Tag Archives: keith laumer

[August 12, 1962] FEH (the September 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

This September Amazing continues the magazine’s slide into mediocrity after the promise of the year’s earlier issues. 

Keith Laumer’s serial A Trace of Memory concludes, and it’s quite disappointing, in part because it compares so poorly to last year’s Worlds of the Imperium, in part because it seemed to start so well.  The protagonist, who is down and out after a sequence of ridiculously bad luck, is pulled out of the gutter (well, out of a police station) by a strange rich guy called Foster who seems to have lived for centuries, has an indestructible old journal to prove it, but doesn’t remember who he is or how he got here.  Also, it turns out, he is being stalked by even stranger, and dangerous, globular creatures, who catch up to him as the protagonist joins him, leading to a chase across country, and ultimately across the ocean, to escape them and track his origins. 

That first half was quite fast-paced and well-written if a bit over the top.  However, the second half takes the protagonist to Vallon, Foster’s home planet (not a spoiler; it’s telegraphed from the beginning), which has degenerated to a sort of cartoony gangster feudalism, against which backdrop the protagonist performs ever more preposterous feats of physical and mental prowess, dissipating the momentum of the earlier parts and quickly becoming tedious.  Also: upon seeing the July cover illustration of Stonehenge, I joked at the time that I feared winding up in Atlantis.  That doesn’t happen, but Laumer reveals another legendary motif which is just about as silly. 

Speaking of legends, early on, the protagonist introduces himself: “ ‘My name’s Legion,’ I said.” OK, stop right there.  As everybody in this Bible Belt town knows, even me, when Jesus was confronted by a man possessed by an “unclean spirit” and asked his name, the guy said, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” (Mark 5:1-5:9) So Laumer’s protagonist is in effect claiming to be a horde of demons.  I’m thinking of Chekhov’s dictum that if there’s a gun on the wall in Act One, it should be fired in the next act.  Those demons never do get fired.  Two stars (and if it had gone on longer it would have worked its way down to one).

The cover story is Edmond Hamilton’s short story Sunfire!, which continues Hamilton’s transition from Space Opera to Mope Opera.  Space explorer Kellard has slunk home to Earth and moved back, alone, into his ancestral house, refusing all contacts with his colleagues at Survey, because something happened on Mercury and two of his fellows died, and it’s so terrible he can never talk about it.  So Survey comes after him, having not accepted his resignation, and packs him off back to Mercury even though—or maybe because—he still won’t say a word about what happened there. 

It’s actually not much of a secret to anyone who has looked at the cover and seen the fiery aliens, looking like crude but imaginative Hallowe’en costumes.  They’re telepathic, too, and Kellard got a full dose of how free and playful they are, traversing the universe and frolicking among and in the stars.  “No, the ecstacy was one that men would never know except at secondhand through this brief contact!  The glorious rush together of the star-children through the vast abysses, drinking up the energy of the radiation about them.” Etc. It makes being human and tramping around on cold and too, too solid planets seem pointless, and Kellard is never going to burden anyone else with this awful knowledge. 

Sorry, I don’t buy it, and neither does the head of Survey, who gets Kellard’s point once he too meets the aliens, but doesn’t think just having the planets of the universe is such a bad deal.  Like any sensible person he’s ready to tell the world about this rather interesting discovery.  Despite the artificiality of its problem, the story is well turned and, with this and Requiem from the April issue, Hamilton is clearly working hard at making the transition to a less obsolete kind of SF than the space opera he is better known for.  Splitting the difference between good intentions and lack of plausibility, three stars.  If you can believe in Kellard’s reaction, you’ll like it better than I did.

Edward Wellen’s Apocryphal Fragment is a mildly clever vignette (so labelled on the contents page) in which Doubting Thomas encounters a jinni in the Negev.  Something this slight should be rated in asteroids rather than stars, but if I must . . . two stars.

The other short story is Whistler, by David Rome (reputedly a pseudonym for one David Boutland); it’s the first US appearance of an author who has published nine stories in little more than a year in New Worlds and its companions in the UK.  Unfortunately it is an insipid though well-meaning message story about the evils of bigotry in the space lanes, almost as short as Wellen’s.  One star.

That leaves the Classic Reprint, The Ice Man by William Withers Douglas, from the February 1930 Amazing.  The narrator is an ancient Roman citizen brought to the New York of 1928 through a classical version of suspended animation.  He expects this account to be transmitted to his countrymen back home, in hopes that someone will rescue him from the insane asylum where he has ended up.  It recounts his initial captivity by a rather annoying if not quite mad scientist, and his observations of modern times—fire engines, women’s fashion, etc. etc.—once he has made his escape.  It’s reasonably well written, and any two or three pages of it are quite amusing.  Unfortunately there are 34.  Two stars.

Ben Bova has another installment of his series on extraterrestrial life, The Inevitability of Life, which reviews what’s known (or believed to be known) about the origins of life in chemical evolution and physical processes.  There’s a good case that the chemical and physical components of life arise inevitably through natural processes, though Bova is a little hazy on how the deal is closed and organic chemicals become living matter.  Nonetheless, three stars for lucid exposition of interesting material, particularly welcome in an issue where there’s not much else of interest.

Benedict Breadfruit abideth.

[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 12, 1962] ROUTINE EXCURSION (the August 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Summertime, and the living is . . . hot and sticky, here in the near-South.  Also fairly boring, if one is not much interested in such local rustic amusements as hayrides and frog-gigging (if you have to ask, you don’t want to know.) There’s no better time to find a comfortable hiding place and read science fiction magazines, except possibly for all the other times.  Of course the season—any season—doesn’t guarantee merit, and the August 1962 Amazing is the usual mixed bag.

The issue leads off with the cover story Gateway to Strangeness by Jack Vance, which contrary to its title goes out of its way to avoid strangeness.  It’s the one about the martinet skipper who treats his young trainee sailors with brutal sternness—not to mention sabotage to create life-threatening problems for them to solve—but it’s good for them and makes men out of them, except for the one who’s dead.  In this case it’s a solar sail ship and not a windjammer, but the premise is just as tired regardless of medium.  The most interesting aspect is the description of operating a spaceship propelled by the “wind” of light and particles emanating from the Sun.  For a Vance story, that’s a judgment of failure: his talents lie elsewhere than hardware (see The Moon Moth in last year’s Galaxy and The Miracle Workers a few years ago in Astounding), but he seems determined sometimes to play to his weaknesses.  Two stars.

The other novelet here is James H. Schmitz’s Rogue Psi, in which humanity (via the members of a secret psi research project) confronts a “hypnotizing telepath” who can control or impersonate anyone, and has been interfering with humanity, and in particular its efforts to get off-planet, for centuries.  The showdown is brought about via “diex energy,” which amplifies psi powers.  This is all moonshine, but Schmitz is an engaging writer and has a knack for physical and experiential description that make his account of psychic goings-on better grounded than others we could name—none of the familiar “he stiffened his mind shield as Zork lashed out” sort of thing.  The deus ex machina, or ex hat, resolution even goes down smoothly.  Three stars for capable, even lively, deployment of material that otherwise would border on cliche. 

In between is the short story Passion Play by Roger Zelazny—who?  New writer, I guess, and the story is a heavily satirical vignette of a sort common from new writers—that is, it’s only barely a story.  In the future, it appears, robots have inherited the Earth, and one of them tells his story (in the present tense, no less), which involves ceremonially reenacting a crash from a famous auto race of the past (this one at Le Mans).  The guy is a glib writer, though—“After the season of Lamentations come the sacred stations of the Passion, then the bright Festival of Resurrection, with its tinkle and clatter, its exhaust fumes, scorched rubber, clouds of dust, and its great promise of happiness”—so we may hear from him again, more substantially.  Two stars, basted with promise.


One hopes not to hear further from Beta McGavin, the probably pseudonymous author of Dear Nan Glanders, an advice column from the future, a silly space-filler of which the best that can be said is that it distracts from Benedict Breadfruit, whose exploits continue here as well.  One star.

That’s it for the fiction contents, except for the second installment of Keith Laumer’s A Trace of Memory, to be discussed when it is completed next month.  As for non-fiction, Sam Moskowitz contributes C.L. Moore: Catherine the Great, another in his “SF Profiles” series, with considerable interesting biographical detail and more attention than usual for Moskowitz to her more recent work (possibly because there is so little of it).  Four stars.

But overall, this magazine is getting a little exasperating.  The year began well with several excellent stories by J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and Mark Clifton, but the streak did not continue.  For some months now the magazine’s high points have mostly been competent product like this month’s Schmitz story, nice tries like Purdom’s The Warriors, and trifles with promise like Zelazny’s story in this issue.  Enough promise; time for some more delivery.

[June 13, 1962] THE SINCEREST FORM? (the July 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

The July Amazing starts off ambiguously, with Stonehenge on the cover—often a bad sign, you could find yourself in Atlantis if you’re not careful.  But it illustrates A Trace of Memory, a new serial by the reasonably hardheaded Keith Laumer, so we may be spared any deep wooliness.  I’ll defer reading and comment until it’s complete.

So what else is there?  Excepting the “Classic Reprint,” this is the Literary Pastiche issue of Amazing.  The first of three short stories is The Blonde from Barsoom by Robert F. Young, featuring an aspiring fantasy writer whose work is virtually plagiarized from Edgar Rice Burroughs, as we are shown entirely too clearly.  It is vivid, because he has a knack for projecting himself into Burroughs’s world, and it soon enough occurs to him that maybe he could project himself into a more pleasant and less strenuous world.  Two stars for this slick but annoying trifle.

Then there is Richard Banks’s The Last Class, a Zola pastiche, which we know because it is subtitled (With Apologies to Emile Zola), and the blurb-writer helpfully adds that Zola wrote a similar story of the same title set just after the Franco-Prussian War.  This version is set in a regimented future world where people seem to live underground and get around via matter transmitter, and features a schoolteacher who tells her students about the Twentieth Century, when people were free, and gets caught at it.  It’s pretty well done, except that the teacher is referred to throughout as Miss Hippiness because she has big hips.  Would anyone refer to a sympathetic male central character as Mr. Beergutty or Mr. Hairybackish?  It’s an annoying distraction from an otherwise reasonably commendable story, holding it at three stars. 

This Banks—not to be confused with the more established and prolific Raymond E. Banks—has published one prior story in F&SF and one that sounds pretty SFnal (Roboticide Squad) in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

In between these two is William W. Stuart’s A Prison Make, in which a guy wakes up in a disgusting institutional setting which proves to be a jail, charged with something that he doesn’t remember—but in this world, law enforcement can rummage around in your mind, and they can damage your memory doing it.  He’s got a lawyer—a robot on wheels in very poor repair who doesn’t hold out much hope.  The story is about his adjustment to his absurd and outrageous situation, and if it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s a downmarket SF rendition of Kafka’s The Trial.  As with the other stories, you don’t have to figure it out on your own, since the blurb-writer refers to it as a “Kafkaesque tale.” Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, or at least the most interesting.  This one too is well done if a little heavyhanded in places, but without any stupid missteps like Mr. Banks’s character-naming gaffe.  Four stars.

So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have SF writers emulating great mainstream writers of the past.  Who’s next?  I hear James Joyce is kind of interesting.  Just—please—no more Hemingway.  (See Hemingway in Space by Kingsley Amis from last year’s Judith Merril “best of the year” anthology.)

Interestingly, there is no editorial comment other than in the blurbs on the fact that three of the five fiction items here are overtly derived from the work of other authors.

The “Classic Reprint” this month, G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s The Chamber of Life from the October 1929 Amazing, is actually pretty good.  Once more we have the nearly omnipresent plot device of this old SF: ordinary guy is invited by scientific genius to check out his invention, and trouble follows.  But Wertenbaker could write: he had a plain and understated style which compares well to the clumsier and more stilted diction of some of his contemporaries, and he avoids the tiresome digressions of the recent Buck Rogers epic.  Here the invention is the ultimate motion picture: all senses are engaged and the viewer is precipitated into an encompassing hallucinatory world, in this case, a regimented utopian society of the future.  This guy was ahead of his time; too bad he hung it up in 1931, after only half a dozen stories.  Four stars.

Ben Bova contributes another science article (the second of four, we are told), The Three Requirements of Life in the Solar System, which is better organized and more to the point than the one in the previous issue.  The three requirements are a “building block atom” for construction of large molecules, a solvent medium in which large molecules can be built, and an energy exchange reaction.  On Earth, these are of course carbon, water, and hydrogen-oxygen respectively.  Bova then runs down the possibilities for life on each of the planets (for Mars, “almost certainly”; for Venus, “quite possibly”; Jupiter “might”; and the rest, “probably not” or worse).  That “almost certainly” is a surprise; but Bova asserts, “Even the most conservative astronomers will now grudgingly admit that some form of plant life no doubt exists in the greenish areas of the Red Planet.” That’s certainly news to me.  Three stars.

Bova’s articles, by the way, are illustrated by Virgil Finlay (unlike Frank Tinsley’s, which had at most diagrams or badly printed photos)—an interesting conjunction.  Finlay illustrates this month’s sober rendition with something like a fanged lobster with tentacles (“Artist’s rendition of author’s conception of Jovian sea-creature”), and last month he presented a pageant of DNA, the animal kingdom from trilobite to H. Sapiens overlaid with the double helix, its meticulous detail badly betrayed by Amazing’s mediocre printing.

***

One other item of interest appears in Or So You Say, the letter column: one Julian Reid of Canada takes Mark Clifton to task at great length for the misanthropy of his recent stories in Amazing, and compares them knowledgeably and unfavorably with Clifton’s earlier work.  Clifton replies at almost the same length, asserting variously that he was just kidding, he venerates humanity and that’s why he bothers to needle it, and his mail is running fifty to one favorably about those stories. 

***

And, looming inescapably, in inexorable pursuit . . . B_______ B_________.

(Don’t miss your chance to see the Traveler LIVE via visi-phone, June 17 at 11 AM!  A virtual panel, with Q&A, show and tell, and prizes!)

[June 10, 1962] A star shall rise (July 1962 IF Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I’ve said before that IF Worlds of Science Fiction is sort of a poor sister to Galaxy Science Fiction.  Since 1959, they’ve been owned and run by the same team; IF pays its writers less; the quality used to be markedly lower on average (with occasional stand-outs).

We seem to be entering a new era.  The July 1962 IF was a cracking read once I got past the first story, which was short anyway.  Not only were the stories fairly original, but even where they weren’t, the writing was a cut above.  And not in that arty, self-indulgent way that F&SF deems “literary,” but in a real way that emphasizes characterization.  It’s a departure from the mode of the 50s, particularly the lesser mags, where the focus was on the gimmick, with the actors playing second-fiddle to the plot.  Plus, Ted Sturgeon has made a permanent home here, which is always a good sign.

So read on – I think you’ll enjoy the trip.

Aide Memoire, by Keith Laumer

This latest story in the Retief saga is definitely the weak point of the ish.  Our omnipotent, long-suffering interstellar diplomat is sent to resolve a violent generational gap amongst a race of turtles.  It seems that members of this long-lived race grow shells as they age.  The agile young ones have been whipped to an irreverent fervor by humanity’s enemy, the Groaci.  It’s paint-by-numbers satire, and the Retief shtick, when unsupported by an interesting plot, wears thin.  Two stars.

From Gustible’s Planet, by Cordwainer Smith

Gluttonous, nigh-invulnerable ducks from another planet invade the Earth.  The result is not so much oppression as incessant annoyance.  I’m not sure where, or even if, it really fits into his “Instrumentality” universe, though it ostensibly is set there.  Anyway, the normally sublime Smith is reduced to offering us what is essentially a one-joke story, but it’s Smith, so it’s still worth reading.  Three stars.

The Chemically Pure Warriors, by Allen Kim Lang

A caste of humans have been bred to be septically pure, as clean of and as vulnerable to bacteria and viruses as any bubble baby.  Yet, they have also been trained for generations as humanity’s space troopers.  Such is their indoctrination that a movement has risen amongst them that they are the superior race, and the “Stinkers” or baseline humans, must ultimately be exterminated.

Warriors takes place on the colony world of Kansas where a battalion of these sterilized soldiers are based in the midst of a Japanese-extracted group of pastoral “Indigenous Humanoids.”  When one of the troopers attempts to go native, this proves the catalyst for a short-lived but terrible conflict between the two groups. 

IF experiments not only with writers and concepts, but with story lengths.  The novella just isn’t that common a format, but it works nicely here.  There is enough time to portray the spit-and-polish roboticism of the soldiers, the gentle Buddhism of the Japanese (the culture and language of whom is reasonably accurately portrayed – I have to wonder if Mr. Lang has spent some time overseas).  Warriors owes much to Dickson’s Naked to the Stars, or perhaps the time is simply due for a pacifistic sf movement.  My favorite passage:

“The ultimate breakdown in communication is silencing one side of the dialogue…  That’s why killing a man is the ultimate sin; it removes forever the hope of understanding him.”

Four stars.

Uncle Sam’s Time Machine, by Theodore Sturgeon

Seems old Ted was hosting a bunch of Scouts at his house, and their clocks had run down.  All were agog when he dialed into 2500 Khz on his radio and the ticking of the time station, WWV, filled the house.  Within 60 seconds, they knew exactly what time it was – to the billionth of a second!  Sturgeon was so pleased with the reaction of the boys that he decided to write in to the government to find more about the broadcaster.  The goldmine of information they sent him astounded and delighted him, so he passed it onto us.

Now you may feel differently about this article, but I loved it.  It doesn’t hurt that I am a Ham Radio fanatic, Morse-code fluent, and I tune into WWV (and its Hawaiian counterpart, WWVH) at least weekly.  But anyone can appreciate the sheer volume of information the Bureau of Weights and Measures squeezes into those clicks, tones, and messages you can hear if you tune in.  And they’re improving on the signal all the time.  A fine example of our taxpayer dollars at work, and a fun Sturgeon piece to boot.  Five stars.

The Recruit, by Bryce Walton

In the near future, a young punk is drafted into a government police force.  He swaggers through his role until the time comes to conclude his mission, a mission which is not clearly spelled out until the end.  The “teener’s” duty is a tantalizing mystery, and the conclusion is well set up.  It’s a brutal, vivid story by a fellow best known for his decades of pulp tales.  Recruit feels kind of like Sheckley on a dark day.  Four stars.

All That Earthly Remains, by C. C. MacApp

Amid the turmoil of a recent right-wing revolution in an Andean nation, a half-Hispanic American scientist is dispatched to the mountains to investigate a mysterious explosion.  The blast has exposed an underground complex, home to fantastic technologies.  Are its builders demons?  Aliens?  Or something more?

Ten years ago, this would have been a simple “gotcha” tale.  In MacApp’s hands, it’s a carrier wave for the interpersonal drama of a handful of the opposing personalities sent to explore the tunnels.  The enduring question they are presented – if there is concrete proof of God, will that make us all Atheists?  Four stars.

A Bad Town for Spacemen, by Robert Scott

A short, effective piece whose only failing is the rather clumsy expositional bit near the end.  But I like the sentiment, the double-meaning, and the otherwise strong implementation.  Four stars.

***

So there you have it.  An excellent 3.7 star issue, which is only really marred by the truly awful illos, which I suspect are mostly padding for length.  Definitely worth subscribing, as Editor Fred Pohl exhorts you to do at the magazine’s conclusion.  What are you waiting for?

(And don’t miss your chance to see the Traveler LIVE via visi-phone, June 17 at 11 AM!  A virtual panel, with Q&A, show and tell, and prizes!)

[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!

[Feb. 10, 1962] Here is the News (March 1962 IF)


by Gideon Marcus

If “no news is good news,” then this has been a very good week, indeed!  The Studebaker UAW strike ended on the 7th.  The Congo is no more restive than usual.  Laos seems to be holding a tenuous peace in its three-cornered civil war.  The coup is over in the Dominican Republic, the former government back in power.  John Glenn hasn’t gone up yet, but then, neither have any Russians. 

And while this month’s IF science fiction magazine contains nothing of earth-shattering quality, there’s not a clunker in the mix – and quite a bit to enjoy!  Get a load of these headlines:

SURE THING

Poul Anderson’s Kings who Die leads the issue.  Anderson has been writing a blue streak over the past decade, and I don’t think I’ve disliked any of his work since this decade started.  One of my readers has noted Anderson’s tendency toward the somber (A Bicycle Built for Brew and The High Crusade not withstanding), but I like a bit of gravitas in my stories. 

Kings who Die tells the moving tale of a shipwrecked astro-soldier picked up by The Enemy in the depths of space.  The captive is induced to join his foes, who have developed a super-weapon.  But in the end, it turns out that the prisoner has a weapon of his own, one hidden deep inside of him.

Told by most others, this would be a throwaway gimmick piece.  Anderson puts flesh on the bones of this story, despite it being rather short.  Four stars.

NO SUPRISES

I don’t think Jim Harmon has missed an issue of IF in good long time.  This is generally to the reader’s favor as Harmon oscillates between fair and superior (if never great or awful).  Dangerous Quarry has a cute title, but this tale of a town and its bad-luck mine of luxury granite feeles dashed off, metering in at around sin of π (or three stars).

AUTHOR KICKS SELF

I usually don’t review Ted Sturgeon’s nonfiction pieces, but this month’s was long enough, and about an interesting-enough topic (Murray Leinster’s myriad of nifty scientific inventions – real, not literary), that I felt it worth a rating: Three stars.

LOST CAT

I normally associate Stephen Barr’s surreal stylings with Fantasy and Science Fiction, in whose pages I usually find him.  His latest story, Tybalt, thus, is an odd (but not unwelcome) addition to this month’s IFTybalt has the distinction of being the first story I’ve read to feature time travel by aid of chemicals (as opposed to using a machine), and its feline-tinged middle section is excellent.  Too bad about the rather rough ending, though.  Three stars, though I am reasonably certain this will be a favorite of some of my readers.


by Burns

TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE

Frank Banta is back again with The Happy Homicide, a cautionary tale about the dangers of relying on circumstantial evidence, particularly when the jury is sympathetic to the circumstances.  Never rely on a computer, at least so long as Perry Mason is around!  Three stars.

IT DOESN’T MATTER

James Stamers continues his upward trend with E Being.  The premise is fantastic: a pilot on the first Faster Than Light flight is converted into energy, fundamentally changing his nature but not his soul.  Upon this transformation, he finds himself in a community of radiation-eating, incorporeal creatures with a rather unique perspective on life (or perhaps it is we, the comparatively rare beings made up of…stuff…that are the oddballs).

I would have liked a serious exploration of these concepts, something philosophical and profound (e.g. The Star Dwellers, by James Blish).  Instead, Stamers plays the story for horror and laughs (an odd combination, but it works) and E Being ends up a fun tale, if a lost opportunity.  Three stars.

RETIEF STRIKES AGAIN!

The best-known interstellar diplomat is back, this time attempting to solve the mystery of the misplaced heavy cruiser.  Laumer’s The Madman from Earth plays Retief a bit straighter than I’m used to, which I think is to the story’s ultimate benefit.  However, Laumer commits the whodunnit writer’s cardinal sin: he never explains just how Retief gains the critical piece of information on which his success hinges.  Three stars.

NOW YOU SEE IT…

Wrapping things up is a charming piece of whimsy by R.A. Lafferty (who else?) called Seven-Day Terror, which involves a thieving brat, who absconds with necessary items, and the precocious little girl who sets things to rights.  Four stars, making this issue a worthy palindrome. 

Read all about it!


by Emsh

[January 30, 1962] Heads or Tails? (Ace Double F-127)


by Gideon Marcus

What if the South had won at Antietam?  Or the Mongols had not been so savaged by the Hungarians at Mohi?  If Hitler had grown up an artist?  Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since the genre was formalized.  One of the newer flavors of the time travel oeuvre is the “sideways-in-time” story, where the “what-if” has become reality.  Sometimes the tale is told in isolation, the characters unaware of any other history.  Oftimes, the alternate timeline is just one of many.

Keith Laumer published one of the latter type in the pages of last year’s Fantastic, an engaging yarn called Worlds of the Imperium.  In this serial, Brion Bayard, a minor diplomat dispatched to Stockholm, is abducted by agents from another Earth.  The world he is brought to is under the benign domination of an Anglo-German empire, one whose technology and culture are somewhat mired in the Victorian age, but with one critical difference: The Imperium has perfected the Maxoni-Cocini engine that facilitates cross-timeline travel.

The M-C drive is a finicky thing.  One slight error in construction results not only in the destruction of the vehicle, but the entire planet.  In fact, the Imperium’s timeline is surrounded to a vast distance by blighted worlds where development of the M-C drive resulted in catastrophe.  Only two exceptions exist – our Earth (“Blight Insular Three”), and a closely related world (“Blight Insular Two”) that avoided M-C destruction but fell prey to atomic apocalypse.  This latter world has begun to raid the Imperium timeline with increasing effectiveness; it is only a matter of time until they succeed in its conquest.  Bayard is the key to the Imperium’s survival.

I won’t tell you how he is the key, nor anything else about the plot of this fun book, just published as one half of Ace Double F-127.  It reads a bit like one of Laumer’s Retief novels without the comedy.  I like any story that features a hero who is my age (42), and it is one of the few books that accurately portrays the debilitating aftereffects of being truly worked over in a fight.  On the negative side of the ledger, Imperium is a bit too short and a touch too glib; while the adventure is exciting and the histories intriguing, somehow, the work fails to leave a much impact.  Also, the female lead, the intrepid Swede Barbro, is as undeveloped as a pencil sketch, which makes the ensuing romance between her and Bayard feel tacked on. 

Still, I do love alternate history, and Imperium is decent (if not stellar) Laumer.  Three and a half stars.

Now, flip over F-127, and what do we have?  Seven from the Stars, the brand new second novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley (she gave us The Door through Space last year.)

In Stars, a handful of alien colonists survive a spaceship malfunction on the edge of known (to them) space.  Refugees from a telepathic society (the Dvaneth), three of them are psi-endowed. The planet on which the seven have crashed is not immediately identified, but it becomes quickly apparent that the world is Earth. 

This is something of a mixed blessing: Earth is hospitable to the Dvaneth, who are human in every way (this extreme coincidence is never explained.) Moreover, the telempathic castaway called Mathis is able to learn and convey the languages of the Texan natives to the refugees.  Since the colonists look Hispanic, fitting in does not prove difficult.  There is even a Dvaneth citizen already installed on Earth, a Watcher who reports on planetary affairs from behind the shield of a terran cover identity.  If the colonists can find him, they are halfway to safety.

There is a downside, however.  The incorporeal parasite beings, the Rhu-inn, the bane of Dvaneth existence, are endemic to Earth’s sector of space.  Having no bodies of their own, they inhabit those of hapless humans, forcing them to to their bidding.  Until a planetary shield can be erected against the Rhu-inn, Earth cannot be visited by Dvaneth vessels, and the castaways have no chance of rescue.  Worse still, it quickly becomes apparent that a Rhu-inn has already infested at least one human, and planetary conquest is imminent.  Can the invader be stopped in time?

All in all, not a bad set up, if a bit hoary.  Where the book falls down is execution.  Bradley is a new writer, and it shows, with all emotions and dialogue dripping with melodrama – the book equivalent of the comic strips’ inability to use any punctuation but the exclamation mark.  As in Imperium, the romance subplots are perfunctory and hackneyed. 

Most disturbing is the constant undercurrent of violence.  I’m not certain if this was a stylistic choice on Bradley’s part, a way of distinguishing the Dvaneth culture, but if people aren’t striking each other, or contemplating striking each other, they are shouting.  Bradley’s castaways are constantly at the edge of a rage, their knuckles white in clenched fists.  Only the albino empath, Dionie, seems to rise above base emotions – and Bradley makes her the victim of a near rape!  I suppose this kind of roughness is tolerable (expected?) in a Howard-esque fantasy (a la Door through Space) but in Stars, I found it off-putting.  Two stars.

Should you pick up F-127?  While it is the least of the Ace Doubles I’ve yet picked up, I think the Laumer makes it a worthy purchase, particularly at just 40 cents.  And you may like Stats better than I did.

Coming up…January’s exciting Space Race developments!

[By the way, I have been advised that Galactic Journey qualifies for “Best Fanzine” rather than “Best Related Work.”  If you were planning on nominating the Journey for a Hugo, we would greatly appreciate your changing your vote accordingly.  Thank you!]

[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!

[Oct. 26, 1961] Fading Fancy (November 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn’t satisfy like it used to?  I’m a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could.  That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee…mmm. 

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn’t done it for me.  The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold.  The flavor doesn’t seem as bold, the crust as crispy.  I’ve started giving dessert menus a serious peruse.  Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert — saved for last and savored.  These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don’t look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did.  This month’s, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:

Keith Laumer is an exciting newish author whose work I often confuse with Harry Harrison’s — probably because Retief reminds me of “Slippery Jim” diGriz.  Laumer has a knack for creating interesting sentient non-humans.  He gave us intelligent robot tanks in Combat Unit, and this month, he gives us sentient, symbiotic trees in Hybrid.  It’s a story that teeters on the edge of greatness, but its brevity and rather unpleasant ending drag it from four to three stars.

The Other End of the Line is the first new story from Walter Tevis in three years.  Ever wonder what happens if you break a bootstrap paradox (i.e. one where your future self gives your present self a leg up)?  Well…it’s not a good idea.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Rick Rubin is back with his second story, the first being his excellent F&SF-published Final MusterThe Interplanetary Cat is a weird little fantasy involving an incorrigible feline with an insatiable appetite.  It’s almost Lafferty-esque, which means some will love it, and some will hate it.  I’m in the middle.  Three stars.

Faq’ is the latest by George P. Elliott, whose Among the Dangs was a minor masterpiece.  Elliott’s new story is in the same vein — a Westerner who finds a fictional yet plausible tribe of people, alien from any we currently know.  It’s got a nice, dreamy style to it, but it lacks the depth or the powerful conclusion of Dangs.  Three stars.

Doris Pitkin Buck is another F&SF new author.  Green Sunrise, like Buck’s last work (Birth of a Gardner), Sunrise features a lovers’ squabble between a scientist man and a non-scientist woman.  Once again, the language is evocative, but the plot is weak, the impression fleeting.  Two stars.

The Tunnel Ahead is an overpopulation dystopia-by-numbers tale by Alice Glaser.  Cramped living conditions?  Check.  Algae-based food products?  Check.  Drastic, random population reduction methods?  Check.  Two stars?  Check. 

Randy Garrett’s been skulking around F&SF lately, but I don’t know that it has been to the magazine’s benefit.  Mustang is essentially Kit Reed’s Piggy, but not as good.  Two stars.

Dethronement is Isaac Asimov’s latest article, a sort of screed written in response to a bad review of his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science by biologist Barry Commoner.  The latter objected to the former’s obliteration of the line between non-living and living matter.  This, Commoner maintained, destroyed the field of biology entirely.  The Good Doctor explains that finding bridges between disciplines does not destroy the disciplines any more than bridging Manhattan with the other four burroughs of New York makes Manhattan no longer an island.  It’s a good piece.  Four stars.

Alfred Bester covers Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in his books column.  He didn’t like it either. 

John Updike has a bit of doggerel about scandalous neutrinos called Cosmic Gall.  It is followed by Algis Budrys’ rather impenetrable article on science fiction, About Something Truly Wonderful.  Both rate two stars. 

Part 2 of Gordy Dickson’s Naked to the Stars rounds out the otherwise lackluster issue.  It deserves its own article, but you’re going to have to wait for it, since Rosemary Benton and Ashley Pollard will be covering some exciting scientific developments, first.  I’ll give you a hint — they involve the biggest rocket and the biggest boom.