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[July 31, 1962] The Brass Mean (August 1962 Analog Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

“I don’t like science fiction.”

How often have you heard this?  Loved ones, co-workers, indignant acquaintances with noses reared up to the sky will happily give you their opinion of our degenerate genre.  And it’s a dumb opinion.

Why?  Because science fiction isn’t a magazine or a story or an author.  It’s a wide genre.  Saying “I don’t like science fiction” is like saying “I don’t like red books” or “I don’t like movies that have dogs in them.”  Sure, there’s plenty of bad science fiction, in print and (especially) in film, but there’s also, per Ted Sturgeon, about 10% gold – as in any genre.

Science fiction runs in quality from the humdrum, technical gotcha stories of the last two decades to the absolute peaks of sublimity (q.v. Cordwainer Smith, Zenna Henderson, etc.) Moreover, such ranges can generally be found even in individual sources; i.e. you can find both excellent and lousy stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, or any other digest.

Of course, if anyone is going to be turned off of sf as a genre, it probably will be the humdrum, workmanlike stories that do it.  Not bad enough to be noteworthy, not good enough to be recommended — just dull, mediocre stuff.

And that’s what we have a lot of in the August 1962 Analog, a magazine that will only contribute to the notion that science fiction just ain’t that good. 

The Toughest Opponent, by Christopher Anvil

The Terran “Special Effects” corps is back with their herd of psychically controlled animals: gorillas, lions, yellow-jackets, even a giant (artificial) snake.  Last time, they quelled a civil war.  This time around, they are helping a beleaguered base defeat a Malthusian nightmare of humanoid bezerkers on an uncivilized, overpopulated planet. 

There is some nice characterization in this one, or at least, the characters are recognizable through their characteristics.  But it drags somehow, and the payoff isn’t worth it.  The first of several stories in this book I’d give 2.5 stars to if I allowed half-stars in story reviews.  Instead, I’ll be uncharitable and say “two stars.”

The Bramble Bush, by Randall Garrett

A moonbase nuclear reactor goes critical, and it’s up to one plucky fellow to keep its twin from exploding until help can arrive.  Garrett goes through a lot of trouble to set up the chemistry of the reactor technology (which does not conform to current theory) such that the solution seems less clever than arbitrary.  I did appreciate the portrayal of the hero’s indecisive crewmate — not everyone is a man-of-action.  Less appreciated is Garrett’s need to pun at every opportunity.  Another 2.5 downgraded to two stars story. 

Watch the Sky, by James H. Schmitz

German cum Californian James Schmitz is an interesting writer, never quite hitting it out of the park, but rarely turning in junk, either.  Watch the Sky, about a backwoods colony that tries to manufacture an alien threat to secure funding for a bigger military base, starts promisingly but ends weak.  Forgettable, but not offensive.  Two stars.

The Big Job of Moving Little Things and The Color of Space, by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Amazingly, perhaps my favorite part of the issue includes Campbell’s “slick” nonfiction sections.  The first is a photo parade illustrating a new synchrotron that accelerates and smashes particles; scientists can then sift through the debris for exotic subatomic particles.  Not much substance to the piece, but the pictures are pretty.

The second, shorter piece references the cover and notes how we can get color photographs of deep space objects.  Mind you, these are not colors that any human observer would ever see — the light levels are too dim for us to discern anything but black and white.  Nevertheless, the colors do exist, and they can be extracted using clever techniques. 

Three stars in amalgam.

Border, Breed Nor Birth (Part 2 of 2) , by Mack Reynolds

Last up is Part 2 of Reynolds’ continuing saga of North Africa.  El Hassan (formerly Homer Crawford of the Unites States of the Americas) becomes increasingly aloof and dictatorial has his band of idealists attempts to unify the Mahgreb.  It’s readable, and the attention to cultural detail is excellent.  Also, a story that features naught but Black characters is refreshing.  However, the piece feels passionless, as if Reynolds was rushing through its production for the paycheck.  I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  Three stars.

Where does that leave us for the month?  F&SF is at the bottom of the pack with a dismal 2.4 stars.  Analog is just above at 2.5 (and a different kind of bad — where the former was wildly inconsistent, the latter was unremarkable).  Amazing does slightly better at 2.6, with similar issues as AnalogGalaxy had the highly entertaining The Dragonmasters, which means it has the best story, even though it only garnered 2.9 stars.  And Fantastic was the surprise winner with 3.1 stars — it was good enough that I took the time to read through the choicer bits.

Disappointingly, there was just one woman author this month, Rosel George Brown, making appearances in two magazines. 

Next month, we have a pleasant surprise: in addition to the five American digests, we have a guest correspondent covering the September 1962 issue of New Worlds!  Be sure to budget a good amount of time for reading…




[September 29, 1961] Slim Pickings (October 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines.  Over the decade that I’ve been subscribing, I’ve fallen into a habit.  I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies).  I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding.  I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last.  This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests– my dessert for the month, as it were. 

These days, the stories aren’t as good.  Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won’t review until it finishes next month.  As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication).  Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who is not exactly a science fiction author but dabbles in the arena, leads with Harrison Bergeron.  It’s a deceptively juvenile satire against Conformity and Communism, and while it may not impress upon first reading, it stays with you.  Four stars.

One of my favorite new authors is Rosel George Brown, and I have to give her credit for being willing to take chances.  The Ultimate Sin, however, is a bit avante garde for me.  Something about a social misfit interstellar explorer who finds a planet where gravity depends on whim rather than mass, and where the entire ecology is a unit, its pieces constantly consuming each other and exchanging knowledge in the process.  I didn’t like it at first, but as with the first story, I found it engaging in retrospect.  Three stars.

Charles G. Finney’s The Captivity isn’t science fiction at all; it’s more an analysis of captivity on humans, particularly when they discover that they aren’t really captives at all.  What is there left to push against when external forces are removed?  Only each other, and themselves.  Three stars.

Robert E. Lee at Moscow is Evelyn E. Smith’s attempt at satire this issue.  She’s produced some real doozies, but this one, an extreme logical extension of turning our political ambassadors into cultural ambassadors, falls flat.  There is a laugh-inducing line on the last page, however.  Two stars.

The half-posthumous team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth bring us The World of Myrion Flowers, which tells the tale of a driven Black philanthropist whose attempts to raise a cadre of Negro executives end unhappily.  The moral: it’s best when a disdained class doesn’t have too clear an idea of what the favored class thinks of them.  I can only imagine what insanity I would derive from having telepathy while living in 1930s Germany.  Three stars.

Isaac Asimov hasn’t written much fiction lately, and when he does, it tends to be old fashioned.  So it is with The Machine That Won the War, a very slight computer-related piece that probably got accepted more out of respect for the author than for its quality.  Two stars.

Meanwhile, George Langelaan, the Paris-born Britisher who penned The Fly in ’57 brings us The Other Hand, a macabre story of digits that move as if possessed, compelling their owners to strange activities.  Rather overwrought and archaic.  Two stars.

If Asimov’s fiction fails to impress, his fact remains entertaining.  That’s About the Size of It is all about the comparative sizes of Earth’s animals, all done logarithmically for easy data manipulation.  It turns out that people are medium-biggish creatures, all things considered.  Four stars.

The Vat is Avram Davidson’s latest, featuring a bit of alchemy and misadventure.  Short but readable.  Three stars.

Grendel Briarton’s latest pun, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIV, is as always, perhaps a bit more.

And that leaves us with Dickson’s Naked to the Stars (Part 1 of 2), which I’ll cover next week.  All in all, a 3-star issue that will not revulse but neither will it much impress.  Faint praise, indeed.