Tag Archives: fritz leiber

[April 10, 1962] All the Difference (May 1962 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The measure of a story’s quality, good or bad, is how well it sticks in your memory.  The sublime and the stinkers are told and retold, the mediocre just fades away.  If you ever wonder how I rate the science fiction I read, memorability is a big component. 

This month’s IF has some real winners, and even the three-star stories have something to recommend them.  For the first time, I see a glimpse of the greatness that almost was under Damon Knight’s tenure back in 1959.  Read on, and perhaps you’ll agree.

Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain, by Keith Laumer

Laumer continues to improve in his tales of the omni-capable diplomat hamstrung by the flounderings of a sub-capable bureaucracy.  In this story, Retief is dispatched to make peace between the settlers of a new colony, and a band of aliens that has recently popped onto the scene.  Comedy is hard to write, and it’s harder (but more rewarding) to anchor humor to a serious backbone.  There are some genuinely funny moments in Mountain, and it’s also a good story.  Four stars.

The Spy, by Theodore L. Thomas

An extraterrestrial (but human) reincarnation of Nathan Hale is captured by musket-bearing folk and tried for espionage.  I enjoyed it well-enough at the time, but the ending sat poorly.  There’s just not enough to this piece.  Two stars.

Death and Taxes, by H. A. Hartzell

I really enjoyed this fanciful tale of a beneficent sea-captain’s ghost, the impoverished artist he comes to haunt (or perhaps, “with whom he cohabitates” is more appropriate, and the lady who is the object of the artist’s affections.  It’s Lafferty-esque, a little bit disjointed but a lot of fun.  I’ve never heard of Hartzell before, so s/he is either a promising novice or a slumming veteran.  Four stars.


by DYAS

Misrule, by Robert Scott

Politics is a chaotic game.  Strikes, protests, riots – these can really throw a wrench into the workings of government.  What if you could do away with all that?  Subvert all the anti-government feelings into one quadrennial orgy of rapine and destruction, a blowing off a steam that keeps things quiet for another four years?  Scott’s tale isn’t particularly plausible, but it is vivid.  Three stars.

Deadly Game, by Edward Wellen

This is a weird Isle of Dr. Moreau-type tale about a park ranger who engineers his charges to be vicious guerrillas, making the animals sentient masters of their own fate.  Another well-told story that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Three stars.

The Hoplite, by Richard Sheridan

In the far future, flesh is not enough to withstand the rigors of war.  One solution is to surround the warriors in an exo-skeleton of metal, the other…well, you’ll have to read to find out what can resist a steel humanoid goliath.  Evocative but somehow hollow.  Three stars.

The 64-Square Madhouse, by Fritz Leiber

Some science fiction stories are so imaginative yet so plausible that you can be convinced that you are seeing the future.  Leiber’s tale depicts a chess tournament that takes place on the eve of the time when computers become good enough at the game to beat the best Grandmasters.  This is not some staid Robot vs. Man tale, but a cunning extrapolation of the current state of the art in cybernetic chess to a few decades into the future.  Add to it a cast of well-drawn characters and a multi-peak story arc, and you’ve got a story that will likely be referenced by name the day fiction becomes reality.  Five stars, and bravo.


by BURNS

Gramp, by Charles. V. DeVet

The gift of telepathy is a double-edged sword, as one boy soon discovers.  DeVet does a good job of capturing a youth’s voice, and he’s no stranger to sensitive stories.  Would make a decent The Twilight Zone episode, perhaps.  Three stars.

The Other IF, by Theodore Sturgeon

Ted Sturgeon’s non-fiction piece is about an IF magazine that never was.  Apparently, Sturgeon has wanted to have his own magazine since the War Years.  The digest he conceived, which he planned to call IF, would have exclusively published “If this goes on” stories: short-term predictions turned into plausible stories.  He concludes his non-fiction account of the IF that never was with a few guesses of his own – since he wrote the article in December, their accuracy is already a matter of record.  He then invites you, the reader, to make your own and send them in. 

Do you have any hunches on what’s in store for this Summer?

(Three stars)

The Expendables, by Jim Harmon

Harmon can always be counted on to provide readable fiction.  In this case, we have a droll story about the man who invents the perfect garbage disposal…but can the Laws of Thermodynamics be so easily beaten?  Or the Mafia?  The FBI?  My favorite line, “My opinion as to the type of person who followed the pages of science-fiction magazines with fluttering lips and tracing finger were upheld.”  Three stars.

***

Added up, that puts us at 3.4 for the month, a respectable score for what used to be one of the lesser mags, and it was worth it just for the Leiber.  A host of interesting, implausible stories, and one humdinger of a plausible one.  I guess I’ll just have to renew my subscription to this promising digest.  Good on you, Editor Fred Pohl!

[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 14, 1962] Horrors! (February 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

Since the demise nearly a decade ago of the fondly remembered magazine Weird Tales, there has been a dearth of markets for horror stories.  Occasionally a tale of terror will appear in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but otherwise there are few places where fiction dealing with the deepest, most irrational fears of humanity can be found.  Perhaps this is due to the burgeoning popularity of science fiction as an expression of modern anxieties in this age of space exploration and atomic energy. 

Even at the local movie theater one is more likely to find radioactive mutants and creatures from outer space than vampires, werewolves, and mummies, though the recent revival of these Gothic monsters by the British film production company Hammer hints that the tide may be changing, as does the popularity of classic horror movies on television programs such as Shock Theater.  The new publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by well-known science fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman, also proves that there are many readers still interested in the dark side of fantasy.

A striking exception to above trend is Fantastic, which often features supernatural horror stories along with the kind of science fiction found in its sister publication Amazing.  In particular, the February issue of the magazine contains at least as much of the former as the latter.

The surrealistic cover art by Leo Summers aptly conveys the mood of Fritz Leiber’s lead novelette “A Bit of the Dark World.” The story is set in modern Southern California.  (Leiber has been a pioneer in bringing the supernatural into the Twentieth Century ever since his story The Automatic Pistol appeared in Weird Tales in 1940.) Four passengers are driving through steep hills near Los Angeles.  In the back seat are the narrator and his lover, who are in the movie business.  (In a sly nod to his roots, the author gives these characters the surnames Seabury and Quinn, Seabury Quinn having been a prolific writer of horror fiction, with hundreds of stories to his credit, many in Weird Tales.)

In the front passenger seat is their host, who is bringing them to his small but luxurious home for the night.  At the wheel is a neighbor.  On the way they share a strange vision at a peculiar rock formation.  The driver sees nothing, and this character soon vanishes from the story.  He seems intended to represent those who have no ability to sense anything beyond the physical world, and thus he is completely safe from it.

The other three are not so fortunate.  As the night progresses they experience unnerving sensations; a burning smell, a metallic flavor, the feeling of cobwebs, the sound of falling gravel.  Most of all they perceive vague shapes, shining black against an equally black night sky.  Leiber creates an effective sense of inexplicable menace which leads to a dramatic conclusion.  Four stars.

Before returning to tales of terror, Daniel F. Galouye (a likely Hugo contender for his recent novel Dark Universe) offers us a taste of his skill at creating imaginative science fiction in A Silence of Wings. Set in the far future, when humanity has made contact with many different alien species throughout the galaxy, the story takes place on a planet inhabited by flying telepaths.  Although friendly to the visiting humans, they have no interest in learning about Earth technology and are to content to remain gliding from place to place in their treetop homes.  The Terrans are not entirely altruistic in offering to bring advanced science to the flyers; a prime motivation is to enlist them in exploiting the planet’s resources.  In a foolish attempt to force the aliens to adopt machinery, one of the humans uses logic to “prove” that their wings are far too frail to allow them to fly.  Since this ability is the only thing which prevents them from being destroyed by ravenous ground-dwelling predators, a crisis ensues.

The story reads in some ways like a typical Analog story reflected in a funhouse mirror.  The self-confident humans smugly think themselves superior to the local natives.  The author is careful to avoid depicting them as one-dimensional villains, however, resulting in a believable set of characters.  Three stars.

Although also set in a future of space travel, this time confined to the limits of the Solar System, Joseph E. Kelleam’s story The Red Flowers of Tulp is really an old-fashioned horror story decked out with science fiction trappings.  It deals with three vicious space criminals who encounter the title plants at a carnival on Mars, just after reaping the benefits of their latest felony.  The flowers not only talk, but predict their futures (they really serve only as a plot gimmick, and could easily be replaced by a Gypsy fortuneteller.) They state that one of the men will die by cold, one by fire, and that one will never die.  The reader is not terribly surprised to discover that these predictions all come true.  It’s a moderately effective tale of just desserts, worthy of two stars (three if you’re more generous than I am).

Appropriately, this month’s reprint is credited, in part, to the late H. P. Lovecraft, another veteran of Weird Tales whose name is associated with stories of terror.  I suspect that “The Shadow Out of Space” is primarily the work of co-author August W. Derleth.  Derleth, along with Donald Wandrei, founded the Arkham House publishing company with the goal of preserving the work of Lovecraft in hardcover.  Derleth and other authors have expanded on Lovecraft’s concept of ancient, god-like beings far beyond human comprehension into the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.”

Taking its title from Lovecraft’s 1936 story The Shadow Out of Time, this variation on the same theme was first published in The Survivor and Others, a 1957 Arkham House collection of Derleth’s elaborations on notes and outlines left by the deceased author.  The story is told from the point of view of a psychiatrist examining a patient who suffers from terrifying dreams.  These involve inhabiting the body of an inhuman creature in a vast library located on a distant planet.  It is eventually revealed that these aliens are able to send their minds into the bodies of others, including human beings, over vast distances of space and time.  Derleth weaves together many themes from Lovecraft in an apparent attempt to make a coherent whole.  Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will appreciate the effort, but the story itself is rather dry, and the author forgets the important rule to show and not tell.  Two stars.

We turn from cosmic terror to more mundane fears in our final story.  William W. Stuart’s What If? has something of the flavor of an introspective The Twilight Zone episode.  The protagonist is a fellow who has been so dominated by a willful mother and a bureaucratic job with the IRS that he is unable to make the simplest decisions on his own.  When he is asked to make a trivial selection between a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, he foresees the tragic consequences of each choice.  Unwilling to hurt anyone because of his actions, he goes into a catatonic state.  Years later, in a psychiatric institute, he emerges from his trance and decides to act only in his own self-interest, disregarding how his decisions will harm others.  Although his strange ability to predict the exact consequences of all his actions allows him to become rich and powerful very quickly, the outcome is not entirely pleasant.  Three stars.

Overall, this issue provides solid entertainment, even if it may not be the best choice to read all alone in the dark…

[Then again, who reads in the dark?  Best to, at least, bring a flashlight!  Ed.]

[January 12, 1962] Odd one out (February 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction is a broad genre.  It includes hard scientific, nuts-and-bolts projections that read like modern tales with just a touch of the future in them; this is the kind of stuff the magazine Analog is made up of.  Then you’ve got far out stuff, not just fantasy but surrealism.  The kind of work Cordwainer Smith pulls off with such facility that it approaches its own kind of realism.  In this realm lie the lampoons, the parables, the just plain kooky.  They get labeled as “science fiction,” but they don’t predict futures that could actually happen, nor do they incorporate much real science.  Rather, they end up in the sf mags because where else would they go?  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction showcases this type as a good portion of their monthly offerings (appropriately enough — “Fantasy” is in the name).

Galaxy magazine has always trod a middle road, delivering pure scientific tales, fantastic stories, and pieces of psychological or “soft” science fiction that fall somewhere in between.  It’s that balance that is part of what makes Galaxy my favorite magazine (that and stubborn loyalty – it was my first subscription). 

The first Galaxy of 1962, on the other hand, veers heavily into the fantastic.  Virtually every story presented has a distinct lack of grounding in reality.  Does it work?  Well…see for yourself.

Fred Pohl and his lately deceased frequent partner Cyril Kornbluth wrote a whole lot together.  In fact, I think they’ve published more since Kornbluth’s death than while he was alive!  I have to think Pohl is doing most of the work on Kornbluth’s outlines, but perhaps there’s something mystical going on.  Anyway, Critical Mass is the latest from this duo, a satirical “if this goes on” piece combining the mania for construction of bomb shelters and the public passion for baseball.  An entertaining piece though lacking in nuance.  Three stars.

LaGrange points, those places of gravitational stability involving two celestial bodies, were the topic of a recent Asimov piece.  Willy Ley now discusses them in his latest science column, For Your Information: Earth’s Extra Satellites.  There’s interesting stuff here though I’m afraid the Good German no longer has the gift for presentation that the Good Doctor possesses.  Three stars.

Shatter the Wall is an odd piece by newcomer, Sydney Van Scyoc.  Television, now taking up entire walls of houses, has become the object of the world’s attention.  In particular, a prosaic domestic drama featuring four stars whom everyone tries to emulate.  Wall reads like a dream, and if taken in that way, is a neat story.  I found it a little too off-kilter to really connect, however.  You might feel differently.  Three stars.

There’s a new hobby I’ve discovered called “board wargaming.”  Players do battle using cardboard chits representing military units and a set of rules considerably more involved that those of, say, Chess or Checkers.  Avalon Hill, a publishing company, started the fad with Tactics II, a simulation of modern strategic warfare, and recently followed it up with a D-Day game and a couple on Civil War battles.

Now, imagine if the world stopped settling their differences with armed conflicts and instead resorted to simulated fighting. 

That’s the premise of James Harmon’s The Place Where Chicago Was.  All war is simulated, presumably facilitated by computer.  Big cities are not actually destroyed in enemy pseudo-attacks.  Rather, they are simply quarantined for twenty years and left to fend for themselves.  Residents are forbidden to leave; outsiders are restricted from entering.  To enforce the peace, giant psycho-transmitters are set up that broadcast pacifistic thoughts to the populace. 

It’s such an implausible idea that I have to think Harmon is attempting some kind of satire.  On the other hand, it doesn’t read like satire.  It’s well written, but I don’t quite know what to make of it.  Three stars.


by Cowles

The Martian Star-Gazers is a “non-faction” piece by Ernst Mason, whom I’ve never heard of.  It tells the sad story of the erstwhile inhabitants of the Red Planet, done in by their fear of the heavens.  I appreciated Mason’s take on Martian constellations, particularly their contrast with terrestrial counterparts.  Three stars.

Algis Budrys writes deep, thoughtful stuff with a somber edge.  The Rag and Bone Men features a stranded alien intelligence that has taken over the Earth but only wishes to be able to go back home.  Terran science simply isn’t up to the task, and neither are the mind-slaved humans who labor at it.  A weird, perhaps overly poetic story.  Three stars.

Ed Wellen is back with another non-faction “Origins” piece, Origins of Galactic Fruit Salad.  A catalog of intergalactic service decorations, it’s in the same vein as his last piece: Origins of the Galactic Short-Snorter.  Sadly, unlike that work, Galactic Fruit Salad commits the cardinal sin of any comedic piece – it’s not funny.  One star.

The Big Engine, by Fritz Leiber, is solipsism done backwards.  The world is a giant machine, all of its pieces playing preordained parts save for the few components that become self-aware.  There’s not much to this story, but I must confess that I found it all the more memorable for having read it on a busy street corner, where the thrum of Leiber’s mechanical world was most immediate.  Three stars.

The balance of the issue comprises Part 2 of Poul Anderson’s Day after Doomsday, which as I said in my last article, was disappointing in comparison to the promising first half. 

While I applaud the effort toward experimentation in this issue, the result is an oddly monotonous clutch of stories, no “real” sf here.  Each of the tales might have been decent sandwiched between traditional stories, but they become an abstract, off-putting blob in unrelieved combination.  Galaxy would do well to return to its heterogeneous mix of sf types; I think trying to beat Analog or F&SF at their own games would be a bit of a forlorn hope.

See you in two with a “Fantastic” update!

[October 13, 1961] The Music of the Spheres (November 1961 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

The power of music to portray emotions and to evoke images in the listener’s mind seems to be universal to all cultures.  It seems inevitable that it will be used in the future to convey feelings and experiences as yet unknown.  As human beings explore the unimaginably vast silence of outer space, they will take music with them to fill the void.

Such is the theme of the novella which forms the anchor of this month’s issue of Fantastic.  Before we indulge in this sonic feast, however, let’s whet our appetites with an offering from the creative genius of Fritz Leiber.

Cover art by Lloyd Birmingham (making his debut here) accurately portrays the bizarre event at the heart of Hatchery of Dreams.  This tale of magic begins like a modern suspense story, as a man awakes one morning to discover that his much younger wife has disappeared, leaving behind a note that she has deserted him.  In desperation, he enters her private “perfume distillery,” which he had previously left unexplored.  He finds a gigantic egg on a heated, cloth-lined incubator.  This is only the beginning of his strange adventures, as he tracks down one by one the three other young women who make up his wife’s “bridge club.” Each one seems to be suffering from some kind of illness.  Even odder is the fact that each one seems unnaturally attached to a toy animal.  Nothing is what it seems to be, of course, and many more revelations will be made during the hunt for his lost bride.

Making use of themes from the author’s classic 1943 novel Conjure Wife, this is a richly imaginative story.  As one expects from Leiber, the “girls” he interviews during his search are alluring and mysterious creatures.  Somehow the author is always able to bring these archetypical females to life, and his obvious genuine affection for women renders them fully realized characters.  Four stars.

After this delightful aperitif, we turn to the main course for the evening.  J. F. Bone’s novella Special Effect is set in the twenty-second century, when humanity has settled all parts of the Solar System.  From civilized, bird-like Martian humanoids to utterly alien organisms inhabiting the moons of the outer planets, extraterrestrial life is found almost everywhere.  The author offers the reader a guided tour of this setting as he tells his tale.

A great composer has died just after completing his masterpiece, the “Nine Worlds Symphony.” It is as yet unperformed, as the score requires recordings of authentic sounds from throughout the Solar System, from the crash of falling ice towers on Pluto to the bubbling of lava on the border between Mercury’s hot and cold sides.  Many of these sounds involve alien life forms: the ringing of a Martian temple bell, the roar of dangerous Venusian animals, and more.  A producer who owns the rights to the symphony, and thus stands to make a large profit when it is performed, hires the narrator, a veteran of space travel, to transport his workers and equipment on an odyssey among the planets to collect the sounds. 

Recording each sound offers a new challenge, often deadly.  Scenes of violent adventure alternate with scenes of encounters with enigmatic extraterrestrial lifeforms.  Although the portrait of the Solar System is a little old-fashioned, with its inhabited Mars and its swampy Venus, and the story is inherently episodic, the descriptions are vivid and always interesting.  Three stars.

If the reader is not yet sated, there are three short tales for dessert.  To Heaven Standing Up by Paul Ernst is this issue’s reprint.  Originally published in the pages of Argosy in April of 1941, this is an account of a man who attempts to build a flying machine operated by muscle power.  The materials and methods he uses seem plausible; so much so, in fact, that this story might not even be considered speculative fiction by many readers.  In any case, it’s a well-written character study.  (In his introduction, science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz reveals that Argosy was a stepping stone between the pulps and the slicks, which explains the story’s mainstream style.) Three stars.

The Living End by Henry Slesar offers an intriguing premise.  A meek fellow winds up with an old book of prophecies, much like those of Nostradamus.  The predictions are uncannily accurate, foretelling events such as the Declaration of Independence to the very day.  When he discovers that the last prophecy in the book announces that the world will come to an end in ten days, he throws away his conformist lifestyle and goes on a wild spree.  Of course, there’s a twist ending.  Unfortunately, I found it both illogical and anticlimactic, so I can only award the promising story two stars.

Rog Phillips offers an entry in his “Lefty Baker” series in . . . But Who Knows Huer, or Huen? This is a madcap farce about very human aliens who enlist the narrator’s aid in combating another group of very human aliens who intend to wipe out all other forms of life.  It’s the kind of silly comedy which is not my cup of tea.  Add to that the fact that the story seems to imply that mental illness is funny, and I have to give it one star.  I’ve haven’t read any of the other stories about Lefty Baker, and I won’t seek them out.

Although the quality of the issue slowly decreases from front to back, overall it earns a rating of just slightly over two and one-half stars.  Without the final story, it would have earned a solid three stars.  Fantastic continues to be a promising, greatly improved magazine, well worth reading.  Of interest is the fact that the letter column contains more than one complaint about the stories of David R. Bunch, one of the innovative authors brought to the magazine by editor Cele Goldsmith.  Since I am highly impressed by the daring and controversial work of Bunch, I look forward to discovering what other new talents she will bring to a publication that has not always lived up to its name.

[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!

[March 8, 1961] Bland for Adventure (April 1961 Galaxy, 1st half)

As we speak, my nephew, David, is on the S.S. Israel bound for Haifa, Israel.  It’s the last leg of a long trip that began with a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York, continued with a six-day sea cruise across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and which currently sees the youth making a brief landing in the Greek port of Piraeus.  He’s about to begin a year (or two) in Israel on a kibbutz.  An exciting adventure, to be sure, though I will miss our discussions on current science fiction, even if his tastes were, understandably, a little less refined than mine. 

So I hope, dear readers, that you will make up for his absence by sending me even more of your lovely comments!

Of course, you can hardly prepare your posts until I’ve reviewed this month’s set of magazines.  First on the pile, as usual, is the double-large issue of Galaxy, the biggest of the science fiction magazines with 196 pages packed with some of the biggest names in the field. 

But is bigger always better?  Not necessarily.  In fact, Galaxy seems to be where editor H.L. Gold stuffs his “safe” stories, the ones by famous folks that tend not to offend, but also won’t knock your socks off.

So it is with the April 1961 Galaxy, starting with the novella, Planeteer, the latest from newcomer Fred Saberhagen.  It starts brilliantly, featuring an interstellar contact team from Earth attempting to establish relations with an aboriginal alien race.  Two points impressed me within the first few pages: the belt-pouch sized computer (how handy would that be?) and the breakfast described as, “synthetic ham, and a scrambled substance not preceded or followed by chickens.”

The race, however, is disappointingly human; the tale is a fairly typical conundrum/solution story.  On the other hand, the alien king does show some refreshing intelligence—no easy White God tactics for the Planeteers!  Three stars.

Fritz Leiber offers up Kreativity for Kats, an adorable tale of a feline with the blood of an artiste.  Now, any story that features cats is sure to be a cute one (with the notable, creepy exception of The Mind Thing…) It’s not science fiction at all, not even fantasy, but I read it with a grin on my face.  Four stars.

Galaxy’s science fact column, For Your Information, by German rocket scientist Willy Ley, continues to be entertaining.  This bi-month’s article is on the Gegenschein, that mysterious counterpoint to the Zodiacal Light.  There’s also a fun aside about the annexation of Patagonia by a bewildered German professor as well as silly bit on Seven League Boots.  Three stars.

Last up for the first half of the book is James Stamer’s Scent Makes a Difference, which answers the question on everyone’s mind: What if you could meet all the alternate yous—the ones who took different paths in life?  Would you learn from all of your possible mistakes?  Or would you merely commit the biggest blunder of all?  I didn’t quite understand the ending (or perhaps I overthought it).  Three stars.

That’s that for now.  Read up, drop me a line, and I’ll have the second half in a few days!

[April 13, 1960] An unfulfilled promise (May 1960 F&SF)

Every month, there is the perennial hope that this will be the month a truly great story will be published. Every month, a stack of science fiction digests arrives at my door. There are few moments as exciting as that day (my postman holds them all so they arrive at once; I like big events). With great enthusiasm, I tear into my magazines. Sometimes the promise is fulfilled. Sometimes it isn’t.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction most consistently delivers the stand-out stories, so I usually save it for last. Other months, I am a greedy child and eat dessert first. This time around, I split the difference.

First up is Fritz Leiber’s short story, The Oldest Soldier. It’s a good piece, very atmospheric. I originally thought it was another story about an immortal, a la Long Live Walter Jameson, the Twilight Zone episode, but upon further reflection, I think it’s about one of the many time traveling soldiers in Leiber’s The Big Time universe.

Fred McMorrow follows Leiber with the thematically similar, The Man from Tomorrow. It takes place in a New York steak and booze joint. A reporter and a crustily jovial bartender are debating the appeal of gambling when they are accosted by a fellow from the future. As a time traveler, the man has a perfect knowledge of events, and as a marooned prisoner of the 20th Century knowing everything that will happen (down to the most minute detail, it seems, and with no ability to alter events), he is miserable with boredom.

The reader is left with the question: Is it better to know the future and capitalize upon it, or to revel in the uncertainty of what’s to come?

I did not like Rex Lardner’s American Plan, about a fellow who goes to Mars as a tourist and ends up a prisoner in his hotel. As Damon Knight says in his book review column, it is not sufficient to slap a few science fiction trappings (in this case, a Martian setting) onto an otherwise conventional story and call it “genre.”

John Collier’s That Tender Age (a New Yorker reprint) is even worse. A would-be lodger interviews with potential landlords. He has a nomadic history, and he’s had experience sojourning with cannibals. Early on, he makes it clear, inadvertently, that he has predatory designs upon the landlord’s daughter, and at the end, cannibal and landlord’s daughter head off to the woods, hand-in-hand, presumably never to return.

What makes this story unbearable is its run-on construction, with no quotation marks or attributions of expression. While Collier does indicate who is speaking through tone and use of proper nouns, it’s tedious going. Moreover, the end is telegraphed from the beginning, which makes the conclusion all the more ridiculous. At least it’s short.

Gordy Dickson has One on Trial, a short story about a ruthless executive who is forced to go on a sort of robotic safari as penance for his sins.  Never one to play by the rules, he finds his own way out, unrepentant and unchanged.  Not bad.

A Specimen for the Queen is the conclusion (?) to Arthur Porges’ “Ruum” series, in which a taxidermist alien robot is deposited in the backwoods of Canada to assemble a preserved zoological collection. In the millions of years that the robot has been on Earth, it has amassed quite an exhibit, including one sentient biped. In this story, the robot encounters a detachment of Galaxy-conquering human-sized bees, who have mounted a scouting expedition to the Canadian wilds.

Has the robot finally met its match? Or are the bees grasping a tiger by its tail? Entertaining, if somewhat disturbing.

Dr. Asimov has a fascinating (if you are mathematically inclined) article on the fundamental constant, Pi. Of particular interest, to me anyway, was his presentation of Liebniz’s series, which can be used to calculate Pi, provided one has a lot of spare time. It’s quite simple: 4/1-4/3+4/5-4/7+4/9… and so on. You can do it with a pen and paper, but it will take you hundreds of thousands of iterations to get close to the answer, since you’ll keep bouncing high and low around it.

Or, you can do what I did and rent some time on a local computer; I borrowed the university’s lightning-fast IBM for a few hours. I cleverly reduced the computation time by having my program calculate the average of the last two numbers in the sequence (since one is an upper bound, and the other is a lower bound, to the value of Pi, the actual value must be somewhere about halfway). After 20,000 iterations, I narrowed Pi down to 3.1415926. Good enough for government work!

Finally, we come to Philip Jose Farmer’s Open to me, my sister. Lane, the lone surviving astronaut of a five-man expedition to Mars discovers a wildly alien symbiotic biology. This beautifully described, but somewhat simplistic, set of species is responsible for the life-giving canals of Mars, which are actually biologically constructed water transport tubes.

Stranger still is Martia, also a lone survivor, but from a different solar system, who shelters Lane after he nearly drowns in one of Mars’ natural hydroponic pools. Tantalizingly humanoid but repulsively alien, she and Lane enjoy a budding friendship and attraction over 25 fascinating, well-written pages. Near the end, Lane discovers how Martia’s race breeds—an exchange of an internally carried worm-like parasite.

Whereupon, revolted by his attraction to a female with such a shocking sex life, Lane goes beserk, binds Martia, and kills her parasite. Lane is, soon after, captured by some of Martia’s people, who plan to rehabilitate him (to Lane’s horror).

It was such an unnecessarily violent end to such a beautiful story. Moreover, it was implausible. Early on, Farmer took great pains to describe Lane as a fellow in touch with his “feminine” side, able to bend ideologically without breaking. And yet, by the end, Lane cannot suffer this threat to his machismo. He cannot love/lust after an alien whose reproduction is, to him, so distasteful.

I get what Farmer is trying to do here, but I don’t like it.

Which raises another question: What’s worse? Consistent mediocrity, or the promise of greatness capped by a disappointing ending? Both the story and the issue fall into the latter category.

Ah well. There’s still one more magazine to go.


Cover by Mel Hunter

P.S. I have exciting news! Very soon, the format of this column will change, and all of you lovely readers can get automatic notification (via instant telegraphic message) whenever a new piece is published.

P.P.S. I have found a kindred spirit, though his focus is both more scattershot chronologically and focused topically: Science Fiction Ruminations




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Earthbound Satellite (April 1959 Satellite; 3-29-1959)


by Ray Pioch

And now for something a bit different.

Back in ’56, famed pulp editor, Leo Margulies, launched Satellite, a bi-monthly science fiction digest with the gimmick that it contained a full-length short novel as well as a few short stories.  I always had a soft spot for that mag.  One of my favorite novels was Planet for Plunder by Hal Clement and Sam Merwin; it came out in the February ’57 ish, and I read it on the beach during one of trips to Kaua’i.  It’s an excellent tale of first contact mostly from a truly alien viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Late last year, Satellite went out on hiatus.  Then, at the beginning of this year, Satellite returned with Cylvia Kleiman at the editorial helm.  The magazine sported a full-sized format, presumably to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the slicks.  No longer featuring novels, it dubbed itself “The Best in Science Fiction.”

Who could resist a pitch like that?  So the other day, I picked up this month’s (May) and last month’s (April) issues.  What did I find inside?

I suppose one could argue that some of the writers are among science fiction’s best, but these are definitely their second-rate stories.  This is not the Satellite I used to know and love.  Let’s have a look, shall we?

The lead story is by the reliable J.T. McIntosh; The Solomon Plan is easily the best fictional piece in the magazine.  In Plan, a terran spy tries to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed before: solving the mystery of the backward planet of Bynald.  Where the other planets of the 26th century terran federation enjoy a correspondingly advanced quality of life, the hyper-patriotic Bynald seems to be stuck in the 20th century.  Moreover, their population is unaccountably low given the length of time it has been settled. 


by Leo Morey

McIntosh creates a nice group of characters, including a couple of reasonably developed females.  The solution to the mystery is rather implausible, and the ending rather pat, but the story does not fail to entertain.  I would have been more impressed had Plan not been a reprint–originally appearing in the February 1956 New Worlds Science Fiction.

A regular feature of Satellite is a biographical piece on one of the antediluvian forefathers of science fiction.  In this case, it is a somewhat hagiographic piece by Sam Moskowitz on the justifiably famous A. Merritt.  I’m a sucker for history, so it was worth picking up this ish for the piece. 

The rest of the magazine is mediocre at best.  Fritz Leiber’s Psychosis from Space was, reportedly, an old story that he thought so little of that he forgot of its existence until Satellite asked him for a contribution.  An astronaut goes out on humanity’s first faster than light mission and returns able only to stumble about aimlessly and babble meaninglessly.  Turns out his brain is running backwards.  There is also some intrigue surrounding the astronaut’s doctor and his attempts to coerce information about the trip from his patient.  At least the (female) nurse character is competent and resourceful.


by Leo Morey

The duel of the insecure man, by newcomer Tom Purdom, is rather strange.  In the far future (1988), it has become popular to engage in duels of cutting questions, the goal being to lay bare the soul of one’s opponent and leave them a humiliated wreck.  I am given to understand that this story was heavily hacked in editorial, so I won’t dignify the resulting kluge with further verbiage.

I did enjoy Ellery Lanier’s rather star-eyed account of the American Rocket Society meeting.  In particular, I was excited to see his report on the Mouse in Able project.  For those who don’t know, prior to the Air Force’s Pioneer missions, the Thor-Able rocket was used in suborbital shots to test re-entry nose cones.  Since scientists abhor unused space as much as nature does, a mouse was included as part of the payload.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that the project was the brainchild of one of the very few woman scientists working in the space program: Laurel ‘Frankie’ Van der Wal, an amazon of a lady both in stature and fiery spirit.  At some point, I’ll give you all the inside story on that project; it is both enlightening and humorous.

Algis Budrys’ The Last Legend is fair but not up to his usual standard.  It’s a traditional gotcha story of an older generation of science fiction: an astronaut makes humanity’s first trip to another star, the journey having been previously unsurvivable by living things.  After returning as a hero, it turns out that he’s just a robot.

Robert Wicks’ Patient 926, in which all children are inoculated against imagination, and Henry Slesar’s Job Offer (“Dig this!  The post-nuclear mutant is a normal human!”) are both unremarkable in the extreme.

In sum, Satellite is definitely bargain-bin science fiction, though it is not without its charms.  I have trouble seeing it surviving much longer, especially out on the news stands next to Life and Time.

Next up, the other half of the double-feature that included The Blob!

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IF only… The Good News (1-29-1959)

Wrapping up my tour of Kaua’i, here are some pictures I took on the south shore estate of Robert Allerton, whose hospitality is as tremendous as his philanthropy (science fiction-related stuff to follow).

For this installment, I’ve got something a little different.  It’s also the good news half of a good/bad news combination. 

If is a science fiction magazine that has been around since 1952.  Amongst the several dozen that have existed throughout the decade, it is perhaps (outside of The Big Three) the best.  I haven’t followed it very closely, and that’s why I missed the big news.

Two issues ago, Damon Knight (acerbic critic and often brilliant writer) was tapped for the job of editor.  I didn’t find out until a couple of weeks ago, by which time, I’d missed the opportunity to buy the October and December 1958 issues.  February 1959 was still on the stands, however, and I took it with me to Kaua’i. 

Perhaps it’s just the rosy glow imparted from having read mostly on the lovely Kalapaki beach, but it’s really good.  I’ve gotten through the first five stories, and they shall be the topic of today’s discussion.

It is, of course, with trepidation that I read the opening piece, Pipe Dream by Fritz Leiber.  As I’ve explained before, I used to like Fritz a lot (who can forget the brilliant A Pail of Air, which appeared in Galaxy many years ago).  His stuff of late, however, has been pretty lousy.  To be fair, it all appeared in F&SF, so that may have something to do with it.  Anyway, Pipe Dream, about the creation of artificial life, is slickly written and atmospheric, but it’s also disturbing and unpleasant, and perhaps not in the way Fritz intended.  I didn’t like it, though I imagine many would.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Wind People is almost a winner.  It is a haunting tale of a ship’s medical officer who elects to remain on a presumably uninhabited planet rather than expose her newborn child to the risks of hyperdrive travel.  Bradley writes powerfully, and the mystery presented as the protagonist and her son make tentative and increasing contact with the furtive natives of the planet is exciting and engaging.  The ending, however, is a let-down.  One had to wonder if Bradley intended for the story to go in a different direction, one in which the editor was afraid to go.  You’ll have to read it and see.  At least it’s by a woman, stars a woman, and takes place in a universe where women make up half of a starship crew.  Progress!

I’ll skip story #3 until the end, as I’ve got a lot to say about that one.  Number four is The Man who tasted Ashes by Algis Budrys.  This is only the third story of his that I’ve read, and the second really good one; I’m going to look forward to more from him (and perhaps pick up earlier ones I’ve missed).  If ever there was an anti-hero, it is the viewpoint character for this story: a petty political intriguer-for-hire who is contracted by an extraterrestrial concern to facilitate World War III.  Good stuff.

Next up: Love and Moondogs by Richard McKenna (a career Navy man who got a writing degree on the G.I.Bill—now there’s the American Way!) This is a silly story about the lengths some might go in the pursuit of their cause, however frivolous, and the hypocrisy often inherent therein.  In this case, the object of outrage is a Soviet moon-muttnik.  Gentle, pleasant satire.

Now back to story #3: The Good Work by relative newcomer Theodore L. Thomas.  Remember when I talked about overpopulation in stories and the laughably small numbers most authors bandy about as too much for our planet?  Well, Thomas doesn’t play around—there are 350 billion souls inhabiting his Earth, and their life is accordingly regimented and drab.  It’s a satirical anti-utopia (a dystopia?).  The core of the story is the search for meaningful work in an age when everyone has just enough, and everything is automated.  The story has one hell of a barbed punchline.

I think this story is particularly relevant given that we are, I believe, on the cusp of a dramatic change in our economy.  Before the industrial revolution, virtually everyone in the United States was employed in the agricultural sector.  By the early 1800s, the industrial and service sectors began to rise as machines created jobs and allowed for the distribution of wealth; this was balanced by a drop of employment on the farm.  Around 1900, employment in the agricultural sector had dropped to 35%, tied with the service sector and only slightly above the industrial sector.  Industrial sector employment rose to a peak of 37% around 1950, and it has begun a gradual but steady decline since.  Agricultural employment was at just over 10% in 1950, and it is plummeting fast.  Service sector employment makes up the rest.

Projecting out another 50 years, agricultural employment will decline logarithmically, with a limit of zero as time goes to infinity.  Industrial employment may take longer, but with mechanization and (ultimately) roboticization, that sector will also see declining employment.  That leaves the service sector, which means that in the end, our economy will consist of nobody making anything, and everyone doing something for each other.  Except, in the future, I imagine machines will also be my servants.  So what will anyone purchase in 50 years to drive the economy?  How will anyone work?  Perhaps we’ll all be scientists and artists in 2009.  More likely, we’ll develop artificial needs for useless products.  Radio advertising has already been honed to a fine art, and the ad execs are figuring out the television advertising game pretty quickly. 

Maybe we’ll all be employed making advertisements.  That sounds fulfilling.

Anyway, I promised good news, so in summation, If with Damon Knight at the helm promises to be a fine magazine. 

The other shoe will drop on the last day of this month…



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