Tag Archives: jim harmon

[April 10, 1962] All the Difference (May 1962 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The measure of a story’s quality, good or bad, is how well it sticks in your memory.  The sublime and the stinkers are told and retold, the mediocre just fades away.  If you ever wonder how I rate the science fiction I read, memorability is a big component. 

This month’s IF has some real winners, and even the three-star stories have something to recommend them.  For the first time, I see a glimpse of the greatness that almost was under Damon Knight’s tenure back in 1959.  Read on, and perhaps you’ll agree.

Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain, by Keith Laumer

Laumer continues to improve in his tales of the omni-capable diplomat hamstrung by the flounderings of a sub-capable bureaucracy.  In this story, Retief is dispatched to make peace between the settlers of a new colony, and a band of aliens that has recently popped onto the scene.  Comedy is hard to write, and it’s harder (but more rewarding) to anchor humor to a serious backbone.  There are some genuinely funny moments in Mountain, and it’s also a good story.  Four stars.

The Spy, by Theodore L. Thomas

An extraterrestrial (but human) reincarnation of Nathan Hale is captured by musket-bearing folk and tried for espionage.  I enjoyed it well-enough at the time, but the ending sat poorly.  There’s just not enough to this piece.  Two stars.

Death and Taxes, by H. A. Hartzell

I really enjoyed this fanciful tale of a beneficent sea-captain’s ghost, the impoverished artist he comes to haunt (or perhaps, “with whom he cohabitates” is more appropriate, and the lady who is the object of the artist’s affections.  It’s Lafferty-esque, a little bit disjointed but a lot of fun.  I’ve never heard of Hartzell before, so s/he is either a promising novice or a slumming veteran.  Four stars.


by DYAS

Misrule, by Robert Scott

Politics is a chaotic game.  Strikes, protests, riots – these can really throw a wrench into the workings of government.  What if you could do away with all that?  Subvert all the anti-government feelings into one quadrennial orgy of rapine and destruction, a blowing off a steam that keeps things quiet for another four years?  Scott’s tale isn’t particularly plausible, but it is vivid.  Three stars.

Deadly Game, by Edward Wellen

This is a weird Isle of Dr. Moreau-type tale about a park ranger who engineers his charges to be vicious guerrillas, making the animals sentient masters of their own fate.  Another well-told story that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Three stars.

The Hoplite, by Richard Sheridan

In the far future, flesh is not enough to withstand the rigors of war.  One solution is to surround the warriors in an exo-skeleton of metal, the other…well, you’ll have to read to find out what can resist a steel humanoid goliath.  Evocative but somehow hollow.  Three stars.

The 64-Square Madhouse, by Fritz Leiber

Some science fiction stories are so imaginative yet so plausible that you can be convinced that you are seeing the future.  Leiber’s tale depicts a chess tournament that takes place on the eve of the time when computers become good enough at the game to beat the best Grandmasters.  This is not some staid Robot vs. Man tale, but a cunning extrapolation of the current state of the art in cybernetic chess to a few decades into the future.  Add to it a cast of well-drawn characters and a multi-peak story arc, and you’ve got a story that will likely be referenced by name the day fiction becomes reality.  Five stars, and bravo.


by BURNS

Gramp, by Charles. V. DeVet

The gift of telepathy is a double-edged sword, as one boy soon discovers.  DeVet does a good job of capturing a youth’s voice, and he’s no stranger to sensitive stories.  Would make a decent The Twilight Zone episode, perhaps.  Three stars.

The Other IF, by Theodore Sturgeon

Ted Sturgeon’s non-fiction piece is about an IF magazine that never was.  Apparently, Sturgeon has wanted to have his own magazine since the War Years.  The digest he conceived, which he planned to call IF, would have exclusively published “If this goes on” stories: short-term predictions turned into plausible stories.  He concludes his non-fiction account of the IF that never was with a few guesses of his own – since he wrote the article in December, their accuracy is already a matter of record.  He then invites you, the reader, to make your own and send them in. 

Do you have any hunches on what’s in store for this Summer?

(Three stars)

The Expendables, by Jim Harmon

Harmon can always be counted on to provide readable fiction.  In this case, we have a droll story about the man who invents the perfect garbage disposal…but can the Laws of Thermodynamics be so easily beaten?  Or the Mafia?  The FBI?  My favorite line, “My opinion as to the type of person who followed the pages of science-fiction magazines with fluttering lips and tracing finger were upheld.”  Three stars.

***

Added up, that puts us at 3.4 for the month, a respectable score for what used to be one of the lesser mags, and it was worth it just for the Leiber.  A host of interesting, implausible stories, and one humdinger of a plausible one.  I guess I’ll just have to renew my subscription to this promising digest.  Good on you, Editor Fred Pohl!

[Dec. 5, 1961] IF I didn’t care… (January 1962 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

There is an interesting rhythm to my science fiction reading schedule.  Every other month, I get to look forward to a bumper crop of magazines: Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, and the King-Sized Galaxy.  Every other month, I get F&SF, Analog, and IF (owned by the same fellow who owns Galaxy). 

IF is definitely the lesser mag.  Not only is it shorter, but it clearly gets second choice of submissions to it and its sister, Galaxy.  The stories tend to be by newer authors, or the lesser works of established ones.  This makes sense — Galaxy offers the standard rate of three cents an article while IF‘s pay is a bare one cent per word.

That isn’t to say IF isn’t worth reading.  Pohl’s a good editor, and he manages to make decent (if not extraordinary) issues every month.  The latest one, the January 1962 IF, is a good example. 

For instance, the lead novelette is another cute installment in Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series, The Yillian Way.  I’ve tended not to enjoy the stories of Retief, a member of the Terran Interstellar Diplomatic Corps.  Laumer writes him a bit too omnipotent, and omnipotent heroes are boring, as they have no obstacles to overcome.  The challenges presented in Way, however, both by the baffling alien Yills and Retief’s own consular mission, are all too plausible…and charmingly met.  I am also pleased to find that Retief is Black (or, perhaps, Indian).  Four stars.

There’s not much to James Schmitz’s An Incident on Route Twelve.  In fact, if not for the engaging manner in which it’s written, this rather archaic story of alien abduction would be completely skippable.  As presented, it reads like a fair episode of The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

If there is a signature author for IF, it’s Jim Harmon.  This prolific author seems to be in every other issue of the mag (and quite a few Galaxy issues, too).  Harmon is to Pohl what Randy Garrett is to John Campbell at Analog: a reliable workhorse.  Thankfully for Pohl, Harmon is better than Garrett (not a high bar).  The Last Place on Earth is not the best thing Harmon has ever written.  In fact, the ending seems rushed, and the plot doesn’t quite make sense.  That said, this tale of a fellow being hounded by a malevolent alien presence, is powerfully told.  Another three-star piece.

Usually, alien possession a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is portrayed in a negative light.  But what if the society taken over is an intolerant dictatorship, and the foreign entity promotes love and brotherhood?  The Talkative Tree by H.B. Fyfe won’t knock your socks off, but it is a pleasant little read.  Three stars.

Last of the short stories is 2BR02B (the zero pronounced “naught”) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Like his latest in F&SF, Harrison Bergeron, it is a cautionary tale written at a grade-school level.  This time, the subject is the ever-popular crisis of overpopulation. With Vonnegut, I vacillate between admiring his simplistic prose and rolling my eyes at it.  Three stars.

That’s the last of the short stories.  Not too bad, right?  A solid couple of hours of reading pleasure there.  But then you run headlong into the second half of the serial, Masters of Space, and that’s where the wheels come off of this issue.  E.E. Evans was a prolific writer for the lesser mags between the late ’40s and his death in 1958.  I know of him, but I haven’t read a single thing by him.  There is another, more famous “E.E.”  That’s E.E. Smith, the leading light of pulpish space opera from the 20s and 30s.  He had largely stayed hidden under the radar for the past couple of decades, but he resurfaced not to long ago.

Some time between his passing and this year, “Doc” Smith got a hold of a half-finished Evans work and decided to complete it.  The result is a almost skeletal, decidedly old-fashioned novel, something about humans who once straddled the stars but were coddled to senescence by the android servants they created.  Millennia later, the descendants of the old Masters pushed out into the galaxy again, only to face the indescribably sinister Stretts.  Masters isn’t bad, exactly.  It’s just not very good.  Smith’s writing holds no appeal for me.  I recognize Smith’s importance to the field of science fiction, but time has not been kind to his work, nor have Doc’s skills improved much over the years.  I made it about 60% through this short novel, but ultimately, I simply have better things to do with my time.  Two stars (and I revised my opinion of the previous installment, too).

In many ways, IF is the anti-Analog.  That magazine usually has great serials and mediocre short stories.  Oh well.  At least they both have something to offer. 

Next up: the next installment in an ongoing series.  Don’t miss this Galactic Journey exclusive!

[July 3, 1961] Bigger is Better (August 1961 Galaxy)

Even months are my favorite. 

Most science fiction digests are monthlies, but the twins run by Fred Pohl, IF and Galaxy, come out in alternating months.  The latter is noteworthy for being the longest regularly published sf magazine, comprising a whopping 196 pages, so big that I need two articles to cover it.  Galaxy also happens to be a personal favorite; I’ve read every issue since the magazine debuted in October 1950 (when it was a smaller monthly).

How does the August 1961 issue fare?  Pretty good, so far!

The lead novella, The Gatekeepers, by J.T. McIntosh, portrays an interplanetary war between two worlds linked by a matter-transmission gateway.  The setting is interesting and the feel of the story almost Leinsterian.  There is an unpolished quality to the piece, though, which I’ve seen in McIntosh before, as if he dashes off pieces without a final edit when he’s writing for the poorer-paying mags (Galaxy dropped its rates in ’59; they may have recently gone back up).  Three stars.

The whimsical Margaret St. Clair brings us Lochinvar, featuring an adorable Martian pet with the ability to neutralize anger.  It’s a story that had me completely sold until the abrupt, expositional ending.  Did the editor (now Fred Pohl) lose the last few pages and have to reconstruct them?  Was the original piece too long?  Three stars.

You may remember Bill Doede from his promising first work, Jamieson, about a group of star-exiled teleports who derive their power from a surgically implanted device.  The God Next Door is a sequel of sorts, its protagonist one of the prior story’s teleports who flits to Alpha Centauri.  There, he finds a tribe of regressed primitives, their humanity underscored by the juxtaposition of another alien, the omnipotent, incorporeal whirlwind who claims the world for his own.  The plot is simple, and by all rights, it should be a mediocre story.  But Doede’s got a style I like, and I found myself marking four stars on my data sheet.

R.A. Lafferty’s Aloys, on the other hand, about a poverty-stricken but brilliant theoretician, is not as clever as it needs to be.  Lafferty’s stock-in-trade is his off-beat, whimsical style.  It often works, but this time, it grates rather than syncopates.  Two stars.

Now for a piece on a subject near and dear to my heart.  As any of my friends will tell you, I spend a lot of time lost in daydream.  I think that’s a trait common to many writers.  My particular habit is to project myself backward in time.  It’s an easy game to play since so many artifacts of the past endure in the present to serve as linchpins for such fantasies. 

But what if these harmless fugues aren’t just flights of fancy?  What if these overly real memories prove the existence of a past life…or constitute evidence of something more sinister?  James Harmon’s The Air of Castor Oil, is an exciting story on this topic with a good (if somewhat opaque) ending.  Four stars.

It seems that sci-fi poetry is becoming a fad, these days.  Galaxy has now joined the trend, offering Sheri S. Eberhart’s amusing Extraterrestrial Trilogue.  A satiric, almost Carrollian piece.  Four stars.

Henry Slesar is a busy young s-f writer who has been published (under one name or another) in most of the sf digests.  His latest piece, The Stuff, features a man dying too young and the drug that just might salvage him a life.  The twist won’t surprise you, but the story is nicely executed, and the title makes sense once you’ve finished reading.  Three stars. 

Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans.  I’ll see you with Part II in just a few days.

[June 9, 1961] Common denominator (July 1961 IF)

Science fiction digests, those monthly magazines filled with s-f short stories, are often like little anthologies.  Editors will let their “slush pile” stack up, and when they have enough of a kind of piece, they publish them in a themed issue.

I don’t know whether the theme of the July 1961 IF science fiction was intentional or not, but it definitely focuses on the issues of over-population and over-mechanization.  That is, in the future, there will be too many of us, and we won’t have a whole lot to do. 

I’m not particularly concerned about the former.  We live on a big planet, and although our presence on it definitely has an impact, I don’t think living space is going to be an issue for a long time, if ever.  On the other hand, the latter topic holds a strong fascination for me. 

We’ve already seen a precipitous drop in the percentage of people employed in agriculture.  Industry looks like it will shed workers soon, too, as the use of robots increases.  That leaves the nebulous “service” sector, whose added value to our lives seems rather arbitrary.  Eventually, I foresee a world where no one has to grow or build anything…and then what will work mean to us?

It’s a worthy topic for discussion.  Sadly, the writing in the July 1961 IF fails to impress and often downright disappoints.  Here’s what we’ve got:

Jim Harmon is an often lackluster IF perennial.  His novelette The Planet with no Nightmare, involves an insomniac space explorer and the strange planetoid he and his two crewmates discover.  On said world, the animals play dead when startled, but when no one’s watching, they disappear.  It has a promising opening, but the end is no great shakes.  Three stars.

Then there’s William Stuart, who started with a bang and hasn’t quite recreated his initial spark.  The Real Hard Sell tells of a salesman in a world where selling is the only human profession remaining.  Like many of the stories in this issue, it is frightfully conventional except for its premise.  Still, as a satire of our current commercial practices, it’s not bad.  Three stars.

Now brace yourself – those were the good stories of the issue.

The Stainless Steel Knight is John Rackham’s attempt at humor featuring a hapless Terran agent, a faithful alien companion, and colonies that adhere to storybook milieus.  In this case, the planet the agent visits is modeled on England of the Middle Ages.  As to following the issue’s theme, the story is all about the agent’s mission to slay a “dragon”, a leftover automated tractor/combine that threatens to put the colonists’ serfs out of work.  Well, the Arthurian hijinx was better in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, the Middle English better in Anderson’s The High Crusade, and the medieval satire better in Pratt and De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter.  Two stars.

Once again, James T. McIntosh saves his dreck for IF.  He often can write so well, but Doormat World, about a returned colonist taking advantage of Earth’s spate of super-pacifism, is a poor, disgusting little piece.  One star.

A Taste of Tenure is a surprisingly clumsy piece by Gordon Dickson in which a businessman, promoted to the executive level, finds himself unable to discharge his predecessor’s secretary, protected as she is by the government’s strict “right to work” laws.  Again – interesting premise, but utterly conventional despite taking place two centuries from now, and the ending is a confused muddle.  Two stars.

Finally, we have The Junkmakers, by IF newcomer Albert Teichner.  It has a great concept: planned obsolescence taken to an absurd extreme: enormous communal potlaches are held at five year intervals and given an almost religious significance.  If there were any characters in this story, or much of a plot, it’d be a real winner.  As it is, it’s the outline of a piece for someone more skilled (Cordwainer Smith?) to develop into a masterpiece.  Two stars.

So there you have it.  A collection of stories by IF‘s reliable stable on an interesting theme that barely breaks the two-star barrier.  This is easily the worst issue of IF I’ve read.  Editor Fred Pohl better start enforcing some higher standards, or I predict this magazine will end up following the path trod smooth by Infinity, Venture, Imagination, and thirty other digests born in the 50s.

[March 2, 1961] Presenting… and Concluding (ConDor and March 1961 IF)


At ConDor, a local gathering of science fiction fans, my wife and I led a panel on the state of the genre, particularly how our s-f digests are doing.  Their boom began in 1949 and peaked in 1953, when there were nearly 40 in publication.  That number is down to less than 10, and many are (as usual) predicting the end of the fun. 

While it is true that the volume of production is down, I argued that the quality is up…or at least evolving.  I used Galaxy’s sister magazine IF as an example.  IF pays its writers less than Galaxy, and it is a sort of training ground for new blood.  Fred Pohl, the magazine’s shadow editor, also prints more unusual stories there.  As a result, the magazine’s quality is highly variable, but the peaks tend to be interesting.

Sadly, this month’s IF is chock full of valleys.  You win some, you lose some.  Still, for the sake of completeness, here’s my review; as always, your mileage may vary!

IF has a tradition of leading the magazine with its best stories, but IOU, by Edward Wellen, is an exception.  The premise is promising: it’s about a future in which people can buy custom experiences, to be lived out upon dying to simulate the appearance of going to Heaven.  It’s dull as dirt, however, and I ended up skimming the last 10 pages or so.  That automatically makes it a one-star story.  Perhaps you can tell me what I’m missing.

Then there’s Jim Harmon’s February Strawberries.  When a man brings his wife (most of the way) back to life, is it a technological horror or a paranoid delusion?  Macabre and second-rate, it reads like an inferior episode of The Twilight Zone.  Two stars.

Minotaur, by Gordy Dickson, is pretty effective.  A one-man scout ship happens upon a ghost cruiser in the vastness of space.  Its crew is missing, as is its cargo of zoological specimens.  I liked the spooky atmosphere, and I’m a sucker for spaceship stories, but the end is a little pat.  Three stars.

Sylvia Jacobs is back, but her second IF effort isn’t much better than her first.  Strike that.  Young Man from Elsewhen, about a crippled, bitter old man, and the deal he makes with a time traveling dandy, is very well written; it’s just that there are no twists or turns from Point A to Point B.  Two stars.

The first tale from Julian F. Grow, The Fastest Gun Dead, is a good one.  Westerns are still popular on the airwaves, and this story, featuring a sawbones, an unsavory shopkeeper, and an alien supergun, shows that the milieu has legs in our genre, too.  Gun is also marred by a too-cute ending, but I think Grow has a real shot at growing into a fine author.  Three stars.

Max Williams’ The Seeder, is almost too short, and certainly too hackneyed to describe.  R.A. Lafferty’s pleasantly whimsical In the Garden, about a starship crew that stumbles upon the second Garden of Eden, almost garnered four stars…until the last line.  Le sigh.

The issue closes with The Well of the Deep Wish by Lloyd Biggle Jr.  It is the best of the bunch, a thoughtful piece showing us the world of television production in a post-apocalyptic, subterranean future.  Three stars.

Thus, the March 1961 IF meters in at a disappointing 2.25 stars.  This explains why it took me so long to get through it!

Crunching the numbers on the Star-o-Meter 2000, we have a surprising winner for March 1961: Analog!  F&SF was just a sliver behind, however, and both were head and shoulders over IF.  All told, there were 21 stories, two of which were written by women, one of those being my favorite of the month: Zenna Henderson’s Return

Stay tuned for a new batch of magazines, a new Frederic Brown novel, and a whole lot more…and a hearty wave to a few new fan friends that I met over the weekend: David Gerrold, John and Bjo Trimble, and Dorothy Fontana.

[November 13, 1960] Evening out (December 1960 Galaxy, second half)

It’s hard to keep the quality up in a long-format magazine like Galaxy, especially when your lower tier stuff gets absorbed by a sister magazine (IF).  Thus, it is rare to find a full issue of Galaxy without some duds that bring the average down.  Editor Gold has saved this month’s weak entries for the second half.

Not that you could tell at first, given the fascinating Subject to Change, by Ron Goulart.  A creepy story about a woman, her gift for transformation, her struggle with kleptomania, and her increasing estrangement from her fiancee.  Four stars.

H.B. Fyfe’s Round-and-Round Trip is a hoot.  If you’re an inveterate traveler like me, you’ll especially appreciate this tale of a fellow who seems to be trapped on the interstellar version of the M.T.A., endlessly shuttling from planet to planet, never reaching his destination.  But does he actually have one?  Or is the journey the thing?  I’m torn between three and four stars.

But then we have Blueblood, by Jim Harmon.  Human explorers find a planet of blue humanoids racially divided based on the depth of the skin’s hue.  The darker ones are seemingly dumber than the lighter ones.  I held my breath for some kind of satire or allegory regarding our present prejudicial woes in this country, but the story took a left turn somewhere and just left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  If it’s allegory, the message to be gleaned is disturbing, and if it is not, then it’s just a weak tale.  It’s too bad–Harmon is fairly consistently good.  Two stars this time.

Patrick Fahy is another complete novice, and Bad Memory, illustrated by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin, is unimpressive.  A space horticulturalist sacrifices all to turn his planet into a Jovian swamp.  On the upside, he falls in love.  On the downside…well, I didn’t like the downside.  Two stars (you might like it more than me).

The issue is wrapped up by Daniel Galouye’s Fighting Spirit, about a space force clerk who shennanigans his way into real combat only to find that war isn’t quite the rifle and stiff upper lip type.  More the garlic, cross, and mirror type…  Three stars.

All told, we end up with an issue that just barely crests the three-star line on the Journey-meter.  Still, that’s pretty good for an issue in “decline,” and there are some definite gems, albeit more amethyst than emerald.

By the way, speaking of Don Martin, the newest Mad Magazine has hit the stands.  As you can see, they successfully predicted the outcome of the race:

But they also hedged their bet–this was the outside cover:

[Oct. 2, 1960] Second-rate fun (November 1960 IF Science Fiction)

Galaxy’s little sister, IF Science Fiction has settled into a predictable format.  Filled with a number of “B” authors, mostly neophytes, it generally leads with a decent novelette, and the rest of the stories are two and three-star affairs.  I don’t think the blame can be put on IF‘s shadow editor, Fred Pohl (Horace Gold is all but retired these days, I understand).  Rather, this is about the best quality one can expect for a penny a word. 

That said, the stories in IF are rarely offensively bad, and perhaps some day, one of these novices learning the ropes of writing in the minor leagues will surprise us with a masterpiece.

Preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at the November 1960 issue:

Jim Harmon is actually quite the veteran, and he has a knack for interesting, off-beat writing.  His novelette, Mindsnake, depicts a future where interstellar teleportation is possible, but fraught with risk.  Only the Companions, colloquially known (and disparaged) as Witches, can keep a traveller’s mind intact over the long journey.  Good stuff, and original.  Four stars.

Then we have the short Superjoemulloy by unknown Scott F. Grenville.  How can the most powerful man challenge himself?  By creating a superior version of himself, of course.  Three stars.

Now, I was a bit dismayed to find Daniel Keyes in the Table of Contents.  Whenever I see a “big name” in IF (and there is no question that Keyes is a big name: he won the Hugo this year for Flowers for Algernon), the story is usually a second-rater.  Sure enough, The Quality of Mercy, which clunkily mixes sentient computers with organ transplants and mandated euthanasia, is a bit of a talky mess.  Two stars.

R.A. Lafferty is a fellow who may surprise us some day.  He seems to be enjoying an upward trajectory with his stories, not just in quality but in venue.  McGonigal’s Worm, in which every animal on Earth loses the ability to breed, is sort of a poor man’s Brain Wave.  Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.  Three stars.

Esidarap ot Pirt Dnuor is an engaging little tale of tourism in a rather backward place, brought to us by Lloyd Biggle, Jr, who spends much of his time appearing in Fantastic.  I liked it, but I’m afraid I didn’t get the final joke–an Un-Prize to anyone who can explain it to me.  Three stars.

I was gratified to find that, per his book review column, Fred Pohl liked much the same stories in Aldiss’ Galaxies like Grains of Sand as I did.  On the other hand, he liked Dickson’s Dorsai! far more than me.  Perhaps the novelization (titled The Genetic General) is better than the serial.

William Stuart is back with another well-written story that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Don’t think about it is a low-grade F&SF-style tale that takes too long to get to its kicker, and whose kicker lacks kick.  Three stars.

That brings us to Frank Herbert’s Egg and Ashes, told from the point of view of a charming if horrifying little symbiote (parasite?) I felt like the beginning was better than the ending, but I do like the way Herbert turns a phrase.  Three stars.

The issue ends with The Impersonator, the third story ever published by Robert Wicks.  In the midling future, the Earth is threatened by an impending Ice Age thanks to humanity’s rapacious exploitation of the planet’s resources.  A host of outrageous plans are developed to fix the problem: from salting ice fields with carbon dust, to altering the axial tilt of the planet, to tapping the heat from the Earth’s core.  It’s not a great story, but I liked Wicks’ satirical presentation of “doubling down” in an attempt to thwart catastrophe.  Three stars.

As you can see, this isn’t the best crop of stories.  On the other hand, minor league games draw crowds, too.  And the tickets are cheaper….

[June 19, 1960] Half Measures (July 1960 IF Science Fiction)

I’m glad science fiction digests haven’t gone the way of the dodo.  There’s something pleasant about getting a myriad of possible futures in a little package every month.  You can read as much or as little as you like at a time.  The short story format allows the presentation of an idea without too much belaboring.

Every month, I get several magazines in the mail: Astounding and Fantasy and Science Fiction are monthlies; Galaxy and IF are bi-monthlies, but since they’re owned and edited by the same folks, they essentially comprise a single monthly.  I don’t have subscriptions to the other two digests of note, Amazing and Fantastic (again, both run by the same people); they just aren’t worth it, even if they occasionally publish worthy stuff.

This month, IF showed up last; hence, it is the last to be reviewed.  As usual, it consists mostly of moderately entertaining stories that weren’t quite good enough to make it into Galaxy.  Let’s take a look:

In a Body is the lead novella by J.T. McIntosh, and it’s frustrating as all get out.  I often like McIntosh, though others find him competently forgettable.  This particular story has all the makings of a great one: shape-changing alien is shipwrecked on Earth and must find a soulmate to survive.  She adopts human form and chooses a man afflicted with leukemia to be her husband–but he’s already betrothed to another.  In the hands of Theodore Sturgeon, this could have been a classic.  Even had McIntosh just given it a good rewrite, showing more and telling less, it would have easily garnered four of five stars.  As is, it is readable, even compelling, but it could have been much more.

Psycho writer Robert Bloch’s Talent, on the other hand, is perfect as is.  Featuring a boy with an extraordinary talent for mimicry, Talent is one of those stories that starts intriguingly and descends slowly into greater horror.  The style is nicely innovative, too.  This piece is easily the highlight of the issue.

It is followed by one of the lesser lights: Time Payment by Sylvia Jacobs, a rather incoherent tale about a device that allows one to time travel to the future.. sort of.  Really, one just lives one’s life normally, but with no lasting memory of living, until the destination time is reached.  Then, the recollections all flood in.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The prolific and not-untalented Jim Harmon offers us The Last Trespasser, a 3-star tale about the humanity’s encounter with a race of beneficial symbiotes and the one fellow who finds himself unable to take on an alien “Rider.”  It’s a little uneven, and the reveal doesn’t quite make sense, but I liked his creative prediction of future slang.

Usually reliable Fred Pohl has an uninspired entry called The Martian in the Attic, about a rather nebbishy would-be blackmailer who discovers that the inventor behind many of the wonders of the Modern Age actually had help from a pet alien.  It feels archaic. 

The Non-Electronic Bug, by newcomer E. Mittleman, is a bog-standard psi-endowed card sharking tale better suited to the pages of mid-1950’s Astounding than a modern magazine.  It is in English, however, and perhaps Mr. Mittleman will improve with time.

Capping off this issue is Hayden Howard’s Murder beneath the Polar Ice, a talky, technical thriller involving an American Navy frogman and the Soviet listening post he investigates in the Bering Strait.  Howard has been in hibernation as a writer for seven years after a short stint penning tales for the defunct Planet Stories, and Murder doesn’t herald an auspicious re-awakening. 

And that brings us to the end of our journey through July 1960’s magazines.  F&SF is the clear winner, at 3.5 stars to IF‘s and Astounding‘s 2.5s.  It’s hard to award a “best story”–it may well be Bloch’s Talent, but it might also be It is not My Fault from F&SF.  I think I’ll give the nod to the former.

Finally, out of the 20 stories that appeared in the Big Three, just three were penned by women.  Unless it turns out “Mr.” Mittleman is a woman.  That’s actually a number we haven’t seen since February.  Here’s hoping we break 15% in the months to come!

[March 1, 1960] The Slow Sibling (March 1960 IF)

It is March Oneth, as my father would say, and it’s time to review the last of the March 1960 science fiction digests.

Last on my plate was IF Science Fiction, which in 1959 had proven a slightly erratic but worthy sibling to Galaxy Science Fiction, also edited by Horace Gold.  Sadly, this current issue reminds me more of the inferior issues of Imagination or Amazing.  It’s not all bad, just rather weak.

It has been said of Clifford Simak that when he’s good, he’s very good, and when he’s not, he’s forgettable.  It appears he used up all of his energy on his masterpiece appearing in this month’s F&SF, because his lead novella for IF, The Gleaners, is mediocre.  It’s a story about a fellow who coordinates a for-profit time travel agency that sends agents back in time to observe, but not to meddle.  It’s a tough job: the agent defection rate is high, and there is much pressure to verify the historical assertions of the various world faiths.  It sounds like it would be a great read, but it doesn’t do much interesting development.  Perhaps Cliff should start over and try making a novel on the concept.

Raymond Banks has a short story called to be continued about colonists marooned on a tiny island hundreds of light years from Earth for centuries.  The beginning and ending are a bit slipshod, but the meat of the story is pretty good, and I particularly like that the story features a starship crewed by a pair of women. 

In The Upside-Down Captain, by Jim Harmon, an ethnologist joins the crew of a starship to seek out truly unusual planets.  The ship is aided in its endeavor with the help of a cybernetic brain—but is the robot really being much help?  It’s oddly paced and written, weakening what might have been a strong story.

There are a couple of very short vignettes that I shan’t spoil other than to give their titles and authors since any description would give away most of their game.  They seem to be written by unknowns, either amateur auteurs or pseudonymic regulars.  They are Old Shag, by Bob Farnham, and Monument, by R.W. Major; neither are good, but nor are they long.

Ray Russell has something of a career writing for PlayboyHis Father’s House is an story about an heir forced to inhabit his deceased father’s home, bullied by ghostly holograms of his abusive parent, for five years in order to collect an inheritance.  The protagonist seemingly has two choices—be a penniless but satisfied writer and husband or endure a lonely, unfulfilling life in the hopes of inheriting a fortune.  In the end, he comes up with a third path with no down sides.

Ignatz, by Ron Goulart, is a cute story about a fellow who leads a one-man crusade against the fad of “Applied Lycanthropy,” whereby the citizens of his sleepy town transform into cats for fun and relaxation.  The fellow hates cats, you see; they make him feel “crawly.”  It’s cute, though I can’t imagine what anyone could have against felines, of whom I am far more fond than dogs.

The magazine ends rather strongly with Daniel Galouye’s satirical Gravy Train, in which a retired couple on a remote planetoid gets mistaken for an important Third-World state and finds itself the recipient of a torrent of aid from both the Capitalist and Communist intergalactic empires. 

All in all, it’s not so much a bad issue as a merely weak one.  Most of the stories end rather abruptly with a decidedly last-decade sci-fi slammer, and the writing has a slapdash feeling about it.  Perhaps it’s just a temporary lull. 

In any event, I’ve got a whole new crop of magazines for this month that I’m looking forward to sharing with you.  See you soon!

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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[Nov. 17, 1959] Dead Center (December 1959 Galaxy and wargames)

Hello, fellow travelers!  As promised, here’s a round-up of this month’s Galaxy magazine.

Or should I say Galaxy Science Fiction?  According to editor Horace Gold (and I somehow missed this), Galaxy was misprinted last month with the old logo and the old price!  They really lost their shirt on that issue, sadly.  On the other hand, Gold is going to try not being ashamed of what he peddles and see if it affects sales positively or adversely.  I’m hoping for the former.

Diving into the stories, George O. Smith continues to write in a workmanlike fashion.  His The Undetected is part thriller, part who-dunnit, part romance, and features a psionic detective looking for a psionic criminal.  And you thought it could only happen in Astounding.


Virgil Finlay

The often-excellent Phillip K. Dick has a lackluster story in this ish: War Game.  In the future, the tricky Ganymedians are constantly trying to sneak subversive toys past our customs censors.  In this case, they succeed by occupying the attention of a pair of said censors with a sort of automated toy soldier kit.  It’s the sort of throwaway tale I’d have expected ten years ago.


Wallace Wood

On the other hand, it provides an excellent segue to an exciting new arena of gaming.  A hundred years ago, the Germans invented sandbox “wargaming,” wherein they simulated war with a set of rules and military units in miniature.  A half-century later, H.G. Wells proposed miniature wargaming as a way of scratching the human itch for violence without bloodshed.  Fletcher Pratt, popularized the naval miniature combat game in World War 2, playing on the floor of a big lobby.

A fellow named Charles Roberts has taken the concept of miniature wargaming and married it to the tradition of board-gaming (a la Scrabble and Monopoly or Chess, perhaps a prototype wargame).  Thanks to his revolutionary Tactics, and its sequel Tactics II, two players can simulate war on a divisional scale between the fictional entities of “Red” and “Blue” using a gameboard map, cardboard pieces, and dice.  While perhaps not as visually impressive as facing off thousands of tin soldiers against each other, it is far more accessible and inexpensive. 

War leaves me cold; I am a confirmed pacifist.  But there is fun in the strategy and contest that a wargame provides.  I look forward to seeing what new wargames Roberts’ Avalon Hill company comes up with.  Perhaps we’ll see games with a science fictional theme in the near future—imagine gaming the battles depicted in Dorsai! or Starship Soldier

To the next story: Jim Harmon is a fine writer, and his Charity Case, about a fellow hounded by demons who cause his luck to be absolutely the worst, starts out so promisingly that the rushed ending is an acute disappointment.  Maybe next time.


Dick Francis

Fred Pohl’s The Snowmen is a glib, shallow cautionary tale covering subject matter better handled in Joanna Russ’ Nor Custom Stale.  In short, humanity’s need to consume compels it to generate power from heat pumps that accelerate the process of entropy leaving Earth in a deep freeze. 

I did like Robert Bloch’s Sabbatical, about a time traveler from 1925 who quickly determines that the grass is always greener in other time zones, and one might as well stay home.  I enjoyed the off-hand predictions about the future—that Communism will no longer be the big scare, to be replaced with Conservativism; the patriarchy will be replaced with a matriarchy; the average weight of folks will be dramatically higher.  I guess we’ll see which ones come true.

Finally, we have Andy Offut’s Blacksword.  I had hoped for an epic fantasy adventure.  Instead, I got one of those satirical political romps wherein one man plays chess with thousands of inferior minds, and things work out just as he planned.  And then it turns out he’s just a pawn (or perhaps a castle) in a bigger political chess game.  Inferior stuff.


Wallace Wood

All told, this issue tallied at three stars.  The problem is that this issue wasn’t a mix of good and bad but rather a pile of unremarkable stories.  With the exception of the Sheckley and the Ley article, and perhaps Bloch’s short story, it was rather a disappointment.

Of course, this month’s Astounding prominently features Randall Garrett, again.  Out of the frying pan, into inferno.

See you in two!  Try not to get involved with any rigged quiz shows…


Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.

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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This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.