Tag Archives: e.e.smith

[Dec. 5, 1961] IF I didn’t care… (January 1962 IF Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

There is an interesting rhythm to my science fiction reading schedule.  Every other month, I get to look forward to a bumper crop of magazines: Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, and the King-Sized Galaxy.  Every other month, I get F&SF, Analog, and IF (owned by the same fellow who owns Galaxy). 

IF is definitely the lesser mag.  Not only is it shorter, but it clearly gets second choice of submissions to it and its sister, Galaxy.  The stories tend to be by newer authors, or the lesser works of established ones.  This makes sense — Galaxy offers the standard rate of three cents an article while IF‘s pay is a bare one cent per word.

That isn’t to say IF isn’t worth reading.  Pohl’s a good editor, and he manages to make decent (if not extraordinary) issues every month.  The latest one, the January 1962 IF, is a good example. 

For instance, the lead novelette is another cute installment in Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series, The Yillian Way.  I’ve tended not to enjoy the stories of Retief, a member of the Terran Interstellar Diplomatic Corps.  Laumer writes him a bit too omnipotent, and omnipotent heroes are boring, as they have no obstacles to overcome.  The challenges presented in Way, however, both by the baffling alien Yills and Retief’s own consular mission, are all too plausible…and charmingly met.  I am also pleased to find that Retief is Black (or, perhaps, Indian).  Four stars.

There’s not much to James Schmitz’s An Incident on Route Twelve.  In fact, if not for the engaging manner in which it’s written, this rather archaic story of alien abduction would be completely skippable.  As presented, it reads like a fair episode of The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

If there is a signature author for IF, it’s Jim Harmon.  This prolific author seems to be in every other issue of the mag (and quite a few Galaxy issues, too).  Harmon is to Pohl what Randy Garrett is to John Campbell at Analog: a reliable workhorse.  Thankfully for Pohl, Harmon is better than Garrett (not a high bar).  The Last Place on Earth is not the best thing Harmon has ever written.  In fact, the ending seems rushed, and the plot doesn’t quite make sense.  That said, this tale of a fellow being hounded by a malevolent alien presence, is powerfully told.  Another three-star piece.

Usually, alien possession a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is portrayed in a negative light.  But what if the society taken over is an intolerant dictatorship, and the foreign entity promotes love and brotherhood?  The Talkative Tree by H.B. Fyfe won’t knock your socks off, but it is a pleasant little read.  Three stars.

Last of the short stories is 2BR02B (the zero pronounced “naught”) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Like his latest in F&SF, Harrison Bergeron, it is a cautionary tale written at a grade-school level.  This time, the subject is the ever-popular crisis of overpopulation. With Vonnegut, I vacillate between admiring his simplistic prose and rolling my eyes at it.  Three stars.

That’s the last of the short stories.  Not too bad, right?  A solid couple of hours of reading pleasure there.  But then you run headlong into the second half of the serial, Masters of Space, and that’s where the wheels come off of this issue.  E.E. Evans was a prolific writer for the lesser mags between the late ’40s and his death in 1958.  I know of him, but I haven’t read a single thing by him.  There is another, more famous “E.E.”  That’s E.E. Smith, the leading light of pulpish space opera from the 20s and 30s.  He had largely stayed hidden under the radar for the past couple of decades, but he resurfaced not to long ago.

Some time between his passing and this year, “Doc” Smith got a hold of a half-finished Evans work and decided to complete it.  The result is a almost skeletal, decidedly old-fashioned novel, something about humans who once straddled the stars but were coddled to senescence by the android servants they created.  Millennia later, the descendants of the old Masters pushed out into the galaxy again, only to face the indescribably sinister Stretts.  Masters isn’t bad, exactly.  It’s just not very good.  Smith’s writing holds no appeal for me.  I recognize Smith’s importance to the field of science fiction, but time has not been kind to his work, nor have Doc’s skills improved much over the years.  I made it about 60% through this short novel, but ultimately, I simply have better things to do with my time.  Two stars (and I revised my opinion of the previous installment, too).

In many ways, IF is the anti-Analog.  That magazine usually has great serials and mediocre short stories.  Oh well.  At least they both have something to offer. 

Next up: the next installment in an ongoing series.  Don’t miss this Galactic Journey exclusive!

[Oct. 5, 1961] Half Full (November 1961 IF Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

A long time ago, back in the hoary old days of the 1950s, there was a science fiction magazine called Satellite.  It was unusual in that contained full short novels, and maybe a vignette or two.  Satellite was a fine magazine, and I was sorry to see it die at the end of the last decade. 

Novels still come out in magazines, but they do so in a serialized format.  This can be awkward as they generally extend across three or four magazines.  Several magazines have started publishing stories in two parts, a compromise between Satellite and the usual digests.  Fantasy and Science Fiction does that, but it also hacks the novels to bits, and they suffer for it. 

IF, which is Galaxy’s sister magazine, had not flirted with this format until this month’s, the November 1961 issue.  This means a novella-sized chunk of a story and a handful of shorter ones.  That makes for a briefer article than normal this time around, but I think you’ll still find it worth your time.  Let’s take a look!

Masters of Space, the aforementioned two-part novel, is an interesting throwback, stylistically.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise given its provenance: E.E. “Doc” Smith, possibly the brightest light in space opera of the 20s and 30s, is one of its two authors; the other is E. E. Evans, another old hand who passed away in 1958.  Masters stars a crew of Terran colonist/scientists that encounters a race of androids, immortal servants of a prior offshoot of humanity that had once conquered the stars.  The novel is told in a flippant sort of shorthand, a bunch of banter reminiscent of 1940s film dialogue.  The colonists are evenly divided by sex, and much of the book is devoted to their romantic escapades.  It’s weird and anachronistic writing, which I enjoyed for the first forty pages, but which is increasingly wearing thin.  Two stars.

Albert Teichner brings us Sweet Their Blood and Sticky, a subtle mood piece about an atomically razed Earth and its one remaining monument to humanity: an automated taffy-making machine.  It’s just long enough to make its point, and it’s a good sophomore effort for this new writer.  Three stars.

At The End of the Orbit is the latest by Hugo-winning Arthur C. Clarke, who has been writing quite a lot lately.  Orbit starts out like an episode of Michener’s TV show, Adventures in Paradise, featuring a South Seas pearl diver.  Things go in a decidedly dark direction when said aquanaut discovers a Soviet capsule at the bottom of the ocean.  Four stars, but it’s not a happy piece.

by Gaughan

Patrick Fahy, like Teichner, turns in his second story (at least to my knowledge), The Mightiest Man.  Alien race conquers humanity and, as in Wells’ classic, is laid low by microbes.  But not before empowering one traitorous man with immortality and the ability to control minds.  His fate, and that of those he encounters, comprise another unpleasant (but not unworthy) tale.  Three stars.

Fortunately, for those who like happy stories, like me, the next story is Keith Laumer’s Gambler’s World.  It’s another installment in the adventures of Retief, the Galaxy’s most irreverent and capable diplomat/super spy.  Can Retief foil a coup attempt on a provincial planet?  Can he best the most fiendish games of chance ever devised?  Can he make you laugh with his antics?  I think you can guess the answer.  This is my favorite Retief story to date.  Four stars.

The issue wraps up on a lame note with Kevin Scott’s brief Quiet, Please which I, frankly, did understand or particularly enjoy.  Two stars.

All told, that’s 3.11 on the Star-o-meter, which is pretty good for IF these days.  Pretty good for anyone, really, and good enough to remain among my subscriptions.

Stay tuned for an unusual super-powered article in just a couple of days…

[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!