Tag Archives: h. beam piper

[November 27, 1962] Turkeys and Gravy (December 1962 Analog)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Behold the picture of contentment.  I sit in my La-Z-Boy, feet crossed on an ottoman, a Julie London album on the phonograph, and my tummy stuffed to the utmost with stuffing, turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes… the whole megillah.  And at my side, the just-finished copy of the latest Analog, which just happens to be my last science fiction magazine of the year (yes, Mark Yon will follow me with the December ish of New Worlds, but that’s his problem!)

This last reading duty out of the way, I can finally start putting together my notes for this year’s Galactic Stars, and it certainly looks like there will be some bright ones.  Nevertheless, as fun as it is describing the sum of the parts, each component deserves full treatment – and the December 1962 Analog has much to recommend it.. as well as some prime examples of America’s bird:

Blind Man’s Lantern, by Allen Kim Lang

Beautifully depicted on the cover by Schoenherr, this one came recommended by fellow writer, John Boston.  Lantern features an Pennsylvania Dutch couple settling on an Earth-like world 80 light years from home.  The planet is already home to a thriving but technologically regressed colony of West Africans, and the hope of the Earth government is that the original inhabitants will adopt the advanced Amish farming techniques, to the benefit of all concerned. 

It’s a lovely story, more slice of life Laura Ingalls Wilder than nuts and bolts SF.  The relations between the Amish and the Africans are interesting and sensitively portrayed, the growing friendships and cultural clashes feeling natural.  Where the piece fails (a little bit) is the abrupt twist 4/5ths of the way through, and the fact that there is really no SF component to this tale at all.  The new planet is exactly like Earth in all details – Lang could easily have set his story in Senegal.  Four stars.

Subversive, by Mack Reynolds

At first, this story looks to be a “preach piece,” basically two people chatting to illustrate a philosophical point.  In this case, the topic of discussion is the economy, and how to cut the Gordian Knot of our overly complex, thoroughly middle-manned system.  But the author is Mack Reynolds, and he has something that is (dare I say) a bit more subversive in mind.  Lots of twists and you never know where it’s going to end.  Three stars. 

—And Devious the Line of Duty, by Tom Godwin

This one is basically, a low budget Retief story in which the key to determining on which side a powerful neutral planet aligns comes down to a well-orchestrated meet cute between its young Queen and a strapping Terran Space Navy lieutenant.  Much too long to justify its ending, which you’ll see a mile away.  Two stars.

Intelligent Noise, by Alfred Pfanstiehl

Here’s the real dog of the magazine.  Mr. Pfanstiehl attempts to educate us on the ingenious use of the electromagnetic spectrum to cram more information into an already crowded set of frequencies. The problem is that the article is completely unreadable.  Dig this, Dad – my first major was astrophysics and my favorite bits in these digests are the science articles; but I couldn’t make head nor tails of it.  I am no wiser now than I was going into the article, and I suspect you won’t be either.  One star.

Space Viking (Part 2 of 2), by H. Beam Piper

Finally, Piper continues his four part(!) tale of rapacious spacefarers picking on the bones of the fallen Terran Empire.  As a travelogue, it’s first rate.  Piper gives us great background on all of the visited planets, their societies and governments.  Names are dropped of worlds featured in other stories (for instance, Uller of Uller Uprising and Zarathustra of Little Fuzzy).  But as a story, Space Viking is rendered mostly in thumbnail.  The result is engaging, even memorable, but more carrier wave than message.  Three stars.

That wraps up this month’s American magazines.  F&SF is finally the best again, with Fantastic a close second (this latter having the best story, Laumer’s Cocoon).  Galaxy is tail-end Charlie, a bitter disappointment.  That puts Amazing and Analog in the middle.  Every magazine had some four-star content; only two (Galaxy and Amazing) had female authors, one apiece. 

Over to you, Mark!




[October 27, 1962] Calm in the Storm (the November 1962 Analog)

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


by Gideon Marcus

What the papers are now calling the Cuban Missile Crisis is a blister ready to burst.  An American pilot has been shot down.  There are rumors of confrontations between American and Soviet warships.  Bomber take-offs have rattled windows in towns near Air Force bases around the nation.  Kennedy, Khruschev, and U Thant are all offering proposals to turn this thing off, but so far, there are no takers.

I find almost jarring the contrast between the lurid and constant news reports and the rather bland offerings found in the last American science fiction magazine I’m reviewing this month, namely the November 1962 Analog.  Perhaps you’ll find its relative drabness a comfort. 

Space Viking (Part 1 of 4), by H. Beam Piper

Piper has written many stories set in what appears to be a coherent future history.  There are consistent references to planets such as Tanith and the Sword Worlds.  A Terran Imperium spans much of the galaxy.  Space Viking is both familiar and a departure, set as it is centuries after that Empire has collapsed.  Society and technology are on the regress, and the now-independent Sword Worlds have reverted to a kind of planetary feudalism.  These worlds grow rich on plundering the decaying carcass of the Empire; space piracy and raiding on a planetary scale are now respected endeavors.

This latest of Piper’s works follows a noble of one of the Sword Worlds who contracts a famed but currently shipless captain to skipper a newly commissioned ship.  The mission of the cruiser Nemesis is not piracy, but revenge against a most egregious of pirates.

It’s an interesting read, and planethopping tales are among my favorites.  I lament the lack of any real female characters though, particularly from the author who gave this column its avatar (Dr. Martha Dane of Omnilingual).  Three stars thus far.

Untechnological Employment, by E. M. Clinton, Jr.

An exceedingly short, juvenile piece.  I did note, however, the unorthodox use of the new term “Native American” for those typically called “Indians.”  Two stars.

Solomon’s Orbit, by William Carroll

Old coot shows up all those highfalutin eggheads by inventing an orbital drive out of space junk while all those rocket scientists can barely make a missile go.  A word of wisdom to the new author desperate to be published: this is the kind of tale Campbell loves.  Not me, though.  Two stars.

The Servant Problem, by Robert F. Young

At first, one is led to believe that this will be another story about an eccentric non-scientist coming up with the invention of the ages.  Instead, as the canny reader will pick up on, it’s far more.  That said, it’s not a great story, and the end is as expositional as they come.  Nevertheless, Young is always readable, even when he’s not brilliant.  Three stars.

The Educated Flatworms, by John Eric Holmes

Well, here’s a welcome surprise.  Normally, the slick pages devoted to non-fiction end up ruined by the monthly pseudo-science Campbell favors (psionics, reactionless drives, etc.) This time around, we have an absolutely fascinating piece on the training of flatworms, the common ancestor to most animals.  Not only can you teach these squishy creatures, but they pass on their knowledge to others in most surprising ways.

Normally, I’d expect stuff like this to be typical Analog bunk, but I’ve looked up the researchers in question, and their results appear to be legitimate.  The article’s only fault is a less than rigorous conveying of test scores; it’s not exactly clear what the significance of some of the numbers is.  Four stars.

Anchorite, by Johnathan Blake MacKenzie

The harsh living of the mining Belter, securing asteroids for precious metals and oxygen, makes for a hardy, reliable breed.  But is the resulting culture of rugged individualism a designed-for result or a happy side effect?  MacKenzie gives us both sides of the story, from the points of view of the rock-dwellers and a pair of Earthers.  Not an entirely unbiased view — there is more than a little condescension in the space-dwellers’ take, but there is also naivete, which I appreciated.

This should be a good story, but it’s not.  For one thing, MacKenzie, with his lurid descriptions of asteroids (he has been doing the Ship Named MacGuire series), flat attempts at puns, utter lack of women, and his begging the question like a highway mendicant, can be none other than Randall Garrett.  This is not a selling point.  For another, the scenes of asteroid mining are tedious, and what passes for dialogue even more so.  This could have been a fascinating tale if told by, I don’t know… Piper or Leinster or Reynolds.  In Garrett’s hands, it’s limp stuff.  Two stars.

Crucial Experiment #2, by Joseph F. Goodavage

Good gravy — Campbell had to include a three-page astrological weather forecast.  I guess we’ll have to see if there be any accuracy to it next month.  My money’s on “No.”

And so ends another readable but not outstanding issue of Analog.  I’m sure its intended audience would give it more stars than I do, and I wasn’t bored for much of it, but it’s only fair to middlin’ stuff right now.  Stay tuned for the last magazine of the month, this one from the other side of the Pond!




[March 22, 1962] Provoking Thought (April 1962 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Ask the average citizen their opinion of science fiction and they’ll likely mention monsters, flying saucers, and ray guns.  SF has gotten a bad rap lately, largely due to the execrable movies nominally representing it, but there’s no question that the pulps of the 30s and 40s, and the lesser magazines of the 50s didn’t help much.  And yet, only Science fiction offers endless worlds in which to explore fundamental human issues.  Religion.  Philosophy.  Politics.  It is only in our fantastic genre that the concept “if this goes on” can be pushed to extremes, whether a story be set in the far future or on a remote planet.  SF isn’t just kiddie stuff – it can be the most adult of genres.

Case in point: Analog, formerly Astounding Science Fiction, set a standard in the pulp era as the grown-up magazine in the field.  And while I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with the digest that Campbell built, this particular issue – the April 1962 edition – offers up some intriguing political predictions that, if not probable, are at least noteworthy.

Mercenary, by Mack Reynolds

Take four concepts and carry them to the nth degree: 1) unions and corporations increase in power such that they become virtual nations; 2) world disarmament is achieved – to the point that post-1900 weaponry is abolished; 3) the public’s demand for violence on television is insatiable; 4) economic class stratification gets stronger. 

The result is a United States where private entities no longer resolve disputes in court; they do literal battle with brigades, even divisions of professional soldiers.  Their conflicts are televised as circuses for the masses (whose bread needs have been met by automation).  Mercenary is the tale of a veteran-for-hire who is desperately trying to climb the social ranks with the one remaining avenue: a successful military career.

This novella is my favorite of the bunch.  Reynolds, who has traveled the world and seen both the Soviet Union and the Mahgreb first-hand, invests his work with a gritty realism that elevates it above its genre siblings.  It’s what Dickson’s Dorsai should have been in about half the space.  Four stars.

Toy Shop, by Harry Harrison

When no reputable government agency will look at your breakthrough scientific achievement, then it’s time to resort to unorthodox methods, right?  I’m disappointed with this one.  It’s clearly an opportunity for Harrison (normally quite good) to get a quick $100 from editor Campbell, who champions all sorts of quackery.  Two stars.

A Slave is a Slave, by H. Beam Piper

Take a colony of humans, reduce them to slavery at the hands of a rapacious space vikings, and let stew for seven centuries.  Then topple the viking-descended overlords and see what happens.  This story, set in Piper’s often presented Galactic Empire, is a clear analogy for decolonization.  It’s got some straw men, some broad strokes, some glib presentation, but I think it makes some good points.  The oppressed aren’t always the good guys.  The road to democracy is a long and fraught one.  Noble intentions do not guarantee positive outcomes.  Three stars.

Suppressed Invention, by John W. Campbell, Jr.

I rolled my eyes when I saw the title and the byline for this one, but I was surprised to find that this essay, about recent advancements in electric battery science, is both readable and informative.  Sure, it’s got a little bit of the Campbellian spin on things, but the basic facts are here and nicely presented.  Three stars.

The Circuit Riders, by R. C. FitzPatrick

We’ve seen the idea of “pre-crime” before, where police attempt to stop incidents before they occur.  The example that stands out most to me is Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.  FitzPatrick, to all accounts, is a new author, but he’s arrived on the scene with a visceral sensitivity in his first story that suggests he’ll be offering up great stuff in the future.  A detractor from Riders is that, after a fantastic cold open first act, FitzPatrick then devotes an unnecessary scene to explaining the mechanics behind the “deAngelis” thought monitor.  Also, the resolution isn’t quite up to the build-up.  An invention that can monitor emotional patterns needs a book, is worth a book.  Three stars.

***

Thus, Analog finishes this month on the right side of decent 3-star quality.  Moreover, it presents a set of intriguing visions guaranteed to make you think.  And that’s exactly what science fiction should do.

[January 23, 1962] A Methodical Approach to Writing (H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy)


by Rosemary Benton

Science fiction is a wonderful genre in that it allows an author the opportunity to pick a discipline – religion, economics, etc. – and create scenarios that are free to play out completely beyond any current restrictions or known facts of nature. Consider James Blish’s The Star Dwellers with its sentient energy creatures or Andre Norton’s Catseye with its telepathic animals.

But then there are the science fiction authors who try to ground their scenarios as close as possible to the discipline they are examining. For H. Beam Piper, it seems as if he wrote his most recent novel with a mission to accurately play out the issues and triumphs of an anthropologist. The results is the well written (if slightly dry) young adult novel, Little Fuzzy, the story of one interstellar prospector’s journey to protect the small, furry family he has adopted, cared for, and believes to be as intelligent as any group of humans.

H. Beam Piper is a prolific author within the science fiction genre. He’s been a published writer since 1947 with his short story Time and Time Again, and since then has averaged two short stories a year with the occasional novel blooming out from these stories.

But if you were to ask me how to best describe the flavor of his writing, I would be hard pressed to place Piper into an exact style. He lacks the poetic flow of words that embody Zenna Henderson’s work, and his ability to balance world-building and exposition is not as smooth as James Blish’s recent work. The pace of his stories is not as intense as Andre Norton, preferring instead to take things minute-by-minute. And yet I enjoyed Little Fuzzy and would recommend it as an intelligent, well written story. But how would I describe the writings of Piper? The best word I can use to describe H. Beam Piper’s writing is methodical. 

Piper goes to great length to construct his fictional environments, but he does not achieve this by the use of colorful adjectives. Piper’s world-building is more bureaucratic in nature. In his 1951 short story Temple Trouble, Piper spends a great length of time describing the way that time and dimension traveling beings calling themselves the Paratime Police use a fabricated religion to allow privatized corporations to mine uranium and other commodities right under the noses of the low-tech societies they have converted. Exposition goes into the minute details of how temples are set up in new cities, even in depth on how low level priests are selected to serve the god without being made aware of the advanced technology that creates the god’s “miracles.”

Via conversation between the main characters we are also privy to the internal struggles of the mining company. Is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? No. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? Absolutely. So why does H. Beam Piper go into such minutia in all of his stories, not least of which includes Little Fuzzy?

Where other authors employ a liberal use of descriptive adjectives to set a scene, or will go into the extensive details of a character’s emotional state, Piper builds his environments by describing at length how a world or society functions as a whole. Take Graveyard of Dreams for instance. When the main character, Conn Maxwell, returns to his home world after leaving to further his education he sees the people he has left all those years ago and can’t help but think about how their clothing is from salvaged fabric, how their town is in disrepair from the lack of Terran Federation interest in the region, and how that situation has come to be. By and large, Piper will spend relatively little wordage in detailing the facial expressions or internal feelings of his character. He instead reserves his vocabulary for historical accounts, political ramblings, and anthropological observations. 

Which brings us to Little Fuzzy. In true Piper fashion the story is set to the tone of a conversation between upper management and underling in which we begin to understand what concerns will drive the plot – a colonized planet’s climate change, its resources, and the rights people have to inhabit and collect its resources. We are also made aware of the divide between corporations and conservationists.

In Little Fuzzy the privatized corporations that own the land rights to territories under Terran Federation jurisdiction must first and foremost consider the natives and whether or not they warrant sapient categorization. If the inhabitants are sapient, the planet will be granted certain protections which severely limit any corporation’s profit margin. If a sentient species were discovered on Zarathustra, the planet on which Little Fuzzy centers, the company would need to renegotiate its charter, conservationists would have fodder for their fight against the industrialists, and corporate heads would roll.

Again, is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? To an extent, yes, as it sets the stage for people’s loyalties. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes, although many more are introduced later. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? All too much so.

Knowing how the universe of Little Fuzzy operates is crucial, the same way that a working knowledge of any society plays into all of Piper’s works. From there he weaves in common themes such as self reliance, humble beginnings, exploration, and the ever present military. As I have said before, Little Fuzzy is a little dry since the debates that center around the fuzzies and their levels of sapience unfold in a minute-to-minute fashion, but they are thoughtful and well crafted arguments that give each character a distinct voice. H. Beam Piper is a unique writer, but one worth following. His newest novel only proves this. Three stars.

[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!

[Oct. 20, 1960] Fiction > Non-fiction… sometimes (the November 1960 Analog)

Each month, I lament what’s become of the magazine that John Campbell built.  Analog‘s slow decline has been marked by the editor’s increased erratic and pseudo-scientific boosting behavior.  Well, I just don’t have the heart to kick a dog today, and besides, the fiction is pretty good in this month’s (November 1960) issue.  So let’s get right to it, shall we?

“Mark Phillips” (Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer) have a new four-part serial in their Malone series.  Set in the 1970s, the series details the adventures of a couple of federal agents, who are helped in their cases by a telepath who believes herself (and may actually be) Queen Elizabeth I.  I won’t spoil the details of this one, Occasion for Disaster, but I’ve liked the previous novels, so I suspect Occasion will also be pleasant reading.

Heading off the magazine’s short stories is a fun piece by Theodore L. Thomas, half of the pseudonymous duo that previously brought us a fascinating study into the world of copyright, The Professional TouchCrackpot continues in that vein, featuring a brilliant old scientist (Prof. Singlestone… get it?!) who convinces the world that he’s gone senile.  His aim?  To make his work so disreputable that no government agency will want it, so that no university will employ him, so that he can for the first time in his life enjoy working as a truly free agent.  So that when his invention proves to be utterly unignorable, he will be the master of its fate.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Next up is E.C. Tubb’s The Piebald Horse.  It starts out well enough with a Terran spy trying to escape a repressive alien world with his brain full of sensitive knowledge.  The jig seems up for him when the aliens employ telepaths as mind-screen agents, but they are foiled when the protagonist pickles himself continuously until he can depart the planet.  I’m pretty sure I just saw this tactic in Fred Pohl’s Drunkard’s Walk.  2 stars.

These two stories are followed by a pair of execrable “non-fiction” articles.  Captain, MSC, US Navy H.C. Dudley, PhD (he must be authoritative–look at all the titles!) has the first: The Electric Field Rocket.  He maintains that the Earth’s electrostatic field can be used to assist rocket launches; he implies that the Soviet’s lead in the Space Race is attributable to their taking advantage of said phenomenon.  Not only is the article unreadable, but I suspect the science is bunk.  Time will tell.  1 star.

Speaking of which, Editor Campbell contributes the second article: Instrumentation for the Dean Drive.  I’m not even going to dignify with a review this next piece in an endless series on Dean’s magical inertialess engine.  He needs to knock it off already.  1 star.

Blessedly, the rest of the issue is quite good.  The reliable Hal Clement is back with Sunspot, an exciting, if highly technical, account of a group of spacemen who ride a comet around the Sun.  What better shielding exists for a close encounter with a star than billions of cubic tons of ice?  Four stars.

At last, we come to H. Beam Piper’s Oomphel in the Sky.  The set-up is great: a Terran colony world in a binary star system courts disaster when the planet makes a close approach to the usually far-away sun.  This triggers unrest amongst the natives, threatening Terran and native interests alike.  I’m an unabashed fan of Piper, and this is a good tale, although he does get a little patronizing toward the do-gooder but ineffective Terran government.  I like the strong anthropological bent, and I appreciate the respect with which he treats the natives and their interests.  Four stars.

In sum, the November 1960 Analog (I almost typed “Astounding“) is quite decent, fiction-wise.  Campbell needs to do what Galaxy’s Gold has done and hire a ghost editor, and a real non-fiction author.  I can’t believe there isn’t another budding Asimov or Ley out there champing at the bit to be published…

The fourth and last Kennedy/Nixon debate is tomorrow night!  I hope you’ll all watch it with me, but if you can’t bring yourself to sit through another hour of sparring, I’ll give you the full details the following day.

Predicting the Future (hand-waves, Astounding, smoking, and women; 11-25-1958)

Writing good science fiction is hard.  Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity.  Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society.  Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities.  I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s. 

Take smoking, for example.  Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco.  They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer.  Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction.  You would think someone would portray a smokeless future. 


Another example is the portrayal of women.  For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men.  The trend has historically been in their favor.  They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact.  In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes.  There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard.  Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip.  You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common.  Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own.  It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer.  Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors.  This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm.  We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light.  Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that.  That’s a hand-wave.  Psionic powers are another hand-wave.  People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe.  I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street.  Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds.  The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves. 

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else.  And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world.  Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece.  I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

December 1958: Astounding (1st half) 11-08-1958

With December’s Galaxy and F&SF done and reviewed, I now turn to the last of the Big Three: Astounding.  The elephant in this magazine is, of course, the second half of Poul Anderson’s dreary short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew.” It lurks at the end of the magazine like an oncoming train at the end of a tunnel.  Thus, I abandoned my usual haphazard reading habits and began at the beginning, like normal people.

Good thing, too.  The first three stories, comprising 65 pages, are good and somewhat of a theme.  I have to congratulate myself for making it through a full three quarters of Campbell’s blatherous editorial before skipping to story #1.

“Ministry of Disturbance” is a fun story of a week in the life of the august ruler of a 1300-planet galactic imperium, one that has persisted virtually unchanged for centuries.  At first it seems that it will be a sort of light farce, but the story takes several turns before arriving at an unexpected conclusion.  It’s a little bewildering: there are a lot of moving parts including a large cast of characters and several concurrent event threads.  Ultimately, there is something of a happy ending.  My favorite line from the story is, “If you have a few problems, you have trouble, but if you have a whole lot of problems, they start solving each other.”

Did I mention it’s by H. Beam Piper?  That should be enough to recommend it.  He did that lovely tale, Omnilingual (from which story the lady in my masthead derives), which you can find in the February 1957 Astounding.

Next up is “Triggerman” by a fellow I’d never heard of before, an “R.T. Bone.” Rather than a tale of the far future, it is highly contemporary.  We’ve all heard of the metaphorical “button” on which the collective finger of the President and his generals rests, the pressing of which initiates atomic armageddon.  In Bone’s story, the button is real, and one man has his finger on it.  It’s a silly concept, but it is thankfully just the set up for a interesting short tale of an overwhelmingly destructive attack on the United States.  As with the last story, there is a surprise, and the subject matter is not apolitical.

The third in the initial trio is “Pieces of the Game” by Mack Reynolds.  Mack has been around for a while, bouncing from digest to digest, but I believe this is his first appearance in Astounding.  Like “Triggerman,” it is set in the Cold War, but a few years in the future, in a recently Communist Austria.  There is mention of a war, but it is clear that both sides are still active, as this story is a tale of espionage by an unlikely-looking agent.  It’s a pretty standard thriller; I hesitate to even call it science fiction.  But it is entertaining, and it fits in well with the theme of the first two stories.

That makes a solid 4 out of 5 stars for the first half of December’s Astounding!  Lord knows where that score will finish, however…

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.