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[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I used to call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction “dessert.”  Of all the monthly sf digests, it was the cleverest, the one most willing to take risks, and the most enjoyable reading.  Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a slow but decided trend into the realm of “literary quality.”  In other words, it’s not how good the stories are, or how fun the reading – they must be experimental and erudite to have any merit.  And if you don’t get the pieces, well, run off to Analog where the dumb people live.

A kind of punctuation mark has been added to this phenomenon.  Avram Davidson, that somber-writing intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge and authorial credits that take up many sheets of paper, has taken over as editor of F&SF from Robert Mills.  Five years ago, I might have cheered.  But Davidson’s path has mirrored that of the magazine he now helms: a descent into literary impenetrability.  Even his editorial prefaces to the magazine’s stories are off-putting and contrived. 

I dunno.  You be the judge.

Gifts of the Gods, by Jay Williams

The premise of Gifts isn’t bad: aliens come from the stars to find Earth’s most advanced nation, and it turns out they’re the most primitive, technologically.  It’s three shades too heavy on the sermon, and it fails by its own rules (i.e. one can lambast states as a whole for not being perfectly self-actualized, but surely there are a thousand qualifying people within any given country that fulfill the ET’s requirements).  But then, these aliens seem to have shown up just to rub our noses in it.  Advanced indeed.  Two stars.

The Last Element, by Hugo Correa

Editor Davidson touts Sr. Correa as a brilliant find from Chile.  Sadly, this meandering piece involving (I guess) space soldiers who are undone in their attempts to mine a psychotropic mineral from a distant planet, feels incompletely translated from the Spanish.  It reads like an Italian sf film views.  Two stars.

The End of Evan Essant… ?, by Sylvia Edwards

A cute piece, more The Twilight Zone than anything else, about a fellow who is so determined to be a nebbish that he psychosomatically disappears.  It’s no great shakes, but at least it has a through line and is written in English.  Boy, my standards have dropped.  Three stars.

Shards, by Brian W. Aldiss

The editor advises that one give this story time to make sense lest you judge it prematurely.  He has a point.  This piece innovatively describes a traumatic out-of-body experience, and when you know the context, it’s not bad.  On the other hand, the context is laid out with surprising artlessness especially given the effort Aldiss puts into the first part (which is only readable in hindsight).  Three stars for effort, though your meter may hover at one star through most of the actual experience.

The Kit-Katt Club, by John Shepley

Something about a young, serious boy who abandons his starlet mother’s dissipated hotel life to frequent a bar with a literal menagerie of clientele.  I didn’t understand this story, nor did I much like it.  Maybe I’m just bitter at being made to look foolish.  Two stars.

To Lift a Ship, by Kit Reed

One of the few bright lights of this issue is Reed’s take on love, hope, greed, and despair involving two test co-pilots of a psionically driven aircraft.  I love how vividly we see through the eyes of the protagonist, and the subtlety (but not to the point of obtuseness!) with which the story unfolds.  Four stars.

Garvey’s Ghost, by Robert Arthur

I haven’t seen much from Arthur lately.  His stories have all been pleasant, fanciful fare and this one, about a most contrary ghost and the grandson he haunts, is more of the same.  Three stars.

Vintage Wine, by Doris Pitkin Buck

The English professor from Ohio is back, this time with a piece of ‘cat’terel (as opposed to the canine variety, which is not as good) that I actually quite enjoyed.  Four stars.

Moon Fishers, by Nathalie Henneberg

Charles Henneberg was a popular French fantasist who, sadly, passed away in 1959.  His wife, with whom he collaborated, has taken it upon herself to flesh out a number of remaining outlines for publication, Damon Knight providing the translations.  She has written well before, but her talents fail her this time.  This tale of time travel, Atlanteans, and ancient Egypt fails to engage at all.  One star.

The Weighting Game, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor takes on the subject of elements and how we determined their mass.  Just discovering that elements had mass was a critical step in understanding the nature of atoms.  Sadly, this article is really a highly abridged and much compromised version of his excellent book, The Search for the Elements, which came out two months ago.  I recommend you grab a copy and skip this article.  Still, substandard Asimov is still decent.  Three stars.

Test, by Theodore L. Thomas

A vignette about failing a driving test.  There’s the germ of a good story here, but the ending is too abrupt and affected to work.  Two stars.

Three for the Stars, by Joseph Dickinson

This piece is noteworthy for having one of the least intelligible Davidson prefaces.  Other than that, its a rather overwrought story about a chimp sent to Mars and back, and the scars he bears of the Martians he met.  Satire or something.  Two stars.

***

This issue ends up with a lousy 2.4 star score – by far, the worst magazine of the month, and possibly the worst F&SF I’ve read!  It’s a disappointing turn of events.  F&SF used to be the smart sf mag, and last month’s issue was a surprise stand-out.  With the arrival of Davidson, F&SF seems to be careening back toward smug self-indulgence.  I see that the back cover no longer has pictures of notables heaping praise on the book.  I wonder if they’re jumping ship… 

[March 12, 1962] Must come down… (The Twilight Zone, Season 3, Episodes 21-24)


by Gideon Marcus

and


by Lorelei Marcus

[I’ll let the Young Traveler lead this time.  She’s put her finger on what we enjoy and don’t about The Twilight Zone]

Guess who’s back with another The Twilight Zone review! Well, I personally prefer Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I’m afraid you came here for a The Twilight Zone review, so I suppose I’ll have to comply. As usual, me and my father watched four episodes of Sterling’s show over these past four weeks.

Kick the Can, by George Clayton Johnson

We seem to have found a common theme in all of the very highly rated episodes. Specifically, that we hate them! For example, we have the classic gem, Eye of the Beholder, where the episode can be summed up with: “Oh they’re taking off the bandages… Oh, they’re still taking off the bandages….. Oh, they’re STILL taking off the bandages…… snore.”

This episode was no exception. It was about a group of old people at a retirement home who, through playing a children’s game, are able to become young again.  I wouldn’t say we hated this episode, like we did many other popular ones, but it certainly wasn’t groundbreaking like many make it out to be. There was no real twist, and the only mystery aspect was if they were actually going to turn into kids by the end of the episode. I’m sure it probably didn’t help that I’m not very familiar with kick the can either. I prefer skipping rope, or, of course, watching television. All joking aside, I believe this episode wasn’t exactly bad, but also didn’t go anywhere. It sort of just dragged on without resolving itself. In my opinion, it certainly doesn’t deserve the popularity it got. 1.5 stars.


by Gideon Marcus

Where some see sentimental genius, I see mawkishness.  The setup could have been done in half the time, leaving plenty of room for some sort of poignant decision the part of the protagonist.  I would have enjoyed the crusty old fellow making the deliberate choice to finish his years naturally.  This would address fundamental questions of existence: Is it worth reliving the past when it is the sum of one’s experiences that make a life?  Is there, perhaps, more value in the arc of an existence fully enjoyed?  2 stars.

A Piano in the House, by Earl Hammer


by Lorelei Marcus

I would say this second episode was a great example of a simple concept done right. A bitter art critic gets a self-playing piano for his wife’s birthday, but the peculiar thing is it causes the people hearing its music to reveal their true emotions, brought forth in the flavor of the particular song that is playing. The man, being a sadist, decides to cruelly use it on the house guests attending his wife’s birthday party. In the end, the wife plays a specific song that causes the sadist to spill his darkest fears, humiliating himself. This episode really left a feeling of a mixture of bitterness and awe the way only The Twilight Zone can do. It was very simple, and yet entertaining all the same. I also very much liked the theme of, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself,” that was clearly displayed throughout the episode.  3.5 stars.


by Gideon Marcus

This piece might not have been nearly as interesting without the entertaining portrayal of the critic by skillful Barry Morse.  His lines are genuinely funny, and he turns a mediocre script into a compelling performance.  Three stars.

The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank, by Montogomery Pittman


by Lorelei Marcus

For once me and my father’s opinions on an episode differed, if only by a little bit. This third show was about a young man rising from the dead, and how the people around him react and adjust. The mystery of the episode is whether he’s a demon, actually alive again, or something else. I won’t tell you which one it is, because I don’t entirely know myself! This episode left on a bit of a cliffhanger, though it is fairly easy to extrapolate and theorize from what they give you. I personally wasn’t very fond of all the people hating and being suspicious, but I know my father enjoyed it, so I’m happy about that. 2 stars.


by Gideon Marcus

It’s all right to disagree.  Two travelers separated by thirty years shouldn’t have altogether identical opinions, should we?  It’s the performances that sell this episode (as is often the case in this show), and there’s no denying that the opening scene is an indisputable gotcha.  That said, this episode tries to have it both ways – lambasting ignorance and prejudice while undermining said condemnation by showing the townspeople likely had the right to be suspicious of the erstwhile corpse.  Three stars.

(fun fact: Ed Buchanan, who played the doctor who pronounces Myrtlebank dead, and then alive, showed up two weeks later on an episode of Thriller as…you guessed it – a doctor!)

To Serve Man, by Rod Serling (based on a story by Damon Kinght)


by Lorelei Marcus

Lastly, we have last week’s episode! In the short time its been out, this episode has also gotten a high rating by many. I won’t say much about the episode to avoid spoiling it, but I will say that I didn’t catch the twist until the end. I have mixed feelings about this episode. It was light and dark at times, but seemed to just drag on throughout. I suppose you could say that this episode was thoroughly mediocre, and I probably will forget it in the future. 1.5 stars.


by Gideon Marcus

I didn’t like this story when it was a jokey throwaway in the November 1950 Galaxy, and I like it even less played straight.  Moreover, could they get someone dopier looking than Richard Kiel (who “played” the alien)?  Lots of telling, not a lot of showing, and a punchline only Benedict Breadfruit could love.  One star.


by Lorelei Marcus

Overall, we had a mix of really good, really bad, and just in between episodes this time around. They total up to an average of 2.125 out of 5 stars. Despite the below average score, I’m still somewhat excited to review the next batch of episodes. I’m hoping we’ll have a more reliable batch of good episodes in the future, but you never know. I’m counting on you Serling! Until next time!

This is the Young Traveler, Signing off.


by Gideon Marcus

What she said…

[Nov. 26, 1961] End of the Line (December 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s the end of the year!  “What?” you exclaim, “but it’s only November!”  True that, but the date on my latest Fantasy and Science Fiction says December 1961, and that means it is the last science fiction digest of the calendar year that will go through my review grinder.

F&SF has been the best magazine, per my ratings, for the past several years.  Going into this final issue, however, it has lagged consistently behind Galaxy.  Would this final issue be enough to pull it back into 1st place?  Especially given the stellar 3.8 stars rating that Galaxy garnered last month?

Well, no.  I’m afraid the magazine that Bouchier built (and handed over to Mills) must needs merit 8 stars this month to accomplish that feat.  That said, it’s still quite a decent issue, especially given the rather lackluster ones of the recent past.  So, with the great fanfare appropriate to the holiday season, I present to you the final sf mag of 1961:

Damon Knight seems have gotten a gig as editor Mills’ favored French translator.  Perhaps the job was in compensation for Knight’s having been laid off as book editor for his scathing (unpublished) review of Judith Merril’s The Tomorrow People.  Claude Veillot’s The First Days of May is a grim story of a Parisian survivor after the devastating invasion of the bug people from outer space.  Beautifully told, but there are no happy endings here.  Four stars.

My friend, Herbert Gold, returns with The Mirror and Mr. Sneeves.  Well, I shouldn’t say returns given that this rather unremarkable story, about a frigid husband who swaps bodies with more vivacious men, was first published in 1953.  Notable mainly for its literary gimmicks and copious sexual teases, I was first inclined to give it just two stars.  However, I found myself remembering the story long after I’d finished it, and that’s usually a sign of quality.  Three stars.

You’ll definitely remember Anne Walker’s The Oversight of Dirty-Jets Ryan for its almost impenetrable future slang (which reads a lot like current slang with a few space-related words thrown in).  Well, it’s also a good story, this tale of a none-too-legal trading expedition from Callisto to an alien world.  I’d expect nothing less from the lady who brought us the high point of the August 1959 Astounding.  Three stars.

On the other hand, Will Stanton’s You Are with It! is pretty lousy.  Something about a game show in which persons become thoroughly absorbed in the role they play.  Two stars.

The Fiesta at Managuay is an excellent piece by John Anthony West, a metaphor for the destruction of native culture by more “civilized” societies.  If you find yourself in the tourists of Managuay, be justifiably concerned.  And if you do not, look harder.  Four stars.

Isaac Asimov’s science fact piece this month, The Trojan Hearse, is an interesting article on Lagrange Points, those points of relative gravitational stability one finds between a big world and an orbiting companion.  For instance, the Sun and Jupiter, or the Earth and the Moon.  The timing is fortunate given that I plan to write about Jupiter (and its “Trojan Points”) next month!  Four stars.

I can’t quite tell you why I loved Hal Draper’s Ms Fnd in a Lbry: or, the Day Civilization Collapsed so much.  Perhaps for its frightening, if satirical, plausibility.  Or maybe because I’m an archivist as well as someone who went through a graduate program where the professors were more interested in the cataloging of knowledge than knowledge itself.  Read it and tell me if it strikes you as it struck me.  Five stars.

Last up is the conclusion to Brian Aldiss’ “Hothouse” series (soon to be a fix-up book), Evergreen.  Sadly, what started out so imaginative and interesting has degenerated to near unreadability.  The more said about this future, sun-blasted Earth, the less plausible it gets, and the strained dialogue makes this apocalyptic travelogue a slog(ue).  Two stars. 

And so ends the year for F&SF, and with that, the magazines for all of 1961.  At last, I can dig out my graph paper and copious notes and start compiling data for this year’s Galactic Stars awards!  I hope you’ll look forward to them as much as I do!

[January 12, 1961] A matter of taste (February 1961 Galaxy, Part 2)

How should I rate a story which is objectively well done, but which I just don’t like? 

We taught our daughter manners at a very early age.  When she encountered a food she didn’t enjoy, she was to say, “This is not to my taste,” rather than something more forceful and potentially bruising of feelings.  I recognize that my readers are turned on by different things than I am; one person’s trash is another’s treasure, etc.  But at the end of every review, I have to come up with a numerical score, and that score necessarily reflects my views on a piece. 

This conundrum is particularly acute with the current issue of Galaxy, dated February 1961.  None of the stories are bad.  Many are well crafted, but I found the subject matter in some of them unpleasant.  But they may be the bees knees for you.  Take my reviews with that disclaimer in mind, and you should be all right.

I covered the first half the issue time-before-last.  I’d rated all of the stories a solid three stars–reader feedback indicated that they liked the stories more than I (which is what led to the musings with which I started this column).  Part two begins with C.C.MacApp’s The Drug.  Is the ability to transcend one’s consciousness beyond one’s skull the key to eternal health and happiness?  An exploration of a fun idea as well as a pleasant slice-of-life depiction.  Three stars.

Gordy Dickson is back with An Honorable Death, contrasting a decadent but advanced Terran society with a primitive, vibrant aboriginal culture.  It’s got a wicked sting in its tail.  This is one of those stories that made me uneasy, but whose quality is undeniable.  Three stars… but you may give it more.

One of my readers once said that he “bounces” off Daniel Galouye, a writer with real talent, but whose writing is not to everyone’s taste.  I happen to like his stuff quite a lot, though his latest, The Chaser, about two spacewrecked fellows on a planet whose population is engaged solely in romantic games of tag, doesn’t seem to have much of a point.  Three stars.

Damon Knight offers the cutting and unpleasant Auto-da-fe, about the last man on Earth and the 59 sentient canines over whom he reigns.  As he reaches his last years of life, will he allow the dogs to breed and thus become master of the Earth?  Another off-putting story of high quality.  Three stars.

Rounding things out is a delightful novelette from the master of interstellar adventure, Murray Leinster.  Doctor shows us a galactic polity of humans imperiled by a plague that appears unstoppable, but is, for the moment, limited in scope.  Just one planet has succumbed, but its sole survivor, a precocious 10-year old girl who has lived her life in an aseptic bubble, has been shipped off-world in defiance of quarantine.  Is she infected?  If so, has she doomed the inhabited universe to destruction?  Or is she the key to the plague’s eradication?  Leinster’s viewpoint character, the spaceship’s doctor who must deal with the enormity of the situation, is a compelling one, and I greatly liked the relationship forged between him and the girl.  Four stars.

Add it all up, and you’ve got an issue that barely tops three stars–enjoyable, but not superlative.  I don’t think that tells the whole tale, however.  Galaxy (and its sister, IF) are taking chances, and for that, they are to be commended.  I’m very interested to know how you feel about these stories.  Drop me a line, would you?

My editor says I’ll get more response if I include a picture of a pretty girl and a cat…  Is she right?

[June 11, 1960] Fool me once… (July 1960 Amazing)

If there is any innovation that defined the resurgent science fiction field in the 1950s, it is the science fiction digest.  Before the last decade, science fiction was almost entirely the province of the “pulps,” large-format publications on poor-quality paper.  The science fiction pulps shared space with the detective pulps, the western pulps, the adventure pulps.  Like their brethren, the sci-fi pulps had lurid and brightly colored covers, often with a significant cheesecake component.

Astounding (soon to be Analog) was one of the first magazines to make the switch to the new, smaller digest format.  Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and a host of other new magazines never knew another format.  By the mid-’50s, there were a score of individual science fiction digests, some excellent, some unremarkable.  It was an undisputed heyday.  But even by 1954, there were signs of decline.  By the end of the decade, only a handful of digests remained.  The “Big Three” were and are Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy (now a bi-monthly alternating production with a revamped version of IF).  Also straggling along are Fantastic Stories and Amazing, the latter being the oldest one in continuous production.

My faithful readers know I don’t generally bother with the last two titles.  Although some of my favorite authors sometimes appear in them, the overall magazine quality is spotty, and my time (not to mention budget!) is limited.  Nevertheless, Rosel George Brown had a good story in Fantastic last month, and this month’s Amazing had a compelling cover that promised I would find works by Blish, Bone, Clarke, and Knight inside. 

I bit.  This article is the result.

Last time I covered Amazing, I noted that the magazine was a throwback both in writing style and plots.  Things haven’t changed much.  Though there are a couple of decent stories in here, I wouldn’t buy a subscription based on what I read. 

In brief:

J.F. Bone has written some fine stuff.  Noble Redman, about a psionically endowed, red-hued Earthman who teams up with a Martian lowlife (both of them humans), is not one of his best tales, but it’s inoffensive 3-star fare.

A good portion of the book is taken up with William F. Temple’s novella, “L” is for Lash.  This is pure early ’50s stuff: a retired cop named Fred (I don’t think we ever learn his last name) is haunted by the criminal he put away decades before, and who was interned for life on Venus.  The convict somehow managed to escape, go on a robbing spree, and attain eternal youth and invulnerability to boot.  The protagonist’s solution is not only implausible, it’s actually inconsistent. 

I’ll spoil things for you: Lash, the criminal, has perfect telekinetic control of everything around him.  Missiles, A- Bombs, guns, all are ineffective against him.  We are told later in the story that the first of Lash’s murders had been designed to look like an accident.  He had angered a fellow to the point of firing on Lash, but Lash had gimmicked the assailant’s gun to fire backward, thus killing its owner.  At the end of Lash, the hero visits the Scotland Yard crime museum (is there such a place?) to view this unique weapon.  He then uses his powers of prestidigitation to swap his current gun for the gimmicked gun.  When Lash inevitably shows up to force Fred to kill himself, the gun shoots backwards and hits Lash. 

Perhaps Lash was taken by surprise.  I can forgive that.  But there is sloppy writing here.  Before the swap, Fred rewires his standard gun to stun rather than kill its targets.  After the swap, he wires the gun back for killing.  Except the trick gun had never been set to stun.  An author and her/his editor really should proofread a work before it is printed.  I understand that Temple wanted to keep the reveal a secret until the end, but this was just sloppy.

If you liked David Bunch’s A Little Girl’s Xmas in Modernia, set a world where, as people mature, they swap out their fleshly components for robotics, then you might enjoy Penance Day in Moderan.  This one involves an annual meeting of generals; they wage war on each other in a casually enjoyable way the other 364 days of the year.  Bunch’s suite of satirical stories has largely been published in Fantastic and Amazing, so I’ve missed them.  If you like them, seek them out!

Murray Yaco, who helped contribute to the poor quality of the October 1959 Astounding is back with the mediocre Membership Drive, about the first contact between an all-too humanoid alien and modern humanity.  The ending particularly bothered me for its callous treatment of the one female character; you may feel differently.

One of the reasons I’d purchased the magazine was the non-fiction article by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke.  A New Look at Space is not really a factual article in the style of Ley or Asimov.  Rather it’s just a four-page puff piece explaining how great Space is and how soon we’ll get there.  I’m not sure what occasioned him to write this space-filler.  Disappointing.

It turns out that the Blish story, …And all the Stars a Stage, is actually the fourth part of a four-part serial.  The description didn’t grab me–male hero leads a rebellion against a stifling matriarchy, so I won’t seek out the other three parts.

Finally, the Knight (Damon, that is).  Time Enough, or Enough Time, depending on whether you believe the Table of Contents or the story’s title page, is a decent coda to the issue.  In the near future, a psychiatrist invents a kind of time machine.  Whether it actually allows one to go back in time or simply return to an episode in one’s personal history is left vague.  The story focuses on an individual who attempts to rewrite an humiliating episode from his middle-school days, one that the patient feels is responsible for his problems in adulthood.  He is unsuccessful in his mission.  His doctor gently reminds his patient that the failures of the past are sometimes best left forgotten, and efforts better spent on improving the present person.  Nevertheless, the patient resolves to keep trying until he succeeds.  “There’s always tomorrow,” the patient states, the irony being that the patient is using his tomorrows to adjust the past rather than to forge a new future. 

It almost goes without mentioning that women are virtually nonexistent, and there are no female writers.  Amazing is still the most conservative of the digests, even more so than Astounding.  I’ve predicted its demise for some time, yet it manages to defy my expectations.  Maybe there are few enough digests now that Amazing‘s share of the market is big enough to sustain it.  Or perhaps its 35 cent price tag, the lowest of the digests, is the secret to its survival.

[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!

[Nov. 26, 1959] Happy Thanksgiving! (December 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Happy Thanksgiving!

This season, we have much to be thankful for, but I am particularly thankful that I ended this publishing year on a high note—the December Fantasy and Science Fiction.

If anything could get out the taste left by this month’s Astounding, particularly the Garrett story, it’s F&SF.  In this case, the lead novelette, What now, little man? by Mark Clifton, was the indicated antidote.

Clifton addresses the issue of racial abuse head on with this excellent tale.  On a distant mining colony, humans have only one native source of food—the bipedal, humanoid “Goonie.”  When the colony was first inhabited, the Goonies were deemed unintelligent by human standards.  They seemed to have no culture, and they let themselves be slaughtered without so much as a peep of protest.

Then they proved to be trainable.  At first, they performed simple beast-of-burden chores, but over time, they learned more sophisticated skills.  By the time of the story, many can read and write, and one exceptional example can perform as an accountant.

This tale is that of a man wracked with conscience.  This farmer, who was the first to train a Goonie to perform advanced mathematical services, is convinced that the slaughter of Goonies is wrong.  To champion this cause, he is willing to put his life on the line, though it turns out that a female sociologist from Earth employs better, non-lethal methods to effect change, or at least to set the world on the course of change.

The protagonist, and the reader, are left with the fundamental questions: What defines intelligence?  Who defines intelligence?  Can one justify making the definition so rigid as to exclude members of one’s own race?  And what do the Goonies represent?  True pacifists?  The ultimate survivors?

Good stuff.  Four stars.

Dr. Asimov has another fine article, this one on the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere.  It’s well timed, perhaps on purpose, as I’d just read a scholarly article on a new revised atmospheric model.  We’ve learned a lot in just three years of satellite launches. 

I’ve never heard of Gerard E. Neyroud.  His Terran-Venusian War of 1979, in which Venus conquers the Earth with love, but subsequently devolves into civil war, is glib and fun, if rather insubstantial.

Marcel Aymé has another cute short translated from the French.  The State of Grace is about an (un)fortunate fellow whose saintliness is blessed with a halo only a few decades into his life.  This quickly becomes a terrible annoyance to his wife, who begs him to do something about it.  His solution: to sin like there’s no tomorrow.  Yet, no matter how far he indulges himself in the seven deadly sins, he cannot rid himself of the damned thing.  The moral is, apparently, piety will out, even when covered in degradation.

Stephen Barr’s The Homing Instinct of Joe Vargo is chilling stuff, indeed.  An expedition to a mining planet finds a truly unbeatable creature.  Ubiquitous, cunning, and virtually indestructible, “It” is a translucent blob that kills by extruding threads of incredible strength, constricting its prey, and slicing it alive.

Only one fellow, the eponymous Joe Vargo, is able to survive thanks to equal parts wisdom and luck.  The ending of the story is unnecessarily downbeat, and also implausible.  As with Poul Anderson’s Sister Planet, one can excise the coda and come away with a perfectly satisfying story.

Jane Rice has another good F&SF entry with The Rainbow Gold.  Told in folksy slang, it is the story of a somewhat magical (literally) yokel family and their quest to secure that legendary pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  It’s a lot of fun, and it has a happy ending. 

damonknight has, perhaps, the best line of the issue in his monthly book column.  Writing of Brian Aldiss, he says, “If the writer ever does a novel with his right hand, it will be something worth waiting for.”

The Seeing I is Charles Beaumont’s new column on science fiction in the visual media.  In this installment, he details at length his involvement with the new show, The Twilight Zone.  It’s an absolutely fascinating read, and it just goes to show that things of quality can still be made, on purpose, so long as people are willing to invest the time and energy into the endeavor.

Finally, we have Robert Nathan’s A Pride of Carrots, written as a radio play.  That’s because it actually was a radio play a couple of years ago on CBS.  The prose has been substantially embellished, but it’s largely the same story.  At least, I think it is.  I’m afraid fell asleep during the last act of the radio show.

I won’t spoil the plot, save that it involves the planet Venus, two warring states peopled by vegetables, two visitors from Earth, and an interracial love triangle. 

But is it good, you ask?  Well, it’s silly.  It’s not science fiction, but it is occasionally droll.  Try it, and see what you think. 

That wraps up the year.  I’ll be compiling my notes to determine which stories will win Galactic Stars for 1959.  I’ll make an announcement sometime next month.

In the meantime, enjoy your turkey.  I’ll have more for 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. 5, 1959] The Best (October 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction; 1st part)

Not too long ago, I lambasted the September 1959 issue of Astounding as the worst science fiction magazine I’d read in a long while.  This is not to say that it’s the worst of the bunch—I’m sure there are plenty of issues of B and C-level mags that constitute the nadir of written science fiction, although I don’t imagine there are too many of those publications still around. 

I’m happy to report that this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction may well be the best single issue I’ve ever read.

I asked last time whether folks prefer whiz-bangery in their science fiction or not.  The overwhelming response was that gadgets aren’t important; characters, story, and writing are.  F&SF typically holds to a higher standard of writing, and this month, they’ve hit a zenith.

The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon has the first story, The Man who lost the Sea.  It’s told in a weird and effective 1st/2nd/3rd person style, about an explorer who has come to grief beside what appears to be a vast ocean.  As his thoughts become more lucid, it becomes clearer and clearer what has happened to him until we get the powerful reveal.  I understand Sturgeon has been making a concerted effort to get into the slicks (non-science fiction commercial magazines), and it’s a travesty that he hasn’t been more successful.  Oh well; the mainstream public’s loss is our gain.

Asimov has a great column this month entitled, The Height of Up, in which he discusses the coldest and hottest possible temperatures.  Ever wonder why our temperature scales (Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin) have such weird and arbitrary end-points?  Dr. Asimov spells it out most entertainingly.The good doctor is definitely finding his feet with this column.  It was so good that I read a good half of it aloud to my wife as she put together a complicated piece of electronic equipment (a hobby of hers, bless her). 

I was delighted to find that Zenna Henderson has published another story, And a little child… It’s not exactly a story of the People, but it has the same sort of magical feel.  The viewpoint character is a grandmother on a two-week camping trip with family, particularly a young girl who can see things that others can’t.  Such things are monstrous, living creatures—the hills are alive, quite literally.  It’s really quite a lovely piece.

Finally, for today, we have Damon Knight’s compelling and cute To be Continued, about a sword-and-sandals fantasy writer (whose name’s first two thirds are “Robert E.”) who is compelled to write a tale of Kor the Barbarian after reading a work that the author had never written, but which only could have been authored by himself!

Peeking ahead, I see that Heinlein’s newest novel, Starship Soldier, is going to be among his best yet.  To accommodate the work, F&SF is a whopping 32 pages longer this month!

With the star-o-meter steadily quivering at 4-and-a-half stars, I’m eagerly anticipating the book’s second half.

However, the next time we chat, so to speak, it will not be about magazines, but about the 17th annual Worldcon going on right now in Detroit.  “Detention,” as it’s called this year, will last until the 7th, and I expect to have a full, breathless telephonic report in time for the 8th.

Last year, Worldcon was in my backyard (Los Angeles).  This year, Los Angeles is going to Detroit: an intrepid group of Angelinos, organized by the dynamo, Betty Jo Wells, embarked earlier this week on a road-trip across the country, Detroit-or-Bust.  I’ve reprinted “BJo’s” ad in its entirety for your entertainment. 

“TRAVELCON to the DETENTION — a different city every day. TravelCon plans are starting to shape up. Latest report from Bjo is that about 20 L.A. fans are already making plans to attend the Detention. Fans in the Berkeley area are organizing a group to join up with the Travel Con In L.A. For information and details, contact Betty Jo Wells, 2548 West 12th, Los Angeles 6, California.”

Sadly, I was unable to spare time off from work for this event; it looks like fun.

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 Bomb, the Clock, and the Devil (August 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction; 7-02-1959)

In this month’s F&SF editorial, editor Doug Mills reports that he’s gotten a number of complaints regarding the oversaturation of stories in the post-apocalyptic, time travel, and deal-with-the-Devil genre.  Mr. Mills’ response was that any genre can be oversaturated, but quality will always be quality, and F&SF will publish quality stories in whatever genre it pleases.  In fact, there are stories dealing with all three of the “oversaturated” genres in this issue.

What do you think?  I have to agree with Mr. Mills.  Personally, I can never get enough of After the Bomb stories, time travel is often a hoot, and the Devil features in relatively few tales these days, in my experience.   But I’d like your opinion on the matter.
I had not realized that Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol story had taken up so much of the current issue; there isn’t much left to review.  There is some goodness, however:

Rosebud, by Ray Russell, is teleological nonsense in a single-pager.  Damon Knight’s book review column deals with horror, and is interesting, as usual.  I wish he were still helming IF (come to think of it, I just received this month’s copy… I wonder who’s in charge.)

Kit Reed’s Empty Nest is well nigh unreadable, but I think it’s a horror about being eaten by anthropoid birds.

Obituary, by Isaac Asimov, is actually quite good, and one of his few stories from the viewpoint of a woman.  It involves domestic abuse, a truly evil (yet in a plausible and everyday sort of way) villain, and a satisfactory, grisly come-uppance.  I hope the good doctor is not writing from experience in this one…

Finally, we’ve got Pact, by Poul Anderson (under his pseudonym, Winston P. Sanders).  This is the aforementioned Devilish Deal story, and it is my favorite story of the issue.  I hear you gasp–an Anderson story is my favorite?  Yes!  It’s clever all the way through, this story of a demon summoning a human in the hopes of consumating a contract.  Fine stuff.

My apologies for the shortness of this installment.  I’ll make it up next time.  Perhaps.

P.S. One of the reasons I enjoy science fiction so much is the clever gadgets.  In Asimov’s story, the villain uses a “desktop computer” with some sort of typewriter keys attached.  Boy, would that be a fine tool to have, and I’ve never seen the like in a story before.  Something to look forward to in a decade or two?



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Odds and Ends (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 2-24-1959)

A bit of a grab bag today as I finish off the odds and ends before the new (diminishing) crop of magazines comes in. 

Firstly, the sad news regarding Vanguard II has been confirmed: the wobbly little beachball has got the orbitum tremens and is unable to focus its cameras on Mother Earth.  So much for our first weather satellite.

Secondly, the sad news regarding the April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Yes, Poul Anderson does have a story in it.  The Martian Crown Jewels is a science fiction Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  As a mystery and as a story, it is fairly unremarkable.  Still, Doyle-philes may enjoy it.  As can be expected, both for the genre and for the author, the only women’s names are to be found gracing ships, not characters.

There are a couple of oddball pieces in this issue.  One is a translated Anton Checkhov parody of a Jules Verne story called The Flying Islands.  Perhaps it’s better in the original Russian. 

There is also a chapter of Aldous Huxley’s new book, Brave New World Revisited, comparing the myriad of mind-altering substances available today to the simple and perfectly effective soma that appeared in the original Brave New World.  It is an interesting contrast of prediction versus reality.  It is also a great shopping list for some of us.

As I mentioned earlier, Damon Knight is out of an editorial job after just three issues at the helm of IF.  F&SF has found him a new place to hang his reviewer’s hat–as the new writer for the magazine’s book column.  Good news if you like damonknight.

Jane Roberts, an F&SF regular, contributes a two-page mood piece called Nightmare.  It’s another two-minutes-to-midnight fright.

But the real gem of the latter portion of the magazine is Fred Pohl’s To see another Mountain about a nonagenarian supergenius being treated for a mental illness… but is he really sick?  Interestingly, I never liked it when Pohl and Kornbluth teamed up, but Pohl by himself has been reliably excellent.  This story is no exception. 

Where does that leave us in the standings?  There isn’t a bad piece in the bunch (the Anderson and Chekhov being the least remarkable).  Let’s say “four”, maybe “four-and-a-half” given the greatness of the lead story.

Two days to Asimov!



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