Tag Archives: james blish

[May 4, 1962] Cleft in Twain (June 1962 Galaxy, Part 1)


by Gideon Marcus

A few years ago, Galaxy Science Fiction changed its format, becoming half again as thick but published half as often.  196 pages can be a lot to digest in one sitting, so I used to review the magazine in two articles.  Over time, I simply bit the bullet and crammed all those stories into one piece – it was cleaner for reference.

But not this time.

You see, the June 1962 issue of Galaxy has got one extra-jumbo novella in the back of it, the kind of thing they used to build issues of Satellite Science Fiction around.  So it just makes sense to split things up this time around.

I’ve said before that Galaxy is a stable magazine – rarely too outstanding, rarely terrible.  Its editor, Fred Pohl, tends to keep the more daring stuff in Galaxy’s sister mag, IF, which has gotten pretty interesting lately.  So I enjoyed this month’s issue, but not overmuch.  Have a look:

The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass, by Frederik Pohl

Instead of an editor’s essay, Pohl has written a cute vignette on overpopulation without remediation.  Old Man Malthus in a three-page nightmare.  Apparently, good old Phineas didn’t think to pack Enovid when he brought perfect health back in time to the Roman Empire.  Anyway, I liked it.  Four stars.

For Love, by Algis Budrys

Budrys strikes a nice balance between satirical and macabre in this post-alien-invasion epic.  The last remnants of Homo Sapiens, driven underground after a tremendous ET tetrahedron crashes into the base of the Rockies, launch a pair of daring attacks against the invaders.  But at what cost to their humanity?  Four stars.

The Lamps of the Angels, by Richard Sabia

I viciously panned Sabia’s first work, I was a Teen-Age Superweapon; his latest is an improvement.  A thousand years from now, the human race is on the verge of reaching out for the stars, and one Mexico City-born pilot is selected for the honor of scouting Alpha Centauri.  But if humanity was meant to explore beyond the sun, surely God would have given us hyperdrives at birth.  A bit clunky in that “translated foreign languages way” (and I can be guilty of the same charge), but also compelling.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Names in the Sky, by Willy Ley

Every now and then, Ley returns to his former greatness and gives us a really good article.  This one, on the origins of the names of planets and stars is filled with good information pleasantly dispensed.  Of course, I’m always more kindly disposed towards articles that deal with etymology and/or astronomy… Four stars.

On the Wall of the Lodge, by James Blish and Virginia Blish

The latter portion of the magazine takes a sad turn for the worse.  Lodge is an avante garde piece about (I believe) a fellow whose life takes place in a television show.  It tries too hard and doesn’t make a lot of sense.  More significantly, it lost my interest ten pages in.  Thus, I must give it the lowest of scores: one star.

Dawningsburgh, by Wallace West

A cute piece about a callow tourist on Mars, who resents the other callow tourists of Mars, and the attempts to revive departed Martian culture with robots, to make a few bucks for the callow tourist industry.  Three stars.

Origins of Galactic Philosophy, by Edward Wellen

Wellen’s Origins series has deteriorated badly.  This latest entry, involving a space entrepreneur and the robot society he finds, is utterly unreadable.  One star.

Dreamworld, by R. A. Lafferty

Last up is a whimsical piece on a literal nightmare world with an telegraphed ending made tolerable by Lafferty’s unique touch.  Worth two or three stars, depending on your mood (and on which side of the bed one woke).

***

I’ll save The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg, for next time.  Here’s hoping it is in keeping with the first third rather than the second third of the magazine.  In the meantime, stay tuned…and try not to get drafted.

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


by Gideon Marcus

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

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

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

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

Who Sups With the Devil, by Terry Carr

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

Who’s in Charge Here?, by James Blish

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

Hawk in the Dusk, by William Bankier

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

One of Those Days, by William F. Nolan

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

Napoleon’s Skullcap, by Gordon R. Dickson

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

Noselrubb, the Tree, by Eric Frazee

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

By Jove!, by Isaac Asimov

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

The Einstein Brain, by Josef Nesvadba

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

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

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

Miss Buttermouth, by Avram Davidson

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

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

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

Love Child, by Otis Kidwell Burger

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

Princess #22, by Ron Goulart

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

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, by Vance Aandahl

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

***

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

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

[January 2, 1962] Hope, Free Thought, and Character Arcs (James Blish’s The Star Dwellers)

I’ve reserved a special prize for my first guest author, Rosemary Benton.  Today is January 2, and not only will her piece be the first of 1962, but it will be published concurrently with an important astronomical event.  Every year, the Earth passes closest to the sun on the second day of the year, its “perihelion.”  If you’re wondering why it’s still so cold in January, it’s because the seasons are controlled mostly by the planet’s tilt, and only secondarily by its distance from the sun.  On the other hand, this annual proximity does mean that, in general, Southern hemisphere summers are hotter, and Northern hemisphere winters are milder.

Anyway, today is also Isaac Asimov’s birthday.  He once wrote that perihelion occurs on the day that it does because it is the day the Good Doctor was born.  Well, my nephew, David, took umbrage upon reading this bit.  As it turns out, his birthday (and that of his mother) is also January 2.  David wrote a letter to Dr. Asimov to set him straight: “January 2 is perihelion because it is my birthday and my mother’s!

Asimov sent my nephew a postcard posthaste.  It said, “By God, you’re right!”

Now, without further ado, what you actually tuned in for:


by Rosemary Benton

Fate has been very kind to me throughout 1961. I was able to find a niche for myself as a university archivist, and I came across many people who shared my interest in all things science fiction. I have had the pleasure of publishing my thoughts on such amazing creators as Zenna Henderson and Andre Norton, and have even taken daring adventures to the shadier side of the science fiction entertainment industry. Finishing out the year with James Blish’s The Star Dwellers was the cherry on top of a very delicious ice cream sundae.

The Star Dwellers is an exceptional science fiction achievement that both suscribes to the futurist tendencies of the genre, yet breaks with them at critical moments to create both stirring characters and plot. In the year 2050, scientific innovation and philosophy has allowed humans not only to leave Earth, but to discover and categorize other intelligent life. Even more shocking than finding other protoplasmic lifeforms (cell based creatures) is the discovery of alien lifeforms that take the “negative entropy” theory of life (explained in concise wording in the book’s forward) to an entirely unexpected level.

Dubbed “Angels” by the popular imagination, these are beings of pure energy; some of which have existed since the first 20 minutes of the universe’s conception. Desiring to learn from and about them, a small three man team is assembled to covertly venture into their home at the center of the Coal Sack nebula. Bearing the weight of the future of the whole Earth, this team’s mission is simple: to determine what the agenda of this mysterious race is and, ideally, to reach an accord that is equally beneficial between the two races so unequal in power.

89 years from 1961, James Blish imagines a world that is solidly entrenched in classic Blish style, yet populated by a cast that showcases his maturity as a writer. Since writing The Thing in the Attic (1954), and even his story from earlier this year, Titan’s Daughter, Blish seems to have hit upon a winning combination of his three common writing themes – hope, challenges to conformity, and character growth.

Blish inserts hope into his writing through several means. First and foremost is the characters’ determination to survive. In The Thing in the Attic a deep belief in the strength of teamwork inspires a hope that is of paramount importance to the main characters as they struggle to survive for one thousand days on the ground of their savage jungle homeworld.

In The Star Dwellers hope is what drives the main character, a diplomat cadet named Jack Loftus, in nearly all aspects of his desire to return to Earth alive. Hope that his teammates, the brilliant scientist Dr. Langer and his understudy “Sandbag” Stevens, can be saved when their part of the mission goes awry. Hope that Jack’s diplomatic skills will not enrage the ancient Angels’ sensibilities. Hope that he has made a beneficial treaty with the Angels to ensure the Earth’s prosperity. And hope that the human race will be able to hold their end of the bargain or risk losing everything to the will of these higher-reality beings. 

Blish’s vision of the year 2050 is filled with his own hopes. In Blish’s world, the United Nations is a powerful organization which has successfully mitigated the rivalries and disputes of all nations since its creation. Meeting in a fair and equal arena, even the United States and the Soviet Union have ceased to be active adversaries thanks to the technological competition we are experiencing today. In Dr. Langer’s words it was, “very good for both sides.” (19)

In Blish’s imagination, war and nationalism have given way to a higher purpose of unity through privatized space exploration and free trade. Though his characters endure realistic hardships brought upon them by their environments and their fellows, Blish nonetheless seems to hold onto a hope that harsh times may yet still yield to the self driven evolution of humankind.

By far my favorite Blish theme is the challenge to conformity. As you may recall in my review of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, one of my chief complaints was that the characters all seem to fall in line to create a conflict-less world. There didn’t seem to be any natural character arcs since all who came into direct contact with Mike (Stranger’s protagonist) would eventually come to the same conclusion: that Mike knew best and had all the answers.

Blish, on the other hand, seems to have a better grasp of character arcs. Individual peculiarities mean that those who hold the light of modern culture unflaggingly will not be infallible. Rather, those who are most willing to challenge norms while learning their own paths will become the heroes.

Probably the best example of this in The Star Dwellers is the exchange between Dr. Langer and the two cadets, Sandbag and Jack.  As they travel to their last stop before diving into deep space in search of the Coal Sack nebula, Blish takes the time to world-build a bit through a lecture delivered by Dr. Langer. In this lecture Dr. Langer tells the two teenagers about life in the 19th century, and how far the Earth has come as a unified culture. The dangers of popular culture and music, the need to educate youngsters in advanced learning programs that are not coed, and other “props of chain infatuation” (37).

Rather then ooh and ahh over the wisdom of their teacher, both boys come to their own conclusions about the veracity of this cultural change. Indeed, Sandbag is said to have been, “not as impressed by Langer’s reasoning as the trouble shooter obviously had intended that he should be” (38). Jack later comes to his own appreciation of poetry. In the world of The Star Dwellers this is against the culture’s theory of avoiding “chain infatuation.” But then again, these are not one dimensional characters we are reading about.

It would have been so much easier for Blish to have written Dr. Langer preaching to a ready and absorbent audience. But he didn’t. Life doesn’t work that way, and I believe Blish understands that. People, and especially young people, can’t and won’t take everything at face value. Varying degrees of belief and conformity is found in all of Blish’s writing. For Blish, independent thought amongst his cast is essential to making his characters relatable. This is turn greatly increases the quality of his books.

All in all, The Star Dwellers is a fine book with which to close out 1961 and ring in 1962. It renewes my confidence in this genre I love so much — for every Beast of Yucca Flats there will be a Star Dwellers. The Star Dwellers was a very well written book, and I look forward to finding more of its ilk in the coming year.  Five stars.

[March 15, 1961] Damaged Colossus (Blish’s Titans’ Daughter)

Less than a generation ago, Adolf Hitler made eugenics–the selective breeding of humans for desired traits–a dirty word.  But what if a race of bona-fide supermen were created through the direct manipulation of DNA and presented as a fait accompli?  What would be the moral ramifications, and how would the “normals” react?  James Blish’s attempts to tackle these questions in his new book, Titans’ Daughter.

From the cover, you might gather that Daughter is the story of Sena, one of the eight-foot tall, super-intelligent test tube creations of the brilliant Dr. Frederick R. Hyatt.  It is, but only tangentially.  Rather, it is really the account of Maurice St. George, the “best-adjusted” of the mutants, known as “tetras” for their tetraploidal genetic make-up (having four pairs of chromosomes instead of two like “normal” diploid people). 

Resentful of the unrestrained acrimony and discrimination the tetras endure at the hands of the diploids, he secretly plots a rebellion.  By furtively training a tetra army in the guise of training them in a new, giants-only football league, and through the creation of reactionless drives converted into deadly beams, St. George creates a powerful fifth column.  A lone spark would ignite a powder keg of interracial war: the murder of Dr. Hyatt.  Sena’s role is a minor one–as one of the few tetra females, St. George has tapped her to be the mother of a new generation of giants, with or without her consent!

Daughter is an uneven book in a lot of ways.  Half of it originally appeared almost a decade ago as the novella, Beanstalk; I can only imagine that the prior story contained all of the basic plot, and that the novel simply provides expansion.  Otherwise, it would be incomprehensible.

Regardless of subsequent embellishments, Daughter is fundamentally an old story, and it feels dated.  Society in the book’s early 21st Century feels just like the early ’50s with the addition of the friction created by the tetras.  The viewpoint is third-person omniscient, and we shift characters frequently and jarringly.  While Blish occasionally offers up a clever turn of phrase, he also litters the text with overlong and awkward scientific exposition.  The science itself is dodgy.  Basically, the thing reads like a serial from a lesser digest (which, spiritually, it is).  This is a shame because the subject matter is fascinating, even if Blish just scratches the surface, and there are moments of genuine quality. 

For instance, the references to the previous mini-rebellion, the Pasadena incident that left two dozen tetras immolated alive in their cross-shaped compound.  Or the excellent court scene in which a brilliant attorney provides a stirring defense for the tetra falsely accused of Dr. Hyatt’s killing.  Or the scenes in which we get glimpses of the two-way resentment and mistrust between the two tribes of humanity, ancient and newborn.  It is tantalizing to think what might have been if Sturgeon or Henderson had made a more nuanced pass at the issue–or even a completely present-day Blish, using his current, superior skills to try again from scratch.

Instead, Daughter is somewhat engaging but ultimately unfulfilling pulp that pendulums from super-science to action-adventure.  I look forward to someone someday taking Daughter’s theme and doing it right.

Three stars.

[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!

[June 11, 1960] Fool me once… (July 1960 Amazing)

If there is any innovation that defined the resurgent science fiction field in the 1950s, it is the science fiction digest.  Before the last decade, science fiction was almost entirely the province of the “pulps,” large-format publications on poor-quality paper.  The science fiction pulps shared space with the detective pulps, the western pulps, the adventure pulps.  Like their brethren, the sci-fi pulps had lurid and brightly colored covers, often with a significant cheesecake component.

Astounding (soon to be Analog) was one of the first magazines to make the switch to the new, smaller digest format.  Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and a host of other new magazines never knew another format.  By the mid-’50s, there were a score of individual science fiction digests, some excellent, some unremarkable.  It was an undisputed heyday.  But even by 1954, there were signs of decline.  By the end of the decade, only a handful of digests remained.  The “Big Three” were and are Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy (now a bi-monthly alternating production with a revamped version of IF).  Also straggling along are Fantastic Stories and Amazing, the latter being the oldest one in continuous production.

My faithful readers know I don’t generally bother with the last two titles.  Although some of my favorite authors sometimes appear in them, the overall magazine quality is spotty, and my time (not to mention budget!) is limited.  Nevertheless, Rosel George Brown had a good story in Fantastic last month, and this month’s Amazing had a compelling cover that promised I would find works by Blish, Bone, Clarke, and Knight inside. 

I bit.  This article is the result.

Last time I covered Amazing, I noted that the magazine was a throwback both in writing style and plots.  Things haven’t changed much.  Though there are a couple of decent stories in here, I wouldn’t buy a subscription based on what I read. 

In brief:

J.F. Bone has written some fine stuff.  Noble Redman, about a psionically endowed, red-hued Earthman who teams up with a Martian lowlife (both of them humans), is not one of his best tales, but it’s inoffensive 3-star fare.

A good portion of the book is taken up with William F. Temple’s novella, “L” is for Lash.  This is pure early ’50s stuff: a retired cop named Fred (I don’t think we ever learn his last name) is haunted by the criminal he put away decades before, and who was interned for life on Venus.  The convict somehow managed to escape, go on a robbing spree, and attain eternal youth and invulnerability to boot.  The protagonist’s solution is not only implausible, it’s actually inconsistent. 

I’ll spoil things for you: Lash, the criminal, has perfect telekinetic control of everything around him.  Missiles, A- Bombs, guns, all are ineffective against him.  We are told later in the story that the first of Lash’s murders had been designed to look like an accident.  He had angered a fellow to the point of firing on Lash, but Lash had gimmicked the assailant’s gun to fire backward, thus killing its owner.  At the end of Lash, the hero visits the Scotland Yard crime museum (is there such a place?) to view this unique weapon.  He then uses his powers of prestidigitation to swap his current gun for the gimmicked gun.  When Lash inevitably shows up to force Fred to kill himself, the gun shoots backwards and hits Lash. 

Perhaps Lash was taken by surprise.  I can forgive that.  But there is sloppy writing here.  Before the swap, Fred rewires his standard gun to stun rather than kill its targets.  After the swap, he wires the gun back for killing.  Except the trick gun had never been set to stun.  An author and her/his editor really should proofread a work before it is printed.  I understand that Temple wanted to keep the reveal a secret until the end, but this was just sloppy.

If you liked David Bunch’s A Little Girl’s Xmas in Modernia, set a world where, as people mature, they swap out their fleshly components for robotics, then you might enjoy Penance Day in Moderan.  This one involves an annual meeting of generals; they wage war on each other in a casually enjoyable way the other 364 days of the year.  Bunch’s suite of satirical stories has largely been published in Fantastic and Amazing, so I’ve missed them.  If you like them, seek them out!

Murray Yaco, who helped contribute to the poor quality of the October 1959 Astounding is back with the mediocre Membership Drive, about the first contact between an all-too humanoid alien and modern humanity.  The ending particularly bothered me for its callous treatment of the one female character; you may feel differently.

One of the reasons I’d purchased the magazine was the non-fiction article by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke.  A New Look at Space is not really a factual article in the style of Ley or Asimov.  Rather it’s just a four-page puff piece explaining how great Space is and how soon we’ll get there.  I’m not sure what occasioned him to write this space-filler.  Disappointing.

It turns out that the Blish story, …And all the Stars a Stage, is actually the fourth part of a four-part serial.  The description didn’t grab me–male hero leads a rebellion against a stifling matriarchy, so I won’t seek out the other three parts.

Finally, the Knight (Damon, that is).  Time Enough, or Enough Time, depending on whether you believe the Table of Contents or the story’s title page, is a decent coda to the issue.  In the near future, a psychiatrist invents a kind of time machine.  Whether it actually allows one to go back in time or simply return to an episode in one’s personal history is left vague.  The story focuses on an individual who attempts to rewrite an humiliating episode from his middle-school days, one that the patient feels is responsible for his problems in adulthood.  He is unsuccessful in his mission.  His doctor gently reminds his patient that the failures of the past are sometimes best left forgotten, and efforts better spent on improving the present person.  Nevertheless, the patient resolves to keep trying until he succeeds.  “There’s always tomorrow,” the patient states, the irony being that the patient is using his tomorrows to adjust the past rather than to forge a new future. 

It almost goes without mentioning that women are virtually nonexistent, and there are no female writers.  Amazing is still the most conservative of the digests, even more so than Astounding.  I’ve predicted its demise for some time, yet it manages to defy my expectations.  Maybe there are few enough digests now that Amazing‘s share of the market is big enough to sustain it.  Or perhaps its 35 cent price tag, the lowest of the digests, is the secret to its survival.

[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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A break from it all (June 1959 F&SF, first half; 5-09-1959)


by Erich Lessig

It’s been heavy reading following the papers these days what with the Communist siege of Berlin seemingly without end.  These potential flashpoints between East and West get more frightening every day, particularly as both sides perfect methods of delivering atomic weapons across the globe.

Thankfully, I can rely on my monthly installment of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (often the highlight of my literary science fiction experience).  Thankfully, it doesn’t look like F&SF is going the way of IF, Satellite, or even Galaxy.  And its quality remains high, if not stellar.

James Blish opens the issue with a bang, quite literally.  This Earth of Hours is a really good tale of first contact and interstellar war… one in which the Terrans are hopelessly outmatched.  A proud terrestrial fleet is completely destroyed save for two segments of its flagship that crash to the surface of an alien planet.  There, what’s left of the crew finds a race of sentient hive mind centipedes that communicate through telepathy.  Not only is are the aliens (collectively) smarter than us, but they span a federation of like-minded aliens that spans much of our galaxy.  In short, humanity doesn’t have a chance against them.  Beaten, the crew repair their ship and embark on a tortuously long journey back to Earth to dissuade humanity against further bellicose expeditions.

If there’s anything wrong with the story, it’s the fact that it’s too short.  It’s a brilliant opening couple of chapters to a bigger novel, but I don’t know if a novel is forthcoming. 

Asimov has an interesting article, Planet of the Double Sun, which examines the effect on ancient mythology of having an extra sun in our sky a la the situation that might exist around Alpha Centauri.  Of course, Isaac sort of misses the point–in a world where true darkness happens rather rarely (perhaps a quarter of the year), I should think evolution would have ended up quite a bit differently, not to mention the effects another star’s gravitational influence might have had on our planet’s formation.  Whatever ancient society might have developed in this hypothetical situation probably wouldn’t have been human in any sense of the word.

Lee Sutton hasn’t written a lot.  So far as I can tell, his only work prior to this issue of F&SF was the juvenile novel Venus Boy, about which I know nothing.  Soul Mate is his latest story, and it’s a rather chilling, decidedly unromantic story about what happens when a dominating middle-aged telepathic male crosses path with a naive, sexually liberal young telepathic woman.  There is a meeting of the minds, but it is anything but pleasant, and the end is truly horrifying.  Plausible, but icky.

About Venus, More or Less, by Punch writer, Claud Cockburn, is so slight a story, that I quite forgot it was even in the issue until I re-checked the table of contents. 

Josef Berger is another author unknown to me.  His Maybe we got something is about a band of fisherman who, in a post-apocalyptic era, trawl up the head of Lady Liberty, herself.  It’s nothing special.

The last story for today is the rather amusing The Hero Equation, by Robert Arthur (first printed in 1941 as Don’t be a Goose! When a milquetoast scientists transports himself into the past to inhabit the body of a hero, he is surprised that the heroic form he comes to possess is not human at all… 

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to secure permission to distribute these stories freely.  On the other hand, with the exception of the first one, they are diverting but unremarkable. 

But stay tuned!  There’s a second half to cover in a few days…

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