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[March 30, 1961] F&SF + XX (the April 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

If you’ve been a fan in the scientificition/fantasy genre for any length of time, you’ve likely been exposed to rumors of its impending doom.  The pulps are gone.  The magazines are dying.  The best writers are defecting for the lucre of the “slicks.” 

And what is often pointed to as the cause of the greatest decline of an entity since Commodus decided he liked gladiating more than emperoring?  The visual media: science fiction films and television.  Why read when you can watch?  Of course, maybe the quality’s not up to the standards set by written fiction, but who cares?

All this hubbub is silly.  There are two reasons why printed sf/f isn’t going anywhere, at least for the next few decades.  The first is that the quality isn’t in the films or television shows.  Sure, there are some stand-outs, like the first season of The Twilight Zone, and the occasional movie that gets it right, but for the most part, it’s monsters in rubber suits and the worst “science” ever concocted. 

But the second reason, and this is the rub, is the sheer impermanence of the visual media.  If you miss a movie during its run, chances are you’ve missed out forever.  Ditto, television.  For instance, I recently learned that an episode of Angel (think I Love Lucy, but with a French accent) starred ex-Maverick, James Garner.  I’m out of luck if I ever want to see it unless it happens to make the summer re-runs. 

My magazines, however, reside on my shelves forever.  I can re-read them at will.  I can even loan them out to my friends (provided they pony up a $10 deposit).  They are permanent, or at least long-lived. 

And that’s why I’ll stick with my printed sf, thank-you-very-much.

Speaking of permanence, I think April 1961 will be a red-letter date remembered for all time.  It’s the first time, that I’m aware of, that women secured equal top-billing on a science fiction magazine cover.  To wit, this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction features six names, three of which belong to woman writers.  Exciting stuff, particularly given my observation that, while female writers make up only a ninth of the genre’s pool, they produce a fourth of its best stuff.

Case in point: Evelyn Smith’s Softly while you’re sleeping is a clever piece about a young woman from the old country who is wooed by a passionate vampire.  She ultimately resists his advances, unwilling to undergo the transformation that is the inevitable end of his draining attentions.  The story is older than Stoker, but the writing and the social commentary are entirely modern.  Four stars.

The Hills of Lodan, by the newish Harold Calin, on the other hand, is a comparatively clumsy piece.  Think The Red Badge of Courage, but with a different kind of enemy.  I appreciated the message, but the execution needs work.  Two stars.

The next story is something special.  Every so often, a story comes along that introduces something truly new.  The Ship Who Sang, by new author Anne McCaffrey, brings us the lovely concept of sound-minded but hideously crippled children given mechanical bodies and groomed to become the “brains” of interstellar ships.  These are two-person scout vessels, the other crew-member being the “mobile” element.  Inevitably, the relationship is a close one, and this bonding makes up much of the plot (and charm) of Ship.  In fact, if I have a complaint at all about this story, it is that it is too short; such an intriguing courtship should have more fully developed.  McCaffrey’s detached style feels a bit too impersonal for the piece, as well.  Still, Ship gets an unreserved four stars.

If Anne McCaffrey had gotten the space reserved for the succeeding piece, a reprinted Robert Graves story called Dead Man’s Bottles, I imagine the issue would have been much improved.  Bottles features a minor kleptomaniac (a matches and pencil thief), an unpleasant wine aficionado, and the mysterious haunting that succeeds the latter’s death.  It’s standard, low-grade F&SF filler.  Two stars.

The third woman-penned piece of the book is Kit Reed’s Judas Bomb, a sort of Post-Apocalyptic parable of the Cold War with gangs taking the role of nations.  It’s a quirky, layered piece, and I look forward to seeing more by this San Diegan turned Connecticutian.  Three stars.

My Built-in Doubter is Isaac Asimov’s article for this month, all about how science’s apparent rigidity to crackpot ideas is a virtue, not a liability.  Less information, more editorial, but a fun read, nevertheless.  Four stars.

Richard Banks’ Daddy’s People is a stream of consciousness wall of words about an overlong bedtime story and the weird folks one meets when crossing the planes.  It is difficult reading, and my first temptation was to give it a one-star review.  Something restrains me, however.  So I give it two stars.

Finally, Brian Aldiss is back with the sequel to the superb Hothouse: the superior, if not quite as excellent, Nomansland.  This novella is set in the same steambath Earth of the future, when the Sun has grown hot, and the tidally locked Earth is dominated by semi-intelligent plant life.  We get to learn what happened to Toy and the other human children after the departure of the adults into space.  It’s all a bit like Harrison’s Deathworld without the high technology.  Once again, Aldiss delivers the goods, although the third-person omniscient expositions, while informative, break the narrative a little.  Four stars.

The overall score for this magazine is just over 3 stars — less than Galaxy’s 3.5, and more than Analog’s 2.5.  Yet, despite the uneven quality of its contents, I feel it is in some ways the worthiest of this month’s magazines.  It takes risks; thus, its highs are higher.  As predicted, most of the highs were provided by the female authors — and to think the State of Alabama still won’t let women serve on juries…

As for this month’s best story, I think Aldiss gets the nod, but just barely.  I’d almost call it a tie between Nomansland and The Ship who Sang

What do you think?

[March 18, 1961] Bad Luck of the Non-Irish (April 1961 Analog)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  It’s a banner year for Irishmen, particularly with one having reached the top spot in the country, if not the world.  And did you know that the phrase, “Luck of the Irish,” actually referred to the knack of Irish immigrants and Americans of Irish descent for becoming wealthy in the Silver and Gold Rushes of the last century?  Though the term was often used derisively by folks who thought the fortune was ill-earned.

My luck with Analog, deserved or not, ran out this month.  With the exception of the opening serial installment, The Fisherman, by Cliff Simak (which I have not yet read but look forward to), the April 1961 Analog has been singularly unimpressive.

One wonders if John Campbell deliberately alternates good issues with bad ones—I’d think he’d be better served by ensuring each magazine had at least one worthy tale!  Perhaps he plum ran out.

Take J.F. Bone’s brief A Prize for Edie, for example.  A trio of teeth-gnashing members of the Nobel Prize committee agonize over giving the honor to a computer.  Disappointingly silly, and, as seems to be a theme this issue, it misses the opportunity to make a deeper point.  Two stars.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr’s Still, Small Voice had some promise: A Cultural Service agent is sent to an alien world to succeed where the Interplanetary Relations Bureau had failed, namely, to convert a centuries-old absolute monarchy into a democracy.  In particular, I appreciated how the aliens were depicted as an artistic race, and that music was the key to progress.  But the thing is sloppily written with a number of duplicated phrases, the alien race is utterly human, and the story a bit too condescending in tone.  The first betrays too light an editorial touch, and the others spotlight a lack of editorial discrimination.  Two stars.

Interestingly enough, John Campbell’s nonfiction piece is the most engaging part of the issue.  Normally, the stuff he writes himself is dreadful; he often shills for one kind of junk science or another.  This time, he’s back to his hobby of photography, but on an interesting tangent.  He showcases a new kind of light source, an electroluminescent panel that looks for all the world like a thick sheet of paper.  Pretty neat stuff—I could see it becoming a feature of future science fiction stories.  Three stars.

Back to the dreary stories, Pandora’s Planet, by Chris Anvil (whose best work always appears outside of Analog), is another “Earthmen are just plain better at everything than everyone else” story.  In this case, some fuzzy humanoids can’t seem to win a war to subjugate a planet’s native race without the help of some plucky, original Terrans.  The point of the piece seems to be that unorthodox war is just as valid as “real” war, and stuffy rigidity will only lead to failure.  That’s fine so far as it goes, but the canny Terran tactics aren’t that innovative, and the stodginess of the fuzzies is insufficiently explored.  Two stars.

That leaves us with Next Door, Next World by lesser magazine perennial, Robert Donald Locke (often writing under the pseudonym, Roger Arcot).  The premise is great: A hyperdrive makes travel to the stars a matter of weeks rather than millennia, but with the side effect that one never returns to quite the same time track one left.  The execution is lousy, however, with plenty of insipid dialogue, stupid characters, and lots of padding.  Again, the impression I got was that Campbell was in a hurry and took what he could get without requesting revision.  And it’s yet another piece with a beginning along the lines of, “Clint Hugearms stood near his trusty spaceship, tanned and sturdy features marking him as the protagonist of the story.”  I’m starting to think Campbell inserts these openings into all of his submissions.  Two stars.

I apologize to my readers who want only to hear about the good stuff; however, by jingo, if I have to read the drek, you have to read about it!  Perhaps the Simak will yet knock my socks off.  It is not uncommon that a given Astounding’s stories are bad, but its serial is good (e.g. The High Crusade and Deathworld, for instance).

I’ve a surprise for my readers—guest columnist Rosemary Benton will be writing the next article, and she’s graciously agreed to contribute one piece per month!  Like you, I will eagerly look forward to what she has to offer.

[March 12, 1961] Mirror Images (April 1961 Galaxy, second half)

Last time, my theme was “more of the same,” pointing out that Galaxy is keeping its content as consistent as possible, at the expense of taking any great risks.  It is ironic that, as I pound the keys of my typewriter, my radio is playing a new version of “Apache.”  This bossanova version by a Danish cat, name of Jörgen Ingmann, is fair, but I like the British one better, the one compellingly performed by The Shadows

You are, of course, here to find out if the rest of the April 1961 Galaxy follows the trend set by the first half.  The answer is “yes.”  It’s a good issue, but not a great one.

Let’s start with the next story, I can do Anything by J.T. McIntosh.  I know I have readers who aren’t particularly fond of him, but I find he usually turns in a good show.  So it is with this story, about a man exiled to a miserable mining world for the crime of being a bit more than human.  His power is an unsettling one; I’m glad to see it employed solely for good.  A gritty piece with depth.  Four stars.

Homey Atmosphere is a cute tale about the virtues and difficulties inherent in employing sentient computers in one’s starships.  Daniel Galouye is another author on whom I often find opinion divided.  I generally fall on the side of liking him.  This story has an ending you might suspect before it occurs, but that doesn’t make it a bad one.  Four stars.

All the People is a strangely unwhimsical and straightforward piece by R.A. Lafferty about a man who knows everyone on Earth despite never having met most of them.  The story gets a quarter star for mentioning my (obscure) home town of El Centro, California, and it loses a quarter star for spoiling the ending a page early with a telling illustration.  Three stars.

I don’t know Roger Dee very well.  In fact, I’ve never reviewed any one his stories in this column, and though my notes suggest I’ve encountered him before, none of his creations stuck in my mind.  I suppose, then, it should come as no surprise that his The Feeling similarly failed to impress.  The notion that astronauts should feel an overwhelming sense of homesickness immediately upon leaving their home planet is not justified by any scientific research, and while, as the spacemen’s ship approaches Mars, the story careens near an exciting resolution, Dee adroitly manages to avoid it.  Two stars.

But then there’s Ted Sturgeon, who can write three-star stories in his sleep (and probably does, to pay the bills).  Tandy’s Story reads like a Serling preamble to an episode of The Twilight Zone and features two poignant themes.  The first is a Sturgeon perennial: the symbiotic merger of minds with a result decidedly greater than the sum of the parts involved.  The other is a human perennial: the unease at watching one’s children grow up far too fast… 

A very good story, but it doesn’t tread any new ground for Sturgeon or Galaxy.  Thus, just four stars.

On the plus side, we have a 3.5-star issue, and only one below-average entry in the bunch.  In the minus column (paradoxically) are the good stories, none of which are outstanding.  That said, I do like the fellows they’ve now got doing the art.  I say if you’re going to include pictures in your literary magazine, make them good ones.

Give me a couple of days for next entry—I’m making my way through James Blish’s Titan’s Daughter.  It’s not bad, so far, though it feels a little dated, which makes sense given that the first half of the novel was written as the novella, Beanstalk, nine years ago.

Stay tuned!

[March 8, 1961] Bland for Adventure (April 1961 Galaxy, 1st half)

As we speak, my nephew, David, is on the S.S. Israel bound for Haifa, Israel.  It’s the last leg of a long trip that began with a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York, continued with a six-day sea cruise across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and which currently sees the youth making a brief landing in the Greek port of Piraeus.  He’s about to begin a year (or two) in Israel on a kibbutz.  An exciting adventure, to be sure, though I will miss our discussions on current science fiction, even if his tastes were, understandably, a little less refined than mine. 

So I hope, dear readers, that you will make up for his absence by sending me even more of your lovely comments!

Of course, you can hardly prepare your posts until I’ve reviewed this month’s set of magazines.  First on the pile, as usual, is the double-large issue of Galaxy, the biggest of the science fiction magazines with 196 pages packed with some of the biggest names in the field. 

But is bigger always better?  Not necessarily.  In fact, Galaxy seems to be where editor H.L. Gold stuffs his “safe” stories, the ones by famous folks that tend not to offend, but also won’t knock your socks off.

So it is with the April 1961 Galaxy, starting with the novella, Planeteer, the latest from newcomer Fred Saberhagen.  It starts brilliantly, featuring an interstellar contact team from Earth attempting to establish relations with an aboriginal alien race.  Two points impressed me within the first few pages: the belt-pouch sized computer (how handy would that be?) and the breakfast described as, “synthetic ham, and a scrambled substance not preceded or followed by chickens.”

The race, however, is disappointingly human; the tale is a fairly typical conundrum/solution story.  On the other hand, the alien king does show some refreshing intelligence—no easy White God tactics for the Planeteers!  Three stars.

Fritz Leiber offers up Kreativity for Kats, an adorable tale of a feline with the blood of an artiste.  Now, any story that features cats is sure to be a cute one (with the notable, creepy exception of The Mind Thing…) It’s not science fiction at all, not even fantasy, but I read it with a grin on my face.  Four stars.

Galaxy’s science fact column, For Your Information, by German rocket scientist Willy Ley, continues to be entertaining.  This bi-month’s article is on the Gegenschein, that mysterious counterpoint to the Zodiacal Light.  There’s also a fun aside about the annexation of Patagonia by a bewildered German professor as well as silly bit on Seven League Boots.  Three stars.

Last up for the first half of the book is James Stamer’s Scent Makes a Difference, which answers the question on everyone’s mind: What if you could meet all the alternate yous—the ones who took different paths in life?  Would you learn from all of your possible mistakes?  Or would you merely commit the biggest blunder of all?  I didn’t quite understand the ending (or perhaps I overthought it).  Three stars.

That’s that for now.  Read up, drop me a line, and I’ll have the second half in a few days!

Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue. 

[February 10, 1961] Two for two!  (March 1961 Analog)

Analog (my errant fingers keep wanting to type “Astounding”) was even better than last time.  This particular copy is a seasoned traveler, having ridden with me to the lovely shores of Kaua’i and back.  At long last, I’ve finished reading, and I can tell you about it.  A sneak preview: there’s not a bad piece in the book!

In lieu of a serial, nearly half of the issue’s pages are taken up with Mack Reynold’s novella, Ultima Thule.  My nephew, David, was so enamored with this one that he specifically recommended it to me in a recent letter.  It’s the story of Ronny Bronston, an agent employed by the mysterious Section G, responsible for maintaining mutual non-interference between the 2000 member planets of the Galactic Federation.  Bronston is sent on the trail of “Tommy Paine,” an elusive agitator who travels from planet to planet, upending the various status quos.  Can you figure out who Paine really is?  I particularly liked Bronston’s ‘assistant,’ the highly capable, and delightfully reproachful Tog Lee Chang Chu.  Reynolds never has trouble writing good female characters.  Three stars.

Cliff Simak is back with another rustic-themed story, Horrible Example.  Can a robot programmed to be the town drunk rise to be more than the sum of his code?  A sensitive piece in that inimitable Simak style.  Four stars.

G. Harry Stine used to be a professional rocketeer—until his calls to action in response to Sputnik rubbed his superiors the wrong way.  Now, he is a technology evangelist.  In his latest piece, Sub-Mach Rockets, he explorers the much neglected field of rocketry at speeds below the speed of sound.  Makes me want to build a baby missile or two!  Three stars.

The next piece was written with tongue firmly in cheek, a bit of engineering fluff by Maurice Price descriptively entitled, An Introduction to the Calculus of Desk-Cleaning.  See Price illustrate the correlation between engineer output and desk-based chaos; it’s surprisingly informative!  Four stars.

Next, we’ve got one of those “non-fact” articles, though it’s just billed as fiction.  The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel, by Arthur W. Orton, is a science fictional interpretation of the biblical book of Ezekiel.  It’s as good an explanation for that bizarre book as any!  Three stars

Now, I admit it.  I am biased toward stories of interstellar travel with ships and captains and interesting situations.  Poul Anderson’s Hiding Place is a wonderful puzzle cloaked in all the trappings I like: a refreshingly multi-racial starship crew finds itself trapped in deep space between a pirate fleet and a quickly diminishing provisions supply.  Only by making contact with a friendly alien ship do they have a hope of seeing the fires of home.  Unfortunately, said alien ship, a zoological vessel with a menagerie of beasts for its cargo, takes the humans for pirates and hides in the animal cages.  Can the terrestrials discern the sentient creatures from their beasts and plead their case in time?  Five stars.

That all adds up to a 3.5 star issue—well worth the half dollar you’ll fork over at the newsstand (less if you buy a subscription, which, if the quality continues to be this good, might be a fine investment).

Aloha!

[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!

[Jan. 25, 1961] Oscillating circuit (the February 1961 Analog)

John Campbell’s science fiction magazine continues to defy my efforts to chart a trend.  Following on the heels of last month’s rather dismal issue, the February 1961 Analog is an enjoyable read.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

It took me a little while to get into Everett Cole’s lead novella, The Weakling, but once I understood what he was doing, I was enthralled.  Cole paints a world in which people with psi powers dominate those without.  It is a planet of slave-owning aristocrats who can force people to do their bidding through mental will alone.  The viewpoint character is Barra, scion of a noble family.  His ascension to lordhood was accidental, caused by the premature deaths of his father and brother.  Without the aid of an array of potent psychic enhancers, he would be barely more powerful than the “pseudo-men” he controls. 

Weakling is the account of this bitter, cruel man, contemptuous of the slaves he resembles, jealous of his psychically more powerful peers, who entices rich merchants to his estate, murdering them for plunder.  The story can be hard to read at times, but it is an excellent insight into the mindset of the 19th Century slave-owner (and thus an indictment of the sentiment that still prevails over much of the modern South).  Four stars. 

Teddy Keller’s short, The Plague, is more typical Analog fare.  When a sickness sweeps the nation, with no apparent rhyme or reason to its epidemiology, one doctor must race against time to find a cure.  The solution is contrived and rather silly.  Two stars.

Freedom, the latest in Mack Reynolds’ slew of stories set in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, is a horse of a different color.  Once again, Reynolds expertly conveys the character of life behind an Iron Curtain where Communism has achieved its economic goals, but not its social ones.  In this tale, we see how difficult it is to extirpate a desire for intellectual freedom once it has taken root.  I appreciate the evenhandedness with which Reynolds evaluates both the East and West.  I also liked the romantic element, portrayed as between two equals unencumbered with conservative moral values.  Four stars.

Campbell trumpeted his expanded coverage of science fact in his magazine, and it seemed a worthy experiment at the start.  I’m always happy to see more Asimov articles, after all.  But recently, the “non-fiction” portion of the magazine has been devoted to self-penned articles on the editor’s hobbies or favorite crackpot inventions.  We get a blessed break from these with a short photo-feature showing rockets of the past and present.  Too short to garner a rating.

I don’t think I quite got H.B. Fyfe’s The Outbreak of Peace, a short short that takes place at an interstellar peace conference.  I even read it twice.  Would someone explain it to me, please?  Two stars (for now).

At last, we have Chris Anvil’s latest, The Ghost Fleet.  A space fleet commander is forced to ignominious flight when the enemy strikes with an unbeatable weapon.  Can he recover his honor (and save the day) with an audacious gambit?  It’s good, if something of a one-trick pony.  Three stars.

The issue finishes off with the conclusion to Occasion for Disaster, which I previously covered.  All told, the book clocks in at a slice over three stars, which is perfectly acceptable for 50 cents of entertainment. 

Now let’s see if this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction can top that.

[Jan. 15, 1961] Greater than the sum (Mark Phillips’ Occasion for Disaster)


Illustrated by Van Dongen

Sometimes one plus one is greater than two, and sometimes, two authors produce a substantially better product than either of them might individually.

Take Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg, for instance.  Here are a couple of fellows whose personal output tends toward the uninspiring, at best, and the downright offensive, at worst.  Yet, together, they wrote the Nidor series, which was solid reading all the way through.  Now, Laurence Janifer, on the other hand, writes some pretty good stuff on his own, so perhaps he is not helped by his pairing with Randy.  On the third hand, Randy sure as heck writes better stuff when working with Larry (under the pen name of Mark Phillips)!

Case in point: A couple of years ago, the two teamed up to produce a serial novel in Astounding (now Analog) called That Sweet Little Old Lady.  It followed the travails of FBI Agent Ken Malone as he tracked down a gaggle of insane telepaths in the early 1970s.  His main partner, aside from the Garrett stand-in, Agent Boyd, is a charming grandmotherly telepath whose primary quirk is that she believes herself to be Queen Bess, herself.  Not a reincarnation, mind you–the real deal.

The G-Man and Her Majesty teamed up again for another serial, Out Like a Light, where the subject of interest was a gang of teleporting juvenile car thieves.  By the end of this novel, Malone has picked up some psychic skills of his own, including a sense of precognition and the ability to teleport.

Three months ago, installment one of the latest Mark Phillips novel debuted in Analog.  This one is aptly titled Occasion for Disaster, and it is Malone’s most ambitious outing to date.  In fact, I think it makes it rather difficult to write any more in the series given the extremely conclusive nature of its ending.  Not that I’ll tell you about the ending.

I will tell you about the beginning, however.  It is two years after Malone’s first introduction, and the FBI is in a tizzy.  Society seems to be going to hell in slow motion, the rate of errors, accidents, and just plain-dumb decisions having recently risen above the statistical.  Of course, psionics is the suspected culprit. 

Follow Malone’s meandering course as he first determines what’s happening, then who is causing it, and finally why it’s being done.  It’s a good mystery, as fun as the rest of the series, and Queen Elizabeth (i.e. Rose Thompson) is always a hoot. 

Three stars.

[January 6, 1960] Watch your tongue?  (February 1961 Galaxy, Part 1)

The old saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  As you know, I am rarely reserved when I don’t like a piece of work.  Every once in a while, I get a gentle chiding.  One reader said he didn’t want to hear about stories I don’t like–just the ones I do.  Another opined that my fans might tire of my consistently negative reviews of a certain author. 

I don’t want to discount these criticisms as I think they are valid.  On the other hand, if I am unreserved in my scorn, I am similarly effusive about what I like.  My columns are rarely completely negative.  Moreover, I recognize that even the works I don’t like often appeal to others, and I love receiving letters from folks who disagree with my judgments. 

Besides, you good folk likely come here to see me as much as to get reading recommendations.  Alfred Bester said in F&SF last month that he prefers English non-fiction to American as English authors will intrude into the text.  There are only so many ways to package facts; the only distinguishing character is the personality of the packager.  Certainly, I read Asimov as much for the science lesson as for the fun anecdotes.

So, enjoy all of me, even the kvetching.  And if you don’t, feel free to tell me just how much you dislike me.  I may even agree with you…

On to the task at hand–reviewing the first half of the February 1961 Galaxy!

Evelyn Smith (formerly Gold, same name as the editor, natch) takes up most of it with Sentry in the Sky, a story about a malcontent in a futuristic caste system who is enlisted to become a long-term spy mole on a more primitive world.  It’s not bad, but it is awfully simplistic, and the point meanders.  Moreover, it relies on awfully human aliens.  Of course, it’s satire as much as anything else–the primitive world has a culture that is immediately familiar to 20th Century people.  Let me know what you think.  Three stars.

Doorstep is a cute short by Keith Laumer about an overachieving general and the UFO he tries to crack open.  Sort of a poor man’s Sheckley; something I’d expect from 1952.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s article is pretty interesting this month.  He covers the new science of “seeding” clouds to create rain in Let’s do Something about the Weather.  Three stars.

Finally, we have what may be the very first piece from a new writer, Volume Paa-Pyx by Fred Saberhagen.  It’s a fun twist on the future where those with specific aptitudes get placed in appropriate professions.  When is a police state not a police state?  Three stars.

It doesn’t take a slide rule to calculate this issue: Three stars across the board!  Nothing exceptional, nothing horrid.  Satisfying, but ummemorable.  Let me ask you–is it better to be delivered a dose of strong ups and downs or a steady, bland mean?