Tag Archives: Lloyd Birmingham

[December 12, 1962] UP THE SPOUT AGAIN (the January 1963 Amazing)


by John Boston

All right, Frogeyes,* dust off all the stars.  We’re finally going to need them for this January 1963 Amazing, specifically for Keith Laumer’s novelet It Could Be Anything.
*Those without a classical education may ignore this and similar allusions.

“Things are not what they seem” is a well worn SF device, employed by the likes of Heinlein, Sturgeon, and more recently Philip K. Dick.  But it’s not worn out, as Laumer demonstrates.  Young Brett is about to take the train out of the stereotypical small town of Casperton, heading for the unnamed big city, despite stereotypical remonstrances.  His Aunt Haicey says, “It was reading all them books that done it.  Thick books, with no pictures in them.  I knew it would make trouble.” The stationmaster offers, “If I talk to Mr. J.D., I think he can find a job for you at the plant.” His girlfriend Pretty-Lee doesn’t show, not after their big argument in Rexall’s over her preoccupation with a movie magazine.  But he boards anyway, and some time later finds himself on a deserted stopped train in the middle of a field where the tracks just stop, no clue as to why, but the city is visible on the horizon.  So he walks.  I won’t spoil the story’s revelations in detail, but Brett quickly learns that the people he encounters in the city, engaged in ordinary mundane activities like walking down the street and eating in restaurants, are not real—they are automatons acting out routines.  What’s going on?  The answer is pretty nasty, and the story quickly turns crude and violent.  At the end, Brett is heading home to Casperton, with the similarity between the automatons’ routines and the behavior of the home folks not lost on him.  The story is exceedingly well visualized, gaining power from Laumer’s attention to mundane sensual detail even in the midst of violent melodrama.  Its impact is also enhanced by what isn’t there—an explanation.  The story is told entirely from Brett’s limited viewpoint, ignorant of the larger picture even after his shattering experiences in the city, leaving the reader knowing very little about the comprehensive catastrophe that seems to have overtaken the world, but creating an unusually strong sense of a larger world outside the confines of the story about which one can only speculate.  Five stars.

The cover story, Cerebrum by Albert Teichner, makes a nice contrast to the Laumer story—“nice” in the original sense of precise or fine, not the current debased usage—since it takes a well worn plot device and fails to revitalize it.  In the future, everybody’s telepathic, and they’re all hooked up to the Central Synaptic Computation Receptor and Transmitter System, which routes thoughts like a telephone exchange, only better.  Otherwise, nobody could hear themselves think through everyone else’s mental noise.  But people who think negative thoughts about Central get Suspended, and now there’s a large and growing underclass of Suspendeds since Central seems to be making a lot of mistakes lately—but don’t think that or you’ll be Suspended too.  Protagonist and family get Suspended and have to learn to live as outcasts on the margins; they discover what passes for an underground; then Central falls apart entirely and the brewing problems between Suspendeds and paraNormals (sic) conveniently disappear.  So, it’s the early Galaxy routine of society distorted by an innovation, with The Machine Stops thrown into the mix, no more than routinely clever connect-the-dots stuff.  Two stars; ten years ago when this sort of thing was newer, it might have seemed better.  The cover, by Lloyd Birmingham, merits a comment as well: de Chirico repeats, this time as farce.

Jack Egan’s Cully, like his earlier World Edge from November, is a short tale told by (or for) a damaged consciousness, which any further explanation would spoil; this one is better written and less busy than its predecessor.  Maybe Egan is getting the hang of it.  Generously, three stars.

S. Dorman—presumably the Sonya Dorman who appeared in the October Ladies’ Home Journal—provides something else entirely in The Putnam Tradition, her first in the SF magazines: sort of like Zenna Henderson with sharper edges.  The Putnams are a matriarchal and rather change-resistant New England family, witches or psi-talented as you prefer, whose children (the healthy ones) are mostly daughters, and whose husbands “spent a lifetime with the long-lived Putnam wives, and died, leaving their strange signs: telephone wires, electric lights, water pumps, brass plumbing.” And now young Simone’s husband Sam has brought them an “invasion” of large and small appliances, and their daughter doesn’t seem to have inherited the family talents.  Is tradition dead?  Or is something else going on?  The story is told in sort of fairy-tale fashion, with the occasional startling image (“. . . power lines had been run in, and now on cold nights the telephone wires sounded like a concert of cellos, while inside with a sound like the breaking of beetles, the grandmother Cecily moved through the walls in the grooves of tradition.”).  Dorman’s writing seems a little amateurish in places but it conveys the sense of a real individual behind the typewriter and not (unlike, say, Teichner’s) some device grinding up and recycling the last 50 SF stories she read.  Four stars, and thanks for the fresh air.

Bringing up the rear, or letting it down, is the “Classic Reprint” from the January 1933 issue: Omega, the Man by Lowell Howard Morrow, about Omega, the last human alive (well, he starts out with his wife Thalma and briefly acquires a son—Alpha, of course) on a dying Earth, with a schematic plot and the sort of bombastic style that one could barely get away with even then, and nowadays reads like parody.  A bizarre Frankensteinian plot twist at the end comes much too late to redeem this fiasco.  Moskowitz’s praise of it is almost as risible.  One star.

Ben Bova soldiers on with another article, Progress Report: Life Forms in Meteorites, again beautifully but inaptly illustrated by Virgil Finlay.  Bova reviews findings on exactly what the title says, as usual assembling a fair amount of interesting information.  He does seem to have his thumb on the scales sometimes, though, as when he recounts several competing theories about the nature of seemingly organic particles found in some meteorites: are they fossilized life forms, or crystalline structures that are the “intermediate step” between DNA molecules and living cells, or inorganic materials that contain lots of iron, or fossils that have been partly replaced by iron through a petrifaction process?  “On balance, though,” Bova says, “it would appear that the particles are life forms, or at least, fossils of once-living cells.” But he doesn’t explain why he’s choosing one side or another in this technical debate.  Still, three stars for pulling this material together in more or less plain English.

So: one excellent story, another very good one, and only one complete pratfall.  Looks like progress.  Of course I said that early last year too.  Da capo.  If the magazine can retain good new contributors like Dorman, Zelazny, and Ballard, maybe it can keep it up this time.

[March 3, 1962] Getting Somewhere (the April 1962 Amazing)

[The precocious Mr. Boston continues to take time from his busy high school schedule to provide coverage of Cele Goldsmith’s marquee digest: Amazing, the longest lived of the sff mags.  I am deeply grateful to John for his eloquent reviews.  I understand that he lives in particularly dull and uninspired part of the country, so I shouldn’t wonder that he has time to escape to lands of fantasy…]


by John Boston

The April Amazing opens with a bang: the cover is a startling departure from the usual humdrum machinery.  There’s a spacesuit in the foreground, but badly used, missing a glove and a boot, stuffed with straw, and held upright on a pole like a scarecrow, against a surreal background of reddish and yellow desert, a vast cloud of violet smoke, and a washed-out greenish sky.  Strikingly imaginative symbolic work by artist Lloyd Birmingham?  No, mostly illustrative: this tableau is from the first paragraph of Mark Clifton’s lead short story Hang Head, Vandal! But it is unusual and eye-catching, and Birmingham does get credit (if that’s the word) for the garish color scheme.

Clifton’s story is as relentlessly misanthropic as the recently-serialized Pawn of the Black Fleet, but a sixth as long, with no words wasted.  We need to test a new atomic reaction that we’re not sure we can stop; why not do it on Mars, which is empty?  Turns out it’s not as empty as we thought, and sure enough, we can’t stop the reaction and the attendant genocide.  It’s taste of ashes time—but they’re really high-quality ashes.  Clifton has long been preoccupied with the unsatisfactory nature of humankind, and what might be done to redeem it; see They’d Rather Be Right, featuring a machine that will make us immortal if we will let go of our prejudices.  At this point, though, Clifton seems to have given up on redemption.  Four stars for compressed eloquence.

J.G. Ballard is back with his best yet in the US magazines.  Thirteen to Centaurus opens in the Station, an isolated habitat containing four families, and 16-year-old Abel is figuring out too much.  Dr. Francis, who functions as teacher and a sort of psychological supervisor, brings him in for a talk, and reveals the truth: the Station is a spaceship en route to the nearest star, though Abel won’t live to see it; they are 50 years into the multi-generation journey.  Then Dr. Francis climbs out the secret exit and we see the real truth: the spaceship is a mock-up sitting on Earth, its residents experimental subjects.  And the people in charge, who have gotten a little uncomfortable that those who consented to this treatment are long dead, have decided to shut it down, albeit gradually. 

When Dr. Francis hears this, he flees back into the station, telling his superiors that the people inside are now going to need him even more—but exactly who’s needy isn’t so clear.  There is also a power shift going on during Dr. Francis’s mentorship of Abel; it’s no longer so clear who’s in charge.  And there is a final revelation which I won’t mention.  The bottom line is that Ballard is less impressed than most of his SF colleagues with Man the Rational Problem-Solver; here, he proposes that humans may sometimes be driven to—and be happier—adhering to and living lives based on world-views that they know to be false.

The story is far from perfect; it depends on the vague notion of “conditioning,” which allows Ballard to control what and how much his characters are able to perceive—otherwise the deception could never have lasted. But once you get past this handwaving implausibility, it’s a sharply original angle on some familiar ideas, smoothly and precisely written, with a kind of psychological insight that is rare in the SF mags.  I am near-sighted, and every couple of years I need a new pair of glasses.  (I’m told this will get better as I get older.) Reading Ballard after reading his competitors reminds me of getting new glasses: suddenly everything is just a little sharper and clearer.  Four stars—especially lustrous ones.

Edmond Hamilton, long nicknamed “World-Wrecker,” and perpetrator of the determinedly juvenile Captain Future, has his first appearance in the SF magazines since 1958, when the pulpy digests he frequented—Imagination, Imaginative Tales, and its successor Space Travel—died.  In Requiem, Hamilton’s characters are not wrecking any worlds; the Earth, long evacuated, is being wrecked by natural causes.  Captain Kellon, under orders, has brought a spaceship full of superficial and bickering media personalities to Earth to document its destruction, though he doesn’t see the point of it. 

But he starts taking long walks and finds an old ruined house (“Ross and Jennie—Their House” is written in the half-buried cement of the terrace).  He hangs out there, reflecting on the lives of Ross and Jennie and all their fellows and ancestors and civilization, whose traces are shortly to be destroyed.  And when it’s time to leave, he makes one last gesture of respect.  This fundamentally sentimental story could easily have become intolerable but is told with a quiet restraint that is surprising from the author of Crashing Suns, Battle for the Stars, etc.  Three stars, with a hat-tip for adroit precipice-walking.

Edward Wellen has had a scattering of stories in the SF magazines since 1952, and more recently, several in crime fiction magazines; if he’s much known at all, it’s probably for his ”non-fact articles” in Galaxy like Origins of Galactic Slang.  His novelette Flashback is an SF crime story: child shoots child in a schoolyard; a “forensic biophysics” inspector shows up to investigate; it’s his son who is dead; investigation shows that the gun materialized out of nowhere and belonged to someone 150 years dead.  From there it’s the old Ourobourosian time paradox plot, utterly implausible but perfectly readable, if sometimes annoying because of ostentatious displays of cleverness and little fragments of futuristic decoration mixed in like raisins in a pudding.  Some of these are amusing, though: “He had helped [dead child] Jimmy with semantics problems: ‘True or false.  Eye is to gag as egg is to moo.’ ” Vector sum: three stars, delivered with a grimace.

In Robert Hoskins’s Second Chance, the protagonist has invented psychic time travel and hopes to get a rich guy to pay to go back and straighten out his life.  Trouble is, when he gets back, he no longer remembers the things that, now, never happened.  Hoskins, whose resume consists of three mediocre stories in the UK magazines, adds no value to this familiar gimmick.  Two pretty dull stars.

The Classic Reprint is Spawn of the Ray by Maurice Duclos, from Amazing in 1938; he had several other stories in Amazing’s companion Fantastic Adventures.  The feckless protagonist irradiates microscopic flagellata (sic) with a cathode ray tube, they get big and get away, et cetera ad tedium.  One star.

Sam Moskowitz has another “SF Profile,” Isaac Asimov: Genius in the Candy Store, a reasonably capable and informative account of Asimov’s SF career to date.  As with Moskowitz’s previous articles, one could wish for greater detail and more attention to some of Asimov’s lesser known work, but, realistically, not within the space limits of a 146-page fiction magazine.  Four stars, even if partly by default — no one else is doing anything like this.

Benedict Breadfruit is present, and commendably brief.

Amazing has shown a sharp improvement in its last two issues.  The obvious question is whether they can keep it up.

[February 4, 1962] Promised Land in Sight? (the March 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

A couple of months ago I described Amazing, as “promising.” Now here’s the March 1962 issue, with two up-and-comers on the cover and a third on the contents page.

Verdict: promise partly kept.

Maybe “up-and-comer” isn’t quite le mot juste for Frank Herbert; “what have you done for me lately?” might fit better.  Herbert’s reputation was made by the very well-received Under Pressure, a/k/a The Dragon in the Sea and . . . [gag] . . . 21st Century Sub.  But there’s been no new novel, and the short fiction, though much of it is very solid, has not delivered on expectations.  Mindfield!, the lead novelette, doesn’t advance things.  After a cataclysmic war, a religious tyranny suppresses the old technology, but young rebels want knowledge and progress!  This unoriginal premise is decorated with some original details, e.g., everyone is conditioned against violence, and the priests must regularly undergo “Ultimate Conditioning” in some sort of ego-dissolving regeneration tank. 

The story is pretty murky, so I’ll leave it at this detail: The rebels have found an ancient skeleton and have put that into their stolen regeneration tank, and the simulacrum that emerges remembers its name (barely), and later, how to pilot a helicopter.  No disrespect to bones—where would we be without them?—but how do you get memory and complex skills out of them?  The answer: mumble mumble handwave, and not much of that.  This reads like an exercise in sauve qui peut, to salvage something from a larger project that didn’t pan out.  Two stars.

Mindfield! is illustrated on the cover, sort of: it portrays a missile launch that is about to happen at the end.  It’s consistent with Amazing’s habit of featuring machinery on the cover, but this is rather wimpy machinery: the artist Lloyd Birmingham seems to have used some medium like chalk or colored pencil rather than good old forceful oils or the new acrylics.  Lackluster!

Briton Brian W. Aldiss is definitely up and coming, now prolific in the US as well as the UK, and known for pushing the envelope and/or kicking the shins of standard SF practice.  So Tyrants’ Territory, featuring planetary exploration and a science puzzle, played very straight, is a surprise.  Askanza VI has huge mineral-filled oceans and littoral fauna that look like giant turtles, who build rudimentary structures and throw crockery full of acid when threatened.  Their heads are literally empty.  What’s going on?  The heads of the turtles, or more properly pseudo-chelonia (Aldiss has a footnote about that term), are radio receivers; they are guided by radio waves from the ocean, which by virtue of its composition, is a low-power transmitter.  Who’s transmitting, or whether there is some sort of collective mind, is not clear—but once human colonists arrive, they will quickly figure out how to control the pseudo-chelonia, and the worst elements among them will do so—hence the title. 

But why allow human colonists at all where there already is intelligent life? Uncharacteristically for Aldiss, there’s no real questioning of the colonial imperative beyond the protagonist’s bad mood. The only discordant note is the name of this venture—the Planetary Ecological Survey Team, or PEST—but that’s it for moral witness.  Nonetheless, the story is so well conceived, written, and assembled as to merit four stars.

J.G. Ballard is back with The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista , another in his series about Vermilion Sands — a colony of artists and other creative types, not to mention layabouts and poseurs.  It introduces psychotropic houses, which reflect the emotional states and physical reactions of their occupants—including their previous occupants.  This idea is good for gags early on, e.g.: “Rapidly we went through a mock Assyrian ziggurat (the last owner had suffered from St. Vitus’s Dance, and the whole structure still jittered like a galvanized Tower of Pisa).”

Protagonist Talbot and wife buy the house once belonging to Gloria Tremayne, a movie star who shot and killed her husband in the house but was acquitted of murder—with Talbot assisting her defense.  He’s never gotten over his fascination.  The relationship between Talbot and his wife and the house’s memory of Tremayne and her husband reinforce each other until the house tries first to kill Talbot’s wife and then to kill Talbot when he comes home drunk and aggressive, not unlike Tremayne’s husband.  Talbot has, as he later puts it, “reconstructed the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material.”

This superficially jokey story is extremely well done.  Apart from the cleverness of the idea and its development, Ballard (like Aldiss) is a vastly better writer at the word-and-sentence level than the genre standard, with a knack for striking phrases and images (“Starting to walk down to the lounge, I realized that the house was watching me like a wounded animal.”).  The portrayal of Talbot as a narcissistic jerk through his first-person narration is a little tour de force of “show, don’t tell.” Four stars.

Newish writer David Ely is here with The The Wizard of Light, in which multiple copies of artistic masterpieces appear, utterly indistinguishable from the originals—like hundreds of Mona Lisas left outside the Louvre.  The art market is destroyed.  Turns out old Dr. Browl, brilliant inventor of optical devices, has invented a molecular scanner, complete with “cybernetic reactor” to copy whatever was scanned.  And why is he doing this?  To destroy art, which “falsifies nature in general, and light values in particular.” Clever idea, but spun out for too long, and the story is told in a faux-19th Century verbose style; whether as pastiche or just reinventing the square wheel, it talks itself down to three stars.

The Classic Reprint this issue is Euthanasia Limited by David H. Keller, M.D., a power in his time (the 1920s and ‘30s).  It features detective Taine of San Francisco.  Sam Moskowitz’s introduction says Keller “performed a feat of characterization [with Taine] so extraordinary that it should be studied by every student of writing technique.” Whatever.  It begins: “A little white-haired woman was working in her laboratory.” Not bad for 1929!  Anna Van Why (honest) is making a battery—out of apple halves.  She studies death and has learned that all life has electrical potential, and death is its reduction to zero, as she explains for not quite four pages.  Her sociopathic brother is eager to learn more, and a year later a police official comes to discuss with her a series of unusual deaths and arrange a visit from Taine.  Taine arrives and cracks the by now obvious case through tedious chicanery.  To hell with this, bring back Anna Van Why!  Two stars.

Frank Tinsley contributes Cosmic Butterfly, a short article about a spaceship design that uses solar power to ionize a propellant.  Tinsley is a fairly boring writer and this is pitched at a level more elementary than most SF readers are likely to need.  Two stars.

In 1956, F&SF began running a series of vignettes titled Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot, by one Grendel Briarton (hint: think anagram), consisting of elaborate set-ups for terrible puns, usually on cliched sayings.  Now Amazing has commenced Through Time and Space with Benedict Breadfruit, by one Grandall Barretton (not even quite an anagram), consisting of elaborate set-ups for terrible puns on the names of SF authors.  This has been a public service announcement.

[Speaking of which, if you registered for WorldCon by January 31, you should have received your ballot.  Don’t forget to nominate Galactic Journey for “Best Fanzine!”]