Tag Archives: judith merril

[March 1, 1962] Hearts and Flowers (April 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

March has roared in like a lion here in Eastern Tennessee, with high temperatures below fifty and a bit of snow falling in Chattanooga.  Can it be possible that spring is right around the corner?  Perhaps it would be best to turn our thoughts away from the tempests of winter and concentrate on sunnier matters.

After his triumphant orbiting of the Earth, Colonel John Glenn is scheduled to be treated today to what is predicted to be the largest ticker tape parade in history, filling the streets of New York City with tons of shredded paper. Not great news for the street sweepers of the Big Apple, but the rest of us can celebrate.

For those of us stuck indoors due to the weather, we can tune our radios to just about any station playing the Top Forty and enjoy the sound of Gene Chandler’s smash hit Duke of Earl, which has been at the top of the charts for a couple of weeks. It may not have the most profound lyrics in the world, but this catchy little number is sure to be heard in the background of many a teenage courtship as a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Appropriately, The April 1962 issue of Fantastic is full of romance, along with the sense of wonder demanded by readers of speculative fiction.

Before we get to the mushy stuff, however, Judith Merril offers us a mysterious look at The Shrine of Temptation.  George Barr’s beautiful cover art appears to have inspired this ambiguous tale of good, evil, and strange rituals.  Barr’s work has appeared in a handful of fanzines for a few years, but I believe this is his first professional publication.  Based on the quality of this painting, I believe the young artist has a fine career ahead of him.

Merril’s story takes place on an island where the native population is being studied by a group of anthropologists.  I was never quite sure whether this was supposed to be taking place on Earth or on another planet.  Although the inhabitants of the island are fully human, there are hints that their year is not the same as ours.  In any case, a young native, nicknamed Lucky by the anthropologists for his intelligence and cheerful nature, quickly learns English and befriends the strangers.  He introduces them to his culture, but the secret of the shrine is unknown even to him, since it is only opened once in a very great while.  The trouble begins when a group from a rival nation arrives on the island.  (Whether their ship travels by sea or through space is not entirely clear.) Eventually the shrine is opened, and what happens is truly unexpected.  This is an intriguing story, if somewhat opaque, and rewards careful reading.  Four stars.

We turn to what we might delicately call the physical aspects of love in R. Bretnor’s comedy Dr. Birdmouse.  A pianist whose act is extremely popular with women winds up on a planet with an unusual form of reproduction.  All the animals are as intelligent as humans, and any animal can mate with any other animal, resulting in all sorts of bizarre hybrids.  The title character, for example, combines the characteristics of the creatures found in his name.  (When he learns English from the pianist, he also speaks and acts in an outrageously fey manner.  Combined with the pianist’s enthusiastic female audience, I had to wonder if these two characters were intended as a parody of the flamboyant entertainer Liberace.) Despite the loyalty of his feminine fans, the pianist is not a success when it comes to romance, particularly when compared to his untalented but very masculine brother.  He plans to bring some of the inhabitants of the planet back to Earth as an exhibit, in hopes that this will win him a harem of mistresses.  However, Dr. Birdmouse and the others have plans of their own.  This is a moderately amusing trifle, worthy of three stars.

As I predicted last month, the two bickering members of Congress wind up in each other’s arms in the concluding half of the short novel Joyleg by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson.  This part of the story takes place almost entirely in the home of the seemingly ageless Revolutionary War veteran Isachar Z. Joyleg, and could easily be adapted for the stage as a romantic comedy.  The secret of his longevity is revealed, drawing the world’s attention.  For political reasons, a hostile bureaucrat attempts to accuse Joyleg of desertion, multiple seductions, and even piracy.  To add to the confusion, a document signed by John Paul Jones while that famous naval commander was in the service of Catherine the Great grants Joyleg possession of a large tract of land in Siberia.  A Soviet diplomat arrives in this remote corner of Tennessee, hoping to convince Joyleg to turn his back on an ungrateful USA and instead become a respected citizen of the USSR.  It’s all very amusing and charming.  Four stars.

Love also blooms at the conclusion of this month’s fantasy classic.  Nonstop to Mars by Jack Williamson is reprinted from the February 25, 1939 issue of Argosy.  A pilot known for making long nonstop flights in his one-man plane is forced to land on a remote island after a weird storm disables his craft.  Alone on the island is a beautiful young scientist, who is studying the phenomenon.  It turns out that aliens from another solar system have landed on Mars, and are using super-advanced technology to teleport Earth’s atmosphere to the red planet.  Humanity seems doomed, but our hero bravely enters the storm and literally flies to Mars.  This is an old-fashioned adventure story with a wild premise.  It certainly holds the reader’s attention, and is more vividly written than most pulp yarns from its time.  Three stars.

There is a lot to enjoy in Fantastic this month.  You may not fall deeply in love with this issue…but you may be infatuated with it.

[July 6, 1961] Trends (August 1961 Galaxy, second half)

Human beings look for patterns.  We espy the moon, and we see a face.  We study history and see it repeat (or at least rhyme, said Mark Twain).  We look at the glory of the universe and infer a Creator. 

We look at the science fiction genre and we (some of us) conclude that it is dying.

Just look at the number of science fiction magazines in print in the early 1950s.  At one point, there were some forty such publications, just in the United States.  These days, there are six.  Surely this is an unmistakable trend.

Or is it?  There is something to be said for quality over quantity, and patterns can be found there, too.  The last decade has seen the genre flower into maturity.  Science fiction has mostly broken from its pulpy tradition, and many of the genre’s luminaries (for instance, Ted Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson) have blazed stunning new terrain.

I’ve been keeping statistics on the Big Three science fiction digests, Galaxy, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1959.  Although my scores are purely subjective, if my readers’ comments be any indication, I am not too far out of step in my assessments.  Applying some math, I find that F&SF has stayed roughly the same, and both Analog and Galaxy have improved somewhat.

Supporting this trend is the latest issue of Galaxy (August 1961), which was quite good for its first half and does not decline in its second.

For instance, Keith Laumer’s King of the City is an exciting tale of a cabbie who cruises the streets of an anarchic future.  The cities are run by mobs, and the roads are owned by automobile gangs.  It’s a setting I haven’t really seen before (outside, perhaps, of Kit Reed’s Judas Bomb), and I dug it.  In many ways, it’s just another crime potboiler, but the setting sells it.  Three stars.

Amid all of the ugly headlines, the blaring rock n’ roll, the urban sprawl, do you ever feel that the romance has gone out of the race?  That indefinable spark that raises us to the sublime?  Lester del Rey’s does, and in Return Engagement, his protagonist discovers what we’ve been missing all these years.  A somber piece, perhaps a bit overwrought, but effective.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column, For your Information, is amusing and educational, as usual, though its heyday has long past.  This time, the subject is the preeminent biologist, Dr. Theodore Zell, whom Dr. Ley never got to meet, though he tried.  Three stars.

Deep Down Dragon, by Judith Merril, depicts a lovers’ jaunt on Mars that ends in a brush with danger.  Told in Merril’s deft, artistic style, the rather typical boy-rescues-girl story isn’t all it appears to be.  Three stars.

I can’t lay enough praise upon the final novella, Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth.  Science fiction offers a large number of tropes and techniques that provide building blocks for stories.  Every once in a while, a writer creates something truly new.  Vance gives us Sirenis, a planet whose denizens communicate with musical accompaniment that conveys mood beyond that inherent in words.  Moth is a murder mystery, and that story is interesting in and of itself, but what really makes this piece is the struggle of the Terran investigator to master the native modes of communication and to overcome the pitifully low status that being a foreigner affords.  Really a beautiful piece.  Five stars.

That puts the total for this issue at a respectable 3.4 stars.  So far as I can tell, science fiction has got some life left in it…

[May 11, 1961] Spotlighting Women (The Second Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Part 3)

Here’s a question I’ve gotten more than once: what is the point in spotlighting woman writers?  Shouldn’t I simply point out the good stories as I find them, and if they happen to be written by women, bully for them?  Why should I create an artificial distinction?

Those are actually fine questions, about which I’ve given much thought.  I make no claims to being an expert, or even someone whose opinion should matter much to you.  All I have is my taste, my gut and (lucky for me) my own column in which to voice my opinions.  So take my words as strictly my viewpoint.

We live in a particular kind of world.  Men are the default: the default heroes, the default writers, even the default pronoun.  Open a history book, and it will be filled with the names of great men.  Women are a seeming afterthought.  You may not even have thought twice about it.  It seems “natural” that movies should star men, that books should star men, that men should be the generals, the presidents.

But, there is a change a brewing.  Black men universally won the right to vote in 1865.  Women secure duniversal suffrage in 1920, fully three generations after the least privileged men.  The gap is narrowing.  This year, a Black man became skipper of a U.S. Naval vessel.  1961 also marks the year a woman became a shipboard U.S. Naval officer for the first time.  Women are now just one generation behind the least advantaged of the men.  Someday, we may be on a level playing field, all races of men and women.

Science fiction is supposed to be forward-looking, yet socially it seems stuck in the present, or even the past.  One almost never reads about woman starship captains or woman presidents or woman…well… anything.  I don’t think this is the result of deliberate collusion by the science fiction writing community.  It’s just that society is the air we breathe.  We are unconsciously bound by its rules and traditions.  Unless something shakes up our viewpoints, we’ll stick in our ruts and continue to accept this male-dominated paradigm as the natural order of things.

So when I spot something unusual that I think should be universal, I note it.  I encourage it.  I enjoy it.

Without further ado, part #3 of my encyclopedic catalog of the woman writers active as of this year of 1961:

Zenna Henderson: It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of my column that I love Zenna Henderson.  While her The People stories do not comprise all of her work, they are representative — unabashedly personal tales, bittersweet and feminine, utterly unlike anything else.  Henderson’s science fiction career began early last decade and is one of the most vivid hallmarks of the divide between the digest and pulp eras.  I strongly recommend Rosemary Benton’s recent article as a introduction to his brilliant author and her work.

Katherine MacLean: One rarely forgets first impressions, and MacLean made a significant one on me with Unhuman Sacrifice, single-handedly saving the November 1958 Astounding, the first magazine I ever reviewed for this column.

This was actually a sort of a rediscovery — she has been publishing stories since the late ’40s, many of which I read in Galaxy.  I wonder if she’s now near the end of her career.  Once a prolific writer, her pace slackened after 1953, and I’ve only seen one of her stories since Sacrifice, the good Interbalance.  Perhaps she’s just busy with other things, or maybe she publishes in the few remaining magazines I don’t cover on a regular basis.  In any-wise, Ms. MacLean is highly regarded, both by me and the general community.  Check her out, and don’t miss her early work published under the name of her former husband, Charles Dye.

Anne McCaffrey: Speaking of first impressions, one of the fun aspects of my job as surveyor of our genre is spotting new authors as they arrive.  Ms. McCaffrey hit the ground running with her 1959 story, The Woman in the Tower.  She topped herself with the recent The Ship who Sang.  Two points make a line; if we continue the trend, it is clear that Ms. McCaffrey is destined to produce some pretty spectacular stuff.  I can’t wait!

Judith Merril: There once was a SF club in New York City.  It was called the Futurians, it only lasted 8 years (ending around the same time as WW2), and it had an outsized impact on the genre.  The 1st WorldCon was a Futurian event, for instance, and its members included future famous personages such as Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl. 

And Judith Merril (who was Mrs. Pohl for a little while).  She has been a pillar of the community ever since, both as a writer and a prolific anthologizer; she has produced a series of “Best of” books since 1956, and her taste is sharp.  My experience with her own writing has been mixed.  They comprise just two stories and a novel.  The stories were good, the novel was terrible (though Fred Pohl and P. Schuyler Miller liked it; what do I know>).  I suspect Judy will be around for a long time, so I imagine I’ll have more on which to evaluate her by the next time I do one of these.

C.L. Moore: I may be stretching a point in calling Ms. Moore a current writer.  A veteran of the pulp era, Ms. Moore wrote most prolifically in partnership with her late husband, Henry Kuttner (who I knew best as Lewis Padgett).  He died in 1958, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.  For this reason, the Journey has covered none of her works, and while I’m sure I must have read some of Moore (psuedonymously, collaboratively, or solitarily), I couldn’t tell you about any of those stories off the top of my head (though I do own the Galaxy Novel, Shambleau; perhaps I shall try it out.)

Andre Norton: Despite the name, Andre Norton is a woman, and she has enjoyed a burgeoning career since her debut a little over a decade ago.  She is given to florid, adventury prose, filled with strapping folks and derring-do.  In a recent review of one of Ms. Norton’s latest books, Alfred Bester opined dismissively that perhaps women just can’t write action.  Well, he’s wrong.  Now, mind you, I haven’t yet read much Norton.  I started Stargate, which failed to grab my interest, and I finished Crossroads of Time, which I quite enjoyed.  She’s got a new one coming out this Summer, which I’ll call the tie-breaker. 

Meanwhile, Bester hasn’t published a story since 1959.  Maybe men just can’t write science fiction anymore…

I’ll have the fourth (and final) installment in this series sometime next month.  Cheer-i-o!

(Part one is here!)

(Part two is here!)

[May 25, 1960] Getting there is half the problem (Judith Merril’s The Tomorrow People)

Every novel is a kind of contract with the reader, a promise that ideas, events, and characters will be presented in the beginning such that, by the end, they will have facilitated a satisfying story.  A corollary to this is that a writer must ensure that all of a story’s scenes are interesting to the reader.  Lesser authors pound their keys trying to get “to the good parts,” stringing together pearls of interest with thread of mediocre space-filler. 

Judith Merril has managed to break the above-described contract in spectacular fashion, by publishing a story solely of the thread between the pearls. 

Let me explain.  The Tomorrow People, released this month, promises to be quite a book.  Not only is it by Merril, who has proven that she can write on prior occasions, but within the first 30 pages, we get a set up that includes: humanity’s first Mars mission, on which one of the crew commits suicide for reasons unknown; the suggestion that life was found on Mars; the possibility of telepathy and/or clairvoyance; the suggestion of an active espionage ring on the American moonbase.  Merril also tempts us with the veneer of a mature piece with discussion of adult topics like closeted homosexuality, menstruation, polyamory. 

The problem is that Merril never delivers on any of these threads (except for a few perfunctory pages at the end).  Instead, we get hundreds of pages of the sort of stuff one hammers out for the sake of hammering out.  Most of the book is presented in quotation marks and italic print.  Pointless dialogues between men done in an overly breezy, almost caricature style.  Endless angsty conversations between characters punctuated by italicized internal monologues (that’s right!  You tell ’em!) Dysfunctional relationships between the one female character, the lovely dancer, Lisa, and… virtually every male character in the book (the astronaut who returns from Mars, his psychiatrist, the Moon’s chief psychiatrist, random lunar laborers).  Endless depictions of drinking, drunkenness, romantic quarrells.

I don’t know if Merril is trying to be avante garde, or if she simply doesn’t know how to make a book out of a trilogy’s worth of ideas but a novella’s worth of action.  The result is an uphill slog.  It’s too bad as there is stuff to like.  There is a thoroughly modern feeling about the portrayed universe, a feeling that Merril really does try to convey the world of the mid 1970s, technologically and socially.  I enjoyed the bits about the adaptation of classical dancing to the lunar setting.  And I appreciate a story that doesn’t just present the bones of a plot, with the characters playing second fiddle, as is often the case in science fiction. 

Merril’s The Tomorrow People, however, is an invertebrate.  Its characters meander about with no plot bracing them into an enthralling narrative.  Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe life is like that, and Merril is just trying to capture that feeling of naturalistic randomness.

Or maybe she had a deadline, a page quota, and insufficient inspiration.

Two stars.

On the Beach! (February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, Part 2; 1-25-1959)

Aloha from America’s prettiest territory.

Kaua’i is particularly pretty, and one of the less-developed islands.  Just last year, the hit musical South Pacific was filmed here, and I’ve gotten to see its location, the lovely town of Hanalei. 

Yet such is my devotion to all five of my fans (up 25% over last month!) that I have flashed in my latest column to ensure you know what stories in this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction are worth reading.

It’s a bit of a grab bag, really, after that amazing first one, but not a stinker in the bunch thus far:

Following Asimov’s science article is Graveyard Shift by Idris Seabright (the F&SF pen name of feminism and witchcraft enthusiast, Margaret St. Clair).  It’s an exciting, atmospheric piece about a young man working the night shift at a haunted sundries store.  One might label it “modern fantasy,” where beneath the banalities of technological life lie a malestrom of magical undercurrent.

No Matter Where You Go, by Joel Townsley Rogers (of long-time pulp fame), is a strange novelet.  It features a space traveler with the ability to zip between real and counter-Earths.  The two worlds have much in common, but there are also striking differences.  When our hero’s wife falls for the resident of one of the worlds and is subsequently exiled to the other, and the courting Cassanova comes a-calling at the hero’s residence… well, it gets interesting.  Like most F&SF stuff, it is written with pizazz, though I’m not sure I exactly liked it overmuch.

Eleazar Lipsky’s Snitkin’s Law is a satirical look at a future in which justice is meted out perfectly by computer, much to the misery of everyone—that is, until a shyster lawyer, the eponymous Snitkin, is brought from the past to reprogram it.  It’s short and unremarkable.  I suspect Snitkin is a parody of the author, a deputy district attorney (who also wrote the manuscript behind the famous movie, Kiss of Death).

Finaly, for today, is Death Cannot Wither by Judith Merril.  I am always excited to see Ms. Merril’s work, though I’m not quite sure how I feel about this novelette.  It is, first and foremost, a ghost story.  It is dark and a bit disturbing.  The ending is gruesome though perhaps not entirely unhappy.  It is not my cup of tea, but it might well be yours.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much, so I’ll save the wrap-up for the 27th.  And then I have a bit of a departure for you… but we’ll have to wait until the 29th for that, won’t we?

Aloha (a double-service word) and Mahalo for reading!



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December 1958 F&SF, 2nd half (11-05-1958)

Boy, am I glad I read from front to back this time!

As my faithful readers (should that be plural?) know, the first half of this month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction was pretty lackluster stuff.  It turns out I was mistaken about Tony Boucher’s story–it was not a new one, but some old thing from 1945 under the name “William A. P. White.” At least I know one of Boucher’s pseudonyms now.

The second half, thankfully, was far superior.  Story #1 was “Honeysuckle Cottage” by P.  G. Wodehouse.  I have not read much by this famous ex-patriate English humorist.  I think all of the stories I have encountered by him were published in F&SF.  This particular tale came out in 1928.  One wonders if Wodehouse is desperate for cash since being, perhaps unfairly, chased out of his home country for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.  Or perhaps Boucher could only afford an old reprint.  Either way, it’s a fun little story about a mystery writer being cursed with the haunting of his romance-writing aunt.  I liked it.

“Wish upon a star,” by famed anthologist Judy Merril, is an excellent story about coming of age on a generation ship.  For those not in the know, a generation ship is a starship, generally traveling slower than the speed of light, designed to colonize a planet after a journey of many tens or even hundreds of years.  Because the mission takes so long, it is anticipated that several generations will be born before the ship reaches its destination.  Unusually, though quite plausibly, in this story, most of the crew and all of the officers of the ship are women.  The only thing wrong with the story is its length–I would love to see a novella or full-length novel on the topic–by Ms. Merril, preferably.

Though Boucher no longer edits F&SF, he still does the book-review column.  He spends most of it praising Theodore Sturgeon but expressing his dissatisfaction with “The Cosmic Rape.” This, Sturgeon’s third novel, is an expansion on the novelette, “To Marry Medusa,” which appeared in Galaxy a few months ago.  Alternatively, the Galaxy story may be a pared-down version of the novel.  I recall the story, which was about an interstellar hive-mind’s attempts to incorporate humanity, had said all that was needed to be said.  I have to wonder what purpose the extra verbiage served.

Next up is “Dream Girl,” a slight head-trip penned by Ron Goulart, who had an interesting story back in July called “The Katy Dialogues.” The following story, “Somebody’s Clothes, Somebody’s Life,” by mystery-writer Cornell Woolrich, is written like a play and could easily be an episode of F&SF’s counterpart to X Minus One.  It’s sheer fantasy involving a Countess with a gambling problem, a young woman with bigger problems, and the Russian clairvoyant who crosses their paths.  Good affecting stuff.  Finally, there is a cute three-page story by Walter S. Tevis, which I shan’t spoil for you, but it’s worth reading. 

So that’s that.  2.5 stars out of 5 for this week’s F&SF, but that’s only because the first half is a 1.5 and the latter is a 4.5.

You should all know that I am flying out to Japan this Friday with my family.  This should not stem the tide of articles, however.  I am bringing along this month’s Astounding, two unread Heinlein novels, and I expect to catch up on my giant monster movies.  It’s my understanding that Godzilla has a sequel, and other movies by that studio have also recently come out.  Here’s hoping these films uphold the fine standard set by the first of them.

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