Tag Archives: l. sprague de camp

[December 24, 1962] The Year 2 A.D. (After Davidson – the January 1963 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Trends are tricky things.  They require multiple data points to become apparent, and even then, careful analysis may be required to draw a proper conclusion.

I think I can safely say, however, that one-plus year into Avram Davidson’s tenure as editor of F&SF, the magazine’s quality has trended sharply and consistently downward.  Stories tend toward the obtuse, the purple, the (and this surprises me) hackneyed.  It’s just not the sublime lyric beauty it used to be.

Why is this?  Let’s explore some possible explanations:

1) F&SF can’t get good writers anymore.

This clearly isn’t true.  The Table of Contents of any given issue reads like a who’s who of the genre.

2) Nobody is writing good sf anymore.

Demonstrably false.  Just look at the other mags.

3) The good writers save their best stuff for other magazines

This could be true, but given that F&SF pays some of the best rates (for science fiction anyway – three or four cents a word), I’d can’t image F&SF is a second-resort mag.

4) Davidson’s editorial preferences are driving the direction of F&SF.

A ha.  Davidson has been a writer of sf for many a year, and the trend in his writing has been toward the obscure and the prolix.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Davidson style creep into his magazine.  One trend I find particularly disturbing is the disappearance of women from F&SF’s pages.  This magazine used to be the stand-out leader in publishing of woman authors, and its pages were better for it.  Now, female writers been conspicuously absent for two issues, and there had been fewer than normal in the months prior.  Nor can one argue that women are leaving the genre — F&SF’s loss is the gain for the other digests.

The inevitable destination of this downward trend, the limit of quality as the time of Davidson’s tenure goes to infinity, as it were, appears to be zero stars.  Sure, there are still stand-out issues, but they come fewer and farther between.  And the January 1963 F&SF isn’t one of them…

The Golden Brick, P. M. Hubbard

The issue starts off well enough with this story of a Cornish ghost ship, imprisoned in which is a four hundred year old mad Alchemist with the Midas touch.  The tale is nicely crafted and atmospheric, but stories like this have been a dime a dozen in this mag.  Competent writing and imagery aren’t enough.  Three stars.

Zap! and La Difference, Randall Garrett

Ugh.  Go away, Randy.

Dragon Hunt, L. Sprague de Camp

De Camp’s life is the stuff of legends, as shows this essay on the globetrotting he undertook to familiarize himself with the locales of his recent historical fiction.  The piece contains tidbits of genuine interest, but the presentation is somehow lackluster.  Three stars.

Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me, Fritz Leiber

In which the author’s precocious descendant notes the frightening parallels between the Cold War of the 1980s and Ragnarok of Norse Myth.  This is the best story of the magazine, but again, we’re treading familiar ground.  A minor piece from a major author.  Three stars.  (Happy 52nd birthday, by the way, Fritz.)

He’s Not My Type!, Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor’s non-fiction articles always get read first, but I was disappointed this time around.  Perhaps it’s because I felt Asimov explained blood types better in his recent book, The Living River, or maybe Davidson’s too-barbed introduction put me in a bad mood (I must stop reading those first).  In any event, it is readable, which is the worst Asimov ever gets.  Three stars.

Way-Station, Henry Slesar

Imagine Zenna Henderson wrote a The People story, but rather than have it end in poignance, instead wrote a stock “horror” ending that one could see a mile away.  That’s what scriptwriter Slesar offers up.  Where is Henderson, anyway?  Two stars.

Punch, Frederik Pohl

Pohl is a busy boy – not only does he edit two mags (three, come early next year), but he finds time to be published in all of them and Davidson’s.  In Punch, it turns out that the many technological gifts of the newly encountered galaxy-spanning aliens have a sinister motivation.  It would have made a decent, if typical, episode of The Twilight Zone.  Three stars.

Speakeasy, Mack Reynolds

Last up is a short novel from a fellow who is typically featured in AnalogSpeakeasy depicts a future in which society has been stultified by success, a meritocracy that has calcified thanks to nepotism and inertia.  Only a few revolutionaries remain to shock life into the decaying culture of the Technocracy. 

Reynolds can do very good political thriller, viz. Mercenary from last year’s Analog.  Unfortunately, Speakeasy is a rambling, naive mess that jumps the tracks about halfway through and runs headlong into a wall near the end.  I wonder if Analog’s editor Campbell rejected it.  If so, I wonder why Davidson accepted it.  It doesn’t really fit F&SF, either the current or past iterations of the magazine.  Two stars.

So there you have it, an issue that clocks in at a miserable 2.3 stars.  Even Davidson seems to agree that his stuff hasn’t been very good – check out the scathing letter at the end of the mag (which may or may not have come from Davidson’s pen, itself).  No more “purple cows,” indeed.

Ah well.  That’s enough kvetching for this season.  It’s Christmas Eve, as well as the fourth night of Hannukah.  Go light a candle, illuminate a tree, drink some eggnog.  Or as a recent fancard admonishes, let there be “Goodwill to mellow fen.”

[P.S. If you want the chance to nominate Galactic Journey for Best Fanzine next year, you need to register for WorldCon before the end of the year! (or have registered last year… but then you can only nominate, not vote.) The Journey will be at next year’s WorldCon, so don’t miss your chance to meet us and please help put us on the ballot for Best Fanzine!]




[May 14, 1961] Friendly disputes (June 1961 Analog)

I’ve got a long-running feud going on with Mike Glyer, editor of the popular fanzine, File 770.  Well, feud is probably too strong a word given that we’re good friends and avid mutual readers.  In fact, we usually get along quite well.  All fans are united by love for the genre and our status as oddballs, after all.  But Mike and I just can’t seem to agree on Analog, a monthly science fiction magazine.

Here are the indisputable facts: Analog is the elder statesman of the digests; it pioneered real sf back when all the other outlets were pushing pulp adventure.  Analog has the biggest circulation of any of the current digests, somewhere around 200,000 per month. 

Now for the disputable ones.  Analog is the most conservative of the mags.  It’s generally Terran-centric, with Earthlings portrayed as the most cunning, successful beings in the galaxy (which is why, of course, most aliens look just like us).  While the serialized novels in Analog are often excellent, the accompanying short stories tend to be uninspiring.  The science fact columns are awful.  Editor John Campbell’s championing of psionics and reactionless engines (in real-life, not just fiction), crosses into the embarrassing.  All these factors make Analog the weakest of the Big Three magazines, consistently lagging in quality behind Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Of course, Mike disagrees.  He’s even wagered that Analog will take the Hugo award for Best Science Fiction Magazine this year.  I think he’s dreaming.  F&SF has won three years in a row, and barring some unexpected decline in quality, it will do so again. 

I’ll take that bet, Mike Glyer!  Two beers to your one.

As evidence for my case, I present this month’s Analog, dated June 1961.

I will give Campbell credit where it is due.  While women are rare in Analog (as they are everywhere in published sf lit), Campbell does make an effort to “discover” female authors.  That’s how we got the delightful Pauline Ashwell, and now we have the promising Leigh Richmond.  Her first story, Prologue to an Analogue, involves a coven of witches that solves world crisis after world crisis with their televised incantations.  Is it sorcery, technology, or something entirely different?  A story that manages to be both Campbellian yet also pretty neat.  Three stars.

I’m not sure why L. Sprague de Camp’s Apollonious Enlists was included.  Normally, Sprague writes fun, light fantasy.  This piece is non-fiction, an essay on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Ptolemaic Egypt, with some pointed parallels drawn with our modern methods of government.  I guess there weren’t any fiction vignettes handy to fill the 8-page slot.  Two stars.

Fallen Angel shows us a far future in which the Terran dominion is but a small corner of a larger Galactic Federation.  We have something of an inferiority complex as, compared to the blond, perfect Grienan, leader race of the Federation, humanity seems barely out of childhood.  In fact, we have only made it as far as we have thanks to “Experiment,” an anarchistic enclave in which humans express their base impulses until they are thoroughly tired of them.  Only a small proportion of the population are truly incurable, and they become permanent residents.  It’s a program that seems barbaric to the rest of the civilized galaxy and is ridiculed accordingly.

In Angel, the aristocratic Grienan are taken down a peg when its ambassador volunteers to go through Experiment and loses all of his highfalutin culture and manners, almost losing his very humanity (Grienanity?) See?  Terrans really do know best!

High is a prolific writer who’s hitherto stayed on the British side of The Pond.  His latest work does little to recommend that he emigrate.  Two stars.

Lloyd Biggle Jr. is like a Cepheid star – highly variable.  His latest, Monument, may be the high point of his career to date.  I wasn’t optimistic.  The set-up involves a backward paradise planet, populated by (of course) completely human aliens, a marooned Terran who vows to protect the natives from a rapacious Earth Federation, and the inevitable coming of the representatives of said polity.  There’s no real science fiction in this tale of classic exploitation – you could transplant the “aliens” to an island in the Pacific Ocean and replace the Federation with the United Nations (and, perhaps, that’s the point; I prefer my analogies slightly less direct).

And yet.  It’s a well-told story, engaging throughout, and it’s fundamentally an honest one.  There are no gimmicks or silly twists.  Just a series of interesting scenes, compelling characters, and a problem to be solved.  Four stars.

The science fact this month, George Willard’s The Complex Problem of the Simple Weather Rocket starts well enough, describing the armada of radio balloons deployed daily by meteorological agencies, but it quickly degenerates into a fannish gush, recommending a switch to little sounding rockets based on the machines currently employed by model rocket enthusiasts.  Kind of a pointless article, especially given that weather balloons are cheap, and now they are augmented by the TIROS weather satellites with their hourly photos.  Two stars.

That leaves the third installment of Cliff Simak’s very good serial, The Fisherman, which I won’t review until it’s all done next month.  Running the numbers, Analog clocks in at a straight three of five stars: acceptable, but not astonishing.  Certainly not Hugo material.  At least not this year…

Sneak preview: Last night, the Young Traveler and I went to the drive-in to take in George Pal’s latest, Atlantis: the Lost Continent.  It was a hoot, and we’ll tell you all about it next time…on Galactic Journey!

[April 11, 1960] A Steady Flame (Twilight Zone wrap-up)

Some shows start with a bang and quickly lose their spark; some are a slow burn, taking a while to find their stride; The Twilight Zone has remained a class act from the beginning.

As of Friday, April 8, 1960, there have been 27 episodes.  They have ranged in quality from fair to outstanding, and the current crop of four (I like to review them in monthly batches) comprises superior installments.

I think the success of the show can be attributed in large part to the high bar that creator and writer, Rod Serling, has set for its production.  This is a person who clearly knows his craft and seeks out like talents (Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, etc.) to draft screenplays.  Much of the credit must be doled out to the directors, cinematographers, and composer Jerry Goldsmith, to say nothing of the frequently excellent acting talent that CBS has managed to contract.

So much for the general praise.  On to the reviews!

Long Live Walter Jameson sets the standard for this batch.  The eponymous Professor Jameson is a brilliant history teacher with a knack for vivid anecdotes.  It’s almost as if Jameson has lived through each of the periods and settings he describes, which is, of course, the case.

This is a thoughtful, fascinating piece that describes the blessing and curse that is immortality.  It’s hardly the first, of course.  The one I remember most vividly is The Gnarly Man, by L. Sprague de Camp, but it is always a worthy topic.  In a piece I wrote many years ago, I once put these words into the mouth of a 5000 year old man:

“Imagine being in library with every book you ever want to read, and all the time in the world in which to do so.  And you read them… and you still have all the time in the world.”

The following week, People Are Alike All Over.  Two astronauts, a rock-chinned type and a frightened intellectual, go to Mars where they find a remarkably human populace.  But why does the fine house crafted for the scientist (the hero-type having died soon after landing) have no windows or doors? 

I’ll spoil it for you.  Roddy McDowell (the panicky scientist’s actor) has been turned into a zoo specimen, relegated to live out the rest of his life as an exhibit in his “native habitat.”  I get the message, but I still think it was a weak story idea.

Execution is another time travel fish-out-of-water story, but unlike The Last Flight, the voyager is a thoroughly unlikable chap.  Snatched from the hangman’s noose in 1880, the murderous viewpoint character finds himself in 1960, the guest of a dapper chronologist (is that what you call a time travel expert?) The criminal remains true to type, killing and looting, being driven close to madness by the ever-present 20th century cacophony.  The ending comes as a surprise, for the most part. 

An interesting point—time travelers often are inordinately worried about changing the past, but no one gives a thought to changing the future.  After all, the present is really just someone else’s past, and any gross modification of the present (say, sending one of its inhabitants permanently into the past) must to a resident of the future, make a severe alteration to the timeline.  Food for thought.

Finally, we have The Big Tall Wish, the first episode to date that features a black protagonist (and several black supporting actors).  An over-the-hill boxer tries to win a come-back fight with the help of the wishes of a little boy. 

The episode doesn’t feature the madness or the weirdness of its predecessors.  Rather, it is a slow, wordy piece.  My daughter particularly enjoyed the heart-warming relationship between the boxer and his child friend.  That said, the twist (there’s always a twist on this show) is very effective, and we are left with this conundrum: is a fight won with magic preferable to one honestly lost? 

That’s the wrap-up for this month.  I’ll be back in two days with this month’s F&SF!




(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

The Incomplete Enchanter (12-12-1958)

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I’ve given anything unreserved praise.  Moreover, it’s been a while since I’ve reported on anything really fun.  To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. 

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago.  He didn’t write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels.  He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College. 

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together.  Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber.  It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic.  Sort of.  You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”).  Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea’s adventures.  They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940.  In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology.  He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok.  None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional.  On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy.  This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect. 

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants.  All of this is written with a fun, light touch.  Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don’t go too badly. 

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition.  This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers.  They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queen.  It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse.  Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart).  It’s all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun.  It’s also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer’s realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review.  There are so many fun scenes.  For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine ‘Goldtop’, after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor.  Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword.  The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent’s armor.  These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter… or you really must do so post-haste!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.