Tag Archives: fantasy & science fiction

[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!

[January 27, 1962] Bumps in Road (February 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s been a topsy turvy month: Snow is falling in coastal Los Angeles.  Castro’s Cuba has been kicked out of the Organization of American States.  Elvis is playing a Hawaiian beach bum.  So it’s in keeping that the latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction is, well, uneven.

Luckily, the February 1962 F&SF front-loaded the bad stuff (though it’s a bumpy ride clear to the end), so if you can make it through the beginning, you’re in for a treat – particularly at the end.  But first…

The Garden of Time is the latest from Englishman J. G. Ballard.  This tale of an enchanted chateau on the brink of ransack is long on imagery but short on substance (like many pieces in F&SF).  You may find it lovely; I found it superfluous.  Two stars.

The latest Ferdinand Feghoot (XLVIII) is slightly less worthy than the mean, for what that’s worth.  A pun that fails to elicit a groan, but merely a tired sigh, is hardly a pun at all.

Avram Davidson has completed his descent into impenetrability.  Once a reliable author, somber and profound, his work has been increasingly odd.  His latest (The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off Eye Street) is a parallel universe magical send-up of our present day.  I think.  He manages to pack more nonsense per square word than ever before, and even Street’s paltry 2000 or so words are too many.  One star.

One Into Two, by J. T. McIntosh, is something of an improvement: quick and pleasant reading.  However, if the best story you can make of a matter transmitter/duplicator is a “perfect crime” piece, you’re not thinking too hard.  Three stars.

I’d call Walter H. Kerr’s Gruesome Discovery at the 242nd St. Feeding Station the least kind of doggerel, but I happen to like canines.  I’ll just give it one star and leave it at that.

Pirate Island, by Czech Josef Nesvadba, is a reprint from behind the Iron Curtain.  I rather enjoyed this bitter tale of a frustrated privateer in the era of Morgan.  Something about its lyrical irony appealed.  Nothing at all of the stodginess I rather expected from the Eastern Bloc.  Four stars. 

Jesus Christ seems to be a popular topic this month, He having also made an appearance in Amazing’s …And it was Good.  In Richard Matheson’s The Traveller, a professor journeys back to Golgotha with the intention of simply taking notes, but becomes compelled to save the hapless martyr.  It grew on me in retrospect, as much Matheson does.  Four stars.

We take a bit of a plunge then, quality-wise.  Ward Moore is a long-time veteran of F&SF, and his last story, The Fellow who married the Maxill Girl was a poetic masterpiece.  Rebel, a twist on the newly minted “Generation Gap,” but with the roles reversed, isn’t.  Two stars.

Barry Stevens’ Window to the Whirled, like Ballard’s lead piece, is overwrought and underrealized.  It’s a hybrid of Clifton’s Star Bright (geniuses will themselves cross-wise across time and space) and Jones’ The Great Gray Plague (only by leaving boring ol’ science behind can one be free), and I really wanted to like it…but I didn’t.  Two stars.

Even Isaac Asimov’s science fact article, Superficially Speaking, about the comparative surface areas of the solar system’s celestial bodies, is lackluster this month.  Of course, even bland Asimov is pretty good reading.  Three stars.

Lewis Turco has a few poetic snippets ostensibly from the mouths of robots in Excerpts from the Latterday Chronicle.  They are in English; they are not long.  And this ends what I have to say about them.  Two stars.

Novice Matthew Grass offers up The Snake in the Closet, a story that presents exactly what’s on the tin, and yet is clearly a metaphor for…something, I’m sure.  Not a bad first effort, and some may find it poignantly relevant.  Three stars.

All of this is but frivolous preamble to the jewel of this issue.  Edgar Pangborn is a fellow who has been too long away from the sff digests, and his The Golden Horn is one of those perfect stories, at once gritty and beautiful.  Set in post-WW3 America. It is a tale of friendship and betrayal, love and lost innocence, lusterless life and sublime sonority.  It’s just that good, okay?  Five stars.

So went February 1962, and F&SF, with its final score of 2.8 stars, ends up tied with Fantastic and Galaxy (though it gets distinction for having the best story).  Analog, at 2.1 stars, was the worst.  Amazingly, Amazing was the best with 3.3 stars.  Some of you may disagree with this judgment (I know Pawn of the Black Fleet was not to everyone’s taste) but I stand by John Boston’s judgment, both because I must, and because our tastes have proven not to be too different.

Of 33 fiction pieces, just one was woman-penned.  A sad state that no doubt contributed to this month’s comparative dip on the star-o-meter.  However, it looks like Zenna Henderson and Mildred Clingerman will publish next month, so that’s something to look forward to. 

Stay tuned for the next Ace Double and January’s space race round-up!

[Dec. 30, 1961] Finishing Strong (January 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

At the end of a sub-par month, I can generally count on The Magazine and Science Fiction to end things on a positive note.  F&SF has been of slightly declining quality over the past few years, but rarely is an issue truly bad, and this one, for January 1962, has got some fine works inside.

Christmas Treason, by Ulsterian peacenik James White, starts things off with a literal bang as a gang of toddler espers attempt to save Christmas with the help of the world’s nuclear arsenal.  It’s nothing I haven’t seen Sturgeon do before, but it is charming and effective.  Four stars.

Kate Wilhelm has made a name for herself in the past several years, being a regular contributor to many science fiction magazines, Sadly, A Time to Keep, about a fellow with a pathological aversion to doorways, does not make much sense.  Not one of her better tales.  Two stars.

Every so often, some wag will write a “clever” piece on the need to send girls to service man astronauts on the long journeys to Mars.  Jay Williams’ Interplanetary Sex is the latest, and it’s as awful as the rest.  Casual reference to rape?  Check.  Stereotypical portrayal of married couples (henpecked husband and nagging shrew wife)?  Check.  It’s the sort of thing that will provide ample archaeological data on this era 55 years from now, but offers little else in value. 

HOWEVER, there are a few paragraphs near the end depicting a sentient cell’s mitosis written in florid romance novel style, and it’s genuinely funny.  You can skip to it…and skip the rest.  Two stars.

Maria Russell’s The Deer Park appears to be her first story, and it’s a fine freshman effort.  It effectively (albeit in an often difficult-to-parse manner) depicts a decadent future humanity entrapped in fantasy worlds of individual creation.  It’s hard to break out of a gilded cage, and the outside world is sometimes no improvement.  Three stars.

Ron Goulart’s occult detective, Max Kearney, is back in Please Stand By.  This time,the private dick has been enlisted by a hapless were-Elephant, the victim (or beneficiary?) of a magic spell.  It’s a charming story, and Goulart has an excellent talent for writing without exposition.  Four stars.

I didn’t much care for Asimov’s science column this month, The Modern Demonology.  The subject of Maxwell’s Demon, that metaphorical creature who can trade energetic for lazy atoms across two buckets such that one gets cold and one gets hot, is a good one.  However, the Good Doctor than meanders into philosophical territory, positing the existence of an evolutionary equivalent, a “Darwin’s Demon,” and it’s just sort of a muddy mess.  Three Stars.

Newcomer Nils T. Peterson is back with Prelude to a Long Walk, a somber short story about a static man in a growing world.  Not really science fiction, but memorable all the same.  Four stars.

Progress, by Poul Anderson, is a long-awaited sequel to The Sky People, both set in a post-apocalyptic future in which several nations of the world struggle toward modern civilization.  They are hampered both by a critical lack of resources, fossil fuels and metals, but also a fear of duplicating the catastrophe that threw them into a new Stone Age. 

Our heroes are once again representatives of the Polynesian Federation, if not the most technically advanced, probably the most progressive socially.  Ranu Makintairu and Alisabeta Kanukauai make charming protagonists, but Progress reads like a watered down vignette of Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.  It also has that smugly superior tone I associate with Analog.  Three stars.

The issue wraps up with a inconsequential poem, To the Stars by heretofore unknown James Spencer.  To discuss it further would take more words than Mr. Spencer wrote.  Two stars.

That wraps up magazines for this month, and boy is there a lot to compare!  F&SF was the clear winner, clocking in at 3.1 stars.  IF was number #2 at 2.9.  Cele Goldsmith’s mags, Fantastic and Amazing tied at 2.5 stars, and Analog finished at a dismal 2.3 stars.

Each of the mags, save for Amazing, had at least one 4-star story in it.  I give the nod for best piece to Piper’s Naudsonce, though Christmas Treason is close.  Out of 28 pieces of fiction, a scant two were written by women (and if we’re just including the Big Three, as I have in the past, then the ratio is still bad: two out of eighteen).  On the other hand, two of the five magazines were edited by a Ms. Goldsmith, so there’s something.

Next up, Ms. Benton reviews the latest Blish novel!

[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!

[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.

[September 29, 1961] Slim Pickings (October 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines.  Over the decade that I’ve been subscribing, I’ve fallen into a habit.  I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies).  I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding.  I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last.  This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests– my dessert for the month, as it were. 

These days, the stories aren’t as good.  Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won’t review until it finishes next month.  As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication).  Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who is not exactly a science fiction author but dabbles in the arena, leads with Harrison Bergeron.  It’s a deceptively juvenile satire against Conformity and Communism, and while it may not impress upon first reading, it stays with you.  Four stars.

One of my favorite new authors is Rosel George Brown, and I have to give her credit for being willing to take chances.  The Ultimate Sin, however, is a bit avante garde for me.  Something about a social misfit interstellar explorer who finds a planet where gravity depends on whim rather than mass, and where the entire ecology is a unit, its pieces constantly consuming each other and exchanging knowledge in the process.  I didn’t like it at first, but as with the first story, I found it engaging in retrospect.  Three stars.

Charles G. Finney’s The Captivity isn’t science fiction at all; it’s more an analysis of captivity on humans, particularly when they discover that they aren’t really captives at all.  What is there left to push against when external forces are removed?  Only each other, and themselves.  Three stars.

Robert E. Lee at Moscow is Evelyn E. Smith’s attempt at satire this issue.  She’s produced some real doozies, but this one, an extreme logical extension of turning our political ambassadors into cultural ambassadors, falls flat.  There is a laugh-inducing line on the last page, however.  Two stars.

The half-posthumous team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth bring us The World of Myrion Flowers, which tells the tale of a driven Black philanthropist whose attempts to raise a cadre of Negro executives end unhappily.  The moral: it’s best when a disdained class doesn’t have too clear an idea of what the favored class thinks of them.  I can only imagine what insanity I would derive from having telepathy while living in 1930s Germany.  Three stars.

Isaac Asimov hasn’t written much fiction lately, and when he does, it tends to be old fashioned.  So it is with The Machine That Won the War, a very slight computer-related piece that probably got accepted more out of respect for the author than for its quality.  Two stars.

Meanwhile, George Langelaan, the Paris-born Britisher who penned The Fly in ’57 brings us The Other Hand, a macabre story of digits that move as if possessed, compelling their owners to strange activities.  Rather overwrought and archaic.  Two stars.

If Asimov’s fiction fails to impress, his fact remains entertaining.  That’s About the Size of It is all about the comparative sizes of Earth’s animals, all done logarithmically for easy data manipulation.  It turns out that people are medium-biggish creatures, all things considered.  Four stars.

The Vat is Avram Davidson’s latest, featuring a bit of alchemy and misadventure.  Short but readable.  Three stars.

Grendel Briarton’s latest pun, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIV, is as always, perhaps a bit more.

And that leaves us with Dickson’s Naked to the Stars (Part 1 of 2), which I’ll cover next week.  All in all, a 3-star issue that will not revulse but neither will it much impress.  Faint praise, indeed.

[August 26, 1961] Introduce Yourself!  (September 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Just what is the Galactic Journey?  Who is this mysterious “Traveler”?

Every so often, it’s good idea to remind my readers who I am and why I do what I do.  This weekend, I am presenting at a local science fiction gathering, so it makes sense that the first article they see makes sense of all of this.

My twin passions are science fiction and outer space.  I live with my wife and daughter in San Diego, the fairest city in the Golden State of California.  From 9 to 5, I run a mid-sized electronics company.  In my off time, I maintain this column, writing about current books, magazines, movies, and science news (as well as other miscellany).

Oh yes.  I live in 1961.

Normally, I wouldn’t have cause to mention this fact.  For the longest time, I was the under the impression that we all lived in the same time.  Some of the mail I’ve been getting, however, suggests that a few of you come from the future — 55 years, to be exact. 

It’s quite exciting to have a fan-base from the far-flung time of 2016.  They report on all sorts of far out advances, some of which have been conceived in science fiction, others of which are beyond our wildest dreams. 

Happily, they report that global overpopulation has not been realized.  On the other hand, global warming has.  They say that Pluto is not a planet; well, that’s nothing new.

I suspect, of course, that this is all a fannish game.  No one really can know the future.  The best we can do is write down our speculations and hope we’re right (or in the case of scary visions, wrong!)

And that leads nicely into the subject of this article, the September 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  For those of you who don’t know, F&SF is one of several monthly science fiction digests, each containing a slew of stories.  The story length ranges from single-page vignettes through serialized novels that run over several issues.  Digests used to be the way science fiction was delivered to the public.  They’ve been on the decline since their peak in 1953, however, and the science fiction novel appears to have taken its place. 

There is still plenty of good stuff to be found in the magazines, however.  Here’s what I found in this issue:

Gérard Klein is an author for F&SF‘s French edition, and his The Monster in the Park was deemed good enough to be translated into English (thank you, Virginia Kidd!) It is a worthy piece, this tale of an alien’s landing in a Parisian park.  The pacing is excellent, with the largely expositional setup interpreted through the lens of a worried Frenchwoman’s grief over the possibility that her husband has been abducted.  The story builds the tension quite nicely, and the resolution works, though it is a bit abrupt.  Four stars.

Moving on, we have Herbert Gold’s satirical The Day They Got Boston, about the diplomatic tit-for-tat that might ensue should the Soviets ever accidentally blow up one of our cities.  His name may be unfamiliar to you if you’re the kind who never leaves our particular genre.  In fact, Gold writes a lot, but most of his stuff ends up in the “slicks” — high-paying outlets like Playboy.  Hefner politely declined the offer to print Boston, but his loss is our gain. 


Herbert Gold

Gold, a friend of mine, told me he wrote this genuinely funny little yarn as a reaction to all the panic about The Bomb, which he doesn’t personally buy into.  Boston is not really science fiction, but then Gold isn’t a science fiction writer.  As he puts it, “the world is bizarre enough without inventing a fantasy science fiction alternative.”  A fair assessment from a man who writes with a stylus dipped in his own blood stored in a skull of Goethe he keeps on his desk (or so he claims!) Four stars.

The Timekeeper is Michael Young’s first story, an odd vignette about a fellow who escapes mortality by shuffling into the timeless place of waking dreams.  Strangely enjoyable.  3 stars.

Floyd Wallace used to write a lot more, but if saving his strength means we get more stories like Privates All, then I don’t begrudge him his rest.  Imagine a stultifying world of scarcity where production is in the hands of a myriad of monopolies: General Housing, General Apparel, General Entertainment, General Food, etc.  A person can work for any of them, but only one at a time.  Within each unit, goods can be secured with relative ease, but without, they cost dearly.  How does one get ahead in a world where wealth in one economic field means poverty in all others? 

Wallace writes powerfully, evocatively, and I’m a sucker for stories set in caste-based societies.  I imagine, rather like Orwell’s 1984, that Privates is less a prediction of a future time than a depiction of an existing place — namely, the Soviet Union.  Good stuff.  Four stars.

Pecking Order is a tale of witchcraft, humility, and pride from a virtually unpublished author, Nils Peterson.  Macabre in its mood, wicked in its finale, it is a quintessentially F&SF-ish story.  Three stars.

Hamlin is by another unknown: Rosemary Harris.  She has the sad distinction of being the only female author appearing in the digests I read this month.  Hamlin is the re-telling of an old fable, gussied up in scientifiction trappings.  It’s my least favorite story in the issue, but that’s more due to the quality of its competition, than any lack on its part.  Three stars.

Now, all of the Big Three digests (F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy) include a science fact column.  F&SF‘s is the best as they managed to secure the works of a certain Isaac Asimov, a fellow with a broader breadth of knowledge than Da Vinci. 

I like science fiction, but I love articles that can inspire science fiction stories.  Not As We Know It describes elements and solvents that could be alternatives to our boring old carbon/oxygen/water mix as the basis for alien life.  It is a treasure trove of ideas.  Five stars.

Rosser Reeves, a writer/businessman like me, has made a name for himself with his poetry.  He returns with two more pieces: the mournful Effigy and the inconsequential
E=MC².  Not as good as his last outing, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more.  Three stars.

Finally, we have Brian Aldiss’ Timberline.  This is the next installment in his “Hothouse” series of novellas, which form a continuous sequence set on an Earth of the far future.  The sun has swelled with age, and our planet has frozen into tidal lock with one face always presented to its parent star.  The Earth’s surface has been conquered by vegetable beings, and only a few animals remain — including a diminutive race descendant of once mighty humanity.

Aldiss’ is an imaginative world, but this outing in particular felt more travelogue than complete tale.  It might be all right as part of a book (I imagine there will be a compilation when the last novella is completed), but by itself, it feels shallow.  Three stars.

Last month, I lamented that the quality of my favorite digest was declining.  This issue seems to reverse that trend: It scored 3.6 of 5 on the Star-o-meter (TM), easily beating out IF‘s 2.9 and Analog’s 2.6.  It also had the best story (Privates All), the most women (a whopping one), and the best non-fiction.  Pretty good for a magazine with such a large number of authorial first outings!

By next article will be a photologue of my trip to the convention.  If I meet you this weekend, do drop me a line.  I love making new friends!

[June 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the Earth.  There are many hypotheses as to why these great reptiles no longer walk among us.  One current of thinking goes thusly: dinosaurs were masters of the Earth for so long that they became complacent.  Because their reign was indisputed, they evolved in ways that were not optimized for survival.  Thus, the strange crests of the Hadrosaurs.  The weird dome head of the Pachycephalosaurs.  The giant frills of the Ceratopsians.  Like Victorian ladies’ hats, the dinosaurs became increasingly baroque until they were too ungainly to survive.

I worry that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is heading in that direction.  I’m all for literary quality in my sf mags, but F&SF has been tilting so far in the purple direction that it is often all but unreadable.  I present Exhibit A: the July 1961 “All-Star” issue.

Kingsley Amis is perhaps better known as a fan than a writer, his recent New Maps of Hell being a lauded survey of the current sci-fi field.  Something Strange isn’t a bad story, but the fluffy writing can’t relieve or distract from the threadbare plot (a retread of The Twilight Zone’s first episode): Two married couples are stuck on what they believe is a remote interstellar outpost.  A series of increasingly strange things materialize, first outside and, later, inside the station.  Ultimately, the scouts are given a final message from Earth – they have been abandoned for want of funding to retrieve them!  Of course, the keen reader has already figured out that the base is really just a long-term isolation chamber on Earth, the whole thing being an experiment.  Despite the hackneyed plot, it’s still readable.  Three stars, barely.

Package Deal is the latest by Will Worthington, an author given to writing dark pieces.  This one, about a n’er-do-well spoiled rich kid who discovers his latent powers of telepathy, is overly cute and underly memorable.  Two stars.

The new writer, Nicholas Breckenridge, advises ailurophiles to skip the feline ghost story, Cat Lover.  It’s a good suggestion; Lover is a tired retread of familiar ground.  Two stars.

Grendel Briarton has a new Ferdinand Feghoot pun story.  I include it in the interests of completeness; do not mistake presentation for endorsement.

The Zookeeper is the first published story by Otis Kidwell Burger, and also the one piece by a woman (despite the unlikely name) to appear in any of the Big Three magazines this month.  It’s a tale of the far future, a sort of meet cute featuring a woman secured from present day as a sort of pet, and the all-too-human alien, also a pet, who comes to love her.  Another overly oblique piece, but kind of charming nonetheless.  Three stars.

Kris Neville’s Closing Time is more Socratic dialogue than story, a rather insipid piece about disproving the existence of intelligent aliens.  Two stars.

Night Piece, by the usually (these days) excellent Poul Anderson, is even more disappointing.  Something about a scientist becoming aware of dimensions beyond his own, grappling to retain his sanity amid an onslaught to his senses.  It’s all very ponderous and overwrought.  One star.

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Recipe for a Planet, all about the elements that make up the Earth and their proportion to each other.  I especially enjoyed the article’s wrap-up, describing our planet’s composition in cook-book style.

Comprising a good third of the book is its final piece, Brian Aldiss’ novella, Undergrowth.  It is a direct sequel to his previous stories, Hothouse and Nomansland, all set on Earth a billion years from now.  The sun has grown hot, and the planet is a jungle.  Humans have long-since stopped being Earth’s master and are now diminutive, barely sentient creatures.  In this story, we learn of the event that caused our race to topple from power, thanks to the racial-memory tapping talents of the fungoid symbiotes, the morel. 

As usual, Aldiss paints a vivid picture, and a unique one, but somehow the further adventures of Gren and Poyly and their bonded morel have gotten a bit tedious.  It feels more and more like one of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels – enjoyable, but shallow.  I’m looking forward to learning what happened to the lunar explorers from the first novella, and I expect Aldiss has already got that story plotted out.  Three stars.

Measured on the Star-o-Meter(tm), this “All-Star” issue only earns 2.5 stars.  In fact, not a single magazine broke the 3-star barrier this month!  Moreover, just one woman made it to print.  The two facts may not be unrelated…

In any event, if F&SF wants to win the Hugo this year, it’ll have to do better than this.  Otherwise, Analog or Galaxy are likely to take the prize just by failing to decline as steeply.

[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…