Tag Archives: galaxy

[May 11, 1962] Unfixed in the Heavens (The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg)


by Gideon Marcus

A hundred and fifty years from now, the stars are finally attainable.  With the invention of a reliable and quick interstellar drive, the galaxy is now ripe for colonization.  But humanity is too fat and happy to leave the nest; the world government is forced to conscript candidates to become unwilling pioneers.  Six thousand men and women are sent on sixty starships every day toward some farflung world.  The goal: to ensure that the human race can be spread as widely as possible.

This is the premise of Robert Silverberg’s newest piece, a short novel published in the :June 1962 Galaxy called The Seed of Earth.  It’s really two novellas in one, the first half dealing with the lives of four conscriptees as they are selected and prepared for departure, and the second half about what happens to them once they reach their destination. 

Seed has an interesting, complicated history.  The second part originally appeared in the May 1957 issue of Venture as The Winds of Siros.  In this story, two newlywed colonist couples are abducted from their settlement by voyeuristic aliens who lock them in a cave and watch the emotional drama ensue.  After the four escape, the women determine that they were with the wrong men and change partners.  It’s all supposed to be rather daring and progressive.

Venture was a short-lived companion to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, designed to be a “more adult” alternative to F&SF.  What this really meant was more stories about sex, and since the stories were almost exclusively written by men (and modern society being what it is), there were a lot of demeaning, disturbing pieces in Venture

The example that turned me off of the magazine was, in fact, also by Robert Silverberg.  Called Eve and the Twenty-three Adams (March 1958), it featured an all-stag starship crew and the lone woman included on the roster to “service” them.  When she expressed reluctance at her role, she was drugged into submission for the duration of the flight.  It was all very light-hearted, just a rollicking tale.  Like Garrett’s Queen Bee.

Silverberg’s difficulty with the concept of feminine agency was also evident in Siros (and thus, in Seed).  The male colonists get to choose whom they want to marry from among the female colonists, and while the women have the right of refusal for the first few rounds, all of them must end up with someone, ultimately.  Now, as Siros plays out, we see that the system is not particularly rigid and, in the end, the woman colonists do have some choice in the matter.  But it’s informal, and it’s at the sufferance of the men.  Hardly an equal situation.

In fact, there is a strong streak of puritanical prudishness in Seed.  At one point, a woman’s pregnancy is described as “a lapse in virtue.”  I recognize that Silverberg’s intent was to show that our current (late 50’s/early 60’s) morality is antiquated and needs to be shaken up.  Hence, the laudable plot elements of wife-swapping and polyamory that form the core of Siros/Seed Part 2.  But it just doesn’t seem plausible that Earth of 2117 would be exactly as, if not more, conservative as modern day, and that only by unleashing humans on a raw world can they undo the straitjacket. 

Seed’s first part was added to Siros to make the piece long enough for publication as a stand-alone novel.  Ballantine and Doubleday, the “respectable” s-f publishers, rejected it.  H.L. Gold, Galaxy’s editor, accepted Seed for its paperback series (I reviewed one of them: the excellent The City in the Sea), but the series was discontinued before Seed saw print.  Ultimately, it ended up in the magazine proper.

Part One of Seed isn’t bad: a quartet of reasonably interesting character portraits with a bonus view through the eyes of the fellow tasked with finalizing the crew selections.  The characterization is better in this half, which makes sense – the Silverberg writing Part One was older than the one who wrote Part Two.  The problem here isn’t so much the writing or the flow.  It’s the flaws in the fundamental premise.  In Seed, forced emigration has gone on for a generation.  Are there really hundreds of thousands of habitable planets within 30 light years of Earth ripe for colonization without any need for protective technology or planetary engineering?  Are there even that many planets?  Does it make sense to invest just one hundred strangers in a colony rather than shipping more than one load to a promising destination? 

And how is it plausible that a draft for colonization is even required?  To all accounts, Silverberg’s world is no utopia – in fact, it seems hardly different from our current one, societally and technologically.  Surely there would be 2,190,000 immigrant candidates out of billions every year.  Contrast Seed with Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky – there, one was lucky if one could leave Earth. 

The Seed of Earth is ultimately a rather unsuccessful “fix-up” story.  The beginning doesn’t flow well into the end, and neither portion rings very true.  I’d charitably give three stars to the first part and two to the second, for an aggregate of 2.5 stars.  That’s probably overgenerous, but I can give Silverberg credit for the effort, at least.

[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.

[March 10, 1962] Mail Call! (The April 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

If there is any true measure of fame, it might well be the amount of fan mail you get.  Many stars employ services to plow through their truckloads and give each missive personal response.  Jack Benny came out on his TV stage last night holding a giant sack of fan mail – of course, it was really filled with trash and old cans… 

Galactic Journey’s popularity lies somewhere inbetween; we do get our fair share of postcards, but I haven’t needed to hire help to read them…yet.  Truth be told, it was for these correspondences that I started this column.  I love meeting you folk – you start the most interesting conversations! 

Science fiction magazines get letters, too.  Many of these digests feature letter columns: Analog, IF, Amazing, and Fantastic.  The two notable hold-outs are Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy.  I suspect the main reason for F&SF is lack of space, it being the shortest of the monthly mags.

Galaxy‘s reasoning is more complex.  In fact, its editors (first H.L. Gold, now Fred Pohl) have polled readers to see if they wanted a lettercol.  In the last 12 years’ of the magazine’s existence, the answer has always been no.  Ironically, as much as I love talking to fellow fans, I think I’m in agreement (though I do like letters in comic books).  More room for stories!

Speaking of which…have a look at the stories that came out in this month’s quite good Galaxy, dated April 1962:

A Planet for Plundering, by Jack Williamson

Things start a bit slowly with our lead novella.  Wain Scarlet is an anachronism – an atavistic maladjust in an interstellar society of humans.  Where his countrymen are universally beautiful in form and thought, Scarlet is ugly and venal.  Dispatched to the remote star system of Sol to determine whether or not to melt the Earth to use as a galactic stoplight, his sole concern is which of the parties involved can bribe him the most.  Even the revelation that the third planet of the system may well be the ancestral home of humanity means little to him.

Jack Williamson has been around a long time, and his pulpish instincts often creep to the fore in this tale of first contact.  Planet has moments of engagement, and the protagonist is delightfully anti-heroic, but the rough patches bog it down.  Two stars.

Tail-Tied Kings, by Avram Davidson

Davidson, now editor for F&SF, continues his slide into mediocre self-indulgence.  If you recall Miram Allen Deford’s Oh Rats! from issue before last, you’ve got the plot of this one – superrats escape from captivity, poised to take over the world from their bipedal erstwhile masters.  Not unreadable (like some of Davidson’s other recent stuff), but why bother rehashing the same story?  And so soon?  Two stars.

Star-Crossed Lover, by William Stuart

Ah, but then we have William Stuart, who rarely disappoints and usually delights.  This Galaxy veteran offers up a fun, tongue-in-cheek tale of romance between a loveable schlub and an eager-to-please, highly wanton ET.  What could go wrong when you’ve got the literal woman of your dreams?  You’ll have to read and find out.  Four stars.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

Everyone’s favorite German returns this bi-month with a piece on shaped charges.  These are explosive shells whose effectiveness is multiplied by how the powder inside is molded.  Pretty fascinating stuff, actually, but the letter Q&A portion afterward is lackluster.  Three stars.

The Long, Silvery Day, by Magnus Ludens

You ever have one of those perfect days?  When everything goes just perfectly?  Ever wonder if someone was behind it?  The impressively named Magnus Ludens is a brand new author, and he hits a triple his first time at bat.  Four stars for this charming story.

Big Baby, by Jack Sharkey

If Stuart is a name that raises expectations, Sharkey’s is one that lowers them.  Big Baby is the next in his series starring Jerry Norciss, a telepathic member of the Contact service.  His job is to jump into the minds of beasts on various planets to learn more about the local ecology.  It’s not a purely scientific mission – there’s always a colony in trouble.  The tidbits about the lonely, junkie-esque life of the esper are compelling, but Baby‘s menace isn’t as interesting as the ones in his last story, there’s far too much exposition, and the solution is clumsily rendered.  Two stars.

Gourmet, by Allen Kim Lang

I’ve no particular reason to like Gourmet, about a spacer who can do wonders with algae rations – but I do.  Perhaps it’s because I fancy myself a gourmand, or because Lang is pretty good with the typewriter.  Either way, it’s a swell story.  Four stars.

Founding Father, by J.F. Bone

Did the slaveowners think they were righteous?  Do the Whites who lynch Blacks feel good about what they do?  Founding Father puts us in the minds of a pair of reptilian aliens who investigate modern-day Earth.  Their ship has insufficient fuel for the return trip, so they place mental taps into a married couple and compel them to collect some. 

What ensues is a difficult read, particularly if mental coercion is your weak point.  There is no happy ending, and the enslaved’s resistance is slowly, methodically destroyed.  Yet the slavemasters are not uncivilized.  Their actions are justified, at least to themselves.  And it’s all rendered with a somewhat insouciant touch, appropriate given whose viewpoint we see through.  Chilling.

This is an awfully hard piece to be objective about.  It’s a cruel story, all the more shocking for its lightness of tone.  But I think it’s deliberate.  I’ve read enough of J.F. Bone to be assured that he knows what he’s doing.  If you finish Father without having addressed your feelings about slavery, racism, and the indignity of nonconsensual control, then you’re either not getting the point, or you may have no soul.  Tough stuff, but worthy.  Four stars.

Moondog, by Arthur C. Clarke

About an astronaut and the dog who saves him, even over a distance spanning hundreds of thousands of miles, several years, and the veil of life.  This is a rather pedestrian tale from perhaps the most preeminent of British sf authors, but to be fair, I’m more of a cat lover.  Three stars.

So there you go – a jumbo-sized issue of Galaxy that finished on the good side of decent.  Something to write home about?  I leave that to you to decide…

[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!

[January 9, 1962] Unfortunate Tale (Anderson’s Day After Doomsday)


by Gideon Marcus

The Earth is dead, its verdant continents and azure oceans replaced with a roiling hell.  The crew of the Benjamin Franklin, humanity’s first interstellar ship, gaze on the holocaust in horror.  Are they only humans left?  Do any of Terra’s other ships (particularly the all woman-crewed Europa) still survive?  And most of all, who is responsible for this, the greatest of crimes?

This is the setup for Poul Anderson’s newest book, Day after Doomsday, serialized in the last two issues of Galaxy.  Like his previous The High Crusade, Doomsday features a tiny splinter of humanity thrust on the galactic stage in a fight for its very existence.  Unlike that earlier book, however, Doomsday‘s tone is somber.  It’s a mood Anderson does expertly, his lugubrious Scandinavian nature suffusing much of his work.

There is much to enjoy about the first three fifths of this book.  The setting is excellent.  Our galaxy is divided into innumerable clusters of societies, true unification precluded by the relative slowness of interstellar travel.  Several of our neighboring races discover the Earth somewhere around the 1970s, and a productive trade ensues.  But shortly after Earthers begin leaving their homeworld, an alien faction destroys Sol’s best planet.  Suspects are legion – could it be the artistic avian Monwaingi?  The individualistic noble Vorlakka?  The nomadic and ruthless Kandimirians?  Or was it a kind of grisly racial suicide?  You don’t find out until the end.

I appreciated the near-equal time Anderson devoted to the all-female crew, who are as resourceful and strong as one would hope (Anderson does not have trouble writing strong woman characters).  In fact, all of the players are well-drawn.  From catatonia to mania, the response to the destruction of Earth, both immediate and long after, is plausible and far-ranging. 

But somewhere around page 80, the book starts to fall apart.  What had been a string of exciting vignettes articulating two parallel story arcs deftly mixing despair and hope suddenly becomes a fragmented chunk of exposition that tries to tie together the free-hanging threads.  It feels as if a good 60 pages were cut out of the story leaving an unsatisfactory skeleton. 

Was this an artifact of the medium?  Will the novelized version (as I imagine will inevitably appear) be more rewarding?  I guess we’ll have to wait.  As is, it’s a mediocre effort – readable but disappointing.

Three stars.

[November 8, 1961] Points East (Air Travel and the December 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

How small the world has gotten!

Less than a decade ago, trans-oceanic travel was limited to the speed of a propeller.  If you journeyed by boat, as many still do, it would take two weeks to cross the Pacific.  Airplanes were faster – with a couple of stops, one could get from California to the Orient in less than two days.  As a journalist and travel columnist, I spent a good amount of time in both hemispheres during the early 1950s.  I got to be quite seasoned at the travel game.

I have to tell you, things are so much faster these days.  The jet engine has cut flight times in half, taking much of the tedium out of travel.  Oh, sure, I always had plenty to do in the air, between writing and reading and planning my next adventures, but for my poor fellow travelers, there was little to do but drink, smoke, and write letters.  For hours and hours. 

These days, the Journey is my primary occupation.  I can do it from anywhere, and I often do, bringing my family along with me.  As we speak, I am writing out this article with the roar of the Japan Airlines DC-8’s jets massaging my ears, music from pneumatic headphone cords joining the mix.  It’s a smooth ride, too.  It would be idyllic, if not for the purple clouds of tobacco smoke filling the cabin.  But again, I suffer this annoyance for half the time as before.  I’ll abide. 

We’ve just lifted off from Honolulu, and in less than 8 hours, we will touch down at Haneda airport, in the heart of Tokyo, Japan’s capital.  We will be in the Land of the Rising Sun for two weeks, visiting friends and taking in the local culture.  I’ll be sure to tell you all about our adventures, but don’t worry.  I’ve also brought along a big stack of books and magazines so I can continue to keep you informed on the latest developments in science fiction.  Moreover, I’m sure we’ll see a movie or two, and we’ll report on those, too.

Speaking of reports, I’ve just finished up this month’s Galaxy Science Fiction.  I almost didn’t recognize this December issue as it lacks the usual fanciful depiction of St. Nick.  Instead, it features an illustration from Poul Anderson’s new novel, The Day After Doomsday, whose first part takes up a third of the double-sized magazine.  As usual, I won’t cover the serial until it’s done, but Anderson has been reliable of late, and I’ve high hopes.

The rest of the magazine maintains and perhaps even elevates Galaxy’s solid record.  The first short story is Oh, Rats!, by veteran Miriam Allen DeFord (the first of three woman authors in this book!) Rats reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone — I could practically hear Serling’s narrating voice as the story of SK540, a super-rat bent on world domination, unfolded.  Tense and tight, if not innovative.  Three stars.

Willy Ley has returned to original form with his latest non-fiction article, Dragons and Hot-Air Balloons.  Did the Montgolfier brothers get their lighter-than-aircraft ideas from the Chinese?  Have balloons been around since the Middle Ages?  Has the winged ancestor of the pterosaurs been discovered?  And, as an aside, did the Nazis really invent the biggest cannon ever?  Good stuff.  Four stars.

Satisfaction Guaranteed is a cute tale of interstellar commerce by Joy Leache.  Washed up salesman and his assistant try to figure out a profitable-enough endeavor for the elf-like denizens of Felix II such that they might join the Galactic Federation.  It’s a genuinely funny piece.  I’ve only one complaint: very early on, it is made clear that the woman assistant is the brains of the operation, yet she feels compelled to give credit the the fellow.  I prefer my futures looking a little less like the present!  Three stars.

Now, Algis Budrys, on the other hand, has no trouble breaking with the familiar entirely.  His Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night, involving a corporate executive whose plan to release television’s successor is thwarted by a seemingly immortal competitor, is a chilling mystery.  Just what gift did the Martians grant the businessman’s rival to make him so powerful?  And was it really a boon after all?  Four stars.

R.A. Lafferty tones his whimsical style down just a touch in his latest, Rainbird.  It’s a sort of biography of one Higgston Rainbird, an inventor who could have been, in fact was the greatest tinkerer in human history.  It just goes to show that a person’s greatest ally, and also one’s greatest impediment, is oneself.  Four stars.

An Old Fashioned Bird Christmas is Margaret St. Clair’s contribution, delivered in that off-beat, slightly macabre, but ever-poetic fashion that is her trademark.  A story of good vs. evil, of Luddism vs. progress, archaic religion vs. new, and with a strong lady protagonist to boot!  Four stars.

We’re treated to a second piece of science fact by Theodore L. Thomas, called The Watery Wonders of Captain Nemo.  Thomas praises the literary great, Jules Verne, for his writing skill, but then excoriates the French author’s use (or rather, lack of use) of science.  Every technical aspect of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is evaluated and picked apart.  To hear Thomas tell it, Verne knew about as much about science as his contemporary laymen…perhaps less.  An interesting blend of education and critique.  Three stars.

The issue is wraps up with a bang: The Little Man who wasn’t Quite, by William W. Stuart, is a hard-hitting piece about the horror that lies at the bottom of Skid Row.  A sensitive piece by a fellow who seems to know, it’s the kind of gripping thing Daniel Keyes might have turned in for F&SF.  Five stars.

And so Galaxy ends the year on a strong note.  Fred Pohl, now firmly in the editor’s seat, has done a fine job helming one of s-f’s finest digests into the 1960s.  This is the kind of magazine that could win the Hugo – it may well secure the Galactic Star this year.  It all depends on how F&SF is this month, the two are that close.

Next up… an article from our British correspondent, Ashley Pollard!

[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!

[July 6, 1961] Trends (August 1961 Galaxy, second half)

Human beings look for patterns.  We espy the moon, and we see a face.  We study history and see it repeat (or at least rhyme, said Mark Twain).  We look at the glory of the universe and infer a Creator. 

We look at the science fiction genre and we (some of us) conclude that it is dying.

Just look at the number of science fiction magazines in print in the early 1950s.  At one point, there were some forty such publications, just in the United States.  These days, there are six.  Surely this is an unmistakable trend.

Or is it?  There is something to be said for quality over quantity, and patterns can be found there, too.  The last decade has seen the genre flower into maturity.  Science fiction has mostly broken from its pulpy tradition, and many of the genre’s luminaries (for instance, Ted Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson) have blazed stunning new terrain.

I’ve been keeping statistics on the Big Three science fiction digests, Galaxy, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1959.  Although my scores are purely subjective, if my readers’ comments be any indication, I am not too far out of step in my assessments.  Applying some math, I find that F&SF has stayed roughly the same, and both Analog and Galaxy have improved somewhat.

Supporting this trend is the latest issue of Galaxy (August 1961), which was quite good for its first half and does not decline in its second.

For instance, Keith Laumer’s King of the City is an exciting tale of a cabbie who cruises the streets of an anarchic future.  The cities are run by mobs, and the roads are owned by automobile gangs.  It’s a setting I haven’t really seen before (outside, perhaps, of Kit Reed’s Judas Bomb), and I dug it.  In many ways, it’s just another crime potboiler, but the setting sells it.  Three stars.

Amid all of the ugly headlines, the blaring rock n’ roll, the urban sprawl, do you ever feel that the romance has gone out of the race?  That indefinable spark that raises us to the sublime?  Lester del Rey’s does, and in Return Engagement, his protagonist discovers what we’ve been missing all these years.  A somber piece, perhaps a bit overwrought, but effective.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column, For your Information, is amusing and educational, as usual, though its heyday has long past.  This time, the subject is the preeminent biologist, Dr. Theodore Zell, whom Dr. Ley never got to meet, though he tried.  Three stars.

Deep Down Dragon, by Judith Merril, depicts a lovers’ jaunt on Mars that ends in a brush with danger.  Told in Merril’s deft, artistic style, the rather typical boy-rescues-girl story isn’t all it appears to be.  Three stars.

I can’t lay enough praise upon the final novella, Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth.  Science fiction offers a large number of tropes and techniques that provide building blocks for stories.  Every once in a while, a writer creates something truly new.  Vance gives us Sirenis, a planet whose denizens communicate with musical accompaniment that conveys mood beyond that inherent in words.  Moth is a murder mystery, and that story is interesting in and of itself, but what really makes this piece is the struggle of the Terran investigator to master the native modes of communication and to overcome the pitifully low status that being a foreigner affords.  Really a beautiful piece.  Five stars.

That puts the total for this issue at a respectable 3.4 stars.  So far as I can tell, science fiction has got some life left in it…

[July 3, 1961] Bigger is Better (August 1961 Galaxy)

Even months are my favorite. 

Most science fiction digests are monthlies, but the twins run by Fred Pohl, IF and Galaxy, come out in alternating months.  The latter is noteworthy for being the longest regularly published sf magazine, comprising a whopping 196 pages, so big that I need two articles to cover it.  Galaxy also happens to be a personal favorite; I’ve read every issue since the magazine debuted in October 1950 (when it was a smaller monthly).

How does the August 1961 issue fare?  Pretty good, so far!

The lead novella, The Gatekeepers, by J.T. McIntosh, portrays an interplanetary war between two worlds linked by a matter-transmission gateway.  The setting is interesting and the feel of the story almost Leinsterian.  There is an unpolished quality to the piece, though, which I’ve seen in McIntosh before, as if he dashes off pieces without a final edit when he’s writing for the poorer-paying mags (Galaxy dropped its rates in ’59; they may have recently gone back up).  Three stars.

The whimsical Margaret St. Clair brings us Lochinvar, featuring an adorable Martian pet with the ability to neutralize anger.  It’s a story that had me completely sold until the abrupt, expositional ending.  Did the editor (now Fred Pohl) lose the last few pages and have to reconstruct them?  Was the original piece too long?  Three stars.

You may remember Bill Doede from his promising first work, Jamieson, about a group of star-exiled teleports who derive their power from a surgically implanted device.  The God Next Door is a sequel of sorts, its protagonist one of the prior story’s teleports who flits to Alpha Centauri.  There, he finds a tribe of regressed primitives, their humanity underscored by the juxtaposition of another alien, the omnipotent, incorporeal whirlwind who claims the world for his own.  The plot is simple, and by all rights, it should be a mediocre story.  But Doede’s got a style I like, and I found myself marking four stars on my data sheet.

R.A. Lafferty’s Aloys, on the other hand, about a poverty-stricken but brilliant theoretician, is not as clever as it needs to be.  Lafferty’s stock-in-trade is his off-beat, whimsical style.  It often works, but this time, it grates rather than syncopates.  Two stars.

Now for a piece on a subject near and dear to my heart.  As any of my friends will tell you, I spend a lot of time lost in daydream.  I think that’s a trait common to many writers.  My particular habit is to project myself backward in time.  It’s an easy game to play since so many artifacts of the past endure in the present to serve as linchpins for such fantasies. 

But what if these harmless fugues aren’t just flights of fancy?  What if these overly real memories prove the existence of a past life…or constitute evidence of something more sinister?  James Harmon’s The Air of Castor Oil, is an exciting story on this topic with a good (if somewhat opaque) ending.  Four stars.

It seems that sci-fi poetry is becoming a fad, these days.  Galaxy has now joined the trend, offering Sheri S. Eberhart’s amusing Extraterrestrial Trilogue.  A satiric, almost Carrollian piece.  Four stars.

Henry Slesar is a busy young s-f writer who has been published (under one name or another) in most of the sf digests.  His latest piece, The Stuff, features a man dying too young and the drug that just might salvage him a life.  The twist won’t surprise you, but the story is nicely executed, and the title makes sense once you’ve finished reading.  Three stars. 

Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans.  I’ll see you with Part II in just a few days.

[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!