Tag Archives: Frederik Pohl

[November 19, 1962] Reverse Course (December 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

I’ve complained bitterly in this column on the meanderings of my favorite science fiction magazines.  Galaxy has gotten too tame.  Analog has gotten too staid.  F&SF has gotten too literary.  In fact, just last month, I was lamenting the streak of purple fluffiness that had corrupted that last mag.  Story after story of unreadable droll nothings, or at best, fantastic horrors without any hard sf.

The December 1962 issue did not promise to be any better.  It has the same line-up of authors, the same subject matter of stories.  There are even 11000…er.. 24 pages devoted to the concept of binary numbers.  Has F&SF lost its mind?!

So imagine my surprise to find that I actually enjoyed this month’s issue, entirely due to the well-written nature of its material.  These are not the kind of stories I prefer, but this experience just goes to show that high quality trumps subject matter.  See if you agree:

The Depths, by Jim Harmon

The fastest route between two points is a straight line, so what better way to navigate the globe than through it?  One hardly even needs a locomotive force since one can simply fall to a destination.  Of course, there is the minor issue of building the shaft, but such trivialities are hand-waved in this pleasant, deliberately archaic tale of a trans-Terranian vessel that gets stuck half-way down.  Three stars.

Behind the Stumps, by Russell Kirk

I didn’t much care for Kirk’s ghost story in the last issue, and this one is in the same vein.  It is so nicely drawn and tautly composed, however, that I found myself engrossed.  In brief: fussy, meticulous census worker heads to the backwoodsiest of Appalachian towns determined to count every farmer, even those whose tie to the Earth is limited at best.  Suitably horrific, vividly realized.  Four stars.

Senhor Zumbeira’s Leg, by Felix Marti-Ibanez

In a time when the depiction of sex in our genre ranges from prudish nonexistence to Garrett-esque chauvinism, it’s nice to get a happy-go-lucky romp filled with equally game and enabled men and women.  This spicy Latin adventure features the Zumbeira family, father and son, who are motivated by comfort and cross-gender relationships.  When the ne’er-do-well son embarks on a journey to find a new prosthesis for his one-legged father, aided by a sorceress’ magic charm guaranteed to bring luck, amusing hijinx ensue.  All’s well that ends well, and the journey is good, too.  Four stars.

One, Ten, Buckle My Shoe, by Isaac Asimov

Only Asimov can wax pedantic on a dull subject and make the experience enjoyable.  I mean, it’s a piece about a counting system in which there are only two digits!  But if we’re going to get along with computers, I suppose we’d best learn the drill now.  Four stars.

On Binary Digits and Human Habits, by Frederik Pohl

Galaxy, IF, and (soon) Worlds of Tomorrow editor makes an unusual appearance in a competitor magazine with this piece on how to easily convey binary numbers verbally.  What at first seems a pointless exercise turns out actually to be kind of interesting – the first time through, I had a strong desire to throw the magazine against the wall; and then I got it and re-read with some fascination.  Three stars this time, but don’t do it again, please.

Ad Infinitum, by Sasha Gilien

Freud put much stock in the symbolism of dreams.  Gilien takes things a few steps further, positing that there is an entire studio devoted to the production and innovation of said symbols.  A fantastic idea somewhat neutered by its gimmick ending.  Three stars.

Roofs of Silver, by Gordon R. Dickson

Can cultures devolve?  And if they can, what is the measuring stick?  Dickson sets up a universe where Terra’s colonies have a habit of reverting to savagery, replacing conscience with taboo, morality with hidebound custom.  Roofs spotlights one world on the verge of such a fall, and the lengths one of its inhabitants goes to thwart it.

There’s nothing wrong with the writing in this piece; when Dickson’s on his game (and he certainly is here), he is one of the genre’s more sensitive and interesting authors.  No, the only real failing of this piece is its utter predictability.  Four stars.

The Notary and the Conspiracy, by Henri Damonti (translation by Damon Knight)

Some people really live a double life – the problem comes when one chooses to live out that second span in a high-profile and highly dangerous historical position!  A fun piece, but it’s one of Knight’s more opaque translations.  Three stars.

In sum, this month’s issue scored a respectable 3.5 stars.  I am left with a sense of bemused puzzlement.  Did editor Davidson finally turn his ship around?  Did all of the insufferable frivolity get used up by Galaxy?  Or is this simply the bounce of a dead cat, and I can expect a return to form in the new year?

As my wife is wont to say, “Don’t borrow trouble.”  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!




[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.




[Sep. 10, 1962] Leading by Example (the terrific October 1962 Galaxy)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Thirteen years ago this month, amidst the post-war boom of science fiction digests, Galaxy Science Fiction was born.  Its editor, H.L. Gold, intended his brainchild to stand above and apart from the dozens of lesser mags (remember those days of abundance?) with progressive and smart strictly SF stories.  He succeeded — Galaxy has showcased some of the best the genre has to offer, as well as a fine science fact column penned by Willy Ley.  The consistency of quality has been remarkable.

Two years ago, Fred Pohl, a bright authorial light already, took the helm from the ailing Gold.  If anything, he has improved on excellence, continuing to coax fine works from established authors and interesting pieces from new ones.  It helps that he, himself, can fill the pages with good material and often does….though I have to wonder if he gets paid when he does that.

If you were to pick any single issue to turn someone on to Galaxy (or to science fiction in general), you could hardly do better than to give them the latest issue (October 1962) of Galaxy.  Not only isn’t there a clunker in the mix, not only does it feature a new Instrumentality story by the great Cordwainer Smith, but it includes part one of an incredible new novel by the editor.

Wow.  I think I threw in more superlatives in the last three paragraphs than I have in the last three months.  I guess it’s time to show you what all the hubbub’s about:

The Ballad of Lost C’mell, by Cordwainer Smith

Many authors write in a consistent world.  Some are developed following an individual through her/his life in a series of stories.  Others might take place in a common setting but feature different protagonists.  Smith has introduced his Instrumentality universe through oblique flashes.  Each piece involves wildly different places and characters, each with a limited view of things.  Only after reading several of them does one get an idea of the nature of Smith’s creation.

Thousands of years from now, Earth has seen global empires rise and fall.  The current ruling entity is the Instrumentality, a council of pure-humans ruling over the people-citizens and genetically altered animal-subcitizens.  Technology caters to virtually every need; the world enjoys a purely service-based economy with the Underhumans providing the services.  For humans, Earth is a beautiful, magical place filled with strange wonders.  For the animal-people, enslaved to the pure humans, life is a struggle and punishments harsh.  We are beyond the familiar subtext of racism/chauvinism that suffuses Western stories – the relationship between the races hearkens to the rigid castes of Asia.  The animal-men may be cast in human mold, but their treatment is peremptory, inhumane.  And the humans are blithely unaware that their creations have the capacity to rebel…

C’mell is the most straight-forward of Smith’s Instrumentality stories, and it gives the sharpest insight, to date, of the world he’s created (though it by no means reveals all of its secrets).  As always, it displays Smith’s mastery of the craft, mixing showing and telling, romance and austerity, far-future and relatability.  Smith is an author who doesn’t put pen to paper unless it’s for a four or five-star story, and C’mell is no exception.  Five stars.

Come Into My Cellar, by Ray Bradbury

We’ve seen the plot where intelligent fungus take over humanity through forced symbiosis in Aldiss’ Hothouse stories.  Bradbury gives us a much more conventional setup, where the evil mushrooms send spores of themselves via mail-order catalog to be grown and ingested.  A nicely written but dumb story, and it has the same ending as All Summer in a Day, which is to say, Ray doesn’t bother to end it.  Three stars – about as good as Bradbury (not really an SF author) ever gets.

The Earthman’s Burden, by Donald E. Westlake

A competent if somewhat forgettable story of an arrogant, resurgent Terran star empire and the lost colony that promises to be more trouble than it’s worth to conquer.  There’s pleasant satire here, particularly of the buffoonish Imperials, but nothing we haven’t seen before.  In fact, I rather expected to find this piece in Analog (you’ll see why).  Three stars.

For Your Information: End of the Jet Age, by Willy Ley

A generation ago, propeller planes were the way to travel.  Now that they’ve been eclipsed by the jets, one has to wonder just how long our 707s and DC-8s will last before they are, in turn, replaced by the next mode of transportation.  Ley gives us an excellent preview of rocketplane travel in the 1980s as well as a spotlight on a living fossil and answers to readers’ questions.  Four stars.

A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede

Speaking of series, Doede has a third story in his tale of teleporting humans , who have exiled themselves from Earth using subcutaneous matter transmitters that work at the speed of thought.  This latest piece involves a dilettante archaeologist who’ll brave offending the Gods and even risk death to dig an ancient, abandoned site on Alpha Centauri II.  Another piece that shouldn’t work (why does the native speak perfect English?), but Doede always pulls it off.  Four stars.

How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon

Resigned to an 18-year hitch, the solo operator of a Martian atmosphere seeder resorts to building his own companions to preserve his sanity.  It’s a little bit McIntosh’s Hallucination Orbit (one wonders if the events of the story are really happening) tinged with Sheckley-esque satire and robotics.  But Harmon is not quite as skilled as either of these authors, and so the story ends up like most of Harmon’s work, never quite hitting the mark.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 1 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

How fragile our interconnected, technological world is.  How easy it would be for a few malicious demons, selectively possessing our bodies at propitious times, to utterly disintegrate our society.  Fast forward two years, after the world has reverted to feudal savagery.  Communities larger than the village are impossible.  Religion has revived in a last-ditch attempt to protect humanity from bodily appropriation.  One ex-engineer, name of Chandler, is on trial for a heinous assault he most assuredly committed, but which wasn’t his doing.  What justice can he find in a world where the dispensers of justice can, at any time, cease being themselves?

Pythons is a brutal, uncomfortable story, crushingly bleak.  It’s not the sort of thing I would normally go for, and I definitely caution against it if mind control pushes unpleasant buttons.  Yet Pohl executes the thing deftly, and he holds out the barest sliver of hope to keep you going.  I have no idea how Pythons will conclude, but if the latter half is as good as the first, we’ll have a minor masterpiece on our hands.  Four stars (for now…)

Roberta, by Margaret St. Clair

Roberta explores the lengths one might go to erase the wrongness they feel exists in themselves – and the possibility that it is impossible to escape that wrongness.  It is the first story I’ve read that explores the concept of transsexualism, and while it is not a positive story, it is an interesting one.  Three stars.

Bimmie Says, by Sydney J. Van Scyoc

While we’re on the subject of changing physical form, is it possible to be transCarnivorous?  In other words, what if cats and dogs can be made mutually intermalleable?  And if pets can be transformed, why not people?  Van Scyoc’s story is clearly inspired by Keyes’ hit, Flowers for Algernon, whose excellence it does not quite reach.  Still, it’s not bad, and I’m glad to see Sydney’s continuing her promising career.  Three stars.

Who Dares a Bulbur Eat?, by Gordon R. Dickson

Last up is the second in the adventures of the interstellar ambassadorial couple, Tom and Lucy Reasoner — a sort of Hammett’s Nick and Nora meets Laumer’s Retief.  In this installment, the Reasoners are tasked with attending a diplomatic banquet to find the weakness in the newly discovered Jacktal empire, a rapacious regime more powerful than the Terran Federation. 

It’s a bit of a muddle, and the title fairly spoils the piece, but the conclusion is great fun and worth the price of admission.  Three stars.

All told, this comes out to a 3.5 star issue, none of it tiresome, much of it amazing.  I am also happy to see that F&SF will not have the monopoly on woman writers this month.  It’s issues like this that buoy me through the lousy patches (like last month’s Analog).  I mean, suffering for art is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to have nice things to say!

Next up, let’s see how the October 1962 Amazing stacks up.  See you then!




[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!)

[May 4, 1962] Cleft in Twain (June 1962 Galaxy, Part 1)


by Gideon Marcus

A few years ago, Galaxy Science Fiction changed its format, becoming half again as thick but published half as often.  196 pages can be a lot to digest in one sitting, so I used to review the magazine in two articles.  Over time, I simply bit the bullet and crammed all those stories into one piece – it was cleaner for reference.

But not this time.

You see, the June 1962 issue of Galaxy has got one extra-jumbo novella in the back of it, the kind of thing they used to build issues of Satellite Science Fiction around.  So it just makes sense to split things up this time around.

I’ve said before that Galaxy is a stable magazine – rarely too outstanding, rarely terrible.  Its editor, Fred Pohl, tends to keep the more daring stuff in Galaxy’s sister mag, IF, which has gotten pretty interesting lately.  So I enjoyed this month’s issue, but not overmuch.  Have a look:

The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass, by Frederik Pohl

Instead of an editor’s essay, Pohl has written a cute vignette on overpopulation without remediation.  Old Man Malthus in a three-page nightmare.  Apparently, good old Phineas didn’t think to pack Enovid when he brought perfect health back in time to the Roman Empire.  Anyway, I liked it.  Four stars.

For Love, by Algis Budrys

Budrys strikes a nice balance between satirical and macabre in this post-alien-invasion epic.  The last remnants of Homo Sapiens, driven underground after a tremendous ET tetrahedron crashes into the base of the Rockies, launch a pair of daring attacks against the invaders.  But at what cost to their humanity?  Four stars.

The Lamps of the Angels, by Richard Sabia

I viciously panned Sabia’s first work, I was a Teen-Age Superweapon; his latest is an improvement.  A thousand years from now, the human race is on the verge of reaching out for the stars, and one Mexico City-born pilot is selected for the honor of scouting Alpha Centauri.  But if humanity was meant to explore beyond the sun, surely God would have given us hyperdrives at birth.  A bit clunky in that “translated foreign languages way” (and I can be guilty of the same charge), but also compelling.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Names in the Sky, by Willy Ley

Every now and then, Ley returns to his former greatness and gives us a really good article.  This one, on the origins of the names of planets and stars is filled with good information pleasantly dispensed.  Of course, I’m always more kindly disposed towards articles that deal with etymology and/or astronomy… Four stars.

On the Wall of the Lodge, by James Blish and Virginia Blish

The latter portion of the magazine takes a sad turn for the worse.  Lodge is an avante garde piece about (I believe) a fellow whose life takes place in a television show.  It tries too hard and doesn’t make a lot of sense.  More significantly, it lost my interest ten pages in.  Thus, I must give it the lowest of scores: one star.

Dawningsburgh, by Wallace West

A cute piece about a callow tourist on Mars, who resents the other callow tourists of Mars, and the attempts to revive departed Martian culture with robots, to make a few bucks for the callow tourist industry.  Three stars.

Origins of Galactic Philosophy, by Edward Wellen

Wellen’s Origins series has deteriorated badly.  This latest entry, involving a space entrepreneur and the robot society he finds, is utterly unreadable.  One star.

Dreamworld, by R. A. Lafferty

Last up is a whimsical piece on a literal nightmare world with an telegraphed ending made tolerable by Lafferty’s unique touch.  Worth two or three stars, depending on your mood (and on which side of the bed one woke).

***

I’ll save The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg, for next time.  Here’s hoping it is in keeping with the first third rather than the second third of the magazine.  In the meantime, stay tuned…and try not to get drafted.

[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.