Tag Archives: Frank Banta

[November 3, 1962] A Plague of Purple (December 1962 Galaxy)

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


by Gideon Marcus

A plague has invaded the galaxy.

Well, more specifically, a plague has invaded Galaxy, as evidenced in the December 1962 issue.

It has become de riguer at my former favorite magazine, that of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to print “funny” literary stories.  Tediously amusing, dully droll, laden with parenthetical (uselessly so) clauses — and hyphenated articulations, sometimes “quoted” for extra sardonicism.  And did I mention the extra verbiage?  These magazines pay three cents per word, you know.

An author will not impress me with her/his command of the typewriter keys beyond the 36 letters and numerals, nor with an arcane talent for stringing comma-connected clauses unbroken across a paragraph.  I want a plot, compelling characters, and for God’s Sake, science in my science fiction.  I have nothing against humor.  The likes of Sheckley and (for the most part) Lafferty make me smile just fine.  I’ve nothing against avant garde prose — viz. the incomparable Cordwainer Smith.

No, what drives me crazy is the supremely affected garbage that is shouldering aside honest fiction.  Am I the only one who hates this stuff?  I’m not asking for a return to the mediocre gotcha tales starring James McAnglo-Saxon that larded the surplus of digest in the 50s (and which still regularly appear in Analog.) I just want good, readable stories with reasonable extrapolations of technology populated by genuine human beings…or plausible aliens (I’m no xenophobe.)

Read on, at your own risk.  There’s precious little to enjoy in this month’s issue, save for the second part of Pohl’s serial (the change in tone may give you whiplash) and the rather pedestrian nonfiction articles.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And if you actually like this stuff, well, it’s a free country. 

The Creature from Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

From the first few run-on lines, I knew I was in for a slog.  The once-brilliant Leiber, the fellow who gave us A Pail of Air, has this satirical(?) piece on little computerized calendar/memo-minders that eventually take over the world.  I gave up about halfway through, skimming just enough to confirm that I’d accurately guessed where the story was going.  I’m sure some will absolutely love it; it’s certainly a popular style these days.  Not for me, though.  One star.

Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns, by Avram Davidson

Having poured myself a stiff drink in reward for having made it through the opening novella, my moment of self-congratulation was shattered as I espied the byline of the next piece.  Davidson is the poster child for excellence gone to the prolix weeds.  Sure enough, this piece, ostensibly about earthworms and aliens, is possibly his worst offender yet.  One star.

Droozle, by Frank Banta

Oh look.  A pun-filled story about a sentient fountain pen.  At least it’s short.  One star.

Pluto, Doorway to the Stars, by George Peterson Field

A brief respite.  Field (who is he?) proposes a most unorthodox justification for Pluto’s most unexpected massiveness — it’s actually a gravitational slingshot for alien starships!  Of course, the ninth “planet” probably isn’t that massive, at least according to the astrophysical journals I read.  Three stars for imagination, and because the preceding stories left me with an overstock of stars.

General Max Shorter, by Kris Neville

This is supposed to be a brooding piece from the point of view of a hidebound officer who commits genocide, not out of malice, but stolid adherence to orders and routine.  Instead, it’s a plodding, overwrought story with all the seams showing.  Two stars.

Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas, by R. A. Lafferty

I can usually count on Lafferty to successfully deliver a mirthful tale.  This time, though, he simply fails.  Maybe I was just fatigued from too much of its ilk earlier in the book.  Or maybe his story of a befuddled census-taker who finds a community of Lilliputians in rural Texas just ain’t very good.  Two stars. 

The Glory of Ippling, by Helen M. Urban

I vaguely remember Helen Urban from the magazines many years ago.  I’m afraid her most recent story will not make any new fans.  I couldn’t even tell you what this piece was about — my brain was just too addled from its much of muchness with what preceded it.  One star.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

One of the few rocket scientists from Germany who was never a National Socialist, Willy Ley always turns in a decent article.  This one is on the progress that has been and is being made in the field of space stations.  Ley assures us that, while orbiting stations may not yet be in the headlines, they are certainly under development.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 2 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

Last ish, we learned that the end of civilization, brought about by the selective and destructive possession of people, was actually the work of a group of Soviet dissident scientists.  Drunk on power, they wrought a holocaust beyond the scope (if not the dreams) of even the most ardent Nazi.  Apart from the decaying and isolated millions left in the world, the community of a few hundred gold-circleted “execs” now lives on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, waited upon by 10,000 slaves made marionettes by the psychic coronets of their masters.

Chandler is our viewpoint character, a fellow “rescued” at the brink of execution for hoaxing a possession to commit depraved acts (but he really was a puppet at the time).  He finds himself in Oahu being put to work on a back-up psi generator, one that will assure his overlords eternal power.  People die around him right and left: used up, punished for petty reasons, slaughtered for attempted sedition.  Only the constant love of one of the execs keeps him alive until he has the opportunity to strike back at the masters.

This is such a hard piece to gauge.  It is an expertly written page turner.  The subject matter is extremely difficult stuff, though.  If the world hadn’t witnessed similar horrors just a couple of decades ago (e.g. Germany), I’d say it was a gratuitous exaggeration.  Part of the problem with the book is that Chandler simply doesn’t have much agency (which, to be fair, is rather the point).  Every spark of hope is quenched.  Every attempt to hatch a plan is squelched in the most brutal way.  Only happenstance saves him in the end, an event one can predict fairly early on.  Chandler views this horror world but barely interacts with it.  The result is a vivid, disturbing, fascinating tour of hell.  Four stars, if you can stomach it.

And that’s that.  90 worthy pages, mostly at the end, out of 196.  I sincerely hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.  Otherwise, I shall have to join the bandwagon of those who say that science fiction truly is on the decline.

Speaking of which, see you in a few days with a look at Philip K. Dick’s first sf book in several years.




[October 9, 1962] Middlin’ middle sibling (November 1962 IF Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Another month, another load of science fiction digests delivered to my door.  Normally, they arrive staggered over several weeks (the various publishers know not to step on each other’s toes – the field is now pretty uncrowded, so there’s room for everyone to play), but since I was traveling the last week, I’d already accumulated a small pile upon my return.

Top of the month has been devoted to the magazines edited by famous author/agent Fred Pohl, e.g. Galaxy and IF — and starting next year, Worlds of Tomorrow!  The first two alternate every month, and odd months are IF‘s turn.  Thus, enjoy this review of the November 1962 IF Science Fiction, which was a bit of a slog leavened with bright spots:

Podkayne of Mars (Part 1 of 3), by Robert A. Heinlein

A few years ago, Robert Heinlein wrote A Menace from Earth.  Unlike virtually every other story to date, it starred (in 1st Person, no less) a precocious teen girl, and it was perhaps the first blend of science fiction and romance.  My 11 year-old (the Young Traveler) adored it and asked me if there was any more like it.  Sadly, there wasn’t. 

Until this month. 

Heinlein’s new novel, Podkayne of Mars, is another 1st Person piece from the viewpoint of a brilliant young woman.  Young Podkayne (Poddy) Fries dreams of becoming a spaceship captain, maybe the first to lead an expedition to the stars.  But to realize her dream, she has to get off of the Red Planet, a sort of futuristic Australia colonized by the best and worst of Terra’s children. 

I tore into Podkayne with a gusto that slowly but inevitably waned.  Have you ever engaged in conversation with a promising raconteur only to find, after a few minutes, that her/his increasingly meandering tale doesn’t and won’t have a point?  And now you’re stuck for the long haul.  That’s Podkayne.  Heinlein simply can’t divorce his rambly, screedy persona from his work.  The result is disturbing, as if there is a creepy old man lurking behind Podkayne’s bright young blue eyes. 

The story is interesting enough to keep me reading, and I appreciate the somewhat progressive treatment of women, but this is a tale that would be served best if written by someone else.  Zenna Henderson might make it too moody; I suspect Rosel George Brown would render it perfectly.  Two stars for this installment, with some improvement at the end.

The Real Thing, by Albert Teichner

Value is determined by scarcity.  When the authentic article is easy to be had, and it is the counterfeit that is rare, we can expect the latter to climb in value.  Someday, we may find plastic to be more desirable than the material it emulates; or we may deem robots to be more human than people.  Teichner’s story explores the latter idea as fully as a few pages will allow, and he pulls it off.  Three stars.

The Reluctant Immortals, by David R. Bunch

Bunch, on the other hand, writing of an overcrowded Earth that has become a driver’s nightmare, does a less convincing job.  There’s good artsy weird, and then there’s tedious artsy weird.  Guess which one this is?  Two stars.

The Desert and the Stars, by Keith Laumer

IF has published a tale of Retief, that interstellar ambassador/superagent, every two months for the last year.  I’m glad Laumer will soon take a break from the character.  I won’t say that this particular piece, in which Retief diplomatically foils an attempt by the Aga Kaga to poach the new farming colony of Flamme, is a story too far – but I think we’re getting there.  Retief’s exploits are getting a little too easy, almost self-parodying.  On the other hand, there are some genuinely funny moments in Desert, and the bit where the diplomat communicates solely in proverbs for several pages is a hoot.  Three stars.

The Man Who Flew, by Charles D. Cunningham, Jr.

A murder mystery in which a telepathic detective puzzles out the how and the who of the untimely demise of his client’s wife; an event with which the detective seems to be uncannily familiar.  This is Cunningham’s first work, and it shows.  It tries too hard at too worn a theme.  Two stars, but let’s see how his next one goes.

Too Many Eggs, by Kris Neville

If the fridge you buy is sold at an unexplained deep discount, you may be getting more than you bargained for – especially if the thing dispenses free food!  I don’t know why I liked this piece so much; it’s just well done and unforced.  Four stars.

The Critique of Impure Reason, by Poul Anderson

Few things can ruin a bright mind like the field of modern literature criticism, and when the mind corrupted belongs to a highly advanced robot on whom the future of space exploitation depends, the tragedy is compounded manyfold.  Only the resurrection of a literary genre seemingly impervious to serious analysis is the answer.  Three stars, though the trip down grad school memory lane was a bit painful.

The Dragon-Slayers, by Frank Banta

A tiny, cute vignette of a simple Venusian peasant family with a dragon problem, and the gift from the boss that proves far more valuable than intended.  Three stars.

In all, 2.6 stars.  Once again, IF leaves the impression that it might someday be a great magazine if it ever grows up.  Nevertheless, no issue yet has compelled me to cancel the subscription, and several have made me glad of it.  May Galaxy’s little sister flower into the beauty of the elder and set a good example for the new baby due next January…




[July 9, 1962] To the New Frontier (August 1962 Galaxy Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Since humans have been a species, there has always been a frontier.  Whether it be Alaska for the first settlers of the Americas, or the New World (for Europeans), or the Wild West (for White Americans), there has always been an “over there” to explore.  Today, our frontiers are the frozen Arctics, the deep seas, and the vastness of orbital space.

Science fiction has always stayed one step ahead.  A hundred years ago, Jules Verne took us 20,000 leagues under the sea.  A generation later, Edgar Rice Burroughs took us to Darkest Africa, lost continents, and fancifully rendered nearby planets,.  Astounding and its ilk of the 30s and 40s gave us scientific jaunts through the solar system. 

These days, one is hard-pressed to find stories that take place on Mars or Venus.  Now that four men have circled the Earth and probes have flown millions of miles from our planet, tomorrow’s frontier lies among the stars.  Thus, science fiction has taken up residence in the spacious quarters of the Milky Way, light years away from home. 

As you’ll see if you pick up this month’s most worthy issue of Galaxy:

The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance

An alien empire known as The Rule has smashed the human federation, reducing the free population of Terrans to a few scattered planets.  On one barren world, people are confined to two rocky valleys, their technology regressed to the Renaissance.  There is the ever-present threat of attack from the reptilian aliens whenever the nearby red sun, Coralyne, draws near. 

But the humans have an ace up their sleeve: generations ago, a raiding vessel was defeated and its complement of aliens impressed into slavery.  Since then, they have been bred and specialized into a myriad of soldier castes called “dragons,” from the fierce Termagant infantry to the enormous Juggers and Fiends. 

Will this baroque force be able to withstand the next inevitable attack of The Rule, who have created their own caricatures of people to be their shock troops and mounts?  And what is the role of the weird “sacerdotes,” nude ascetic humans who may possess a tremendous hidden technology?

Masters really is an impressive piece of world-building, a page turner that will keep you guessing until the end.  I particularly enjoyed the moral questions the novella raises, demonstrating the implicit repugnance in the breeding of sentients by mirroring our raising of “dragons” with the domestication of human animals by The Rule.  The only issue which knocks Masters from perfection is I found the combat scenes a bit overlong.  Great illustrations by GAUGHAN, though.  Four stars.

Handyman, by Frank Banta

Brief moody piece about a prisoner whose solitary confinement even a well-meaning Carpenter can’t assuage.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Rotating Luminous Wheels in the Sea, by Willy Ley

Our favorite German science popularizer returns with an update on those mysterious luminous pinwheels that have been spotted by mariners over the last half-century.  He last wrote about them in the December 1960 and June 1961 issues, and they just get more intriguing.  Are they bioluminescent creatures stimulated by propellers?  Billboards for Martians?  Mass hallucinations?  Read and find out.  Three stars.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey


Schelling

The adventures of Lieutenant Jerry Norcriss, the psychic xenobiologist who hops into the minds of alien animals as part of pre-colonial surveys, is easily Jack Sharkey’s best series to date.  In this installment, we see that even the slightest damaging of a symbiotic relationship can be fatal to an ecosystem.  Harsh stuff.  Three stars.

Three Portraits and a Prayer, by Frederik Pohl

Terminally ill Dr. Rhine Cooperstock is convinced to make one last contribution to science before dying, but when his plowshares are turned into swords, he must sacrifice his last moments to right things.  Beautifully told, but the plot strains credulity.  Three stars.

Always a Qurono, by Jim Harmon

Leave it to slave-to-routine aliens to break the routine of a set-in-his-ways marooned space captain.  Supposed to be a funny piece, but it fails the laugh test.  A disappointing turn from a reliable author.  Two stars.

The Luck of Magnitudes, by George O. Smith

A fluffy piece on how lucky we are to have been growed on a planet that’s not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  I’m sure the Martians and Venusians have their own versions.  Two stars.

One Race Show, by John Jakes

Art is wordless communication, and what could be more universal a subject than the dark recesses of the human soul?  But is humanity ready to see its ugliness laid bare and exhibited in art galleries?  An interesting topic robbed of its impact by shallowly sardonic delivery.  Two stars.

***

Thanks to the dip at the end, this issue wraps up at just 2.9 stars.  Nevertheless, this does little credit to Vance’s story which, if it’s not in quite the same class as Moon Moth, isn’t far below.  Think of the August 1962 Galaxy as an Ace Double with a superior front and a mediocre back.  And at the very least, one gets a peek at a startling number of rich vistas, wild frontiers lying just beyond the current ken of humanity…

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)

[Feb. 10, 1962] Here is the News (March 1962 IF)


by Gideon Marcus

If “no news is good news,” then this has been a very good week, indeed!  The Studebaker UAW strike ended on the 7th.  The Congo is no more restive than usual.  Laos seems to be holding a tenuous peace in its three-cornered civil war.  The coup is over in the Dominican Republic, the former government back in power.  John Glenn hasn’t gone up yet, but then, neither have any Russians. 

And while this month’s IF science fiction magazine contains nothing of earth-shattering quality, there’s not a clunker in the mix – and quite a bit to enjoy!  Get a load of these headlines:

SURE THING

Poul Anderson’s Kings who Die leads the issue.  Anderson has been writing a blue streak over the past decade, and I don’t think I’ve disliked any of his work since this decade started.  One of my readers has noted Anderson’s tendency toward the somber (A Bicycle Built for Brew and The High Crusade not withstanding), but I like a bit of gravitas in my stories. 

Kings who Die tells the moving tale of a shipwrecked astro-soldier picked up by The Enemy in the depths of space.  The captive is induced to join his foes, who have developed a super-weapon.  But in the end, it turns out that the prisoner has a weapon of his own, one hidden deep inside of him.

Told by most others, this would be a throwaway gimmick piece.  Anderson puts flesh on the bones of this story, despite it being rather short.  Four stars.

NO SUPRISES

I don’t think Jim Harmon has missed an issue of IF in good long time.  This is generally to the reader’s favor as Harmon oscillates between fair and superior (if never great or awful).  Dangerous Quarry has a cute title, but this tale of a town and its bad-luck mine of luxury granite feeles dashed off, metering in at around sin of π (or three stars).

AUTHOR KICKS SELF

I usually don’t review Ted Sturgeon’s nonfiction pieces, but this month’s was long enough, and about an interesting-enough topic (Murray Leinster’s myriad of nifty scientific inventions – real, not literary), that I felt it worth a rating: Three stars.

LOST CAT

I normally associate Stephen Barr’s surreal stylings with Fantasy and Science Fiction, in whose pages I usually find him.  His latest story, Tybalt, thus, is an odd (but not unwelcome) addition to this month’s IFTybalt has the distinction of being the first story I’ve read to feature time travel by aid of chemicals (as opposed to using a machine), and its feline-tinged middle section is excellent.  Too bad about the rather rough ending, though.  Three stars, though I am reasonably certain this will be a favorite of some of my readers.


by Burns

TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE

Frank Banta is back again with The Happy Homicide, a cautionary tale about the dangers of relying on circumstantial evidence, particularly when the jury is sympathetic to the circumstances.  Never rely on a computer, at least so long as Perry Mason is around!  Three stars.

IT DOESN’T MATTER

James Stamers continues his upward trend with E Being.  The premise is fantastic: a pilot on the first Faster Than Light flight is converted into energy, fundamentally changing his nature but not his soul.  Upon this transformation, he finds himself in a community of radiation-eating, incorporeal creatures with a rather unique perspective on life (or perhaps it is we, the comparatively rare beings made up of…stuff…that are the oddballs).

I would have liked a serious exploration of these concepts, something philosophical and profound (e.g. The Star Dwellers, by James Blish).  Instead, Stamers plays the story for horror and laughs (an odd combination, but it works) and E Being ends up a fun tale, if a lost opportunity.  Three stars.

RETIEF STRIKES AGAIN!

The best-known interstellar diplomat is back, this time attempting to solve the mystery of the misplaced heavy cruiser.  Laumer’s The Madman from Earth plays Retief a bit straighter than I’m used to, which I think is to the story’s ultimate benefit.  However, Laumer commits the whodunnit writer’s cardinal sin: he never explains just how Retief gains the critical piece of information on which his success hinges.  Three stars.

NOW YOU SEE IT…

Wrapping things up is a charming piece of whimsy by R.A. Lafferty (who else?) called Seven-Day Terror, which involves a thieving brat, who absconds with necessary items, and the precocious little girl who sets things to rights.  Four stars, making this issue a worthy palindrome. 

Read all about it!


by Emsh

[April 8, 1961] Variety pack (May 1961 IF)

The nice thing about a science fiction magazine (or anthology) as opposed to a novel is if you don’t like one story, you might like the next.  Once you start a bad novel, your only options are to drag yourself through it or give it up unfinished.  And you can’t very well review an unfinished novel, can you?

Galaxy’s sister magazine, IF, is not as good, on the average, as the other members of the Big Four (including F&SF and Analog).  But because it is a digest, occasional stories surprise and delight.  There’s one gem in this month’s issue of IF, and a few other diverting tales.

Not the first one, though.  J.T. McIntosh tends to save his dreck for the lesser mags, and his That’s the Way it Goes is a thinly redressed pioneer story grafted onto a Malthusian future.  Science fiction has to be at least a little visionary if not progressive.  Way fails at both, though to its credit, it’s not unreadable; just unimpressive.  Two stars.

William Stuart’s Out of Mind has an interesting concept: a planet of telepaths who present to you the experience you most want to have.  As one might expect, it is a dangerous world, indeed, for those who ever want to return home.  It’s done in a droll satirical fashion that I didn’t care for, but you might.  Two stars.

I think Frank Banta must be new, as I haven’t encountered his name before.  The Connoisseur is a sad, humorous story about an off-course colony ship.  It doesn’t tread new ground, but it is pleasant and short.  Three stars.

Seven Doors to Education is the jewel of this issue.  It is the third story by newcomer Fred Saberhagen, and I think it’s my favorite thus far.  A young postal worker with no particular talents or prospects is abducted by unknown forces and presented with a series of increasingly difficult puzzles.  Why him?  And to what end?  A genuinely engaging story with a satisfying conclusion.  Four stars.

The Useless Bugbreeders may be James Stamers’ best story to date.  That’s not necessarily high praise given his track record of two and three star submissions, but this particular story, about an attorney attempting to spare a planet in the way of interstellar freeway construction, is silly fun.  Three stories.

Cinderella Story, the second story I’ve read by Allen Kim Lang, retains his breezy style.  It works in this tale, of a young woman federal agent who is sent to investigate a most peculiar bank.  It scores points for featuring a strong female lead, and for spotlighting the sexism women have to endure in the workplace (though I can’t be certain if Lang did so deliberately or unconsciously).  Three stars.

Ending with a whimper, the last story is Jack Sharkey’s The Flying Tuskies of K’niik K’naak — basically, about the comeuppance of an upper class big-game hunter by his mistreated servant.  Again, it’s a science fiction story with no science fiction.  I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s just not that good.  Two stars.

That puts us at 2.75 for the whole book, but if you start on page 50 and quit around page 124, you’re actually in for a fine read.  And that’s 75 more pages of good fiction than I’ve published this month!