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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… 

[February 23, 1962] Material Reading (March 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The coverage for John Glenn’s orbital flight was virtually non-stop on the 20th.  My daughter and I (as many likely did) played hooky to watch it.  During the long countdown, the Young Traveler worried that the astronaut might get bored during his wait and commented that NASA might have been kind enough to install a small television on the Mercury control panel.

But, from our previous experience, we were pretty sure what the result of that would have been:

CAPCOM: “T MINUS 30 seconds and counting…”

Glenn: “Al, Mr. Ed just came on.  Can we delay the count a little bit?”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “You are on internal power and the Atlas is Go.  Do you copy, Friendship 7

Glenn: “Al, Supercar‘s on now.  Just a little more.”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “The recovery fleet is standing by and will have to refuel if we don’t launch soon…John, what’s with the whistling?”

Glenn: “But Al, Andy Griffith just came on!”

So, TV is probably out.  But a good book, well…that couldn’t hurt anything, right?  And this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction was a quite good book, indeed.  Witness:

Jonathan and the Space Whale, by Robert F. Young

Two years ago, Mr. Young began an issue of F&SF with a bang.  He does it again with Whale.  Young is a master of writing compelling relationships between two utterly alien beings – in this case, that between a restless, aimless young man of many talents, and the space whale that swallows him whole.  Great stuff.  Five stars.

Wonder as I Wander: Some Footprints on John’s Trail Through Magic Mountains, Manly Wade Wellman

It is hard to pack a lot of wallop into a half-page vignette, but I must say that Wellman has pulled it off here – repeatedly.  Footprints is a set of short-short shorts designed to be interstitials for a collection (due to be published later this year) of stories about John the balladeer, a Korea veteran with a silver-stringed guitar and a facility with white magic.  Some are truly effective, and all are worthy.  Five stars.

The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity, by Fritz Leiber

Friends is a readable story with a stingless tail.  I suspect Leiber is past his prime, riding on his name rather than putting much effort into things.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIX, by “Grendel Briarton”

One of the more contrived and less funny of Reginald Bretnor’s punnish efforts. 

A War of No Consequence, by Edgar Pangborn

This, then, is the jewel of the issue.  Pangborn’s last tale of a young redheaded runaway from the Eastern seaboard of a bombed-out America, was sublime.  This one is just about as good, only being inferior for its shorter length.  A great story of the futility of war, and the bonds it can forge among ostensible enemies.  Five stars.

The 63rd St. Station, by Avram Davidson

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, about a staid, devoted brother who contemplates leaving his shut-in sister for a new love at the age of 45.  The ending is rendered extremely obliquely, and I suspect it makes more sense to a New Yorker familiar with subway trains and such.  Not bad, but a little too opaque.  Three stars.

(Per the editor’s blurb at the front of the issue, Bob Mills is stepping down as editor and turning over the reins to Mr. Davidson.  Given the latter’s penchant for the weird and the abstruse, recently to the detriment of his stories (in my humble opinion), I have to wonder if this will take the magazine in a direction less to my taste.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see.)

Communication by Walter H. Kerr

There is not much to say about this rather purple, but still pleasant, poem about a certain race’s limitations and strengths in the realm of communication.  Three stars.

That’s Life!, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor (will the friendly banter between Asimov and his “Kindly Editor” continue under the new regime?) has turned out an entertaining and informative piece this month, in which he attempts to present an accurate definition of life.  It’s a fine lesson in biology with some neat bits on viruses.  Four stars.

The Stone Woman by Doris Pitkin Buck

I really want to like Mrs. Buck, an esteemed English professor from Ohio, who has seen several science fiction luminaries in her class.  This latest piece, a poem, reinforces my opinion that her stuff, while articulate, is not for me.  Two stars.

Shadow on the Moon by Zenna Henderson

Henderson’s The People stories have always been personal favorites, and the last one, Jordan, was sublime.  Shadow, on the other hand, falls unexpectedly flat.  It follows the tale of two siblings who enlist themselves in an endeavor to take themselves and kin back into space – to the Moon, particularly.  All the elements of a People piece are there: the esper-empowered, alien-born humans; a well-drawn female protagonist; the sere beauty of Arizona; the light, almost ethereal language.  Somehow, the bolts show on this one, however, and there isn’t the emotional connection I’ve enjoyed in previous Henderson stories.  Three stars.

Doing my monthly mathematics, I determine that the March F&SF garnered an impressive 3.8 stars.  Astronaut Glenn certainly could have whiled away the long pre-launch hours (not to mention all the previous scrubbed launches) with a lot worse reading material.

Next up…what’s likely to be worse reading material (but who knows?): the March 1962 Analog!

[February 14, 1962] St. Valentine’s Update (The Second Sex in SFF, Part V)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s not quite time for a funeral, yet!

Nearly a decade ago, the Chicken Littles of our genre scribbled at length in our magazines and buttonholed each other at conventions to voice their fears that science fiction was dying.  Well, it is true that we are down to just six American sff digests per month, off of the 40 magazine peak of 1953.  On the other hand, I’d argue that we’re not that much worse off for having lost the lesser monthlies.  Moreover, sff novels still seem to be doing a brisk trade.

In the three years since I started this column, I’ve seen a cadre of new writers burst onto the scene; clearly, no one told them that their field is dead!  And while sff continues to be something of a man’s world, this fact is changing, slowly but surely.  Since just last year, when I wrote 18 mini-biographies of the women authors of science fiction, I’ve become exposed to a whole new crop of female bylines.  Some of them are just new to me, having been in the biz for a long time.  Others are genuinely fresh onto the scene. 

Without further ado, the supplemental list for early 1962:

Doris Pitkin Buck

Currently an English teacher at Ohio State University, at least two authors that I know have enjoyed her tutelage: John Jakes and Harlan Ellison.  Mrs. Buck is a comparative rarity in our genre.  Not many manage to balance unabashed love for sff and a “respectable” career in academia.  Said career includes an active college writing stint, a cluster of stories written in the early 50s and a couple of recent pieces, of which I was not particularly fond, but that nevertheless suggest a high degree of literacy. 

Mildred Clingerman

Like Buck, Clingerman is a veteran with ten years of professional sff experience under her belt.  Her consistent career has produced 16 stories, most of them published in the pages of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Sadly for my readers, her last one came out in 1958, just before I started this column.  However, she recently released A Cupful of Space, a collection of all of work to date, so you can enjoy her quirky, often whimsical, occasionally macabre stylings all in a sitting.  Like Buck, she’s a teacher, at the University of Arizona.

Kate Wilhelm

The elusive Ms. Wilhelm has enjoyed a prolific career that started in 1956 and yet has rarely crossed my path.  I first encountered her excellent The Mile-Long Spaceship in the April 1957 Astounding.  This tale of a telepathic contact across the stars was impressive despite its extreme shortness; it must have really impressed Astounding editor, John Campbell since his magazine tends to be the most staggish of the digests.  Her latest work, A Time to Keep was not in the same league, but everyone is entitled to periodic variances.  Here’s hoping she publishes more works in the magazines I cover – there aren’t many that I don’t these days…

Otis Kidwell

Otis Kidwell, who acquired the surname Burger some time after her birth, sprang onto the sff scene just last year with the compelling The Zookeeper.  However, it was hardly the first publication of this noteworthy New Yorker (great-grandaughter of famed abolitionist, Sydney Howard Gay) – her short pieces have appeared in The New Yorker since 1957. 

Sydney J. Van Scyoc

“Joyce,” as her family and friends know her, took on her mannish first name to help her break into the science fiction market.  It took several years of writing for her work to see print, but her premiere tale Shatter the Wall, which came out just last month, shows real promise. 

Maria Russell

Ms. Russell (real name, Mary R. Standard) is a true newcomer.  Her first (and currently only) story is The Deer Park, a haunting, surreal tale that was a fine addition to the F&SF in which it appeared.  Details on her non-writing career are scarce, but I am given to understand that she is computer systems analyst in Connecticut, a fine career for a science fictioneer. 

Anne Walker


Picture courtesy of the Vassar Chronicle

Ms. Walker (also known as Mrs. Gutterman) is a Vassar graduate and New England resident with but two stories to her name, but boy were they good ones.  She’s newish, coming on the scene in 1959, so she has plenty of time ahead of her if she wants to continue.

Joy Leache

I’m afraid I know even less about Joy Leache, whose career started in 1959, and whose latest story, Satisfaction Guaranteed was a good’n.  Does anyone have a clue?

Rosemary Harris

A nurse during World War 2, Ms. Harris is Londoner whose first work, Hamlin, appeared in F&SF last year.  Hamlin is a derivative of the Pied Piper Tale, so it’s no surprise that Ms. Harris also writes childrens’ books.  Will she keep toes in both genres?

At this rate, we’ll soon reach gender parity in scientifiction, which I think will be to its benefit.  After all, that will mean we are finally seeing the best efforts of our entire population, not just one half.  I can’ wait to see who will be on the 1963 supplement!

[Oct. 26, 1961] Fading Fancy (November 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn’t satisfy like it used to?  I’m a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could.  That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee…mmm. 

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn’t done it for me.  The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold.  The flavor doesn’t seem as bold, the crust as crispy.  I’ve started giving dessert menus a serious peruse.  Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert — saved for last and savored.  These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don’t look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did.  This month’s, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:

Keith Laumer is an exciting newish author whose work I often confuse with Harry Harrison’s — probably because Retief reminds me of “Slippery Jim” diGriz.  Laumer has a knack for creating interesting sentient non-humans.  He gave us intelligent robot tanks in Combat Unit, and this month, he gives us sentient, symbiotic trees in Hybrid.  It’s a story that teeters on the edge of greatness, but its brevity and rather unpleasant ending drag it from four to three stars.

The Other End of the Line is the first new story from Walter Tevis in three years.  Ever wonder what happens if you break a bootstrap paradox (i.e. one where your future self gives your present self a leg up)?  Well…it’s not a good idea.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Rick Rubin is back with his second story, the first being his excellent F&SF-published Final MusterThe Interplanetary Cat is a weird little fantasy involving an incorrigible feline with an insatiable appetite.  It’s almost Lafferty-esque, which means some will love it, and some will hate it.  I’m in the middle.  Three stars.

Faq’ is the latest by George P. Elliott, whose Among the Dangs was a minor masterpiece.  Elliott’s new story is in the same vein — a Westerner who finds a fictional yet plausible tribe of people, alien from any we currently know.  It’s got a nice, dreamy style to it, but it lacks the depth or the powerful conclusion of Dangs.  Three stars.

Doris Pitkin Buck is another F&SF new author.  Green Sunrise, like Buck’s last work (Birth of a Gardner), Sunrise features a lovers’ squabble between a scientist man and a non-scientist woman.  Once again, the language is evocative, but the plot is weak, the impression fleeting.  Two stars.

The Tunnel Ahead is an overpopulation dystopia-by-numbers tale by Alice Glaser.  Cramped living conditions?  Check.  Algae-based food products?  Check.  Drastic, random population reduction methods?  Check.  Two stars?  Check. 

Randy Garrett’s been skulking around F&SF lately, but I don’t know that it has been to the magazine’s benefit.  Mustang is essentially Kit Reed’s Piggy, but not as good.  Two stars.

Dethronement is Isaac Asimov’s latest article, a sort of screed written in response to a bad review of his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science by biologist Barry Commoner.  The latter objected to the former’s obliteration of the line between non-living and living matter.  This, Commoner maintained, destroyed the field of biology entirely.  The Good Doctor explains that finding bridges between disciplines does not destroy the disciplines any more than bridging Manhattan with the other four burroughs of New York makes Manhattan no longer an island.  It’s a good piece.  Four stars.

Alfred Bester covers Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in his books column.  He didn’t like it either. 

John Updike has a bit of doggerel about scandalous neutrinos called Cosmic Gall.  It is followed by Algis Budrys’ rather impenetrable article on science fiction, About Something Truly Wonderful.  Both rate two stars. 

Part 2 of Gordy Dickson’s Naked to the Stars rounds out the otherwise lackluster issue.  It deserves its own article, but you’re going to have to wait for it, since Rosemary Benton and Ashley Pollard will be covering some exciting scientific developments, first.  I’ll give you a hint — they involve the biggest rocket and the biggest boom.

[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…