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[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.

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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. 

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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 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the Earth.  There are many hypotheses as to why these great reptiles no longer walk among us.  One current of thinking goes thusly: dinosaurs were masters of the Earth for so long that they became complacent.  Because their reign was indisputed, they evolved in ways that were not optimized for survival.  Thus, the strange crests of the Hadrosaurs.  The weird dome head of the Pachycephalosaurs.  The giant frills of the Ceratopsians.  Like Victorian ladies’ hats, the dinosaurs became increasingly baroque until they were too ungainly to survive.

I worry that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is heading in that direction.  I’m all for literary quality in my sf mags, but F&SF has been tilting so far in the purple direction that it is often all but unreadable.  I present Exhibit A: the July 1961 “All-Star” issue.

Kingsley Amis is perhaps better known as a fan than a writer, his recent New Maps of Hell being a lauded survey of the current sci-fi field.  Something Strange isn’t a bad story, but the fluffy writing can’t relieve or distract from the threadbare plot (a retread of The Twilight Zone’s first episode): Two married couples are stuck on what they believe is a remote interstellar outpost.  A series of increasingly strange things materialize, first outside and, later, inside the station.  Ultimately, the scouts are given a final message from Earth – they have been abandoned for want of funding to retrieve them!  Of course, the keen reader has already figured out that the base is really just a long-term isolation chamber on Earth, the whole thing being an experiment.  Despite the hackneyed plot, it’s still readable.  Three stars, barely.

Package Deal is the latest by Will Worthington, an author given to writing dark pieces.  This one, about a n’er-do-well spoiled rich kid who discovers his latent powers of telepathy, is overly cute and underly memorable.  Two stars.

The new writer, Nicholas Breckenridge, advises ailurophiles to skip the feline ghost story, Cat Lover.  It’s a good suggestion; Lover is a tired retread of familiar ground.  Two stars.

Grendel Briarton has a new Ferdinand Feghoot pun story.  I include it in the interests of completeness; do not mistake presentation for endorsement.

The Zookeeper is the first published story by Otis Kidwell Burger, and also the one piece by a woman (despite the unlikely name) to appear in any of the Big Three magazines this month.  It’s a tale of the far future, a sort of meet cute featuring a woman secured from present day as a sort of pet, and the all-too-human alien, also a pet, who comes to love her.  Another overly oblique piece, but kind of charming nonetheless.  Three stars.

Kris Neville’s Closing Time is more Socratic dialogue than story, a rather insipid piece about disproving the existence of intelligent aliens.  Two stars.

Night Piece, by the usually (these days) excellent Poul Anderson, is even more disappointing.  Something about a scientist becoming aware of dimensions beyond his own, grappling to retain his sanity amid an onslaught to his senses.  It’s all very ponderous and overwrought.  One star.

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Recipe for a Planet, all about the elements that make up the Earth and their proportion to each other.  I especially enjoyed the article’s wrap-up, describing our planet’s composition in cook-book style.

Comprising a good third of the book is its final piece, Brian Aldiss’ novella, Undergrowth.  It is a direct sequel to his previous stories, Hothouse and Nomansland, all set on Earth a billion years from now.  The sun has grown hot, and the planet is a jungle.  Humans have long-since stopped being Earth’s master and are now diminutive, barely sentient creatures.  In this story, we learn of the event that caused our race to topple from power, thanks to the racial-memory tapping talents of the fungoid symbiotes, the morel. 

As usual, Aldiss paints a vivid picture, and a unique one, but somehow the further adventures of Gren and Poyly and their bonded morel have gotten a bit tedious.  It feels more and more like one of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels – enjoyable, but shallow.  I’m looking forward to learning what happened to the lunar explorers from the first novella, and I expect Aldiss has already got that story plotted out.  Three stars.

Measured on the Star-o-Meter(tm), this “All-Star” issue only earns 2.5 stars.  In fact, not a single magazine broke the 3-star barrier this month!  Moreover, just one woman made it to print.  The two facts may not be unrelated…

In any event, if F&SF wants to win the Hugo this year, it’ll have to do better than this.  Otherwise, Analog or Galaxy are likely to take the prize just by failing to decline as steeply.