[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]
by Gideon Marcus
Thirteen years ago this month, amidst the post-war boom of science fiction digests, Galaxy Science Fiction was born. Its editor, H.L. Gold, intended his brainchild to stand above and apart from the dozens of lesser mags (remember those days of abundance?) with progressive and smart strictly SF stories. He succeeded — Galaxy has showcased some of the best the genre has to offer, as well as a fine science fact column penned by Willy Ley. The consistency of quality has been remarkable.
Two years ago, Fred Pohl, a bright authorial light already, took the helm from the ailing Gold. If anything, he has improved on excellence, continuing to coax fine works from established authors and interesting pieces from new ones. It helps that he, himself, can fill the pages with good material and often does….though I have to wonder if he gets paid when he does that.
If you were to pick any single issue to turn someone on to Galaxy (or to science fiction in general), you could hardly do better than to give them the latest issue (October 1962) of Galaxy. Not only isn’t there a clunker in the mix, not only does it feature a new Instrumentality story by the great Cordwainer Smith, but it includes part one of an incredible new novel by the editor.
Wow. I think I threw in more superlatives in the last three paragraphs than I have in the last three months. I guess it’s time to show you what all the hubbub’s about:
The Ballad of Lost C’mell, by Cordwainer Smith
Many authors write in a consistent world. Some are developed following an individual through her/his life in a series of stories. Others might take place in a common setting but feature different protagonists. Smith has introduced his Instrumentality universe through oblique flashes. Each piece involves wildly different places and characters, each with a limited view of things. Only after reading several of them does one get an idea of the nature of Smith’s creation.
Thousands of years from now, Earth has seen global empires rise and fall. The current ruling entity is the Instrumentality, a council of pure-humans ruling over the people-citizens and genetically altered animal-subcitizens. Technology caters to virtually every need; the world enjoys a purely service-based economy with the Underhumans providing the services. For humans, Earth is a beautiful, magical place filled with strange wonders. For the animal-people, enslaved to the pure humans, life is a struggle and punishments harsh. We are beyond the familiar subtext of racism/chauvinism that suffuses Western stories – the relationship between the races hearkens to the rigid castes of Asia. The animal-men may be cast in human mold, but their treatment is peremptory, inhumane. And the humans are blithely unaware that their creations have the capacity to rebel…
C’mell is the most straight-forward of Smith’s Instrumentality stories, and it gives the sharpest insight, to date, of the world he’s created (though it by no means reveals all of its secrets). As always, it displays Smith’s mastery of the craft, mixing showing and telling, romance and austerity, far-future and relatability. Smith is an author who doesn’t put pen to paper unless it’s for a four or five-star story, and C’mell is no exception. Five stars.
Come Into My Cellar, by Ray Bradbury
We’ve seen the plot where intelligent fungus take over humanity through forced symbiosis in Aldiss’ Hothouse stories. Bradbury gives us a much more conventional setup, where the evil mushrooms send spores of themselves via mail-order catalog to be grown and ingested. A nicely written but dumb story, and it has the same ending as All Summer in a Day, which is to say, Ray doesn’t bother to end it. Three stars – about as good as Bradbury (not really an SF author) ever gets.
The Earthman’s Burden, by Donald E. Westlake
A competent if somewhat forgettable story of an arrogant, resurgent Terran star empire and the lost colony that promises to be more trouble than it’s worth to conquer. There’s pleasant satire here, particularly of the buffoonish Imperials, but nothing we haven’t seen before. In fact, I rather expected to find this piece in Analog (you’ll see why). Three stars.
For Your Information: End of the Jet Age, by Willy Ley
A generation ago, propeller planes were the way to travel. Now that they’ve been eclipsed by the jets, one has to wonder just how long our 707s and DC-8s will last before they are, in turn, replaced by the next mode of transportation. Ley gives us an excellent preview of rocketplane travel in the 1980s as well as a spotlight on a living fossil and answers to readers’ questions. Four stars.
A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede
Speaking of series, Doede has a third story in his tale of teleporting humans , who have exiled themselves from Earth using subcutaneous matter transmitters that work at the speed of thought. This latest piece involves a dilettante archaeologist who’ll brave offending the Gods and even risk death to dig an ancient, abandoned site on Alpha Centauri II. Another piece that shouldn’t work (why does the native speak perfect English?), but Doede always pulls it off. Four stars.
How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon
Resigned to an 18-year hitch, the solo operator of a Martian atmosphere seeder resorts to building his own companions to preserve his sanity. It’s a little bit McIntosh’s Hallucination Orbit (one wonders if the events of the story are really happening) tinged with Sheckley-esque satire and robotics. But Harmon is not quite as skilled as either of these authors, and so the story ends up like most of Harmon’s work, never quite hitting the mark. Three stars.
Plague of Pythons (Part 1 of 2), by Frederik Pohl
How fragile our interconnected, technological world is. How easy it would be for a few malicious demons, selectively possessing our bodies at propitious times, to utterly disintegrate our society. Fast forward two years, after the world has reverted to feudal savagery. Communities larger than the village are impossible. Religion has revived in a last-ditch attempt to protect humanity from bodily appropriation. One ex-engineer, name of Chandler, is on trial for a heinous assault he most assuredly committed, but which wasn’t his doing. What justice can he find in a world where the dispensers of justice can, at any time, cease being themselves?
Pythons is a brutal, uncomfortable story, crushingly bleak. It’s not the sort of thing I would normally go for, and I definitely caution against it if mind control pushes unpleasant buttons. Yet Pohl executes the thing deftly, and he holds out the barest sliver of hope to keep you going. I have no idea how Pythons will conclude, but if the latter half is as good as the first, we’ll have a minor masterpiece on our hands. Four stars (for now…)
Roberta, by Margaret St. Clair
Roberta explores the lengths one might go to erase the wrongness they feel exists in themselves – and the possibility that it is impossible to escape that wrongness. It is the first story I’ve read that explores the concept of transsexualism, and while it is not a positive story, it is an interesting one. Three stars.
Bimmie Says, by Sydney J. Van Scyoc
While we’re on the subject of changing physical form, is it possible to be transCarnivorous? In other words, what if cats and dogs can be made mutually intermalleable? And if pets can be transformed, why not people? Van Scyoc’s story is clearly inspired by Keyes’ hit, Flowers for Algernon, whose excellence it does not quite reach. Still, it’s not bad, and I’m glad to see Sydney’s continuing her promising career. Three stars.
Who Dares a Bulbur Eat?, by Gordon R. Dickson
Last up is the second in the adventures of the interstellar ambassadorial couple, Tom and Lucy Reasoner — a sort of Hammett’s Nick and Nora meets Laumer’s Retief. In this installment, the Reasoners are tasked with attending a diplomatic banquet to find the weakness in the newly discovered Jacktal empire, a rapacious regime more powerful than the Terran Federation.
It’s a bit of a muddle, and the title fairly spoils the piece, but the conclusion is great fun and worth the price of admission. Three stars.
All told, this comes out to a 3.5 star issue, none of it tiresome, much of it amazing. I am also happy to see that F&SF will not have the monopoly on woman writers this month. It’s issues like this that buoy me through the lousy patches (like last month’s Analog). I mean, suffering for art is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to have nice things to say!
Next up, let’s see how the October 1962 Amazing stacks up. See you then!