Tag Archives: dean mclaughlin

[July 18, 1962] It Gets Better? (August 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

There’s a war going on in our nation, a war for our souls.

No, I’m not referring to the battle of Democracy versus Communism or Protestants against Catholics.  Not even the struggle between squares and beatniks.  This is a deeper strife than even these.


(from Fanac)

I refer, of course, to the schism that divides science fiction fans.  In particular, I mean the mainstream fans and the literary crowd.  The former far outnumber the latter, at least if the circulation numbers for Analog compared to that of Fantasy and Science Fiction are any indication. 

Devotees of editor Campbell’s Analog, though they occasionally chide the editor’s obsession with things psychic, appreciate the “hard” sf, the focus on adventure, and the magazine’s orthodox style it has maintained since the 1940s.  They have nothing but sneering disdain for the more literary F&SF, and they hate it when its fluffy “feminine” verbosity creeps into “their” magazines.

F&SF, on the other hand, has pretentions of respectability.  You can tell because the back page has a bunch of portraits of arty types singing the magazine’s praises.  Unfortunately for the golden mag (my nickname – cover art seems to favor the color yellow), many of the writers who’ve distinguished themselves have made the jump to the more profitable “slicks” (maintstream magazines) and novels market.  This means that editor Davidson’s mag tends to be both unbearably literate and not very good.

This is a shame because right up to last year, I’d sided with the eggheads.  F&SF was my favorite digest.  On the other hand, I’m not really at home with the hoi polloi Campbell crowd.  Luckily, there is the middle ground of Pohl’s magazines, Galaxy and IF

Nevertheless, there is still usually something to recommend F&SF, particularly Dr. Asimov’s non-fiction articles, and the frequency with which F&SF publishes women (“feminine” isn’t a derogatory epithet for me.)

And in fact, if you can get past the awful awful beginning, there’s good stuff in the August 1962 F&SF:

The Secret Songs, by Fritz Leiber

Leiber is an established figure in the genre, having written some truly great stuff going back to the old Unknown days of the 30s.  He even won the Hugo for The Big Time.  However, Secret Songs, a tale of a drug addled Jack Sprat and wife with countering addictions, won’t win any awards.  It’s not sf, nor is it very interesting.  I give it two stars for creative execution and nothing else.

The Golden Flask, by Kendell Foster Crossen

Boy, is this one a stinker.  Not only does Davidson ruin it with his prefatory comments (I’ve stopped reading them – they are too long by half, inevitably spoil the story, and are never fun to read), but the gotcha of this bloody tale is puerile.  One star.

Salmanazar, by Gordon R. Dickson

Some obtuse tale of the macabre involving magic, Orientalism, and a sinister cat.  Gordy Dickson is one of the better writers…when he wants to be.  He didn’t this time.  One star.

The Voyage Which Is Ended, by Dean McLaughlin

When the century-long trip of a colony ship is over, crew and passengers must struggle with the dramatic change in role and responsibilities.  This somber piece reads like the first chapter of a promising novel that we’ll never get to read.  I did appreciate the theme: a ship’s captain isn’t necessarily best suited to lead a polity beyond a vessel’s metal walls.  Three stars.

Mumbwe Jones, by Fred Benton

A vignette of undying friendship between a White trader and an African witch-doctor…and the vibrant world of sentient creatures, animate and otherwise, with which they interact.  An interesting piece of magic realism a little too insubstantial to garner more than three stars.

The Top, by George Sumner Albee (a reprint from 1953)

Career ad-man receives the promotion he’s always desired, allowing him at last to meet the President of the sprawling industrial combine of which the copywriter is just a valuable cog.  But does the Big Boss run the machine, or are they one and the same?  Another piece that isn’t science fiction, nor really worth your time.  Two stars.

The Light Fantastic, by Isaac Asimov

The good Doctor’s piece on electromagnetic radiation is worth your time.  He devotes a few inches to the brand new “LASERS,” artificially pure light beams that stick to a single wavelength and don’t degrade with distance.  I’ve already seen several articles on this wonder invention, and I suspect they will make them into a clutch of sf stories in the near future.

By the way, the cantankerous has-been Alfred Bester has finally turned in his shingle, resigning from the helm of the book review department.  In an ironic departing screed, he lamented the lack of quality of new sf (not that he’s contributed to that body of work in years), and states that people shouldn’t have been so sensitive to his criticisms.  To illustrate, he closes with the kind of chauvinism we’ve come to expect from Bester:

“A guy complained to a girl that the problem with women was the fact that they took everything that was said personally.  She answered, ‘Well, I sure don’t.'”

Good riddance, Alfred.  Don’t let the turnstile bruise your posterior.

Fruiting Body, by Rosel George Brown

I always look forward to Ms. Brown’s whimsical works, and this outing does not disappoint.  When mycology and the pursuit of women intersect, the result is at once ridiculous, a little chilling, and highly entertaining.  That’s all I’ll give you, save for a four-star rating.

The Roper, by Theodore R. Cogswell and John Jacob Niles

Some pointless doggerel whose meaning and significance escapes this boor of a reader.  One star.

Spatial Relationship, by Randall Garrett

Ugh.  How to keep two space pilots cramped in a little spaceship for years from killing each other?  Give them phantom lovers, of course.  I liked the story much better when it was called Hallucination Orbit (by J.T.McIntosh), and could well have done without the offensive, anti-queer ending.  You’ll know it when you see it.  Two stars.

The Stupid General, by J. T. McIntosh

Speaking of J.T.McIntosh…  The literature is filled with if-only stories where peace-loving aliens are provoked to violence by the hasty actions of a narrow-minded general.  But what if the fellow’s instincts are right?  A good, if not brilliant, story.  Three stars.

What Price Wings?, by H. L. Gold

This is the first I’ve heard from Galaxy’s former editor in a couple of years – I have to wonder if this is something that was pulled from an old drawer.  Anyway, a classic tale of virtue being its own punishment.  It ends predictably, but it gets there pleasantly.  Three stars.

Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman, by Harlan Ellison

Many years ago, on a lark, I translated the classic story of Orpheus and Eurydice from an Old English rendition.  Now, in his first appearance in F&SF, Mr. Ellison presents a translation of the tale into hepcat jive.  It’s an effective piece, though heavier on atmosphere than consequence.  Three stars.

The Gumdrop King, by Will Stanton

The issue ends with a fizzle: a youth meets an alien, and incomprehensibility ensues.  I’m not sure that was the result Stanton was aiming for.  Two stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: LIII, by Grendal Briarton

Oh, and the Feghoot pun this time is just dreadful.  Not in a good way.

Good grief.  Doing the calculations, we find this issue only got 2.4 stars.  It’s definitely a favorite for worst mag of the month, and indicative of momentum toward worst mag of the year.  Those philistines who subscribe to Analog are going to win after all…

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  You’ll have a chance to win a copy of F&SF – not this issue, I promise!)




[June 2, 1960] Fewer is Less (July 1960 Astounding)

What makes a story worth reading? 

As a writer, and as a reader who has plowed through thousands of stories over the past decade, I’ve developed a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Some writers cast a spell on you from the first words and maintain that trance until the very end.  Others have good ideas but break momentum with clunky prose.  Some turn a phrase skillfully, but their plots don’t hold interest.

I find that science fiction authors are more likely to hang their tales on plot to the exclusion of other factors.  This is part of the reason our genre is much maligned by the literary crowd.  On the other hand, the literary crowd tends to commit the opposite sin: glazing our eyes over with experimental, turgid passages.

A few authors have managed to bridge the gap: Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, Daniel Keyes.  And, in general, I think the roster of science fiction authors, as they mature, are turning out better and better stuff.

Sadly, Astounding is rarely the place you’ll find them.

After last month’s decent issue, I had looked forward eagerly to this one, the July 1960 edition.  It’s not unmitigatedly horrible, but it does sink back into the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Campbell’s magazine.  Let’s take a look:

Poul Anderson, with whom I’ve had a rocky relationship over the last decade, begins a new serial called The High Crusade.  It’s about a 14th century English town that gets attacked by an alien scout ship.  Surprisingly, the “primitive” residents manage to overpower the alien crew and commandeer their ship, which they then sail across the suns to another alien outpost, where they defeat a contingent of the more technologically advanced aliens.

Now, this is the kind of story editor Campbell loves: plucky humans defeating inferior space aliens.  I suspect that the humans in Crusade will face increasingly ridiculous odds, always coming out on top.

This should bother me.  On the other hand, the story is really quite well written, with an excellent use of archaic language, a fair depiction of the age, and compelling characters.  Moreover, I have the faintest suspicion that Anderson is satirizing Campbell’s fetish, hence my prediction that the story will be ever more over-the-top.

Sadly, this incomplete tale is the high point of the book.  Chris Anvil is up next with The Troublemaker.  It starts out promisingly, involving an interstellar cargo ship and the seditious new cargo inspector who joins the crew.  The fellow has a knack for dividing and conquering, causing friendships to disintegrate and morale to plummet.  But the Captain’s solution for the problem comes out of nowhere and is thus unsatisfying.  Which brings me back to my preface.  Writer tip #1: Foreshadowing is important.  No one likes a mystery novel where the murderer is not presented before the detective explains whodunnit.  A good writer introduces concepts earlier in the story if they are to be used later. 

Onto the next story.  Its author, Dean McLaughlin, has been writing for various digests over the past decade.  I know I’ve read a few of his stories, but they do not stand out in my memory.  In any event, his The Brotherhood of Keepers leaves much to be desired.  In this case, characterization is utterly subverted to an involved, somewhat odious plot.  There is a race of near-sapient upright seals on a harsh alien world.  They are on the brink of becoming sentient, and a human outpost has been established on their planet, despite the uncomfortable conditions, to watch the transition.  There are three main characters, all made of the same grade of carboard. 

You have the fatuous, bleeding heart animal rights activist who wants to bring an end to the suffering of the “floppers,” both at the hands of their environment and the scientists (who employ them as slaves and vivisect them every so often).  You have the xenophobic scientist who pushes all of the activist’s buttons in the hopes that this will bring about a relief mission, allowing the floppers to be “saved” before they become truly sentient.  Finally, you’ve got the outpost chief.  He grieves for the cruel plight of the floppers, but he feels it would be more cruel to deny them their destiny of intelligence.

On the face of it, this could have been a very interesting story.  Aside from the truly hackneyed portrayal of the characters, I took umbrage with the way the floppers were treated by the humans.  Granted, the most egregious comments made by the scientist character (“they’re only animals,” he says of creatures smarter than chimpanzees) were probably designed specifically to goad the activist, but they must reflect, at least in part, the deeply held sentiments of his fellow researchers.  As any sociologist would tell you, the best way to study a society probably does not involve murdering its members.

Asimov has a fair sequel to his article on animal phyla, published month before last.  This one is called, appropriately enough, Beyond the Phyla.  The good doctor makes some interesting speculation on the next evolutionary steps humanity might take.  They will not involve physical adaptations, he opines, but rather a level of social cohesion that will transform our race into a larger, integrated whole.

It’s a pity that Isaac doesn’t write fiction anymore; I imagine folks will be lifting his non-fiction ideas and turning them into stories soon.

Finally, we have Subspace Survivors, by the renowned Doc Smith, himself.  All due respect to an admitted titan of the field, this is not a very good story.  It’s something of a relic from the pulp era, this tale of nine survivors on a wrecked interstellar vessel, four of whom are psionically gifted (of course).  Writer tip #2: Description should be incorporated seamlessly into a narrative, not obtrusively inserted in-between bits of action. 

There are two women in this story.  They acquit themselves rather well against two of the castaways, who turn out to be bad men, but for the most part, they are content to be submissive child incubators, comforted in times of distress by their lantern-jawed officer husbands.  Feh.

I recently exchanged letters with a fan who expressed his dislike for magazines with only a few, longer stories.  I told him that I didn’t mind them so long as the stories were good.  But, I am starting to take his point.

See you shortly with more fiction reviews!