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[May 17, 1962] Not as bad as it looks (June 1962 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

A wise fellow once opined that the problem with a one-dimensional rating system (in my case, 1-5 Galactic Stars) is that there is little differentiating the flawed jewel from the moderately amusing.  That had not really been an issue for me until this month’s issue of Analog.  With the exception of the opening story, which though it provides excellent subject matter for the cover’s striking picture, is a pretty unimpressive piece, the rest of the tales have much to recommend them.  They just aren’t quite brilliant for one reason or another. 

So you’re about to encounter a bunch of titles that got three-star ratings, but don’t let that deter you if the summaries pique your interest:

The Weather Man, by Theodore L. Thomas

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” so the old saw goes.  But in Thomas’ future, the Earth’s weather is completely under the control of the all-powerful Weather Bureau; and it follows that the associated Weather Council is ruler of the world.  One councilor decides to stake his political future on the odd request of a resident of Holtville, California whose dying wish is to see snow before he dies…in July.

A couple of notable points: We seem increasingly confident that weather will be a trivial problem to solve.  That’s reassuring given the threat of global warming.  Another is the featuring of Holtville, a tiny farm town in the middle of the country’s richest farmland: the Imperial Valley.  I know the place fairly well – it’s the next town over from my hometown of El Centro, the county seat.  Aside from its healthy Future Farmers of America chapter, its surprisingly able High School Speech Team, and that it was the residence of a brief ex-girlfriend, it has no outstanding qualities.  Just another stinky, buggy, windy settlement in an irrigated hot desert.

Anyway, Weatherman is a dull, plodding piece, and in contrast to the later stories in this issue, has very few trappings of a far, or even near, future.  Aside from the boats that sail over the sun, that is.  I’m not sure how pinpoint weather modification is somehow easier by tampering with a star rather than its planet.  I couldn’t swallow it.  Two stars.

Three-Part Puzzle, by Gordon R. Dickson

In galaxy where the races divide neatly into Conquerers, Submissives, and Invulnerables (the last uninterested in conquering and incapable of beating into submission), what do you do when you discover humanity fits into none of these categories?  A cute tale no longer than it needs to be.  Three stars.

Anything You Can Do! (Part 2 of 2), by Randall Garrett

This latter installment depicting the battle of superhuman Stanton brothers vs. the frighteningly alien Nipe (begun last month) ends satisfactorily.  In fact, Garrett weaves together a number of plot threads with some fair skill, explaining the weird psychology of the shipwrecked ET; resolving the mysterious situation of the twin Stantons, one of whom had been crippled from birth and yet no longer has any physical ailments; and concluding the Nipe menace without resorting to bloodshed.  I am shocked, myself, to admit that I liked a Garrett story from start to finish, without qualifications.  Could the Randy fellow have turned a corner?  Three stars for this part, three-and-a-half in aggregate.

Interstellar Passenger Capsule, by Ralph A. Hall, M.D.

Dr. Hall takes on the currently popular topic of panspermia, the idea that life is spread around the cosmos by interstellar meteors.  It’s overlong, a bit meandery, and I don’t believe for a second that meteorites have been found with spores in them (at least, spores that were there before their carrier hit the Earth).  It reads like something submitted for a high school paper.  In that context, it might get a ‘B.’  Here, it barely rates two stars.

The Sound of Silence, by Barbara Constant

An interesting, almost F&SFish piece about a young mind-reader who struggles to come to grips with her powers.  Lonely is the existence of a telepath with no one to send thoughts to.  I’ve never heard of Ms. Constant, but this was a solid piece, and a somewhat unique take on a hoary topic.  Three stars.

Novice, by James H. Schmitz

Young Telzey Amberdon has got quite a task ahead of her!  Can this second-year law student prove the sentience of an extraterrestrial race of giant cats while thwarting the nefarious schemes, upon Telzey and the kitties, of her evil aunt?  Here’s an interesting story that combines telepathy, a female protagonist, and felines.  We also see progressive details like a Galactic Federation Councilwoman and a wallet-sized law library.  Its demerits are a slightly disjointed narrative style and a coda that is a bit creepy in its implications.  Nevertheless, I’d love more in this vein, please.  Three stars. 

***

That tallies up to an average of 2.7 – not very promising on the surface, but if you take out the leading novelette and the lackluster science fact article, you’re left with some very readable, if not astonishing, stuff.  I’m not sorry I read this ish, which is more than I can say for some of the prior ones.

[Apr. 28, 1962] Changing of the Guard (May 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I never thought the time would come that reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction would be the most dreaded portion of my duties…and yet, here we are.  Two issues into new Editor Avram Davidson’s tenure, it appears that the mag’s transformation from a great bastion of literary (if slightly stuffy) scientifiction is nearly complete.  The title of the digest might well be The Magazine of Droll Trifles (with wry parenthetical asides).

One or two of these in an issue, if well done, can be fine.  But when 70% of the content is story after story with no science and, at best, stream-of-consciousness whimsy, it’s a slog.  And while one could argue that last issue’s line-up comprised works picked by the prior editor, it’s clear that this month’s selections were mostly Davidson’s. 

Moreover, Robert Mills (the outgone “Kindly Editor”) used to write excellent prefaces to his works, the only ones I would regularly read amongst all the digests.  Davidson’s are rambling and purple, though I do appreciate the biographical details on Burger and Aandahl this ish. 

I dunno.  Perhaps you’ll consider my judgment premature and unfair.  I certainly hope things get better…

Who Sups With the Devil, by Terry Carr

This is Carr’s first work, and one for which Davidson takes all the credit (blame) for publishing.  It sells itself as a “Deal with Diablo” story with a twist, but the let-down is that, in the end, there is no twist.  Two stars.

Who’s in Charge Here?, by James Blish

A vivid, if turgid, depiction of the wretched refuse that hawk wares on the hot streets of New York.  I’m not sure what the point is, and I expect better of Blish (and F&SF).  Two stars.

Hawk in the Dusk, by William Bankier

This tale, about a vicious old prune who has a change of heart in his last days, would not be out of place in an episode of Thriller or perhaps in the pages of the long-defunct Unknown.  In other words, nothing novel in concept.  Yet, and perhaps this is simply due to its juxtaposition to the surrounding dreck, I felt that it was extremely well done.  Five stars.

One of Those Days, by William F. Nolan

From zeniths to nadirs, this piece is just nonsense piled upon nonsense.  It’s the sort of thing I’d expect from a 13-year old…and mine (the Young Traveler) has consistently delivered better.  One star.

Napoleon’s Skullcap, by Gordon R. Dickson

Can a psionic kippah really tune you in to the minds of great figures of the past?  Dickson rarely turns in a bad piece, and this one isn’t horrible, but it takes obvious pains to be oblique so as to draw out the “gotcha” ending as far as possible.  Three stars, barely.

Noselrubb, the Tree, by Eric Frazee

Noselrubb, about an interstellar reconnaissance of Earth, is one of those kookie pieces with aliens standing in for people.  Neophyte Frazee might as well throw in the quill.  One star.

By Jove!, by Isaac Asimov

Again, I am feeling overcharitable.  It just so happens that I plan to write an essay on Uranus as part of my movie that took place on the seventh planet.  Asimov’s piece, about the internal make-up of the giant planets, is thus incredibly timely.  It’s also good.  Five stars (even though the Good Doctor may have snitched his title from me…).

The Einstein Brain, by Josef Nesvadba

F&SF‘s Czech contributor is back with another interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain.  Brain involves the creation of an artificial intelligence to solve the physical problems beyond the reach of the greatest human minds.  The moral – that it’s okay to stop and smell the flowers – is a reaction, perhaps, to the Soviet overwhelming emphasis on science in their culture.  We laud it, but perhaps they find it stifling.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: L, by Reginald Bretnor

Possibly the worst Feghoot…and there’s no small competition.

Miss Buttermouth, by Avram Davidson

The unkindly Editor lards out his issue with a vignette featuring a protagonist from the Five Roses, complete with authentic idiom, and his run-in with a soothsayer who might have a line on the ponies.  It’s as good as anything Davidson has come up with recently.  Two stars.

The Mermaid in the Swimming Pool, by Walter H. Kerr

Mr. Kerr is still learning how to write poetry.  Perhaps he’ll get there someday.  Two stars.

Love Child, by Otis Kidwell Burger

Through many commas and words of purplish hue, one can dimly discern a story of an offspring of some magical union.  Mrs. Burger reportedly transcribes her dreams and submits them as stories.  The wonder is that they get accepted and published.  Two stars.

Princess #22, by Ron Goulart

If Bob Sheckley had written this story, about an abducted princess and the android entertainer for whom she is a dead ringer, it probably would have been pretty decent.  Goulart makes a hash of it.  Two stars.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, by Vance Aandahl

Young Vance Aandahl made a big splash a couple of years ago and has turned in little of note since.  His latest, a post-apocalyptic tale of love, savagery, and religion, draws on many other sources.  They are less than expertly translated, but the result is not without some interest.  Three stars.

***

Generously evaluated, this issue garners 2.7 stars.  However, much of that is due to the standout pieces (which I suspect you will not feel as strongly about) and to a bit of scale-weighting for the three stars stories…that are only just. 

(by the way, is it just me, or does the cover girl bear a striking resemblance to the artist’s spouse, Ms. Carol Emshwiller?)

[December 21, 1961] Reviewer’s Burden (January 1962 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

I read a lot of stuff every month.  I consider it my duty, as your curator, to cover as broad a range of fiction as possible so that you can pick the stories most likely to appeal to you.  What that means is I wade through a lot of stones to find the gems.

Analog is the magazine with the highest stone/gem ratio, I’m afraid.  Nevertheless, it’s rare that an issue goes by without something to recommend it, and the January 1962 edition has at least one genuine amethyst amongst the quartz.

It is the first story, Naudsonce, by one of my favorite authors, H. Beam Piper.  Like his earlier classic, Omnilingual, it is an extra-terrestrial linguistic puzzle story.  Unlike the prior story, Naudsonce involves a living alien race, one with no discernible language, and which displays nonsensical reactions to human speech.  Is telepathy involved?  Is the Terran contact team missing a fundamental clue?

It’s an interesting riddle, to be sure, but what really sells this story is the social commentary.  From the beginning, we see that the human explorers, while not bad people, are interested in one thing: finding a colonizable planet.  The concerns of the aboriginals are casually treated, and the callous, jaded attitude of the scouts is evident, particularly at the end.  This kind of cynical self-awareness is quite rare for an Analog story, and it contrasts strongly with the utter lack of it in Mack Reynold’s serial (see below).  I also appreciated that the contact team was thoroughly integrated, ethnically and sexually; but then Piper has always been ahead of the curve on this issue.  This diversity of characters highlights that the casual rapine associated with imperialism is not an ethnic problem, but a human one.  Four stars.

Idiot Solvant, by Gordon Dickson, is a story that could have been much better.  The premise is exciting: You know how you often get flashes of inspiration when you are sleepy?  Or a solution comes to you in a dream?  Clearly, some magic happens when one’s left brain relinquishes control and lets the right go wild.  Something similar happens to the protagonist of Solvant, allowing him to accomplish some truly miraculous feats.  What kills this story, however, is the several pages of exposition that set up the gimmick.  Moreover, a story, especially a short story, only gets so much leeway before it exceeds its “hand-wave” allowance.  Dickson asserts too many premises in too short a space.  The result is a contrived mess.  Two stars.

E.C. Tubb’s Worm in the Woodwork is a competent interstellar thriller about an undertaking to save a Terran logician who has fallen into the hands of a hostile colonial star league.  The thoughtful bits involving the captive genius, Ludec, are particularly engaging.  Three stars.

The science fact pieces continue to be where Analog falls down.  Campbell went through the trouble of giving his magazine a “slick” section, using the kind of paper one normally finds in news periodicals like Time.  Nevertheless, the articles often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.  Big Boom in Forming, by Willis Cain, has an interesting topic – explosive formed metals (where big booms press metal plate against molds to make parts) – but the piece is, by turns, overly kiddie and excessively obtuse.  Two stars.

Editor John Campbell’s When the Glaciers Go is much worse, though.  Some garbage about how rapid climate change (over the course of hours!) is evidenced by the frozen Mastodons in Siberia.  The climate is changing, and our species is a big contributing factor these days, but it don’t work like that.  Bleah.  One star.

That brings us to Black Man’s Burden (Part 2 of 2), by Mack Reynolds.  I had high hopes for this piece, about Afro-Americans spearheading efforts in Africa to promote democracy and progress.  After all, Reynolds is an accomplished writer of political thriller, and he’s spend a good deal of time in the Mahgreb.  Africa, a continent that has seen nearly twenty new nations spring up in the wake of decolonization, is a rich (and unusual) setting. 

In the end, however, Burden was a disappointment.  While no one knows where Africa is heading, I like to think that, after the normal teething pains, its states will join the community of nations as vibrant, mature members.  Reynolds’ premise is that they simply can’t, that without the aid of Westerners (Free or Communist), Africa will remain a tribal and/or despotic mess.  Or at least, that’s what the protagonists of the story all believe.  At one point, it is even asserted that Islam is a dead-end for nation-building; no Islamic country on Earth has an advanced social system.  I take particular umbrage with this idea given the flowering of the Muslim world in the “Middle Ages.” 

This idea that Africa must be boot-strapped into modernity by its abducted sons, the descendants of American slavery, is an insulting one.  It slights Africans, and it paints a veneer of redemption on “that peculiar institution.”  There is a throwaway reference to the destruction of African culture in the process of “improving” it, but it feels perfunctory.  Worst of all is this bland superiority that suffuses the whole thing.  Africans are pawns.  Americans are superior.  I appreciate that the characters of Burden are all Black, but that quality is only skin-deep.  It is, ultimately, a story of White Americans, who happen to be of dark hue.  And unlike Naudsonce, it’s played completely straight.  2 stars.

Sum it all together, and you’ve got a 2.3 star issue.  This is worse than, well, any of the magazines that came out this month.  If this is the digest that will win the Hugo, I’ve got a closet full of hats to eat…

…but Naudsonce is worth reading!

[November 19, 1961] See Change (December 1961 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Every successful endeavor goes through the cycle of growth, stability, decline, and renewal (or death, in which case, there’s no cycle).  Science fiction magazines are no exception.  A particularly far-sighted editor can plan for decline by setting up a successor.  For instance Galaxy‘s H.L. Gold has turned over the reigns to Fred Pohl with no apparent drop in the digest’s quality.  Anthony Bourchier transitioned to Robert Mills at F&SF, and I understand that Renaissance Man Avram Davidson is waiting in the wings to take over.  That event can’t happen too soon, as F&SF has been lackluster of late.

Analog has had the same master since the early 30s: John W. Campbell.  And while Campbell has effected several changes in an attempt to revive his flagging mag (including a name change, from Astounding; the addition of a 20-page “slick” section in the middle of issues; and a genuinely effective cover design change (see below)), we’ve still had the same guy at the stick for three decades.  Analog has gotten decidedly stale, consistently the worst of The Big Three (in my estimation).

You can judge for yourself.  Just take a gander at the December 1961 issue.  It does not do much, if anything, to pull the once-great magazine from its shallow dive:

As has been the case for a couple of years now, the serialized novel (in this case, the first part of Black Man’s Burden, by Mack Reynolds) is the best part of the book.  Burden is the story of modernization in near-future North Africa.  Reynolds is currently living in the Mahgreb, so his tale is laced with authentic cultural insight.  Reynolds’ Tuareg tribesmen read like the best-developed sf alien cultures…except they’re for real!  I’m looking forward to see where this goes; rating reserved until I’ve read the whole thing.

Next up is a cute little time travel story involving an historian who attempts to change the course of events for a little nascent country called Texas.  I’ve never heard of R. R. Fehrenbach, so I assume Remember the Alamo! is his first story.  As such it’s not bad, though I tend to prefer my viewpoint not wander from character to character at the convenience of the author.  Three stars.

Tom Godwin is a fellow whose works get published in the magazines I don’t follow, so The Helpful Hand of God is the first story of his I’ve read.  Rapacious Terran Empire is thwarted by a bevy of scantily clad conscientious objectors.  Readable, but not very good.  Two stars.

This issue’s cake-taker is the ridiculous “science fact” article by Randall Garrett: Engineer’s Art.  It’s on dowsing, fer chrissakes.  You know, that mystical art of finding water by holding a couple of steel rods in front of you?  Truly a new low for this magazine.  One star.


How Campbell finds his stories and articles

It’s followed by a short, uncredited piece on a Neptune Orbit Observatory, whose main purpose would be to derive accurate distances to the stars through trigonometry (we’d know the angles and the length of the base of the triangle made up of points Earth, Neptune, and target star; the longer the base can be, the more precise our ability to measure the other sides of the triangle).  It’s a cute idea, though I suspect our telescopes will be good enough for the task long before our interplanetary engines are developed sufficiently for exploration of the eighth planet.  Three stars.

Randall Garrett (as David Gordon) offers up some fiction in the form of The Foreign Hand-Tie, a story of telepathic Cold War espionage.  As such things go, it’s not bad.  Reynolds probably could have done it better, but he can’t write the entire issue, can he?  Three stars.

Finally, the disappointing Sleight of Wit, by Gordon Dickson, portraying a battle of brains between a human planetary scout and his alien competitor.  It is disappointing because it requires the alien to be so featherbrained, the course of events the human relies on so convoluted.  Gordy does better when he ignores this mag.  Two stars.

Analog has only topped a three-star overall rating thrice this year, and this wasn’t one of those times.  That’s pretty lousy.  F&SF has done it seven times, and Galaxy never earned less than three.  I’ll be very surprised if Analog gets nominated for the Hugo for 1961. 

It’s time for a change, methinks.

[Nov. 3, 1961] Study War no More (Naked to the Stars, by Gordon Dickson)

War is still a ripe subject for fiction.  It has been a constant part of the human existence since there were nations.  For six thousand years, we’ve glorified it, hated it, resolved ourselves to it.  There’s no reason to expect it will go away any time soon, and it’s no wonder that war is a common theme in science fiction. 

A couple of years back, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers made a big splash with its interesting take on interstellar combat and the character of patriotism.  It was a jingoistic piece that I’m sure resulted in a small spike in enlistments.  Gordy Dickson’s war novel Dorsai also came out in in 1959.  Dorsai was a fairly straightforward war story of a genius mercenary with the temperament and training to become a renowned general.  Like Troopers, it was a runner up for the 1960 Hugo (Troopers won). 

Both are what I’d call “typical” of the genre.  I find it interesting how often war is positively portrayed: exciting, filled with tales of cunning, guts, and derring-do.  I suppose it’s because World War Two was a “good” war.  Democracy vs. Tyranny with clear villains to fight.  Sure, we lost some of our boys, but we made the world safe again.  And so we have a stream of war movies which are by turns dramatic, gripping, even comedic, but rarely overtly anti-war.  A Walk in the Sun, a candid film that even included a portrayal of battle fatigue in the midst of action, is one of the few exceptions.

Pacifist sci-fi novels have been similarly rare.  Given the nature of Dickson’s Dorsai, I was thus surprised (and delighted) to see that his recent Naked to the Stars, serialized over the last to months in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a thoughtful and engaging anti-war book.

A few hundred years in the future, humanity is rapidly expanding throughout the local part of the galaxy.  At Stars‘ beginning, we’ve already conquered one sentient race in our quest for stellar real estate, and a war is in progress against a second, the Lehaunans of Arcturus.  We meet Lieutenant Cal Truant, whose traumatic (but, at first, unexplained) experience on the Lehaunan home planet causes him to wound himself out of the army. 

He is then enlisted into the Contact Service, a subsidiary, non-combatant branch of the military whose role is to liaise with alien races.  Dickson only hints at the nature of this service for much of the book.  In fact, the author’s style is provocatively oblique rather than expository, a refreshing experience.  We get to see Truant’s second run through Basic Training, as interesting an episode in Stars as it was in Troopers.  Then we follow Truant as he is dispatched to the site of humanity’s third wave of expansion: the planet Bellatrix, inhabited by the humanoid Paumons. 

It is there that Truant’s disillusionment with warfare peaks.  Unwilling to watch the Paumons be brutally subjugated, Truant takes matters into his own hands, ultimately maneuvering the situation into a resolution in keeping with his morality.  It’s an honest book; Truant’s actions are not completely laudable, and he knows it.  But, given the situation and his beliefs, it’s what he has to do.

War is Hell.  We can sugar-coat it all we want, but at its core, it is mass murder.  It is suffering.  Stars delivers this message without being overly histrionic or mawkish.  In fact, if there is anything wrong with Stars, it is that it is too short.  Like Troopers when it first appeared in F&SF, and like the more recent Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, Stars was hacked down a bit to fit in two issues of a small digest.  I understand that an expanded version will be out next year.  I hope that, when this fine novel is nominated for a Hugo (which it inevitably will be), it will the full version that is evaluated. 

I give this serialized edition 4.5 stars, and I can imagine that the longer book will garner 5.

[Oct. 26, 1961] Fading Fancy (November 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn’t satisfy like it used to?  I’m a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could.  That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee…mmm. 

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn’t done it for me.  The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold.  The flavor doesn’t seem as bold, the crust as crispy.  I’ve started giving dessert menus a serious peruse.  Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert — saved for last and savored.  These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don’t look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did.  This month’s, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:

Keith Laumer is an exciting newish author whose work I often confuse with Harry Harrison’s — probably because Retief reminds me of “Slippery Jim” diGriz.  Laumer has a knack for creating interesting sentient non-humans.  He gave us intelligent robot tanks in Combat Unit, and this month, he gives us sentient, symbiotic trees in Hybrid.  It’s a story that teeters on the edge of greatness, but its brevity and rather unpleasant ending drag it from four to three stars.

The Other End of the Line is the first new story from Walter Tevis in three years.  Ever wonder what happens if you break a bootstrap paradox (i.e. one where your future self gives your present self a leg up)?  Well…it’s not a good idea.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Rick Rubin is back with his second story, the first being his excellent F&SF-published Final MusterThe Interplanetary Cat is a weird little fantasy involving an incorrigible feline with an insatiable appetite.  It’s almost Lafferty-esque, which means some will love it, and some will hate it.  I’m in the middle.  Three stars.

Faq’ is the latest by George P. Elliott, whose Among the Dangs was a minor masterpiece.  Elliott’s new story is in the same vein — a Westerner who finds a fictional yet plausible tribe of people, alien from any we currently know.  It’s got a nice, dreamy style to it, but it lacks the depth or the powerful conclusion of Dangs.  Three stars.

Doris Pitkin Buck is another F&SF new author.  Green Sunrise, like Buck’s last work (Birth of a Gardner), Sunrise features a lovers’ squabble between a scientist man and a non-scientist woman.  Once again, the language is evocative, but the plot is weak, the impression fleeting.  Two stars.

The Tunnel Ahead is an overpopulation dystopia-by-numbers tale by Alice Glaser.  Cramped living conditions?  Check.  Algae-based food products?  Check.  Drastic, random population reduction methods?  Check.  Two stars?  Check. 

Randy Garrett’s been skulking around F&SF lately, but I don’t know that it has been to the magazine’s benefit.  Mustang is essentially Kit Reed’s Piggy, but not as good.  Two stars.

Dethronement is Isaac Asimov’s latest article, a sort of screed written in response to a bad review of his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science by biologist Barry Commoner.  The latter objected to the former’s obliteration of the line between non-living and living matter.  This, Commoner maintained, destroyed the field of biology entirely.  The Good Doctor explains that finding bridges between disciplines does not destroy the disciplines any more than bridging Manhattan with the other four burroughs of New York makes Manhattan no longer an island.  It’s a good piece.  Four stars.

Alfred Bester covers Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in his books column.  He didn’t like it either. 

John Updike has a bit of doggerel about scandalous neutrinos called Cosmic Gall.  It is followed by Algis Budrys’ rather impenetrable article on science fiction, About Something Truly Wonderful.  Both rate two stars. 

Part 2 of Gordy Dickson’s Naked to the Stars rounds out the otherwise lackluster issue.  It deserves its own article, but you’re going to have to wait for it, since Rosemary Benton and Ashley Pollard will be covering some exciting scientific developments, first.  I’ll give you a hint — they involve the biggest rocket and the biggest boom.

[September 29, 1961] Slim Pickings (October 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines.  Over the decade that I’ve been subscribing, I’ve fallen into a habit.  I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies).  I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding.  I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last.  This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests– my dessert for the month, as it were. 

These days, the stories aren’t as good.  Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won’t review until it finishes next month.  As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication).  Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who is not exactly a science fiction author but dabbles in the arena, leads with Harrison Bergeron.  It’s a deceptively juvenile satire against Conformity and Communism, and while it may not impress upon first reading, it stays with you.  Four stars.

One of my favorite new authors is Rosel George Brown, and I have to give her credit for being willing to take chances.  The Ultimate Sin, however, is a bit avante garde for me.  Something about a social misfit interstellar explorer who finds a planet where gravity depends on whim rather than mass, and where the entire ecology is a unit, its pieces constantly consuming each other and exchanging knowledge in the process.  I didn’t like it at first, but as with the first story, I found it engaging in retrospect.  Three stars.

Charles G. Finney’s The Captivity isn’t science fiction at all; it’s more an analysis of captivity on humans, particularly when they discover that they aren’t really captives at all.  What is there left to push against when external forces are removed?  Only each other, and themselves.  Three stars.

Robert E. Lee at Moscow is Evelyn E. Smith’s attempt at satire this issue.  She’s produced some real doozies, but this one, an extreme logical extension of turning our political ambassadors into cultural ambassadors, falls flat.  There is a laugh-inducing line on the last page, however.  Two stars.

The half-posthumous team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth bring us The World of Myrion Flowers, which tells the tale of a driven Black philanthropist whose attempts to raise a cadre of Negro executives end unhappily.  The moral: it’s best when a disdained class doesn’t have too clear an idea of what the favored class thinks of them.  I can only imagine what insanity I would derive from having telepathy while living in 1930s Germany.  Three stars.

Isaac Asimov hasn’t written much fiction lately, and when he does, it tends to be old fashioned.  So it is with The Machine That Won the War, a very slight computer-related piece that probably got accepted more out of respect for the author than for its quality.  Two stars.

Meanwhile, George Langelaan, the Paris-born Britisher who penned The Fly in ’57 brings us The Other Hand, a macabre story of digits that move as if possessed, compelling their owners to strange activities.  Rather overwrought and archaic.  Two stars.

If Asimov’s fiction fails to impress, his fact remains entertaining.  That’s About the Size of It is all about the comparative sizes of Earth’s animals, all done logarithmically for easy data manipulation.  It turns out that people are medium-biggish creatures, all things considered.  Four stars.

The Vat is Avram Davidson’s latest, featuring a bit of alchemy and misadventure.  Short but readable.  Three stars.

Grendel Briarton’s latest pun, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIV, is as always, perhaps a bit more.

And that leaves us with Dickson’s Naked to the Stars (Part 1 of 2), which I’ll cover next week.  All in all, a 3-star issue that will not revulse but neither will it much impress.  Faint praise, indeed.

[September 18, 1961] Balancing Act (October 1961 Analog)

Science fiction digests are a balancing act.  An editor has to fill a set number of pages every month relying solely on the stories s/he’s got at her/his disposal.  Not to mention the restrictions imposed if one wants to publish an “all-star” or otherwise themed issue. 

Analog has got the problem worst of all of the Big Three mags.  Galaxy is a larger digest, so it has more room to play with.  F&SF tends to publish shorter stories, which are more modular.  But Analog usually includes a serialized novel and several standard columns leaving only 100 pages or so in which to fit a few bigger stories.  If the motto of The New York Times is “All the news that’s fit to print,” then Analog’s could well be, “All the stories that fit, we print.”

How else to explain the unevenness of the October 1961 Analog?  The lead novella, Lion Loose, by James Schmitz, is 60 pages of unreadability.  It’s a shame since Schmitz has written some fine work before, but I simply unable to finish this tale of space piracy and teleporting animals.  Your mileage may vary.  One star.

Gordie Dickson’s Love Me True fares better, though it is a bit Twilight Zone-esque.  Space explorer risks all to bring a cute fuzzy-wuzzy back from Alpha Centauri as a pet.  In the end, it turns out the bonds of domestication run the other way.  Nicely written, but the idea is two decades behind the times.  Three stars.

The Asses of Balaam is Randall Garrett’s contribution, under the pseudonym “David Gordon” used by many Analog writers.  It’s the best piece in the book (didn’t expect that from Garrett!), a first contact story told from the point of view of some all-too human aliens.  I particularly appreciated the imaginative setting, the priority placed on ecological conservation, and the cute (if not unpredictable) twist at the end.  I must say – Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have become axiomatic to all science fiction.  Four stars. 


by Schoenherr

Now, the science fact column of Analog is the worst of those included in the Big Three mags, usually filled with the crankiest of crank hypotheses.  I have to give credit to editor Campbell’s printing of Report on the Electric Field Rocket, by model rocketeer, G. Harry Stine.  This report is, in fact, an experimental refutation of H.C. Dudley’s dubious proposal to use the Earth’s electric field to help launch rockets.  Actual science!  Three stars.

Harry Harrison’s Sense of Obligation continues, to be completed next issue.  It’s reminiscent of Harrison’s excellent Deathworld in that it features a man made superhero by virtue of having grown up on a hostile planet.  Sense is not as good as Deathworld, though.  Full rating when it finishes.

That leaves The Man Who Played to Lose, another disappointing outing from a normally good author, in this case, Laurence Janifer (writing as “Larry M. Harris).  Interstellar Super Spy is sent to a planet in the throes of civil war.  His job is to stop the insurrection – by making it too successful!  A smug, implausible story, with far too much preaching at its tail.  Two stars.

This all adds up to a sub-par score of 2.6 stars out of 5.  This is not the worst Analog has gotten, but it’s not all that unusual, either.  This is why it usually takes me the longest to get through an issue of Campbell’s magazine.

Next up… a special article from a surprising source!

[July 27, 1961] Breaking a Winning Streak (August 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

Take a look at the back cover of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.  There’s the usual array of highbrows with smug faces letting you know that they wouldn’t settle for a lesser sci-fi mag.  And next to them is the Hugo award that the magazine won last year at Pittsburgh’s WorldCon.  That’s the third Hugo in a row. 

It may well be their last.

I used to love this little yellow magazine.  Sure, it’s the shortest of the Big Three (including Analog and Galaxy), but in the past, it boasted the highest quality stories.  I voted it best magazine for 1959 and 1960

F&SF has seen a steady decline over the past year, however, and the last three issues have been particularly bad.  Take a look at what the August 1961 issue offers us:

Avaram Davidson and Morton Klass’s The Kappa Nu Nexus, about a milquetoast Freshman who joins a fraternity that hosts a kooky set of time travelers.  Davidson’s writing, formerly some of the most sublime, has gotten unreadably self-indulgent, and William Tenn’s brother (Klass) doesn’t make it any better.  One star.

Survival Planet, by Harry Harrison, features the remnant colony of the vanquished Great Slavocracy.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s mostly told rather than shown, the book-ends being highly expositional.  Three stars.

Vance Aandahl, as one of my readers once observed, desperately wants to be Ray Bradbury.  His Cogi Drove His Car Through Hell has the virtue of starring a non-traditional protagonist; that’s the only virtue of this mess.  One star.

Juliette, translated from the French by Damon Knight (it is originally by Claude-François Cheiniss), is a bright spot.  It’s a sort of cross between McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and Young’s Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used Car Lot.  I found it effective, written in that Gallic light fashion.  Four stars.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you the point of E. William Blau’s first printed story, The Dispatch Executive.  Something about a bureaucratic dystopia, or perhaps it’s a special kind of hell for office clerks.  Hell is right, and here’s hoping we don’t see Blau in print again.  One star.

Then we have another comparatively bright spot: Kit Reed’s Piggy.  Per the author, it is “the story of Pegasus, although I don’t remember that his passengers spouted verse, and a mashup of first lines from Emily Dickinson, whom I admired, but never liked.”  There’s no question that it’s beautifully written, but there is not much movement as regards to plot.  Three stars.

A Meeting on a Northern Moor, Leah Bodine Drake’s poem on the decline of Norse mythology is evocative, though brief.  Murray Leinster’s The Case of the Homicidal Robots is a turgid mystery-adventure involving the spacenapping of dozens io interstellar vessels.  Three and two stars, respectively.

Winona McClintic is back with Four Days in the Corner, some kind of ghost story.  It’s worse than her last piece, and that’s nothing to be proud of.  Two stars.

Then we have Asimov’s science fact column, The Evens Have It, on the frequency of nuclear isotopes among the elements.  The Good Doctor’s articles are usually the high point of F&SF for me, but this one is the first I’d ever characterize as “dull.”  Three stars, but you’ll probably give it a two.

Rounding things up is Gordon Dickson’s The Haunted Village, about a traveler who vacations in a village whose inhabitants are hostile to outsiders.  The twist?  There is no outside world – only the delusion that such a thing exists.  Dickson is capable of a lot better.  Two stars.

I often say that I read bad fiction so you don’t have to.  This was especially true this month.  While Galaxy was quite good (3.4 stars), both Analog and F&SF clocked in at 2.2. 
For those of you new to the genre and wondering why they should bother (why I should bother), I promise – it’s not all like this.  Please don’t let it all be like this…

Coming up next: The sci-fi epic, Mysterious Island!

[June 9, 1961] Common denominator (July 1961 IF)

Science fiction digests, those monthly magazines filled with s-f short stories, are often like little anthologies.  Editors will let their “slush pile” stack up, and when they have enough of a kind of piece, they publish them in a themed issue.

I don’t know whether the theme of the July 1961 IF science fiction was intentional or not, but it definitely focuses on the issues of over-population and over-mechanization.  That is, in the future, there will be too many of us, and we won’t have a whole lot to do. 

I’m not particularly concerned about the former.  We live on a big planet, and although our presence on it definitely has an impact, I don’t think living space is going to be an issue for a long time, if ever.  On the other hand, the latter topic holds a strong fascination for me. 

We’ve already seen a precipitous drop in the percentage of people employed in agriculture.  Industry looks like it will shed workers soon, too, as the use of robots increases.  That leaves the nebulous “service” sector, whose added value to our lives seems rather arbitrary.  Eventually, I foresee a world where no one has to grow or build anything…and then what will work mean to us?

It’s a worthy topic for discussion.  Sadly, the writing in the July 1961 IF fails to impress and often downright disappoints.  Here’s what we’ve got:

Jim Harmon is an often lackluster IF perennial.  His novelette The Planet with no Nightmare, involves an insomniac space explorer and the strange planetoid he and his two crewmates discover.  On said world, the animals play dead when startled, but when no one’s watching, they disappear.  It has a promising opening, but the end is no great shakes.  Three stars.

Then there’s William Stuart, who started with a bang and hasn’t quite recreated his initial spark.  The Real Hard Sell tells of a salesman in a world where selling is the only human profession remaining.  Like many of the stories in this issue, it is frightfully conventional except for its premise.  Still, as a satire of our current commercial practices, it’s not bad.  Three stars.

Now brace yourself – those were the good stories of the issue.

The Stainless Steel Knight is John Rackham’s attempt at humor featuring a hapless Terran agent, a faithful alien companion, and colonies that adhere to storybook milieus.  In this case, the planet the agent visits is modeled on England of the Middle Ages.  As to following the issue’s theme, the story is all about the agent’s mission to slay a “dragon”, a leftover automated tractor/combine that threatens to put the colonists’ serfs out of work.  Well, the Arthurian hijinx was better in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, the Middle English better in Anderson’s The High Crusade, and the medieval satire better in Pratt and De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter.  Two stars.

Once again, James T. McIntosh saves his dreck for IF.  He often can write so well, but Doormat World, about a returned colonist taking advantage of Earth’s spate of super-pacifism, is a poor, disgusting little piece.  One star.

A Taste of Tenure is a surprisingly clumsy piece by Gordon Dickson in which a businessman, promoted to the executive level, finds himself unable to discharge his predecessor’s secretary, protected as she is by the government’s strict “right to work” laws.  Again – interesting premise, but utterly conventional despite taking place two centuries from now, and the ending is a confused muddle.  Two stars.

Finally, we have The Junkmakers, by IF newcomer Albert Teichner.  It has a great concept: planned obsolescence taken to an absurd extreme: enormous communal potlaches are held at five year intervals and given an almost religious significance.  If there were any characters in this story, or much of a plot, it’d be a real winner.  As it is, it’s the outline of a piece for someone more skilled (Cordwainer Smith?) to develop into a masterpiece.  Two stars.

So there you have it.  A collection of stories by IF‘s reliable stable on an interesting theme that barely breaks the two-star barrier.  This is easily the worst issue of IF I’ve read.  Editor Fred Pohl better start enforcing some higher standards, or I predict this magazine will end up following the path trod smooth by Infinity, Venture, Imagination, and thirty other digests born in the 50s.