Tag Archives: Frank Herbert

[February 4, 1962] Promised Land in Sight? (the March 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

A couple of months ago I described Amazing, as “promising.” Now here’s the March 1962 issue, with two up-and-comers on the cover and a third on the contents page.

Verdict: promise partly kept.

Maybe “up-and-comer” isn’t quite le mot juste for Frank Herbert; “what have you done for me lately?” might fit better.  Herbert’s reputation was made by the very well-received Under Pressure, a/k/a The Dragon in the Sea and . . . [gag] . . . 21st Century Sub.  But there’s been no new novel, and the short fiction, though much of it is very solid, has not delivered on expectations.  Mindfield!, the lead novelette, doesn’t advance things.  After a cataclysmic war, a religious tyranny suppresses the old technology, but young rebels want knowledge and progress!  This unoriginal premise is decorated with some original details, e.g., everyone is conditioned against violence, and the priests must regularly undergo “Ultimate Conditioning” in some sort of ego-dissolving regeneration tank. 

The story is pretty murky, so I’ll leave it at this detail: The rebels have found an ancient skeleton and have put that into their stolen regeneration tank, and the simulacrum that emerges remembers its name (barely), and later, how to pilot a helicopter.  No disrespect to bones—where would we be without them?—but how do you get memory and complex skills out of them?  The answer: mumble mumble handwave, and not much of that.  This reads like an exercise in sauve qui peut, to salvage something from a larger project that didn’t pan out.  Two stars.

Mindfield! is illustrated on the cover, sort of: it portrays a missile launch that is about to happen at the end.  It’s consistent with Amazing’s habit of featuring machinery on the cover, but this is rather wimpy machinery: the artist Lloyd Birmingham seems to have used some medium like chalk or colored pencil rather than good old forceful oils or the new acrylics.  Lackluster!

Briton Brian W. Aldiss is definitely up and coming, now prolific in the US as well as the UK, and known for pushing the envelope and/or kicking the shins of standard SF practice.  So Tyrants’ Territory, featuring planetary exploration and a science puzzle, played very straight, is a surprise.  Askanza VI has huge mineral-filled oceans and littoral fauna that look like giant turtles, who build rudimentary structures and throw crockery full of acid when threatened.  Their heads are literally empty.  What’s going on?  The heads of the turtles, or more properly pseudo-chelonia (Aldiss has a footnote about that term), are radio receivers; they are guided by radio waves from the ocean, which by virtue of its composition, is a low-power transmitter.  Who’s transmitting, or whether there is some sort of collective mind, is not clear—but once human colonists arrive, they will quickly figure out how to control the pseudo-chelonia, and the worst elements among them will do so—hence the title. 

But why allow human colonists at all where there already is intelligent life? Uncharacteristically for Aldiss, there’s no real questioning of the colonial imperative beyond the protagonist’s bad mood. The only discordant note is the name of this venture—the Planetary Ecological Survey Team, or PEST—but that’s it for moral witness.  Nonetheless, the story is so well conceived, written, and assembled as to merit four stars.

J.G. Ballard is back with The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista , another in his series about Vermilion Sands — a colony of artists and other creative types, not to mention layabouts and poseurs.  It introduces psychotropic houses, which reflect the emotional states and physical reactions of their occupants—including their previous occupants.  This idea is good for gags early on, e.g.: “Rapidly we went through a mock Assyrian ziggurat (the last owner had suffered from St. Vitus’s Dance, and the whole structure still jittered like a galvanized Tower of Pisa).”

Protagonist Talbot and wife buy the house once belonging to Gloria Tremayne, a movie star who shot and killed her husband in the house but was acquitted of murder—with Talbot assisting her defense.  He’s never gotten over his fascination.  The relationship between Talbot and his wife and the house’s memory of Tremayne and her husband reinforce each other until the house tries first to kill Talbot’s wife and then to kill Talbot when he comes home drunk and aggressive, not unlike Tremayne’s husband.  Talbot has, as he later puts it, “reconstructed the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material.”

This superficially jokey story is extremely well done.  Apart from the cleverness of the idea and its development, Ballard (like Aldiss) is a vastly better writer at the word-and-sentence level than the genre standard, with a knack for striking phrases and images (“Starting to walk down to the lounge, I realized that the house was watching me like a wounded animal.”).  The portrayal of Talbot as a narcissistic jerk through his first-person narration is a little tour de force of “show, don’t tell.” Four stars.

Newish writer David Ely is here with The The Wizard of Light, in which multiple copies of artistic masterpieces appear, utterly indistinguishable from the originals—like hundreds of Mona Lisas left outside the Louvre.  The art market is destroyed.  Turns out old Dr. Browl, brilliant inventor of optical devices, has invented a molecular scanner, complete with “cybernetic reactor” to copy whatever was scanned.  And why is he doing this?  To destroy art, which “falsifies nature in general, and light values in particular.” Clever idea, but spun out for too long, and the story is told in a faux-19th Century verbose style; whether as pastiche or just reinventing the square wheel, it talks itself down to three stars.

The Classic Reprint this issue is Euthanasia Limited by David H. Keller, M.D., a power in his time (the 1920s and ‘30s).  It features detective Taine of San Francisco.  Sam Moskowitz’s introduction says Keller “performed a feat of characterization [with Taine] so extraordinary that it should be studied by every student of writing technique.” Whatever.  It begins: “A little white-haired woman was working in her laboratory.” Not bad for 1929!  Anna Van Why (honest) is making a battery—out of apple halves.  She studies death and has learned that all life has electrical potential, and death is its reduction to zero, as she explains for not quite four pages.  Her sociopathic brother is eager to learn more, and a year later a police official comes to discuss with her a series of unusual deaths and arrange a visit from Taine.  Taine arrives and cracks the by now obvious case through tedious chicanery.  To hell with this, bring back Anna Van Why!  Two stars.

Frank Tinsley contributes Cosmic Butterfly, a short article about a spaceship design that uses solar power to ionize a propellant.  Tinsley is a fairly boring writer and this is pitched at a level more elementary than most SF readers are likely to need.  Two stars.

In 1956, F&SF began running a series of vignettes titled Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot, by one Grendel Briarton (hint: think anagram), consisting of elaborate set-ups for terrible puns, usually on cliched sayings.  Now Amazing has commenced Through Time and Space with Benedict Breadfruit, by one Grandall Barretton (not even quite an anagram), consisting of elaborate set-ups for terrible puns on the names of SF authors.  This has been a public service announcement.

[Speaking of which, if you registered for WorldCon by January 31, you should have received your ballot.  Don’t forget to nominate Galactic Journey for “Best Fanzine!”]

[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

It doesn’t take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy.  Why Galaxy?  Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it’s 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I’ve seen in a long while.  Come take a look with me – I promise it’ll be worth your while.

First up is A Planet Named Shayol, by Cordwainer Smith.  Smith’s is a rare talent.  There are few writers who not only excel at their craft, but they somehow transcend it, creating something otherworldly in its beauty.  Ted Sturgeon can do it.  I’m having trouble thinking of others in this class.  Almost every Smith story has this slightly lilting, 10% off-plane sense to it. 

Shayol is set in the far future universe of the “Instrumentality,” a weird interstellar human domain with people on top, beast creatures as servants, and robots at the bottom of the social totem pole.  This particular novelette introduces us to the most peculiar and forbidding of Devil’s Islands, the planet Shayol.  Just maintaining one’s humanity in such a place of horrors is a triumph.  The story promises to be a hard read, yet Smith manages to skirt the line of discomfort to create a tale of hope with an upbeat ending.  Plus, Smith doesn’t shy from noble woman characters.  Five stars.

Robert Bloch comes and goes with little stories that are either cute, horrific, or both.  Crime Machine, about a 21st Century boy who takes a trip back to the exciting days of gangster Chicago, is one of the former variety.  Three stars.

Another short one is Amateur in Chancery by George O. Smith.  A sentimental vignette about a scientist’s frantic efforts to retrieve an explorer trapped on Venus by a freak teleportation mishap.  Slight but sweet.  Three stars.

I’m not quite sure I understood The Abominable Earthman, by Galaxy’s editor, Fred Pohl.  In it, Earth is conquered by seemingly invincible aliens, but one incorrigible human is the key to their defeat.  The setup is good, but the end seemed a bit rushed.  Maybe you’ll like it better than me.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science article is about the reclaimed lowlands of Holland.  It’s a fascinating topic, almost science fiction, but somehow Ley’s treatment is unusually dull.  I feel as if he’s phoning in his articles these days.  Two stars.


Art by Dick Francis

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, is another swing and miss.  An interesting premise, involving a race that reproduces parthenogenetically via musical stimulation, is ruined by a silly ending.  Two stars.

Jack Sharkey usually fails to impress, but his psychic first contact story, Arcturus times Three, is a decent read.  You’ll definitely thrill as the Contact Agent possesses the bodies of several alien animals in a kind of psionic planetary survey.  What keeps Arcturus out of exceptional territory is the somehow unimaginative way the exotic environs and species are portrayed.  Three stars.

If you are a devotee of the coffee house scene, or if you just dig Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, then you’re well acquainted with the Beat scene.  Those crazy kooks with their instruments and their poetry, living a life decidedly rounder than square.  It’s definitely a groove I fall in, and I look forward to throwing away my suit and tie when I can afford to live the artistic life.  Fritz Leiber’s new story, The Beat Cluster is about a little slice of Beatnik heaven in orbit, a bunch of self-sufficient bubbles with a gaggle of space-bound misfits — if you can get past the smell, it sure sounds inviting.  I love the premise; the story doesn’t do much, though.  Three stars.

Last up is Donald Westlake, a fellow I normally associate with action thrillers.  His The Spy in the Elevator is kind of a minor masterpiece.  Not so much in concept (set in an overcrowded Earth where everyone lives in self-contained city buildings) but in execution.  It takes skill to weave exposition with brevity yet comprehensiveness into a story’s hook – and it does hook.  Westlake also keeps a consistent, believable viewpoint throughout the story, completely in keeping with the setting.  I find myself giving it five stars, for execution, if nothing else.

Add it all up and what do you get?  3.3 stars out of 5, and at least one story that could end up a contender for the 1961 Hugos (I really enjoyed the Westlake, but I feel it may not be avante garde enough for the gold rocket).  Now that’s something to smile about!

[May 3, 1961] Passing the Torch (June 1961, Galaxy, 2nd Half)

Something is changing over at Galaxy magazine.

Horace Gold, Galaxy‘s editor, started the magazine in 1950, near the beginning of the post-pulp digest boom.  He immediately set a high bar for quality, with some of the best authors and stories, and including a top-notch science columnist (this was before Asimov transitioned from fiction).  Galaxy only once won the Best Magazine Hugo (in 1953, and that one it shared), but it paid well, eschewed hoary cliches, and all-in-all was a pillar of the field.  It was the magazine that got me into reading science fiction on a regular basis.

Warning bells started to clang in 1959.  The magazine went to a bi-monthly schedule (though at a somewhat increased size).  Author rates were slashed in half.  Gold, himself, suffering from battle fatigue-induced agoraphobia, became more erratic.  This new Galaxy was not a bad mag, but it slipped a few rungs. 

Fred Pohl came on last year.  He was not officially billed as the editor, but it was common knowledge that he’d taken over the reigns.  Pohl is an agent and author, a fan from the way-back.  I understand his plan has been to raise author rates again and bring back quality.  While he waits for the great stories to come back, he leavens the magazines with old stories from the “slush pile” that happen not to be awful.  In this way, Galaxy showcases promising new authors while keeping the quality of the magazine consistent.

The June 1961 Galaxy is the first success story of this new strategy.

Last issue, I talked about how Galaxy was becoming a milquetoast mag, afraid to take risks or deviate far from mediocrity.  This month’s issue, the first that lists Pohl as the “Managing Editor,” is almost the second coming of old Galaxy — daring, innovative, and with one exception, excellent. 

Take Cordwainer Smith’s Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, in which an interplanetary ring of thieves tries to steal from the richest, and best defended planet, in the galaxy.  Smith has always been a master, slightly off-center in his style; his rich, literary writing is of the type more usually seen in Fantasy and Science FictionKittons is ultimately a mystery, the nature of the unique (in name and nature) “kittons” remaining unknown until the last.  A brutal, fascinating story, and an unique take on the future.  Five stars.

Breakdown is by Herbert D. Kastle, one of the aforementioned novices.  Despite his green status, he turned in an admirable piece involving a farmer who finds the world increasingly differing from his memories.  Is he sliding across alternate universe?  It is a cosmic prank?  A gripping story, suitable for adaptation to The Twilight Zone.  Four stars.

The one dud of the issue is Frank Herbert’s A-W-F Unlimited: thirty pages of pseudo-clever dialogue and inner monologue set in a mid-21st Century ad agency as its star executive attempts to fulfill a recruiting drive contract for the space corps.  I got through it, but only by dint of effort.  1 star.

Poul Anderson has another entry in his Time Patrol series, though My Object all Sublime does not betray this fact until the end.  It’s a slow, moody piece; the reflections of a man from the far future, flung into the worst areas of the past as punishment for a nameless crime.  In one thought-provoking passage, the condemned man notes that being from the future in no way guarantees superiority in the past, for most people are not engineers or scientists with sufficient knowledge to change the world.  Moreover, they arrive penniless, and who can make a difference without money?

This is actually a problem I’ve considered (i.e. what I’d do if ended up stuck far back in time).  While I probably wouldn’t recognize salt-peter if I smelled it, I suspect just introducing germ theory and Arabic numerals would be enough to carve a niche.  Zero must be the most influential nothing in the history of humanity…  I rate the story at four stars.

Rounding out the issue is Fred Saberhagen’s The Long Way Home.  Two thousand years from now, a (surprisingly conventional) man and wife-run mining ship discovers an enormous spacecraft out among the planetoids near Pluto.  How it got there and where it’s going pose enigmas that should keep you engaged until the end of this competently written tale.  Three stars.

In sum, the June 1961 Galaxy weighs in at a solid 3.5 stars.  If you skip the Herbert, you end up with a most impressive regular-length magazine.  Given that Pohl also edits Galaxy’s sister mag, IF (also a bi-monthly, alternating with Galaxy), I am eagerly looking forward to next month!

[Oct. 2, 1960] Second-rate fun (November 1960 IF Science Fiction)

Galaxy’s little sister, IF Science Fiction has settled into a predictable format.  Filled with a number of “B” authors, mostly neophytes, it generally leads with a decent novelette, and the rest of the stories are two and three-star affairs.  I don’t think the blame can be put on IF‘s shadow editor, Fred Pohl (Horace Gold is all but retired these days, I understand).  Rather, this is about the best quality one can expect for a penny a word. 

That said, the stories in IF are rarely offensively bad, and perhaps some day, one of these novices learning the ropes of writing in the minor leagues will surprise us with a masterpiece.

Preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at the November 1960 issue:

Jim Harmon is actually quite the veteran, and he has a knack for interesting, off-beat writing.  His novelette, Mindsnake, depicts a future where interstellar teleportation is possible, but fraught with risk.  Only the Companions, colloquially known (and disparaged) as Witches, can keep a traveller’s mind intact over the long journey.  Good stuff, and original.  Four stars.

Then we have the short Superjoemulloy by unknown Scott F. Grenville.  How can the most powerful man challenge himself?  By creating a superior version of himself, of course.  Three stars.

Now, I was a bit dismayed to find Daniel Keyes in the Table of Contents.  Whenever I see a “big name” in IF (and there is no question that Keyes is a big name: he won the Hugo this year for Flowers for Algernon), the story is usually a second-rater.  Sure enough, The Quality of Mercy, which clunkily mixes sentient computers with organ transplants and mandated euthanasia, is a bit of a talky mess.  Two stars.

R.A. Lafferty is a fellow who may surprise us some day.  He seems to be enjoying an upward trajectory with his stories, not just in quality but in venue.  McGonigal’s Worm, in which every animal on Earth loses the ability to breed, is sort of a poor man’s Brain Wave.  Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.  Three stars.

Esidarap ot Pirt Dnuor is an engaging little tale of tourism in a rather backward place, brought to us by Lloyd Biggle, Jr, who spends much of his time appearing in Fantastic.  I liked it, but I’m afraid I didn’t get the final joke–an Un-Prize to anyone who can explain it to me.  Three stars.

I was gratified to find that, per his book review column, Fred Pohl liked much the same stories in Aldiss’ Galaxies like Grains of Sand as I did.  On the other hand, he liked Dickson’s Dorsai! far more than me.  Perhaps the novelization (titled The Genetic General) is better than the serial.

William Stuart is back with another well-written story that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Don’t think about it is a low-grade F&SF-style tale that takes too long to get to its kicker, and whose kicker lacks kick.  Three stars.

That brings us to Frank Herbert’s Egg and Ashes, told from the point of view of a charming if horrifying little symbiote (parasite?) I felt like the beginning was better than the ending, but I do like the way Herbert turns a phrase.  Three stars.

The issue ends with The Impersonator, the third story ever published by Robert Wicks.  In the midling future, the Earth is threatened by an impending Ice Age thanks to humanity’s rapacious exploitation of the planet’s resources.  A host of outrageous plans are developed to fix the problem: from salting ice fields with carbon dust, to altering the axial tilt of the planet, to tapping the heat from the Earth’s core.  It’s not a great story, but I liked Wicks’ satirical presentation of “doubling down” in an attempt to thwart catastrophe.  Three stars.

As you can see, this isn’t the best crop of stories.  On the other hand, minor league games draw crowds, too.  And the tickets are cheaper….