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


by Victoria Silverwolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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.

[April 26, 1961] Dessert for last (May 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Del Shannon’s on the radio, but I’ve got Benny Goodman on my hi-fi.  Say…that’s a catchy lyric!  Well, here we are at the end of April, and that means I finally get to eat dessert.  That is, I finally get to crack into The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  While it is not the best selling science fiction digest (that honor goes to Analog by a wide margin), it is my favorite, and it has won the Best Magazine Hugo three years running.

So what kind of treat was the May 1961 F&SF?  Let’s find out!

Carol Emshwiller returns with the lead story of the issue, the sublime Adapted.  It can be hard to resist the incessant mold of conformity, even when blending in means losing oneself.  Emshwiller’s protagonist loses the battle, but, perhaps, not all hope.  Four stars.

The somber Avram Davidson teams up with unknown Sidney Klein (perhaps the idea man?) with The Teeth of Despair.  It’s a cute but forgettable story involving a cabal of underpaid professors, a loser with a metal dental plate, a quiz show, and something that isn’t quite telepathy.  Ever wonder how Van Doren did it?  Three stars.

All the Tea in China is offered up by Reginald Bretnor, the real name behind the Ferdinand Feghoot puns (q.v.).  Watch as despicable Jonas Hackett, a mean cuss who wouldn’t commit a kind act for the entirety of the Orient’s signature beverage, is given what for by Old Nick.  Nicely told.  Three stars.

Somebody to Play With, by Jay Williams, is a compelling story with a brutal sting in the tail.  It may make sense for the adults of a tiny colony on an alien world to be overly cautious, but does the desire for security warrant genocide?  Telling from a child’s point of view, Williams skillfully conveys the claustrophobia of the outpost, the wonder of the strange world, the thrill of making an extraterrestrial friend, and the heartbreak of betrayal by one’s closest kin.  Four stars.

I know nothing about C.D. Heriot save that I imagine he is British.  He writes Poltergeist in an affected manner that almost, but not quite, dulls the impact of this story of a neglected pre-adolescent who conjures up her own malicious playmate.  In the hands of Davidson, it’d rate four or five stars; in this case, just three.

Stephen Barr’s Mr. Medley’s Time Pill is By His Bootstraps all over again, and it commits the same sin: telling both sides of a time loop story.  We already know what will happen after reading the first half; what is the point of conveying it twice?  Two stars.

Country Boy is the latest in G.C.Edmondson’s Mexican-themed tales, a direct sequel to Misfit.  As is often the case with Edmondson, the story is clever, but the banter isn’t, though he tries.  Too hard, really.  Three stars.

Heaven on Earth is The Good Doctor Asimov’s science contribution for this issue, on the measurement of the celestial sphere and its resident stars.  It’s all about degrees, base-60 number systems, and an Earth-sized planetarium.  I love his mathematical articles; I feel he often does his best work with what could be the most sterile of subjects.  Four stars.

The Flower is 11-year old Mildred Possert’s submission.  Editor Mills thinks she shows promise, and I don’t disagree.

Henry Slesar gives us The Self-improvement of Salvatore Ross, involving a fellow who can bargain for anything – including physical traits.  He swaps a broken leg for pneumonia, his hair for cash, and so on.  The twist ending is a bit out of nowhere, but it’s a good story nonetheless, the sort of thing that might get adapted for The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

The appropriately named Final Muster is, indeed, the last story in the book (and the inspiration for the issue’s cover).  I believe this is Rick Rubin’s first effort, and he hits a triple right out of the box.  The premise: by next century, war is such a specialized, abhorred profession that soldiers are frozen in stasis and thawed only when needed.  This is a volunteer corps whose ranks are filled with combatants who cannot find joy in peaceful civilian life.  But what happens when war ends entirely?  A thoughtful story whose only fault is that it perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough in its projections.  Four stars.

With dessert finished, we can now run the numbers.  This issue came out at 3.3, edging out this month’s Analog (3), and IF (2.75).  Analog had the best story of the month (Death and the Senator).  There was one (count them) woman writer out of 21 stories, an abysmal score. 

A lot of space news coming up soon what with Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, or John Glenn scheduled to be the first American in space on May 4th.  Stay tuned!

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


by Ray Pioch

And now for something a bit different.

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

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

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

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

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


by Leo Morey

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

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

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


by Leo Morey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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