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[January 29, 1961] Take a little off the bottom (February 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Greetings from sunny Kaua’i!  It seems like only yesterday I was reporting from this island’s idyllic shores.  Much has changed, of course–Hawai’i is now a state!  50 is a nice round number, so perhaps we won’t see any new entries into the Union for a while.

Accompanying me on this trip is the last science fiction digest of the month, the February 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  On a lark, I decided to read from the end, first.  In retrospect, I’m glad I did, but it certainly made the magazine a challenge.  You see, the stories at the end are just wretched.  But if you skip them (or survive them, as I did), the rest of the magazine is quite excellent.

Let’s get the drek over with straight-away, shall we?

Some unknown named C. Brian Kelly offers up the disgusting and sadistic The Tunnel, three pages about a vengeful cockroach that you need never read. 1 star.

Meanwhile, the normally excellent Robert F. Young offers the strangely prudish Storm over Sodom, which somehow rubbed me the wrong way all the way through.  2 stars.

Whew.  Now let’s go to the beginning and pretend the last 20 pages never happened. 

Brian Aldiss, who wrote the variable fix-up Galaxies like grains of sand is back with what I hope is the first in a series of tales about life on Earth in the very distant future.  Hothouse portrays a hot, steamy world dominated by vegetable life.  Indeed, a single banyan tree has become a global forest, and within it reside a myriad of mobile plant creatures that comprise almost all of the planet’s species.  Humanity is a savage race, clearly on the decline.  Their only hope, perhaps, will come from the outer space they once called their own domain. 

It’s a beautifully crafted world, the characters are vivid, and if the science stretches credulity, it does not entirely break it.  Five stars

Time was is a pleasant piece by Ron Goulart involving a homesick young woman, the trap that tries to lure her back to the 1939 of her childhood, and the dilettante detective of occult matters who tries to save her.  Four stars.

I’ve said before that Rosel George Brown is a rising star, and Of all possible worlds is my favorite story of hers yet.  A beautiful tale of an interstellar explorer and the almost-humans he meets on a placid, emerald-sand beach.  They seem to be primitives, but sometimes the end result of scientific progress is a pleasant, contemplative rest.  Anthropology, biology, love, and loss.  Five stars.

Marcel Ayme is back with his The Ubiquitous Wife, about a young woman who can multiply herself infinitely and thus live a thousand lives at once.  Like his other stories, it is droll and engaging.  The translator did a good job of conveying Ayme’s clever turns of phrase.  Three stars.

Theodore L. Thomas provides The Intruder, a subtle time travel story featuring a backpacker fishing trilobites at the dawn of the Devonian era.  In a nice touch, it turns out he is not the intruder; rather it is the little blot of algae that threatens to inevitably populate the fisher’s pristine, lifeless world.  Four stars.

Finally, we have Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Order, Order!, on the subject of entropy (the amount of energy unavailable for work; or the amount of disorder in the universe). It’s a topic that everyone knows something about, but few have a real handle on.  The Good Doctor does an excellent job of explaining this esoteric matter.  Four stars.

What a pity–if not for the two lodestones at the end of the issue, this would be a rate 4-star magazine.  Still, even with them, the score is a comfortable 3.5 stars, which makes F&SF the best digest of the month.  It also has the best story of the month: Hothouse.  Finally, it features fully 50% of the month’s woman authors; sadly, there are just two. 

See you on February Oneth–if NASA’s hopes are fulfilled, I will have an exciting Mercury Redstone mission to talk about!

IF only… The Good News (1-29-1959)

Wrapping up my tour of Kaua’i, here are some pictures I took on the south shore estate of Robert Allerton, whose hospitality is as tremendous as his philanthropy (science fiction-related stuff to follow).

For this installment, I’ve got something a little different.  It’s also the good news half of a good/bad news combination. 

If is a science fiction magazine that has been around since 1952.  Amongst the several dozen that have existed throughout the decade, it is perhaps (outside of The Big Three) the best.  I haven’t followed it very closely, and that’s why I missed the big news.

Two issues ago, Damon Knight (acerbic critic and often brilliant writer) was tapped for the job of editor.  I didn’t find out until a couple of weeks ago, by which time, I’d missed the opportunity to buy the October and December 1958 issues.  February 1959 was still on the stands, however, and I took it with me to Kaua’i. 

Perhaps it’s just the rosy glow imparted from having read mostly on the lovely Kalapaki beach, but it’s really good.  I’ve gotten through the first five stories, and they shall be the topic of today’s discussion.

It is, of course, with trepidation that I read the opening piece, Pipe Dream by Fritz Leiber.  As I’ve explained before, I used to like Fritz a lot (who can forget the brilliant A Pail of Air, which appeared in Galaxy many years ago).  His stuff of late, however, has been pretty lousy.  To be fair, it all appeared in F&SF, so that may have something to do with it.  Anyway, Pipe Dream, about the creation of artificial life, is slickly written and atmospheric, but it’s also disturbing and unpleasant, and perhaps not in the way Fritz intended.  I didn’t like it, though I imagine many would.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Wind People is almost a winner.  It is a haunting tale of a ship’s medical officer who elects to remain on a presumably uninhabited planet rather than expose her newborn child to the risks of hyperdrive travel.  Bradley writes powerfully, and the mystery presented as the protagonist and her son make tentative and increasing contact with the furtive natives of the planet is exciting and engaging.  The ending, however, is a let-down.  One had to wonder if Bradley intended for the story to go in a different direction, one in which the editor was afraid to go.  You’ll have to read it and see.  At least it’s by a woman, stars a woman, and takes place in a universe where women make up half of a starship crew.  Progress!

I’ll skip story #3 until the end, as I’ve got a lot to say about that one.  Number four is The Man who tasted Ashes by Algis Budrys.  This is only the third story of his that I’ve read, and the second really good one; I’m going to look forward to more from him (and perhaps pick up earlier ones I’ve missed).  If ever there was an anti-hero, it is the viewpoint character for this story: a petty political intriguer-for-hire who is contracted by an extraterrestrial concern to facilitate World War III.  Good stuff.

Next up: Love and Moondogs by Richard McKenna (a career Navy man who got a writing degree on the G.I.Bill—now there’s the American Way!) This is a silly story about the lengths some might go in the pursuit of their cause, however frivolous, and the hypocrisy often inherent therein.  In this case, the object of outrage is a Soviet moon-muttnik.  Gentle, pleasant satire.

Now back to story #3: The Good Work by relative newcomer Theodore L. Thomas.  Remember when I talked about overpopulation in stories and the laughably small numbers most authors bandy about as too much for our planet?  Well, Thomas doesn’t play around—there are 350 billion souls inhabiting his Earth, and their life is accordingly regimented and drab.  It’s a satirical anti-utopia (a dystopia?).  The core of the story is the search for meaningful work in an age when everyone has just enough, and everything is automated.  The story has one hell of a barbed punchline.

I think this story is particularly relevant given that we are, I believe, on the cusp of a dramatic change in our economy.  Before the industrial revolution, virtually everyone in the United States was employed in the agricultural sector.  By the early 1800s, the industrial and service sectors began to rise as machines created jobs and allowed for the distribution of wealth; this was balanced by a drop of employment on the farm.  Around 1900, employment in the agricultural sector had dropped to 35%, tied with the service sector and only slightly above the industrial sector.  Industrial sector employment rose to a peak of 37% around 1950, and it has begun a gradual but steady decline since.  Agricultural employment was at just over 10% in 1950, and it is plummeting fast.  Service sector employment makes up the rest.

Projecting out another 50 years, agricultural employment will decline logarithmically, with a limit of zero as time goes to infinity.  Industrial employment may take longer, but with mechanization and (ultimately) roboticization, that sector will also see declining employment.  That leaves the service sector, which means that in the end, our economy will consist of nobody making anything, and everyone doing something for each other.  Except, in the future, I imagine machines will also be my servants.  So what will anyone purchase in 50 years to drive the economy?  How will anyone work?  Perhaps we’ll all be scientists and artists in 2009.  More likely, we’ll develop artificial needs for useless products.  Radio advertising has already been honed to a fine art, and the ad execs are figuring out the television advertising game pretty quickly. 

Maybe we’ll all be employed making advertisements.  That sounds fulfilling.

Anyway, I promised good news, so in summation, If with Damon Knight at the helm promises to be a fine magazine. 

The other shoe will drop on the last day of this month…



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F&SF–for the Right kind of people (February 1959 wrap-up; 1-27-1959)

Do you know who reads The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Clifton Fadiman, writer, editor, judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  It supplies him his “special escape-reading…the finest the field has to offer in the way of short fiction.”

Spring Byington, famous star of the Broadway Stage does.  It improves the imagination, she says.

Basil Davinport, another writer and editor for the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  “F&SF gives us some of the best writing in the field, and the field is one of great importance.”

Orville Prescott, Book Review Editor for the New York Times does.  He says, “People who think that their literary I.Q. is too high for them to enjoy [F&SF] don’t know what they’re missing.”

In other words, snobs read F&SF–and you can be a snob, too.  Unlike those other lowbrow sci-fi mags, F&SF is the real stuff.  Just stay away from Astounding, and for God’s sake, avoid Amazing!

I know H.L.Gold was a bit nose-in-the-air when he contrasted Galaxy with Space Westerns, but F&SF is positively the caviar set by comparison.  I’m for the promotion of science fiction’s respectability, but I don’t think F&SF has the sole claim on quality.  In fact, I think F&SF’s editorial policy leans a bit overmuch toward the superfluously florid.

On the other hand, they are the favored home of more female authors than any other science fiction magazine.  And I’ve never read a Garrett or Silverberg story between its pages, though I did read a horrible Poul Anderson story in F&SF’s, thankfully defunct sister magazine, Venture.

Good-natured ribbing aside, while many issues of F&SF may suffer from overwriting-itis, the February 1959 issue is good stuff all the way though (even if the rest of the magazine is not as amazing as its lead story). 

Continuing where we left off, Misfit by G.C. Edmondson (the only Mexican science fiction author I know of, and a San Diego native!) is a good yarn about the perils of time travel–to the timeline if not the traveler.

Last month’s issue had the first of George Elliot’s Venusian stories, Invasion of the Planet of Love.  Its sequel, Nothing but Love depicts the Venusian counter-attack.  It is less satirical, less impactful, and less interesting.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I liked the first one very much either.  It’s not bad, exactly.  It’s just odd.

I did enjoy Charles Fontenay’s Ghost Planet, in which a presumably failed Martian colony is found to have survived through an unexpected and happy circumstance.  Apparently, Martian sage grass traps oxygen, so as long as one stays crouched within the grass, there is air and warmth. 

Now here’s where I need help: I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen this gimmick before in another story.  Does this sound familiar?  I’m hoping one of my many (Webster defines “many” as “more than three”) readers will solve this mystery for me.  Drop me a line and let me know.  If you don’t know the answer, please share this article with someone who might.

Raymond Banks wrote the next story, Natural Frequency, about what happens when someone’s voice naturally hits the resonant frequency of… well.. everything.  People, glasses, bridges…  It’s a silly story, reminiscent of that scene from the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs, impersonating the great conductor, Leopold, makes an opera singer sing a high note until his pants fall off and his tuxedo rolls up like a Venetian blind.  Filler.

Jane Rice’s The Willow Tree is the last piece of the magazine.  Per the editorial preface, Ms. Rice wrote for Unknown back in the late ’30s, and I have it on good authority that she wrote for a solid ten years after that for various magazines.  This story marks the end of a subsequent ten-year hiatus.  Your mileage may vary, but I liked it, this tale of two children sent to the past after losing their parents.  It is written like a fairly conventional children’s fantasy, much like something Edward Eager would write, but with a much more sinister undertone and ending. 

And thusly, we have come to the end.  I’d say 4 stars out of 5.  The lead story is fantastic, and the rest are decent to quite good.

Normally, one might expect (this being the 27th) that I have the new Astounding and/or F&SF in hand for the next review.  However, I am still out in the Territory of Hawai’i, and deliveries are understandably delayed.  Forward thinker that I am, I will still have something to discuss on the 29th. 

But you’ll just have to wait until then to find out what it is.



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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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The Mixed Men by A. E. Van Vogt (1-23-1959)

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

So here I am on a DC-7C turbo-prop headed for the emerald isle of Kaua’i.  A full week of lying out on the beach with nothing but my family, my typewriter, and a large backlog of books and magazines.  I had intended to write, today, about the rest of the February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Unfortunately, due to a S.N.A.F.U. in bag-packing, that magazine was unavailable to me for the flight out. 

But every cloud has a silver lining.  As it turned out, I had packed a random A.E.Van Vogt novel called The Mixed Men.  It was published some seven years ago, and the original stories from which it was compiled were published during the War.  I finished the short novel in just a few hours, and, as the flight takes nearly half a day, I found myself with time to write this article and flash it to my editor.  On time for the evening edition, no less!

The book is very very good.

I read a lot of science fiction, and precious few authors write advanced technology and settings in a way that is not destined to become dated in short order.  There is an art to boldly plotting the future while keeping the descriptions of the advanced components of technology non-specific.  Van Vogt, of course, is well-regarded for a reason.  A spiritual descendant of Doc Smith, his space opera is both sweeping and plausible. 

In The Mixed Men, it is some tens of thousands of years in the future, and humanity has colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy.  The Imperial Battleship Star Cluster has been dispatched to the Greater Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy of ours) on a ten-year mapping mission.  The vessel is enormous, fully a mile long and crewed by 30,000 men and women. 

Significantly and refreshingly, its skipper is a woman, the viewpoint character Lady Gloria Laurr.  More refreshingly, she is brilliant and capable (gasp!)

The story: at the tail-end of the Star Cluster’s assignment, the ship finds incontrovertible evidence of a human presence spanning the Greater Magellanic Cloud.  Complicating the matter is the revelation that the Magellanic peoples are actually mutant refugees (and their non-mutant allies) from Earth.  The mutants possess superhuman intelligence and strength, but at the cost of their creativity.  The “robots,” as they were pejoratively labelled, were reviled by “normal” humanity and became the victims of a genocidal war prosecuted against them some 15,000 years prior.  They were forced to flee our galaxy to the Magellanic Cloud, where they have now lived for millennia on 50 hidden worlds.

With the discovery of this renegade branch of humanity, Lady Gloria orders the ship to undertake a new mission: the incorporation of the 50 worlds into the Terran Empire—by force, if necessary.  Her aim is not subjugation for its own sake.  The Imperial policy is one of freedom and democracy for all, but no independent states are allowed to exist for fear that an external force might pose a threat to the Empire.

Lady Gloria’s decision predictably leads to an all-out conflict with the Magellanic state, which also has a protagonist in the person of Peter Maitland.  Ostensibly an astrogator on a Magellanic warship, Maitland is actually the hereditary leader of the “Mixed Men,” offspring of the mutants and non-mutants.  These Mixed Men have double-brains conferring to them the brilliance and toughness of the mutants as well as the creativity of normal humans.  Moreover, Mixed Men have the ability to exert psychic domination upon others making them quite formidable indeed.

Just as the mutants were mistrusted and shunned by Earth, so are the Mixed Men discriminated against by the Magellanic Government.  Thus, the Mixed Men are forced to constitute a hidden state within the 50 worlds. 

Confused yet?  And that’s just the set-up!  Yet the story flows quite naturally and with a strong personal connection.  There are wheels within wheels, machination after machination, and best of all, intelligent decisions made all around from beginning to end.  If I have any quibble at all, it is that the second half flags slightly after the brilliance of the first half; Van Vogt was not quite able to completely caulk over the seams of the three stories that make up the book.  I also felt a little uneasy at the mind-control exerted not just by Maitland, but by Lady Gloria (the latter using machinery where Maitland needs only his mind).  But only a little: Van Vogt sensitively restrains himself from portraying mind-rape, for which I am grateful.

In short, The Mixed Men is science fiction that is at once of the widest and narrowest scope.  Whole galaxies are involved, yet the players are few and well-drawn.  I heartily recommend it.  Interestingly, going back over my old Astoundings, I see P. Schuyler Miller didn’t like it much, and he felt the protagonist “wasn’t very convincing.” I wonder which protagonist he’s talking about.  I liked ’em both.  I know, too, that Van Vogt has been attacked for reworking his short stories into “fix-up” novels, but I think it worked pretty well with this one.

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for another article and photos from Nawiliwili Bay!



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