[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 Stars. Peace 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!