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[July 12, 1962] ROUTINE EXCURSION (the August 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Summertime, and the living is . . . hot and sticky, here in the near-South.  Also fairly boring, if one is not much interested in such local rustic amusements as hayrides and frog-gigging (if you have to ask, you don’t want to know.) There’s no better time to find a comfortable hiding place and read science fiction magazines, except possibly for all the other times.  Of course the season—any season—doesn’t guarantee merit, and the August 1962 Amazing is the usual mixed bag.

The issue leads off with the cover story Gateway to Strangeness by Jack Vance, which contrary to its title goes out of its way to avoid strangeness.  It’s the one about the martinet skipper who treats his young trainee sailors with brutal sternness—not to mention sabotage to create life-threatening problems for them to solve—but it’s good for them and makes men out of them, except for the one who’s dead.  In this case it’s a solar sail ship and not a windjammer, but the premise is just as tired regardless of medium.  The most interesting aspect is the description of operating a spaceship propelled by the “wind” of light and particles emanating from the Sun.  For a Vance story, that’s a judgment of failure: his talents lie elsewhere than hardware (see The Moon Moth in last year’s Galaxy and The Miracle Workers a few years ago in Astounding), but he seems determined sometimes to play to his weaknesses.  Two stars.

The other novelet here is James H. Schmitz’s Rogue Psi, in which humanity (via the members of a secret psi research project) confronts a “hypnotizing telepath” who can control or impersonate anyone, and has been interfering with humanity, and in particular its efforts to get off-planet, for centuries.  The showdown is brought about via “diex energy,” which amplifies psi powers.  This is all moonshine, but Schmitz is an engaging writer and has a knack for physical and experiential description that make his account of psychic goings-on better grounded than others we could name—none of the familiar “he stiffened his mind shield as Zork lashed out” sort of thing.  The deus ex machina, or ex hat, resolution even goes down smoothly.  Three stars for capable, even lively, deployment of material that otherwise would border on cliche. 

In between is the short story Passion Play by Roger Zelazny—who?  New writer, I guess, and the story is a heavily satirical vignette of a sort common from new writers—that is, it’s only barely a story.  In the future, it appears, robots have inherited the Earth, and one of them tells his story (in the present tense, no less), which involves ceremonially reenacting a crash from a famous auto race of the past (this one at Le Mans).  The guy is a glib writer, though—“After the season of Lamentations come the sacred stations of the Passion, then the bright Festival of Resurrection, with its tinkle and clatter, its exhaust fumes, scorched rubber, clouds of dust, and its great promise of happiness”—so we may hear from him again, more substantially.  Two stars, basted with promise.


One hopes not to hear further from Beta McGavin, the probably pseudonymous author of Dear Nan Glanders, an advice column from the future, a silly space-filler of which the best that can be said is that it distracts from Benedict Breadfruit, whose exploits continue here as well.  One star.

That’s it for the fiction contents, except for the second installment of Keith Laumer’s A Trace of Memory, to be discussed when it is completed next month.  As for non-fiction, Sam Moskowitz contributes C.L. Moore: Catherine the Great, another in his “SF Profiles” series, with considerable interesting biographical detail and more attention than usual for Moskowitz to her more recent work (possibly because there is so little of it).  Four stars.

But overall, this magazine is getting a little exasperating.  The year began well with several excellent stories by J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and Mark Clifton, but the streak did not continue.  For some months now the magazine’s high points have mostly been competent product like this month’s Schmitz story, nice tries like Purdom’s The Warriors, and trifles with promise like Zelazny’s story in this issue.  Enough promise; time for some more delivery.

[July 9, 1962] To the New Frontier (August 1962 Galaxy Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Since humans have been a species, there has always been a frontier.  Whether it be Alaska for the first settlers of the Americas, or the New World (for Europeans), or the Wild West (for White Americans), there has always been an “over there” to explore.  Today, our frontiers are the frozen Arctics, the deep seas, and the vastness of orbital space.

Science fiction has always stayed one step ahead.  A hundred years ago, Jules Verne took us 20,000 leagues under the sea.  A generation later, Edgar Rice Burroughs took us to Darkest Africa, lost continents, and fancifully rendered nearby planets,.  Astounding and its ilk of the 30s and 40s gave us scientific jaunts through the solar system. 

These days, one is hard-pressed to find stories that take place on Mars or Venus.  Now that four men have circled the Earth and probes have flown millions of miles from our planet, tomorrow’s frontier lies among the stars.  Thus, science fiction has taken up residence in the spacious quarters of the Milky Way, light years away from home. 

As you’ll see if you pick up this month’s most worthy issue of Galaxy:

The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance

An alien empire known as The Rule has smashed the human federation, reducing the free population of Terrans to a few scattered planets.  On one barren world, people are confined to two rocky valleys, their technology regressed to the Renaissance.  There is the ever-present threat of attack from the reptilian aliens whenever the nearby red sun, Coralyne, draws near. 

But the humans have an ace up their sleeve: generations ago, a raiding vessel was defeated and its complement of aliens impressed into slavery.  Since then, they have been bred and specialized into a myriad of soldier castes called “dragons,” from the fierce Termagant infantry to the enormous Juggers and Fiends. 

Will this baroque force be able to withstand the next inevitable attack of The Rule, who have created their own caricatures of people to be their shock troops and mounts?  And what is the role of the weird “sacerdotes,” nude ascetic humans who may possess a tremendous hidden technology?

Masters really is an impressive piece of world-building, a page turner that will keep you guessing until the end.  I particularly enjoyed the moral questions the novella raises, demonstrating the implicit repugnance in the breeding of sentients by mirroring our raising of “dragons” with the domestication of human animals by The Rule.  The only issue which knocks Masters from perfection is I found the combat scenes a bit overlong.  Great illustrations by GAUGHAN, though.  Four stars.

Handyman, by Frank Banta

Brief moody piece about a prisoner whose solitary confinement even a well-meaning Carpenter can’t assuage.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Rotating Luminous Wheels in the Sea, by Willy Ley

Our favorite German science popularizer returns with an update on those mysterious luminous pinwheels that have been spotted by mariners over the last half-century.  He last wrote about them in the December 1960 and June 1961 issues, and they just get more intriguing.  Are they bioluminescent creatures stimulated by propellers?  Billboards for Martians?  Mass hallucinations?  Read and find out.  Three stars.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey


Schelling

The adventures of Lieutenant Jerry Norcriss, the psychic xenobiologist who hops into the minds of alien animals as part of pre-colonial surveys, is easily Jack Sharkey’s best series to date.  In this installment, we see that even the slightest damaging of a symbiotic relationship can be fatal to an ecosystem.  Harsh stuff.  Three stars.

Three Portraits and a Prayer, by Frederik Pohl

Terminally ill Dr. Rhine Cooperstock is convinced to make one last contribution to science before dying, but when his plowshares are turned into swords, he must sacrifice his last moments to right things.  Beautifully told, but the plot strains credulity.  Three stars.

Always a Qurono, by Jim Harmon

Leave it to slave-to-routine aliens to break the routine of a set-in-his-ways marooned space captain.  Supposed to be a funny piece, but it fails the laugh test.  A disappointing turn from a reliable author.  Two stars.

The Luck of Magnitudes, by George O. Smith

A fluffy piece on how lucky we are to have been growed on a planet that’s not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  I’m sure the Martians and Venusians have their own versions.  Two stars.

One Race Show, by John Jakes

Art is wordless communication, and what could be more universal a subject than the dark recesses of the human soul?  But is humanity ready to see its ugliness laid bare and exhibited in art galleries?  An interesting topic robbed of its impact by shallowly sardonic delivery.  Two stars.

***

Thanks to the dip at the end, this issue wraps up at just 2.9 stars.  Nevertheless, this does little credit to Vance’s story which, if it’s not in quite the same class as Moon Moth, isn’t far below.  Think of the August 1962 Galaxy as an Ace Double with a superior front and a mediocre back.  And at the very least, one gets a peek at a startling number of rich vistas, wild frontiers lying just beyond the current ken of humanity…

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sep. 24, 1959] Cruising at the bottom (October 1959 Astounding)

I had planned on breaking up the rest of this month’s (October 1959) Astounding into two parts, but seeing how there are only four pieces of fiction, albeit long ones, I’ve decided to give it all to you in one blow.

Chris Anvil continues to put out the most mediocre stuff imaginable.  These are the stories I’d expect to see in Imagination, if “Madge” were still around.  The Law-Breakers is the cover story for this issue, and it really is barely worth the space it takes.  Two invaders from a race of extremely humanoid aliens attempt to infiltrate the Earth using sophisticated invisibility technology.  All of their predecessors have failed on these missions, so the stakes are high.  As it turns out, the Terrans are ready for the invaders, trailing them wearing cloaking fields of their own.

Once captured, the invaders are offered a deal—become citizens and their sentence will be reduced from felony sabotage to a host of petty misdemeanors.  Along the way, we get some fatuous smugness about how Earth is better than the aliens because it is a planet of multiple competing civilizations rather than a single, united race.  It took me three sittings to finish the story, which is saying something for a 30-page story.

Story #2 is even worse: The Unspecialist, by unknown Murray F. Yaco, features a pilot and co-pilot of a small scout ship accompanied on their mission of reconnaissance by a “Bean Brain,” a seemingly useless fellow who, nevertheless, contributes valuable expertise in a particular pinch.  The gotcha of the story (a disappointing trope of science fiction that I thought had died out) is learning the former profession of the unspecialist.  Dull, dull, dull.

I was thus rather pleasantly surprised by the third story, Dodkin’s Job, by the old hand, Jack Vance.  Somehow, I have a soft spot for dystopian stories with highly regimented societies.  Not so much the predestined occupation stories, like Asimov’s Profession, but more the totalitarian tales where people are pigeonholed into horizontal layers of privilege and are constantly trying to climb out.

In this one, Luke is a 40-year old born with ample opportunities, but due to his nonconformist nature, he finds his career a sordid succession of demotions until he finds himself a Level D Flunky assigned to clean sewers.  When a new labor directive is passed down to return his shovel to the central office every day, thus wasting three hours of his own time, Luke decides to petition the authorities.  Up the ladder he goes, to the very top, and then back down to the prestige-less clerk levels whence the impetus for the decision came.  There, he finds the true secret of bureaucracy—that data is power, and it is the presenter of data who really has the power, not the decision-makers who can only make decisions based on the data presented. 

It’s a story that kept me up past my bed-time, and, as a person who presents data for a living, a very instructive piece, to be sure!

That leaves us with Part 2 of That Sweet Little Old Lady, by Mark Phillips aka Randall Garrett.  As you know, I’m rather predisposed against Mr. Garrett, but I did stick it out through both installments, this tale of telepaths, espionage, FBI agents, and renaissance costumery.

In short, there is an information leak somewhere in America, and it’s up to Agent Malone to find it.  Along the way, he teams up with a host of insane telepaths, all of whom are non-functioning with the exception of one who believes herself to be an immortal Queen Elizabeth I.  She insists that her entourage dress appropriately, and I now understand why Randy dressed up as Henry VIII for Wondercon—he was really dressing up as Agent Malone (or Malone was designed to look like Randy playing Henry VIII).

Anyway, it’s a flippantly written who-dunnit.  It’s not offensive, and I was able to finish it in a reasonable amount of time, but it was the literary equivalent of Saltines—bland and not particularly satisfying.  Also, I’m getting rather tired of Kelly Freas—how many wrinkles does an illustrated person need, anyway?

Thus ends another 2.5 star Astounding.  This makes the biggest spread between magazines I’ve seen in a month–compare to 3.5 for Galaxy, 4.5 for F&SF.

That’s that for magazines this month, though I’ll do an Astounding Analytical Laboratory stop press in a couple of days.  Next month, we’ve got another Astounding, F&SF, and IF.  Also, a host of anticipated space shots, probably a movie or two, and a new science fiction/fantasy/horror anthology debuting in about a week: The Twilight Zone.
See you soon!

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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Make Room!  Make Room! (Musings on overpopulation; 10-29-58)

The December 1958 Galaxy came in the mail on the 26th, and I’ve read about half of it.  Willy Ley’s column, on the amazing alien world beneath the surface of the sea, is fascinating stuff.  The third part (of four) of Sheckley’s Time Killer is engaging, though not in the same class as most of his short stories.  The short murder mystery, “Number of the Beast,” by Fritz Leiber, might have made an interesting novella; as it is, it is too underdeveloped to be interesting.  Too bad.  Fritz is good.

But what inspired this blog was veteran Jack Vance’s latest: “Ullward’s Retreat.”  It is a tale about how a little bit of privacy and living space is a status symbol in an overcrowded world; but, in a society used to being crowded together, too much privacy and living space is undesirable.

Recent figures show that our population is about to hit the 3 billion mark.  Given that we reached 1 billion in 1800 and 2 billion in 1927, it is understandable that a good deal of science fiction depicts an overpopulated future. 

I find it laughable when an author describes shoulder-to-shoulder crowding with a population of (gasp) 7-10 billion!  I recognize that some of our cities are pretty crowded these days, but even tripling the population is not going to squish people together–it will just spread the cities out.  Most of the world is still uninhabited, and I can only guess that science will make more of the world inhabitable.

Vance’s Earth, however, has a whopping 50 billion souls on it, and that seems a reasonable strain on space limitations.  The story starts in the spacious apartment of the eponymous Ullward, a wealthy man.  His home comes with a real garden and an honest-to-goodness oak tree.  His guests are suitably impressed: their homes are tiny cubicles with doors that exit right onto the commuter slidewalks.  To overcome claustrophobia, walls are replaced with image panes that display scenery to convey a convincing illusion of greater space.

Interestingly enough, in Ullward’s Retreat, whole planets are available to colonize with relative ease.  Ullward leases a continent and invites his friends to visit.  They quickly tire of the vast vistas and the pervasive loneliness.  They pine to investigate the “good parts” of the world, which are rendered off-limits by the planet’s owner.  Ultimately, Ullward forgoes his enormous estate and returns to his comparatively (to his peers, not to us) extravagant abode, which has proven, despite its smaller scope, much more impressive to Ullward’s friends.

Vance’s story is a trivial one and not to be taken especially seriously.  I did like some points, however.  For one, it depicts an overcrowded future as not dystopian, simply different.  Anyone who has been to Japan (before or after the war) has seen a society far more used to crowding than ours.  They don’t seem to mind it.  They just make do with smaller gardens and narrower houses; they adapt with greater politeness and cultural rigidity.  The people in Ullward’s Retreat like their little privileges, but those privileges become meaningless without a social context.  I guess it’s the difference between having a 1 karat diamond ring and a 50 karat hunk of diamond in your closet. 

I also like that the ability to colonize does not reduce the population pressure on mother Earth.  Columbus and Cabot finding America did not make Europe any less populated.  It just led to the Americas being more populated (after the colonists did some depopulation of the natives, of course).  Moreover, in a world where people are happier in close quarters with their neighbors, it makes sense that the colonizing spirit would be correspondingly lower. 

Was it a good story?  Is it worth 35 cents?  Sort of, and, probably not.  Nevertheless, it did provoke thought, and can you put a price on that?

Stay tuned.  I’ll have more on this month’s Galaxy in a day or two!

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