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[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I used to call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction “dessert.”  Of all the monthly sf digests, it was the cleverest, the one most willing to take risks, and the most enjoyable reading.  Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a slow but decided trend into the realm of “literary quality.”  In other words, it’s not how good the stories are, or how fun the reading – they must be experimental and erudite to have any merit.  And if you don’t get the pieces, well, run off to Analog where the dumb people live.

A kind of punctuation mark has been added to this phenomenon.  Avram Davidson, that somber-writing intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge and authorial credits that take up many sheets of paper, has taken over as editor of F&SF from Robert Mills.  Five years ago, I might have cheered.  But Davidson’s path has mirrored that of the magazine he now helms: a descent into literary impenetrability.  Even his editorial prefaces to the magazine’s stories are off-putting and contrived. 

I dunno.  You be the judge.

Gifts of the Gods, by Jay Williams

The premise of Gifts isn’t bad: aliens come from the stars to find Earth’s most advanced nation, and it turns out they’re the most primitive, technologically.  It’s three shades too heavy on the sermon, and it fails by its own rules (i.e. one can lambast states as a whole for not being perfectly self-actualized, but surely there are a thousand qualifying people within any given country that fulfill the ET’s requirements).  But then, these aliens seem to have shown up just to rub our noses in it.  Advanced indeed.  Two stars.

The Last Element, by Hugo Correa

Editor Davidson touts Sr. Correa as a brilliant find from Chile.  Sadly, this meandering piece involving (I guess) space soldiers who are undone in their attempts to mine a psychotropic mineral from a distant planet, feels incompletely translated from the Spanish.  It reads like an Italian sf film views.  Two stars.

The End of Evan Essant… ?, by Sylvia Edwards

A cute piece, more The Twilight Zone than anything else, about a fellow who is so determined to be a nebbish that he psychosomatically disappears.  It’s no great shakes, but at least it has a through line and is written in English.  Boy, my standards have dropped.  Three stars.

Shards, by Brian W. Aldiss

The editor advises that one give this story time to make sense lest you judge it prematurely.  He has a point.  This piece innovatively describes a traumatic out-of-body experience, and when you know the context, it’s not bad.  On the other hand, the context is laid out with surprising artlessness especially given the effort Aldiss puts into the first part (which is only readable in hindsight).  Three stars for effort, though your meter may hover at one star through most of the actual experience.

The Kit-Katt Club, by John Shepley

Something about a young, serious boy who abandons his starlet mother’s dissipated hotel life to frequent a bar with a literal menagerie of clientele.  I didn’t understand this story, nor did I much like it.  Maybe I’m just bitter at being made to look foolish.  Two stars.

To Lift a Ship, by Kit Reed

One of the few bright lights of this issue is Reed’s take on love, hope, greed, and despair involving two test co-pilots of a psionically driven aircraft.  I love how vividly we see through the eyes of the protagonist, and the subtlety (but not to the point of obtuseness!) with which the story unfolds.  Four stars.

Garvey’s Ghost, by Robert Arthur

I haven’t seen much from Arthur lately.  His stories have all been pleasant, fanciful fare and this one, about a most contrary ghost and the grandson he haunts, is more of the same.  Three stars.

Vintage Wine, by Doris Pitkin Buck

The English professor from Ohio is back, this time with a piece of ‘cat’terel (as opposed to the canine variety, which is not as good) that I actually quite enjoyed.  Four stars.

Moon Fishers, by Nathalie Henneberg

Charles Henneberg was a popular French fantasist who, sadly, passed away in 1959.  His wife, with whom he collaborated, has taken it upon herself to flesh out a number of remaining outlines for publication, Damon Knight providing the translations.  She has written well before, but her talents fail her this time.  This tale of time travel, Atlanteans, and ancient Egypt fails to engage at all.  One star.

The Weighting Game, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor takes on the subject of elements and how we determined their mass.  Just discovering that elements had mass was a critical step in understanding the nature of atoms.  Sadly, this article is really a highly abridged and much compromised version of his excellent book, The Search for the Elements, which came out two months ago.  I recommend you grab a copy and skip this article.  Still, substandard Asimov is still decent.  Three stars.

Test, by Theodore L. Thomas

A vignette about failing a driving test.  There’s the germ of a good story here, but the ending is too abrupt and affected to work.  Two stars.

Three for the Stars, by Joseph Dickinson

This piece is noteworthy for having one of the least intelligible Davidson prefaces.  Other than that, its a rather overwrought story about a chimp sent to Mars and back, and the scars he bears of the Martians he met.  Satire or something.  Two stars.

***

This issue ends up with a lousy 2.4 star score – by far, the worst magazine of the month, and possibly the worst F&SF I’ve read!  It’s a disappointing turn of events.  F&SF used to be the smart sf mag, and last month’s issue was a surprise stand-out.  With the arrival of Davidson, F&SF seems to be careening back toward smug self-indulgence.  I see that the back cover no longer has pictures of notables heaping praise on the book.  I wonder if they’re jumping ship… 

[Dec. 30, 1961] Finishing Strong (January 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

At the end of a sub-par month, I can generally count on The Magazine and Science Fiction to end things on a positive note.  F&SF has been of slightly declining quality over the past few years, but rarely is an issue truly bad, and this one, for January 1962, has got some fine works inside.

Christmas Treason, by Ulsterian peacenik James White, starts things off with a literal bang as a gang of toddler espers attempt to save Christmas with the help of the world’s nuclear arsenal.  It’s nothing I haven’t seen Sturgeon do before, but it is charming and effective.  Four stars.

Kate Wilhelm has made a name for herself in the past several years, being a regular contributor to many science fiction magazines, Sadly, A Time to Keep, about a fellow with a pathological aversion to doorways, does not make much sense.  Not one of her better tales.  Two stars.

Every so often, some wag will write a “clever” piece on the need to send girls to service man astronauts on the long journeys to Mars.  Jay Williams’ Interplanetary Sex is the latest, and it’s as awful as the rest.  Casual reference to rape?  Check.  Stereotypical portrayal of married couples (henpecked husband and nagging shrew wife)?  Check.  It’s the sort of thing that will provide ample archaeological data on this era 55 years from now, but offers little else in value. 

HOWEVER, there are a few paragraphs near the end depicting a sentient cell’s mitosis written in florid romance novel style, and it’s genuinely funny.  You can skip to it…and skip the rest.  Two stars.

Maria Russell’s The Deer Park appears to be her first story, and it’s a fine freshman effort.  It effectively (albeit in an often difficult-to-parse manner) depicts a decadent future humanity entrapped in fantasy worlds of individual creation.  It’s hard to break out of a gilded cage, and the outside world is sometimes no improvement.  Three stars.

Ron Goulart’s occult detective, Max Kearney, is back in Please Stand By.  This time,the private dick has been enlisted by a hapless were-Elephant, the victim (or beneficiary?) of a magic spell.  It’s a charming story, and Goulart has an excellent talent for writing without exposition.  Four stars.

I didn’t much care for Asimov’s science column this month, The Modern Demonology.  The subject of Maxwell’s Demon, that metaphorical creature who can trade energetic for lazy atoms across two buckets such that one gets cold and one gets hot, is a good one.  However, the Good Doctor than meanders into philosophical territory, positing the existence of an evolutionary equivalent, a “Darwin’s Demon,” and it’s just sort of a muddy mess.  Three Stars.

Newcomer Nils T. Peterson is back with Prelude to a Long Walk, a somber short story about a static man in a growing world.  Not really science fiction, but memorable all the same.  Four stars.

Progress, by Poul Anderson, is a long-awaited sequel to The Sky People, both set in a post-apocalyptic future in which several nations of the world struggle toward modern civilization.  They are hampered both by a critical lack of resources, fossil fuels and metals, but also a fear of duplicating the catastrophe that threw them into a new Stone Age. 

Our heroes are once again representatives of the Polynesian Federation, if not the most technically advanced, probably the most progressive socially.  Ranu Makintairu and Alisabeta Kanukauai make charming protagonists, but Progress reads like a watered down vignette of Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.  It also has that smugly superior tone I associate with Analog.  Three stars.

The issue wraps up with a inconsequential poem, To the Stars by heretofore unknown James Spencer.  To discuss it further would take more words than Mr. Spencer wrote.  Two stars.

That wraps up magazines for this month, and boy is there a lot to compare!  F&SF was the clear winner, clocking in at 3.1 stars.  IF was number #2 at 2.9.  Cele Goldsmith’s mags, Fantastic and Amazing tied at 2.5 stars, and Analog finished at a dismal 2.3 stars.

Each of the mags, save for Amazing, had at least one 4-star story in it.  I give the nod for best piece to Piper’s Naudsonce, though Christmas Treason is close.  Out of 28 pieces of fiction, a scant two were written by women (and if we’re just including the Big Three, as I have in the past, then the ratio is still bad: two out of eighteen).  On the other hand, two of the five magazines were edited by a Ms. Goldsmith, so there’s something.

Next up, Ms. Benton reviews the latest Blish novel!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue. 

I am Cyrus, King of the World (August 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1st half; 6-30-1959)

For most people, the beginning of the month coincides with the 1st (or, as my late father might say, the “oneth”—i.e., May the “oneth” followed by May the “tooth”).  For me, and doubtless for most of my science fiction loving sistren and brethren, the month starts around the 26th, which is when the science fiction magazines hit the newsstands.

Of course, those who get their issues via mail-order get them at varying times, but in general, the last week of the month preceding the month preceding the cover date  (I did not stutter; the duplication is intentional) is when the goodies arrive.  For me, that’s The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (generally good), Astounding Science Fiction (often bad, but sometimes good), and on a bi-monthly and alternating basis, Galaxy (generally decent), and IF (quality as yet undetermined).  When these run out, I pray for interesting space news and/or interesting new novels.  Exhausting these, I turn to my collection of older books, preferably ones I have been given the right to distribute freely.

I am currently at the giddy start of a new month, and I’ve decided to eat my dessert first, tearing through the August 1959 F&SF.  Take my hand, and away we go!

Jay Williams generally sticks to juveniles, co-writing the Danny Dunn series, which are pretty fun if you’re the right age to enjoy them (pre-teen).  His Operation LadyBird opens up this month’s issue, and it’s a lighthearted romp on a Venus that a United Nations force has recently cleaned of a loathsome alien menace.  Turns out that we were actually called in (unwittingly) by Venusians (who look just like Hopi Indians) to act as exterminators.  I liked the story better when it was called Cat and Mouse, but the story is not without its charms, and it does feature a strong female character, a resourceful Soviet major.

Asimov’s column is good this month.  The Ultimate Split of the Second begins as a primer on measuring really big and small things.  The Doctor recommends using the time it takes light to travel certain small distances as really small units of time (i.e. a light meter, a light kilometer, etc.).  This the flip side to using light years, minutes, hours, for distance measuring.

Then he gives us a survey of the latest discoveries of subatomic particles, exciting new things that are the very bleeding edge of modern physics.  Their halflives are exceedingly small, so the nomenclature described above comes in handy to describe them. 

The prolific Carol Emshwiller (whose husband’s art graces the pages of many digests under the byline “EMSH”) has an interesting post-apocalyptic mood piece called Day at the Beach.  There’s not much to it; it is largely the depiction of a family in a ruined, but not extinguished, United States.  Gasoline is exorbitantly expensive, most citizens have lost all of their hair, mutations are legion, and there is not much law and order.  Diverting, forgettable.

Fantasist Marcel Aymé’s The Walker-Through-Walls is cute, though it is a reprint from 1943.  Our straight-laced protagonist discovers that, in mid-life, he has the ability to traverse walls as if they did not exist.  He resists exploiting this power, but little by little, he succumbs to temptation.  First, he terrifies his tyrannical boss, then he becomes a dashing, popular thief.  Ultimately, he becomes involved in a torrid affair that proves to be his undoing.  Well-written, somewhat fluffy.

Finally, for today, we have Poul Anderson’s latest Time Patrol story.  As you know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the good Swede, but this one is pretty good.  For those who don’t know, the Time Patrol is an organization based in the far future that recruits constables from across time to police for alterations in the timeline.  It’s a tough task, but it is made easier by the laws of the universe which have the time stream move along in a way not unlike a river—it takes a lot to get a substantial altering of course.
 Patrolman Manse Everard, nominally stationed in the late ‘50s, is approached by Cynthia, wife of his best friend, and object of Manse’s unrequited affections, to find her husband, who has disappeared without a trace some 2500 years in the past.  Unable to say no, Manse takes an unauthorized trip to the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great to find his friend, who turns out to be none other than the King of Kings himself!  It’s an exciting but somewhat ironic and bittersweet story, and it gets extra stars for being about a rather unsung but personal favorite era of mine.

All told, the first half (and a little extra) of this issue has had no clunkers, but also no home runs, to mix my metaphors.  Call it 3.5?
See you in two days!



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