Tag Archives: howard fast

[Sep. 18, 1960] Keeping things even (October 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

I’ve said before that there seems to be a conservation of quality in science fiction.  It ensures that, no matter how bad the reading might be in one of my magazines, the stories in another will make up for it.  Galaxy was pretty unimpressive this month, so it follows that Fantasy and Science Fiction would be excellent.  I am happy to say that the October 1960 F&SF truly is, as it says on the cover, an “all star issue.”


from here

“After-the-Bomb” stories always appeal to me.  I like stories about starting with a clean slate, rebuilding, and pushing onward.  Thus, James Blish’s The Oath, this month’s lead novelette, starts with an advantage that it, thankfully, never gives up.  In this story, an atomic apocalypse has decimated humanity, which has reverted to subsistence farming.  Specialization is virtually impossible, in part because most of the specialists were slaughtered early on by a resentful populace.  But everyone needs a doctor, and in one remote part of the former U.S.A., an erstwhile copywriter becomes an amateur pharmacologist.

In doing so, he attracts the attention of a real doctor, a recruiter for one of the few bastions of civilization left standing.  The resulting dialogue is a compelling one that gives the reader much to think about.  What is a doctor without the Hippocratic Oath?  Is it better to be a demigod among savages than an intern amongst professionals?  What is more important: fulfillment of personal dreams or serving a larger community?  Excellent stuff, if a bit speechy.  Four stars.

Something, in which an elderly antiquities curator comes face to face with an ancient evil presence, is brought to us by Allen Drury.  He won the Pulitzer this year for his novel, Advise and Consent.  Atmospheric, it’s a mood piece more than a story piece.  Three stars.

Arthur C. Clarke, the hybrid who stands precisely in the gap between scientist and fictioneer, brings us the rather archaic-seeming Inside the Comet.  The crew of the Challenger, dispatched to investigate a comet, become trapped in its coma when the ship’s computer breaks down.  Without the machine to compute orbital calculations, the ship might never get home.  Until, that is, a canny crewman teaches his shipmates to use abaci.  The description of the comet feels quite current, scientifically, and I like the idea of humans being able to rely on low technology solutions when the advanced options have failed.  It’s just a bit dated in its structure and with its gimmick ending.  Three stars.

The least of the issue’s stories is Poul Anderson’s Welcome, featuring a fellow who time travels from modern day to five centuries in the future.  He is received as an honored guest, which is why it takes him so long to realize the crushing poverty in which most of the world lives.  The kicker at the end is the reveal that the future’s elite literally dine on the poor.  Readable satire treading ground long since flattened by Swift and Wells.  Three stars (barely).

But then we have From Shadowed Places from that master, Richard Matheson.  The premise is simple: an adventurer in Africa offends a witch doctor and is hexed with a fatal curse.  Only the help of a woman anthropologist / part-time ju ju practitioner can save him.  It’s a perfect blend of horror, suspense, social commentary, and erotica–the kind that made Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man a book for the ages.  Extra praise is earned for having a strong Black woman as the focal (if not the viewpoint) character.  This story definitely pushes the envelope in many ways.  Five stars.

I’m happy, as always, to see Katherine MacLean in print.  Interbalance, her first tale in F&SF, is a meet cute set in Puerto Rico some twenty years after the Bomb has wiped out most of the world.  More is at stake than simple romance, however–it is a clash between the straightlaced mores of the old world and the liberated, survival-minded culture of the new.  Delightfully suspenseful.  Four stars.

A quick dip in quality accompanies Howard Fast’s tale, The Sight of Eden, in which Earth’s first interstellar travelers find themselves barred from a park-like pleasure planet.  It seems that humans are unbiquitous in the Galaxy, but only Earthlings are nasty and violent.  The planet’s caretaker offers no words of advice to cure the peculiar ailments of our species; he just sends the Terrans packing.  Fast tells the story well enough…I just don’t like what he has to say.  Three stars.

Asimov has a good article this month, Stepping Stones to the Stars, about the halo of icy objects in our solar system orbiting so far out that it takes a year for the light of the Sun to reach it!  Too dim to see, we only know about these little planets because, every so often, one gets nudged out of its orbit such that it careens into the inner solar system.  As it approaches the sun, its volatile contents sublime, creating a dramatic glowing tail.  And so, these inconspicuous bodies become comets.  If one thinks of this cloud of comets-to-be as the edge of our solar system, and if we presume that our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri, hosts a similar cloud, then our systems are probably less than two light years from each other.  It’s a fascinating revelation, and it makes me feel similarly to when I discovered that the Soviet Union and the United States are just twenty miles apart…by way of Alaska.

By the way, both James Blish and the good Doctor have come to the conclusion that Pluto has no moon of significant size.  They thus urge people to save their good underworld-related names for the 10th and 11th planets, should they ever be discovered.

Back to fiction, writing duo Robert Wade and William Miller, writing as Wade Miller, offer up How Lucky We Met.  We’ve all heard of were-wolves, but what happens when the condition is more subtle and constant than the traditional malady?  Four stars.

Finally, Philip Jose Farmer once again has the concluding novella.  A Few Miles is the fourth in a series detailing the life of ex-con and current-monk, John Carmody.  Carmody and Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” have a lot in common.  They are both canny former criminals for whom the transition to law-abiding citizen is not 100% complete.  In this story, the good Brer John is given orders to sojourn to the planet “Wildenwoolly,” presumably to demonstrate his worthiness for ascension to the priesthood.  He does not even make it halfway through his hometown of Fourth of July, Arizona, thwarted by a series of increasingly difficult obstacles. 

I imagine Farmer will compile all of these stories into a book someday.  It will be a good one.  Four stars.

All told, this has been the best issue of F&SF of the year, with a needle quivering solidly above the 3.5 mark.  A good way to end this month’s digest reading.  Stay tuned for a review of Ted Sturgeon’s new book, Venus Plus X!

[May 23, 1960] Month’s End (June 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Astounding so good this month, I suppose it was too much to ask that Fantasy and Science Fiction would also be of high caliber.  While it’s not a bad issue, it’s not one of the better ones, either.

Charles Henneberg (who I understand is actually a Parisian named Nathalie) has the best story of the bunch, The Non-Humans, translated by Damon Knight.  This is the second story the team has published in F&SF, and it is far better than the previous one.  It’s a lovely historical tale of an Italian renaissance painter and the androgynous alien with whom he falls in love.  An historical personage has a supporting part; his identity is kept secret until the end, though the half-clever can deduce it before finishing.

Britisher H.F. Ellis offers up Fireside Chat, a reprint from Punch.  It involves a haunted house and leaves the reader wondering just who are the ghosts, and who are the current residents?

I know many of my readers are Howard Fast fans, but his latest, Cato the Martian is not among his best.  For the past fifty years, the Martians have listened to our radio broadcasts and watched our television programming with avid interest and increasing concern.  A certain Martian lawmaker, nicknamed after the famous anti-Carthaginian Roman, concludes each speech with “Earth must be destroyed!” until, finally, he gets his comrades in litigation to agree.  The ensuing war does not turn out well for the dwellers of the Red Planet. 

It’s not really science fiction.  If anything, it’s perhaps the other side of the coin to Earthmen Bearing Gifts, in which the Martians eagerly await the arrival of their Terran neighbors, but with a similar ending.

The Swamp Road, by Will Worthington, is an interesting After-the-Bomb piece about a community held together by a bitterly strict Christian doctrine a la Salem, Massachusetts.  Every so often, one of the citizens changes, developing a second eyelid and otherwise adapting to a dessicated, alien world.  When the change happens to the storyteller and his love, they are forced out of the village and must learn the true nature of their metamorphosis.  It’s a good, atmospheric yarn, though I feel it could have been longer.  Some subjects deserve more than just a taste.

Some, on the other hand, don’t deserve the space.  Slammy and the Bonneygott is the story of an alien child who crosses dimensions in a tinker toy spaceship and plays with a few children for an afternoon.  It was apparently written by a neophyte named “Mrs. Agate,” and the plot was provided by her six-year old son.  One can tell.

Avram Davidson has two settings: amazing and passable.  The Sixth Season is a passable story about a small crew of humans stuck on an anthropological expedition to a backwoods alien-inhabited world for 200 days.  They endure five miserable seasons–can they survive the sixth?

It reminds me of my days growing up in the desert community of El Centro.  I used to lament that we had four seasons like everyone else, but they were Hot, Stink, Bug, and Wind.  That’s not being entirely charitable, of course.  We had a balmy Winter, too.  For about two weeks.

Asimov’s column this month is Bug-eyed Vonster.  No, it has nothing to do with aliens; it’s how the good Doctor remembers the term BeV.  It is an abbreviation for “Billion electron Volts,” a unit of electric energy commonly encountered when discussing cosmic rays and atom smashers.  I learned what Cerenkov radiation is (the radiation given by particles going faster than the speed of light in a given material).

Cliff Simak’s The Golden Bugs takes up most of the rest of the book.  This time, he trades the poetic farmlands for the prosaic suburbs for the story’s setting.  A swarm of extraterrestrial crystal turtle-beetles ride into town on an agate meteorite and begin to wreak havoc on an average American family.  It’s fun while it lasts, but it ends too abruptly, and there isn’t much to it.  It’s the sort of thing one cranks out between masterpieces.

Finally, there is the nigh impenetrable Beyond Ganga Mata by John Berry, a space-filler originally published in The Southwestern.  A fellow travels to India, meets a holy man, journeys for a year, and meets him again.  Perhaps it was simply the lateness of the hour, but had the story not been blessedly short, I’d have had trouble finishing the magazine.

For those who like to keep score, this issue of F&SF was, depending on how you average things, earned between 2.78 and 2.88 stars.  Compare that to Galaxy, which got between 3 and 3.13 stars, and Astounding, which earned exactly three stars even.

Though it could be argued on the numbers that Galaxy was thus the better magazine, and it was certainly the biggest, I’m going to give the June 1960 crown to Astounding.  All of the fiction was decent to very good, and it’s not Janifer, Anvil, and Berryman’s fault that Campbell wrote a stinker of a “science” article.  Plus, Charley de Milo was the choice story for the month.

Continuing my analysis, this means that the Big Three magazines (counting Galaxy and IF as one) each took the monthly crown twice–all of them tied.  And that’s why I keep my subscriptions to all of them.

A more depressing statistic: there was only one woman author this month, and she wrote under a male pseudonym!

By the way, remember Sputnik 4?  The precursor to Soviet manned space travel?  Well, it looks like the Communists won’t be orbiting a real person any time soon.  In an uncharacteristically candid news announcement, the Soviets disclosed that the ship’s retrorocket, designed to brake the capsule for landing, actually catapulted the craft into a higher orbit.  It’ll be up there for a while.  Oh well.

See you soon with a book review!

[Feb. 4, 1960] Nurturing Nature (The First Men, by Howard Fast)

How do you attract the intelligent fan?  Why, appeal to her/his sense of mental superiority, of course.  Science fiction magazines do it all the time; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is particularly fond of showcasing the brainy cultured notables who have subscriptions.  There is some justification to this conceit.  After all, science fiction (at least the literary kind) tends to be the province of the creative, the egg-headed.  The ideas are, by definition, innovative and sometimes revolutionary, and it follows that an oversized brain is required to understand them.

Howard Fast’s lead novella in this month’s issue of F&SF, The First Men, seems a conscious nod to this concept.  Its premise: just as normal humans raised in the wild by animals have a stunted intellectual growth that cannot be remedied once they reach maturity, exceptional humans (geniuses) are stunted by the straight-jacketing society into which they are born.  This society is designed to accommodate the average person, thus the wunderkind does not develop to her/his full potential.  In Fast’s story, some far-sighted folk decide to create a new isolated society designed to enable geniuses, identified at infancy, to fully flower into the next level of humanity.

It’s a compelling notion, isn’t it.  How many of us clever folk have felt stifled and underapplied throughout life?  In school, in work, in social situations, we find insufficient challenge and our faculties atrophy.  Of course, many of the bright figure out how to use their talents to get ahead, but is it enough simply to do better than others at games for dullards? 

What keeps this story from greatness are the fundamental flaws with the premise and the implementation.  For instance, the old fable about only using 10% of our brains is trotted out, much to my dismay.  But setting that aside, how can a group of admittedly normal folk be sure to find the optimal way to hatch a new race of unfettered geniuses?  And what guarantee do we have that they will be, as happens in the story, be utterly benevolent?  I think Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a better signpost than Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, frankly.

Also, it seems that the Israeli kibbutz is the inspiration for the ideal society depicted in the story.  It may be too early to tell, but it seems that the kibbutz, a sort of commune, may not be the paradise it seems to be.  The second generation of kibbutzniks is coming of age, and many are dissatisfied with the socialism, the provincialism, and the overfamiliarity that comes with living in an isolated village.  Moreover, these young adults have been raised in common with all the other kibbutz kids, without individual parents (as is the norm on the kibbutz, and in The First Men).  This causes them to see their fellow kibbutzniks as siblings rather than potential mates, and they feel they must leave home to marry.  For all of these reasons, some are predicting that the kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) will not survive as an institution past this generation, much to the dismay of the idealists who founded them.  By extension, I feel Fast’s commune is similarly doomed.

Finally, the tale does not end happily, which left me with a bad aftertaste, perhaps more so as we smart readers are supposed to identify with this budding race of liberated humanity.  For all these reasons, I have to give the story no more than three stars.

However, as Oklahoma Senator Mike Monroney is fond of saying, “your mileage may vary.”

The rest of the issue in a couple of days!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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[Oct. 10, 1959] Middle Ground (Nov. 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

It’s going to be a dreary month, if October’s selection of digests is any indication.

Of course, my mood isn’t buoyed by the fact that I must compose this article in long-hand.  I hate writing (as opposed to typing; and typing on an electric is sheer bliss).  On the other hand, I’m the one who chose to occupy much of the next few days in travel, and fellow airplane passengers don’t appreciate the bang bang of fingers hitting keys.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  As I write, I am enjoying my annual plane trip to Seattle for the purpose of visiting my wife’s sister, myriad local friends, and to attend a small but lively science fiction convention.  This one is singular in that its attendees are primarily female, and its focus is woman creators.  People like Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Pauline Ashwell, Anne McCaffrey, etc. 

Once again, I get to ride in the speedy marvel that is the jet-powered Boeing 707.  San Diego to Seattle in just a few hours is a luxury to which I hope I never become jaded.  Although I will concede that the roar of jets is less pleasant a sound than the thrum of propellers. 

I made several attempts to read this month’s Astounding, but I could find nothing in it I enjoyed.  I’ll summarize that effort later.  In the meantime, I have just finished the November 1959 F&SF, and if you can read my chicken-scratch (I hope my editor cleans it up before publication), I’ll tell you all about it.

F&SF often features brilliant stories.  Last month, the magazine had an unheard-of quality of 4.5 stars, just under the theoretical maximum of five.  This month, we’re at the nadir end of quality.  It’s readable but fluffy, forgettable stuff.

Story #1, The Martian Store by Howard Fast, recounts the opening of three international stores, ostensibly offering a limited set of Martian goods.  They are only open for a week, but during that time, they attract thousands of would-be customers as well as the attention of terrestrial authorities.  After the Martian language is cracked, it is determined that the Martians intend to conquer the Earth.  The result is world unity and a sharp advance in technological development.  Shortly thereafter, an American company begins production and sale of one of the Martian products, having successfully reverse engineered the design.

Except, of course, in a move that was well-telegraphed, it turns out the whole thing was a super-secret hoax by that company in order to create a demand for those putatively Martian products.  World peace was a by-product.  Thoroughly 3-star material.

G.C. Edmondson’s From Caribou to Carry Nation is a gaudily overwritten short piece about transubstantiation featuring an old man who is reborn as his favorite vegetable… and is promptly eaten by his grandson.  Two stars, and good riddance.

Plenitude, by newcomer Will Worthington, is almost good.  It has that surviving-after-the-apocalypse motif I enjoy.  In this story, the End of the World is an apparent plague of pleasure-addiction, with most of the human population retreating into self-contained sacks with their brains hooked into direct-stimulation machines.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the quality is such that I anticipate we’ll see ultimately see some good stuff from Worthington.  The editor says there are three more of his stories in the bag, so stay tuned.

There is a rather pointless Jules Verne translation, Frritt-Flacc, in which a miserly, mercenary old doctor is given a lordly sum to treat a patient only to discover that the dying man he came to see is himself.  Two stars.

Then there is I know a Good Hand Trick, by Wade Miller, about the magical seduction of an amorous housewife.  It’s the kind of thing that might make it into Hugh Heffner’s magazine.  Not bad.  Not stellar.  Three stars.

I’ll skip over the second half of Starship Soldier, which I discussed last time.  That takes us to Damon Knight’s column, in which he laments the death of the technical science fiction story.  I think Starship Soldier makes an argument to the contrary. 

Then we’ve got Asimov’s quite good non-fiction article, C for Celerity, explaining the famous equation, E=MC^2.  I particularly enjoyed the etymology lesson given by the good doctor regarding all of the various scientific terms in common physical parlance.  I’ve been around for four decades, and my first college major was astrophysics, yet I never knew that the abbreviation for the speed of light is derived from the Latin word for speed (viz. accelerate).

James Blish has a rather good short-short, The Masks, about the futuristic use for easily applied nail polish sheets.  It’s a dark story, but worthy.  Four stars.

Ending the book is John Collier’s After the Ball, in which a particularly low-level demon spends the tale attempting to corrupt a seemingly incorruptible fellow in order to steal his body for use as a football.  Another over-embroidered tale that lands in the 2-3 star range.

That puts us at three stars for this issue, which is pretty awful for F&SF.  Given that Astounding looks like it might hit an all-time low of two stars, here’s hoping this month’s IF is worthwhile reading.  Thankfully, I’ve also picked up the novelization of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and it’s excellent so far.

Back in a few days with a convention report and a book review!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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Starting strong (July 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction;6-13-1959)

It’s those haunting, evocatively written F&SF stories that keep me a regular subscriber.  July’s issue opens with Robert F. Young’s To Fell a Tree, about the murder (mercy killing?) of the tallest tree imaginable, and the dryad that lived within.  It’ll stay with you long after you turn the last page, this sad, but not entirely desolate, tale.  So far, it’s the best I’ve seen by Young.

Asimov’s column, this month, is a screed against the snobbery of the champions of liberal arts and humanities to the practitioners of science.  I’m told that the rivalry is largely good-natured, but Dr. Asimov seems to have been personally slighted, and his article is full of invective. 

Avram Davidson’s Author, Author is next: venerable British mystery writer is ensnared by the very butlers and baronets who were the subjects of his novels.  I found most interesting the interchange between the author and his publisher, in which the latter fairly disowns the former for sticking to a stodgy old format, the country-house murder, rather than filling pages with sex and scandal.  I found this particularly ironic as my wife is a mysteries fan who appreciates whodunnits of an older vintage, from Conan Doyle to Sayers.  She has, of late, become disenchanted with the latest, more cynical crop of mysteries.  I suspect she would have words for the publisher in Davidson’s story.

For Sale, Reasonable is a short space-filler by Elizabeth Mann Borgese about a fellow soliciting work in a world where automation has made human labor obsolete.  Damon Knight’s following book review column is devoted to The Science Fiction Novel, Imagination and Social Criticism, a book of essays written by some of the field’s foremost authors.  It sounds like a worthy read.

Jane Roberts’ Impasse hits close to home–a young lady loses her last living relative, her grandfather.  So great is her grief that, by an act of will, she returns him to life, though the old man is not too happy about it.  The story struck a chord with me as I lost my family when I was quite young, and I can certainly identify with the poor girl’s plight.

The Harley Helix is another fill-in-the-space short short by Lou Tabakow, the moral of which is There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch (i.e. the First Law of Thermodynamics).  Success Story, which I reviewed last time, is next.

Raymond E. Banks has the penultimate tale, with Rabbits to the Moon, a thoroughly nonsensical tale about the teleportation of creatures (including humans). Its only flaw, that the transported arrive without a skeleton, is made into a selling point.

Last up is The Cold, Cold Box by Howard Fast.  The richest man in the world becomes afflicted with terminal cancer and has himself frozen in 1959 so that the future can cure him.  But the members of his company’s board of directors have a different agenda, particularly after they become the world’s de facto controlling oligarchy. 

It’s good reading all the way through, but it’s the lead novella that really sells it.  3.5 stars, I’d say.

I’m off to the movies tonight, so expect a film review soon!

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Fire from the Sky (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-10-1959)

Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I’d wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I’m glad I did.  Damn that Anderson, anyway.  How dare he write a good story!  Now I can’t justify skipping him.  But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn’t dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved.  A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom before final departure.  Sad.  Good.

Avram Davidson’s The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust.  A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor.  The only “gift” from their new overlords is perfect health.  How does one escape?

I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot.  It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned.  It is also unexpected.  The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven’t quite received it in the mails yet.  I’ll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson’s The Sky People.  As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation.  Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don’t like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different.  There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan.  It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying “Meycan” Empire, south of Tekas and north of S’america.  Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century.  The eponymous “Sky People” are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of “Canyon.”  Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target–the Meycans.  Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania. 

Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good.  Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources.  I don’t know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester’s Will You Wait?.  The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue?  4 stars?  4 and a half?  Definitely a good read worth picking up–if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!



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