “Why doesn’t the rich man give up his wealth,” Loomis replies, “Why doesn’t a poor man give up his poverty?  No, it can’t be done.  We must accept the conditions that life has imposed on us.  The burden of the rich is heavy; still they must bear it and seek aid where they can.”

The poor, poor rich people.  Also amusing is Loomis’ justifications for engaging in adultery.  He’s quite convincing, too…

Finishing up this month’s Galaxy is a short tale by the team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.  This was obviously written some time ago since Kornbluth died quite unseasonably of a heart attack in March of this year.  He was only 34 (places hand over heart).

The story is called, “Nightmare with Zeppelins,” and it is less science fiction than an exercise in writing anachronistically.  Specifically, it is a tale told by someone living during the Great War reminiscing about his travels in Africa in 1864.  It is fun, ironic stuff; the point of such an exercise, of course, is really to comment on the present.  I might try my hand at it some time.

Next up: December 1958’s F&SF!

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