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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

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

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

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

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

[May 23, 1960] Month’s End (June 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Astounding so good this month, I suppose it was too much to ask that Fantasy and Science Fiction would also be of high caliber.  While it’s not a bad issue, it’s not one of the better ones, either.

Charles Henneberg (who I understand is actually a Parisian named Nathalie) has the best story of the bunch, The Non-Humans, translated by Damon Knight.  This is the second story the team has published in F&SF, and it is far better than the previous one.  It’s a lovely historical tale of an Italian renaissance painter and the androgynous alien with whom he falls in love.  An historical personage has a supporting part; his identity is kept secret until the end, though the half-clever can deduce it before finishing.

Britisher H.F. Ellis offers up Fireside Chat, a reprint from Punch.  It involves a haunted house and leaves the reader wondering just who are the ghosts, and who are the current residents?

I know many of my readers are Howard Fast fans, but his latest, Cato the Martian is not among his best.  For the past fifty years, the Martians have listened to our radio broadcasts and watched our television programming with avid interest and increasing concern.  A certain Martian lawmaker, nicknamed after the famous anti-Carthaginian Roman, concludes each speech with “Earth must be destroyed!” until, finally, he gets his comrades in litigation to agree.  The ensuing war does not turn out well for the dwellers of the Red Planet. 

It’s not really science fiction.  If anything, it’s perhaps the other side of the coin to Earthmen Bearing Gifts, in which the Martians eagerly await the arrival of their Terran neighbors, but with a similar ending.

The Swamp Road, by Will Worthington, is an interesting After-the-Bomb piece about a community held together by a bitterly strict Christian doctrine a la Salem, Massachusetts.  Every so often, one of the citizens changes, developing a second eyelid and otherwise adapting to a dessicated, alien world.  When the change happens to the storyteller and his love, they are forced out of the village and must learn the true nature of their metamorphosis.  It’s a good, atmospheric yarn, though I feel it could have been longer.  Some subjects deserve more than just a taste.

Some, on the other hand, don’t deserve the space.  Slammy and the Bonneygott is the story of an alien child who crosses dimensions in a tinker toy spaceship and plays with a few children for an afternoon.  It was apparently written by a neophyte named “Mrs. Agate,” and the plot was provided by her six-year old son.  One can tell.

Avram Davidson has two settings: amazing and passable.  The Sixth Season is a passable story about a small crew of humans stuck on an anthropological expedition to a backwoods alien-inhabited world for 200 days.  They endure five miserable seasons–can they survive the sixth?

It reminds me of my days growing up in the desert community of El Centro.  I used to lament that we had four seasons like everyone else, but they were Hot, Stink, Bug, and Wind.  That’s not being entirely charitable, of course.  We had a balmy Winter, too.  For about two weeks.

Asimov’s column this month is Bug-eyed Vonster.  No, it has nothing to do with aliens; it’s how the good Doctor remembers the term BeV.  It is an abbreviation for “Billion electron Volts,” a unit of electric energy commonly encountered when discussing cosmic rays and atom smashers.  I learned what Cerenkov radiation is (the radiation given by particles going faster than the speed of light in a given material).

Cliff Simak’s The Golden Bugs takes up most of the rest of the book.  This time, he trades the poetic farmlands for the prosaic suburbs for the story’s setting.  A swarm of extraterrestrial crystal turtle-beetles ride into town on an agate meteorite and begin to wreak havoc on an average American family.  It’s fun while it lasts, but it ends too abruptly, and there isn’t much to it.  It’s the sort of thing one cranks out between masterpieces.

Finally, there is the nigh impenetrable Beyond Ganga Mata by John Berry, a space-filler originally published in The Southwestern.  A fellow travels to India, meets a holy man, journeys for a year, and meets him again.  Perhaps it was simply the lateness of the hour, but had the story not been blessedly short, I’d have had trouble finishing the magazine.

For those who like to keep score, this issue of F&SF was, depending on how you average things, earned between 2.78 and 2.88 stars.  Compare that to Galaxy, which got between 3 and 3.13 stars, and Astounding, which earned exactly three stars even.

Though it could be argued on the numbers that Galaxy was thus the better magazine, and it was certainly the biggest, I’m going to give the June 1960 crown to Astounding.  All of the fiction was decent to very good, and it’s not Janifer, Anvil, and Berryman’s fault that Campbell wrote a stinker of a “science” article.  Plus, Charley de Milo was the choice story for the month.

Continuing my analysis, this means that the Big Three magazines (counting Galaxy and IF as one) each took the monthly crown twice–all of them tied.  And that’s why I keep my subscriptions to all of them.

A more depressing statistic: there was only one woman author this month, and she wrote under a male pseudonym!

By the way, remember Sputnik 4?  The precursor to Soviet manned space travel?  Well, it looks like the Communists won’t be orbiting a real person any time soon.  In an uncharacteristically candid news announcement, the Soviets disclosed that the ship’s retrorocket, designed to brake the capsule for landing, actually catapulted the craft into a higher orbit.  It’ll be up there for a while.  Oh well.

See you soon with a book review!