Tag Archives: jim harmon

[November 19, 1962] Reverse Course (December 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

I’ve complained bitterly in this column on the meanderings of my favorite science fiction magazines.  Galaxy has gotten too tame.  Analog has gotten too staid.  F&SF has gotten too literary.  In fact, just last month, I was lamenting the streak of purple fluffiness that had corrupted that last mag.  Story after story of unreadable droll nothings, or at best, fantastic horrors without any hard sf.

The December 1962 issue did not promise to be any better.  It has the same line-up of authors, the same subject matter of stories.  There are even 11000…er.. 24 pages devoted to the concept of binary numbers.  Has F&SF lost its mind?!

So imagine my surprise to find that I actually enjoyed this month’s issue, entirely due to the well-written nature of its material.  These are not the kind of stories I prefer, but this experience just goes to show that high quality trumps subject matter.  See if you agree:

The Depths, by Jim Harmon

The fastest route between two points is a straight line, so what better way to navigate the globe than through it?  One hardly even needs a locomotive force since one can simply fall to a destination.  Of course, there is the minor issue of building the shaft, but such trivialities are hand-waved in this pleasant, deliberately archaic tale of a trans-Terranian vessel that gets stuck half-way down.  Three stars.

Behind the Stumps, by Russell Kirk

I didn’t much care for Kirk’s ghost story in the last issue, and this one is in the same vein.  It is so nicely drawn and tautly composed, however, that I found myself engrossed.  In brief: fussy, meticulous census worker heads to the backwoodsiest of Appalachian towns determined to count every farmer, even those whose tie to the Earth is limited at best.  Suitably horrific, vividly realized.  Four stars.

Senhor Zumbeira’s Leg, by Felix Marti-Ibanez

In a time when the depiction of sex in our genre ranges from prudish nonexistence to Garrett-esque chauvinism, it’s nice to get a happy-go-lucky romp filled with equally game and enabled men and women.  This spicy Latin adventure features the Zumbeira family, father and son, who are motivated by comfort and cross-gender relationships.  When the ne’er-do-well son embarks on a journey to find a new prosthesis for his one-legged father, aided by a sorceress’ magic charm guaranteed to bring luck, amusing hijinx ensue.  All’s well that ends well, and the journey is good, too.  Four stars.

One, Ten, Buckle My Shoe, by Isaac Asimov

Only Asimov can wax pedantic on a dull subject and make the experience enjoyable.  I mean, it’s a piece about a counting system in which there are only two digits!  But if we’re going to get along with computers, I suppose we’d best learn the drill now.  Four stars.

On Binary Digits and Human Habits, by Frederik Pohl

Galaxy, IF, and (soon) Worlds of Tomorrow editor makes an unusual appearance in a competitor magazine with this piece on how to easily convey binary numbers verbally.  What at first seems a pointless exercise turns out actually to be kind of interesting – the first time through, I had a strong desire to throw the magazine against the wall; and then I got it and re-read with some fascination.  Three stars this time, but don’t do it again, please.

Ad Infinitum, by Sasha Gilien

Freud put much stock in the symbolism of dreams.  Gilien takes things a few steps further, positing that there is an entire studio devoted to the production and innovation of said symbols.  A fantastic idea somewhat neutered by its gimmick ending.  Three stars.

Roofs of Silver, by Gordon R. Dickson

Can cultures devolve?  And if they can, what is the measuring stick?  Dickson sets up a universe where Terra’s colonies have a habit of reverting to savagery, replacing conscience with taboo, morality with hidebound custom.  Roofs spotlights one world on the verge of such a fall, and the lengths one of its inhabitants goes to thwart it.

There’s nothing wrong with the writing in this piece; when Dickson’s on his game (and he certainly is here), he is one of the genre’s more sensitive and interesting authors.  No, the only real failing of this piece is its utter predictability.  Four stars.

The Notary and the Conspiracy, by Henri Damonti (translation by Damon Knight)

Some people really live a double life – the problem comes when one chooses to live out that second span in a high-profile and highly dangerous historical position!  A fun piece, but it’s one of Knight’s more opaque translations.  Three stars.

In sum, this month’s issue scored a respectable 3.5 stars.  I am left with a sense of bemused puzzlement.  Did editor Davidson finally turn his ship around?  Did all of the insufferable frivolity get used up by Galaxy?  Or is this simply the bounce of a dead cat, and I can expect a return to form in the new year?

As my wife is wont to say, “Don’t borrow trouble.”  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!




[Sep. 10, 1962] Leading by Example (the terrific October 1962 Galaxy)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Thirteen years ago this month, amidst the post-war boom of science fiction digests, Galaxy Science Fiction was born.  Its editor, H.L. Gold, intended his brainchild to stand above and apart from the dozens of lesser mags (remember those days of abundance?) with progressive and smart strictly SF stories.  He succeeded — Galaxy has showcased some of the best the genre has to offer, as well as a fine science fact column penned by Willy Ley.  The consistency of quality has been remarkable.

Two years ago, Fred Pohl, a bright authorial light already, took the helm from the ailing Gold.  If anything, he has improved on excellence, continuing to coax fine works from established authors and interesting pieces from new ones.  It helps that he, himself, can fill the pages with good material and often does….though I have to wonder if he gets paid when he does that.

If you were to pick any single issue to turn someone on to Galaxy (or to science fiction in general), you could hardly do better than to give them the latest issue (October 1962) of Galaxy.  Not only isn’t there a clunker in the mix, not only does it feature a new Instrumentality story by the great Cordwainer Smith, but it includes part one of an incredible new novel by the editor.

Wow.  I think I threw in more superlatives in the last three paragraphs than I have in the last three months.  I guess it’s time to show you what all the hubbub’s about:

The Ballad of Lost C’mell, by Cordwainer Smith

Many authors write in a consistent world.  Some are developed following an individual through her/his life in a series of stories.  Others might take place in a common setting but feature different protagonists.  Smith has introduced his Instrumentality universe through oblique flashes.  Each piece involves wildly different places and characters, each with a limited view of things.  Only after reading several of them does one get an idea of the nature of Smith’s creation.

Thousands of years from now, Earth has seen global empires rise and fall.  The current ruling entity is the Instrumentality, a council of pure-humans ruling over the people-citizens and genetically altered animal-subcitizens.  Technology caters to virtually every need; the world enjoys a purely service-based economy with the Underhumans providing the services.  For humans, Earth is a beautiful, magical place filled with strange wonders.  For the animal-people, enslaved to the pure humans, life is a struggle and punishments harsh.  We are beyond the familiar subtext of racism/chauvinism that suffuses Western stories – the relationship between the races hearkens to the rigid castes of Asia.  The animal-men may be cast in human mold, but their treatment is peremptory, inhumane.  And the humans are blithely unaware that their creations have the capacity to rebel…

C’mell is the most straight-forward of Smith’s Instrumentality stories, and it gives the sharpest insight, to date, of the world he’s created (though it by no means reveals all of its secrets).  As always, it displays Smith’s mastery of the craft, mixing showing and telling, romance and austerity, far-future and relatability.  Smith is an author who doesn’t put pen to paper unless it’s for a four or five-star story, and C’mell is no exception.  Five stars.

Come Into My Cellar, by Ray Bradbury

We’ve seen the plot where intelligent fungus take over humanity through forced symbiosis in Aldiss’ Hothouse stories.  Bradbury gives us a much more conventional setup, where the evil mushrooms send spores of themselves via mail-order catalog to be grown and ingested.  A nicely written but dumb story, and it has the same ending as All Summer in a Day, which is to say, Ray doesn’t bother to end it.  Three stars – about as good as Bradbury (not really an SF author) ever gets.

The Earthman’s Burden, by Donald E. Westlake

A competent if somewhat forgettable story of an arrogant, resurgent Terran star empire and the lost colony that promises to be more trouble than it’s worth to conquer.  There’s pleasant satire here, particularly of the buffoonish Imperials, but nothing we haven’t seen before.  In fact, I rather expected to find this piece in Analog (you’ll see why).  Three stars.

For Your Information: End of the Jet Age, by Willy Ley

A generation ago, propeller planes were the way to travel.  Now that they’ve been eclipsed by the jets, one has to wonder just how long our 707s and DC-8s will last before they are, in turn, replaced by the next mode of transportation.  Ley gives us an excellent preview of rocketplane travel in the 1980s as well as a spotlight on a living fossil and answers to readers’ questions.  Four stars.

A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede

Speaking of series, Doede has a third story in his tale of teleporting humans , who have exiled themselves from Earth using subcutaneous matter transmitters that work at the speed of thought.  This latest piece involves a dilettante archaeologist who’ll brave offending the Gods and even risk death to dig an ancient, abandoned site on Alpha Centauri II.  Another piece that shouldn’t work (why does the native speak perfect English?), but Doede always pulls it off.  Four stars.

How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon

Resigned to an 18-year hitch, the solo operator of a Martian atmosphere seeder resorts to building his own companions to preserve his sanity.  It’s a little bit McIntosh’s Hallucination Orbit (one wonders if the events of the story are really happening) tinged with Sheckley-esque satire and robotics.  But Harmon is not quite as skilled as either of these authors, and so the story ends up like most of Harmon’s work, never quite hitting the mark.  Three stars.

Plague of Pythons (Part 1 of 2), by Frederik Pohl

How fragile our interconnected, technological world is.  How easy it would be for a few malicious demons, selectively possessing our bodies at propitious times, to utterly disintegrate our society.  Fast forward two years, after the world has reverted to feudal savagery.  Communities larger than the village are impossible.  Religion has revived in a last-ditch attempt to protect humanity from bodily appropriation.  One ex-engineer, name of Chandler, is on trial for a heinous assault he most assuredly committed, but which wasn’t his doing.  What justice can he find in a world where the dispensers of justice can, at any time, cease being themselves?

Pythons is a brutal, uncomfortable story, crushingly bleak.  It’s not the sort of thing I would normally go for, and I definitely caution against it if mind control pushes unpleasant buttons.  Yet Pohl executes the thing deftly, and he holds out the barest sliver of hope to keep you going.  I have no idea how Pythons will conclude, but if the latter half is as good as the first, we’ll have a minor masterpiece on our hands.  Four stars (for now…)

Roberta, by Margaret St. Clair

Roberta explores the lengths one might go to erase the wrongness they feel exists in themselves – and the possibility that it is impossible to escape that wrongness.  It is the first story I’ve read that explores the concept of transsexualism, and while it is not a positive story, it is an interesting one.  Three stars.

Bimmie Says, by Sydney J. Van Scyoc

While we’re on the subject of changing physical form, is it possible to be transCarnivorous?  In other words, what if cats and dogs can be made mutually intermalleable?  And if pets can be transformed, why not people?  Van Scyoc’s story is clearly inspired by Keyes’ hit, Flowers for Algernon, whose excellence it does not quite reach.  Still, it’s not bad, and I’m glad to see Sydney’s continuing her promising career.  Three stars.

Who Dares a Bulbur Eat?, by Gordon R. Dickson

Last up is the second in the adventures of the interstellar ambassadorial couple, Tom and Lucy Reasoner — a sort of Hammett’s Nick and Nora meets Laumer’s Retief.  In this installment, the Reasoners are tasked with attending a diplomatic banquet to find the weakness in the newly discovered Jacktal empire, a rapacious regime more powerful than the Terran Federation. 

It’s a bit of a muddle, and the title fairly spoils the piece, but the conclusion is great fun and worth the price of admission.  Three stars.

All told, this comes out to a 3.5 star issue, none of it tiresome, much of it amazing.  I am also happy to see that F&SF will not have the monopoly on woman writers this month.  It’s issues like this that buoy me through the lousy patches (like last month’s Analog).  I mean, suffering for art is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to have nice things to say!

Next up, let’s see how the October 1962 Amazing stacks up.  See you then!




[August 6, 1962] Bookkends (September 1962 IF Worlds of Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

It’s a hot, doldrumy summer.  My wife and I are hard at work.  Our daughter has headed to the North for a vacation.  There’s hardly anything in the news but sordid details of the Sol Estes case (if you’ve been living under a rock this whole year, he’s the Texas financier fraudster with dubious dealings with the US Department of Agriculture, not to mention Vice President Johnson). 

About the only item of interest is that the island of Jamaica is finally achieving independence.  I visited the place before the War.  I don’t remember much but lush beauty and friendly people.  The music coming out of the Caribbean is pretty interesting to my ear, too – some post-Calypso stuff including innovative steel drum work and a fledgling new genre that as yet has no name (q.v. Lord Creator and Robert Marley).

So in this languorous time, about the only consistent pasttime I can enjoy, aside from my records, is the ever-growing pile of stf (scientifiction, natch) magazines.  One of the ones I look forward to is IF, which, if it is not always stellar, usually has a few items of interest.  This month, the September 1962 issue has a lot of lousy stories, and editor Pohl cunningly placed the best one in front so as to dull the impact of the sub-par stuff that follows.  But the last tale is a fine reprise of the first, quality-wise.  See if you agree:

The Snowbank Orbit, by Fritz Leiber

A famous author and actor, Leiber’s works often approach sublimity.  This is one of them, combining both beautiful prose and cutting edge science fiction.  Plot in brief: a Mercurian mining vessel, one of Earth’s last remaining spaceworthy ships, is fleeing from an alien armada.  Its only hope for survival is to thrust at maximum acceleration toward the seventh planet, Uranus, and then use the giant planet’s gravity and atmosphere to slow it down and send it back in the direction of Earth.

There are so many interesting components in this tale: a demographically diverse and well-characterized crew, some truly bizarre aliens, a gripping set-up.  The scientific concepts, from the “International Meteor Guard” to the communication via visual light lasers, are both plausible and fresh.  Leiber’s use of color and texture makes for a literary experience yet does not get too self-indulgent.

Orbit is an almost great story.  I’m not sure what keeps it from hitting five stars save for its reminding me a little too much of Heinlein’s Sky Lift.  Nevertheless, it is vivid, it packs a lot into a small space, and the hero is a refreshing departure from the ordinary.  Four stars, and you may rate it higher.

One Million Four Hundred Ninety Two Thousand Six Hundred Thirty Three Marlon Brandos, by Vance Aandahl

Aandahl has accomplished the fannish dream, to be published in one’s teen years.  His work runs to the literary side.  Unfortunately, with the exception of his first published piece, not of his stories break the three-star mark – including this one, about a bored teen girl whose desire to be wooed by the great mumbler momentarily subverts the will of a town’s menfolk.  It’s one of those “cute but doesn’t go anywhere” pieces.  Two stories.

The Winning of the Moon, by Kris Neville

Neville was a brief shining star at the turn of the last decade, right as stf was undergoing its post-War boom.  But the field proved too limiting for the young author’s vision, and now Kris mostly makes a living doing technical writing.  He still dabbles, though.  Moon is a Murphy’s Law tinged tale of lunar colonization, a satire that is grounded just enough in reality to be effective.  Three stars.

And Then There Was Peace, by Gordon R. Dickson

No matter how mechanized war gets, the burden of fighting will always rest on the shoulders of the beleaguered infantryman.  Peace explores the sad fate of a futuristic soldier after the conclusion of hostilities.  Dickson’s explored pacifistic themes before, particularly in his latest novel, Naked to the StarsPeace is mostly a gimmick story though, and if you can’t guess the wallop, then you’re very new to this business.  Two stars.

The Big Headache, by Jim Harmon

I never know what to expect from Jim; he wobbles in quality like a Cepheid Variable…but without the regularity.  In Headache, a pair of scientists develop an anti-migraine drug only to have it turn out to have lobotomizing side effects.  It’s played for laughs, but I only opened my mouth to grimace.  What might have been an effective horror story or cautionary tale Headache is, instead, neither fish nor fowl, and only succeeds in delivering what’s on the tin.  Two stars.

Transient, by William Harris

This is a ghost story, except the haunter is an alien, and the place of haunting is a computer.  It’s a frivolous piece one might expect as one of the lesser entries in any given issue of F&SF, but you may like it more than me.  Two stars.

Once Around Arcturus, by Joseph Green

A futuristic retelling of the Greek myth of Atalanta, the woman who would only be wooed by the suitor who could beat her in competition.  Green, a brand-new writer and employee at NASA, pens a pretty clunky tale.  He almost manages to make it work in the end, though…but then he flubs it.  I suppose if you took out the last paragraph and gave the piece a downer ending, it might be a whole lot better.  Instead, Green cops out with a literary Picardy Third.  Two stars.

World in a Mirror, by Albert Teichner

The universe is full of dangerous symmetry: anti-matter will violently destroy matter with which it comes in contact; a southpaw fencer or pitcher often makes mincemeat of her/his opponent.  And what will our stomachs make of left-handed DNA?  Teichner expects the worst. 

It’s a worthy topic to explore (and, in fact, I’ve speculated on the subject in one of my recent works), but the set-up in World is heavy-handed and doesn’t serve Teichner’s intent.  Two stars.

Just Westing, by Theodore Sturgeon

Writing science articles for the general public, even for an intelligent subsection thereof, is hard.  You have to distill complicated subjects in a way that folks can I understand, and then you have to explain to the readers why they should be interested in what you’re telling them.  Asimov does it effortlessly; Ley did and often still does.  I like to think I’ve gotten consistently good at it.

Sturgeon, brilliant author that he might be, has not.  His summary of the recent Westinghouse catalog of advancements is neither interesting nor particularly comprehensible.  Two stars.

Cultural Exchange, by Keith Laumer

Retief, the much aggrieved Jack of All Trades diplomat/secret agent must thwart a war between Imperial worlds covered up in a cloak of harmless-seeming personnel and equipment transfers.  Retief stories run from the overly broad to the gritty.  This one strikes a nice balance and delightfully plays up the interplay of bureaucracies, something with which Laumer has more than a passing acquaintance.  Four stars, and thank goodness after the string of mediocrity that precedes it.

Taken as a whole, this is a pretty lousy issue – just 2.4 stars.  Plus it’s yet another “stag” mag: no woman authors, virtually no woman characters.  But, if you take just the 35 pages comprising the first and last stories, you’ve got some excellent reading.  Whether that’s worth a penny a page…well, it’s your wallet.

Next up: The Travelers hit the drive-in for The Underwater City!




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


by Gideon Marcus

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

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

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

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

The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance

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

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

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

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

Handyman, by Frank Banta

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

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

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

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey


Schelling

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

Three Portraits and a Prayer, by Frederik Pohl

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

Always a Qurono, by Jim Harmon

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

The Luck of Magnitudes, by George O. Smith

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

One Race Show, by John Jakes

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

***

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

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

[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: