Tag Archives: murray leinster

The Worst (September 1959 Astounding; 8-20-1959)

People seem to enjoy extremes.  The first to do this.  The best at doing that.  The most exciting.  The brightest.  The darkest.

If you’re wondering why I failed to write on schedule, day-before-yesterday, it’s because I was wrestling with the worst.  Specifically, the worst magazine I’ve had to trudge through since I began this project in 1954.  Let me tell you: there was nothing to enjoy about it.

I speak of the September 1959 issue of Astounding.  Not only are the stories (at least those I’ve thus far read) thoroughly dull, but they have that sharp stamp of Campbellian editing, or pandering, which causes them to have the same tedious, nonsensical elements.

Take That Sweet Little Old Lady, by “Mark Phillips,” a pseudonym so phoney, I knew Randall Garrett had to be involved.  Sure enough, Mark Phillips is Randy and a fellow named Laurence F. Janifer.  It’s a drab, unamusingly droll stream-of-consciousness story about a detective and his quest to find a psionic spy.  In the course of his investigations, he meets a dotty esper convinced that she is an immortal Queen Elizabeth.  Joy of joys, this is only the first of a two-part serial.

As for the Campbellian twist, much reference is made to psionic devices that are part electronic and part symbolic.  This is a nod to Campbell’s obsession with “Heironymous Machines,” devices that measure “non-electromagnetic radiation,” using electric circuits that appear to have no function and could, it is boasted, be replaced by pen-and-ink diagrams of those same circuits without affecting the ability of the machine.

Well, I can’t disagree with that.

Chris Anvil continues to make solid 2-star stories that fill blank spots in the pages of AstoundingCaptive Leaven is about the effect an interstellar traveler had on a primitive civilization, uplifting it to a very specialized sophistication so that it could produce parts to repair the traveler’s spaceship.  Not a bad idea, I suppose, but executed in so dull a fashion that I fairly had to reread the whole tale to remember the plot.

Finally, even Murray Leinster disappoints with his A Matter of Importance, in which Leinster’s characteristic employment of short sentences annoys to distraction.  Ostensibly a story about an interstellar police rescue mission, it’s really an opportunity to point out that the human form is the most natural of forms for intelligent creatures, that the Solar System is the most typical of planetary systems, and the predictions of a canny protagonist always come out to be correct. 

Fatuous determinism.  You can have it.

I’m dreading the rest of this issue, and the next one, to be honest.  I’ll read them, because I feel I’ve a contract with you, my good readers, but I can’t promise not to skim.

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Kookie Aliens (August 1959 Astounding, first part)

I’m a bit of an etymology nut, so when I recently heard the hit song, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend me your Comb),” I became intrigued by the provenance of the final lyric, “Baby, you’re the ginchiest.”

Turning to my Dictionary of American Slang, I found that ginch was 30s slang for a woman, a rather unflattering depersonalizing word.  It is akin to, and possibly related to “wench.”  Some people have taken “ginchiest” to mean “tops” or “the best,” but seeing how the male singer is a self-absorbed, beat-spouting jerk, and the girl (from his viewpoint) keeps pestering him, I think he really means, “Man… you’re such an annoying chick!”

Maybe I think too hard on trivial matters.

I’m happy to announce that this month’s Astounding starts with a bang, but first, I want to detour to the issue’s non-fiction article.  It’s the second of its kind that I’ve seen recently, an overdramatic, underrational speculation into the effects of weightlessness and space on the human psyche.  The author opines that, in the absence of normal sensory input or gravity, a person trapped in a tin can for any length of time will go nuts.

Well, people have survived on submarines for 50 years just fine (save for the occasional unfortunate build-up of carbon dioxide).  I suspect our future astronauts will remain sane.  It’s not as if we’re sending them into space inside of sensory deprivation tanks.

Now the fiction.  Murray Leinster has a really excellent story in this ish that I hate to spoil with too much description.  It’s a story of first contact, of an encounter between spaceships, of the interplay between crews, alien and familiar.  And it features a female bridge officer!  Leinster’s penchant for repetitive sentences, like he’s orally reciting an Homeric ode, is a little off-putting, but not cripplingly so.

I give it 5 stars.  How about you?

P.S. I’d planned to write more, but the next story in the book is a Randall Garrett, and I fell asleep five pages in.  I shall try again tonight.  Until next time, dear readers…



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A Free Gift! (The Pirates of Ersatz; 3-12-1959)

And now, my gentle readers, a free gift.

As you know, I am well-acquainted with Mr. Murray Leinster, science fiction writer extraordinaire.  His newest novel, The Pirates of Ersatz has just finished its serial run in this month’s Astounding, and the nice fellow has given me permission to distribute it freely amongst my readers.

That’s right.  This book is yours entirely free of charge!

Now, the question is, should you read it?

I suppose that depends.  As I said a couple of months ago, it’s set in the same universe as the Med Series, but with a completely different protagonist. 

In brief, young Bron Hoddan is an engineer from a family of pirates.  Where Hoddan’s from, it’s almost respectable, even.  But Hoddan wants to make his mark in the clean world and so heads to squeaky-clean Walden… where he runs afoul of the law for trying to improve on paradise with an upgraded power generator. 

Fleeing for his life to the crude medieval planet Darth, he then runs afoul of the local aristocracy for… well.. just about everything.  Yet, so resourceful is Hoddan that he manages not only to survive but to thrive, getting the best of the petty nobles and winning the admiration of the plucky heroine, Lady Fani.

That’s only the first half.  How Hoddan turns a ragtag fleet of colony ships into a phoney piracy concern and manages to steal from the rich and somehow make everyone richer, is rollicking adventure.

Now, I don’t think this is the best Leinster I’ve ever read.  He likes to write short sentences.  His sentences have few words.  They can be repetitive.  He abuses this trait a little overmuch to my liking.  The story is also a bit disjointed (dare I say “episodic”?), particularly in the Darth section. 

That said, there is also much to like.  I happen to really like the decentralized Med Series universe with its range of interesting, unique planets.  The story also makes it quite clear that a strong heroine is far more compelling than a trophy, and it is always clear who is in the driver’s seat in the Fani/Hoddan courtship.

Most interestingly, in the course of his travels, Hoddan invents an independent landing device small enough for installation on starships.  This is huge as, until this book, ships could only land on planets that had erected mammoth landing grids that projected magnetic tractor beams to guide vessels to the ground.  I wonder if we’ll see the fall-out of this invention in later stories.

So try it.  The price is right, and it will definitely get you from point A to Z with a smile on your face.  3.5 stars out of 5.

See you on the 14th!

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“Doctor, Merchant” (Murray Leinster and the February 1959 Astounding; 1-13-1959)

Have you heard of Murray Leinster?

Of course you have, though he also writes under “William F. Jenkins,” which happens to be his real name.  Leinster/Jenkins is one of the few authors with a shot at the title of “Dean of Science Fiction.”  He’s one of the old guard–a veteran of World War One, the pulp era, Campbell’s Golden Age of Astounding, and he’s still going strong.  He won the Hugo in 1956 for his Exploration Team (which I haven’t yet read).  Leinster has an interesting style, unadorned and occasionally repetitive, that I think lends itself well to being read by adults and kids.

Interestingly, I am not as acquainted with Leinster as I feel I should be.  Aside from the juvenile, Space Tug (which I mentioned in an earlier article), I’ve only read some of his short stories.  Sam, this is you, for instance, came out in Galaxy a few years ago, and it was good. 

My favorites have been the short two stories, thus far, in the “Med Series,” (there is also at least one novel, which I should read soon.) Their protagonist, Calhoun, is a “med man.”  That is, he’s a doctor who flies in his one-person ship between planets like a country doctor visiting farms, bringing the latest cures and techniques.  Normally, his trips are routine, but we don’t get to read those stories.

Calhoun does have a companion–the cat/monkey hybrid named “Murgatroyd.”  Not only is the creature incredibly cute, but it has the innate ability to develop antibodies to virtually any disease.  It is thus invaluable for creating vaccine sera.

I like any story where the hero is distinguished by his or her healing rather than combat prowess.  Moreover, Calhoun has to use his brain, which is more fun and interesting than wielding a gun.  Both of the stories came out in Astounding in the last couple of years (Ribbon in the Sky, June 1957; The Grandfathers’ War, October 1957), and I imagine back issues would not be hard to obtain.

What I also like about this series is the universe.  Leinster’s future posits a superluminary drive that goes some 30 times the speed of light.  This is unquestionably an impressive speed, but though it facilitates colonization of other planets, it is too slow to efficiently maintain a galactic empire.  Instead, each planet is left to its own devices, and there are a few loose galactic organizations whose purpose is to facilitate the spread of medicine (the Med Corps) and to mediate interplanetary disputes.

This Ambassadorial Corps is featured in Leinster’s new serialized novel, The Pirates of Ersatz (“A ha!  He’s finally getting to his point!” I hear you say.) The February 1959 issue of Astounding has been sitting on my to-read pile for some time, and I’ve finally gotten to it.  Of course, only the first of three parts has come out, and I don’t want to spoil it issue-by-issue.  Suffice it to say, it looks promising.  It does not feature Calhoun, but rather an enterprising inventor, who suffers for his ingenuity.  In tone and structure, it feels a bit like Heinlein’s recent Astounding serial, Citizen of the Galaxy.  This is not a bad thing.

So stay tuned!  I won’t have a review of Leinster’s novel for another two months, but the other stories in the magazine (blessedly, I don’t think there’s an Anderson or Garrett among them) will be discussed quite soon.

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Less is More; Rocket Clusters in Science Fiction (12-02-1958)

Science advances rapidly, and with it, our visions of the future.  People have been dreaming about traveling to outer space for thousands of years, and their dreams have necessarily been based on extrapolations of the time.  For instance, when Daedalus and Icarus made their flights, they used bird-like wings.  What else was there?  When Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon, a giant cannon was the propulsion. 

Then the rocket came along, and that became the vehicle of choice for space jaunts.  Yet the portrayal of rockets in science fiction even just a few years ago differs dramatically from how they ended up actually being used for space travel.  One crucial development changed the whole game in the span of just five years.

Two books in my library illustrate what I’m talking about.  In 1953, Jeffery Lloyd Castle wrote Satellite E One, and Murray Leinster wrote Space Tug, both near-future tales of space stations.  In the beginnings of both books, our heroes are blasted into orbit with the use of rockets—lots of rockets.  Castle’s booster is 150 feet tall and has 50 rocket engines.  Leinster’s is even more creative.  Dozens of independent jet engines propel the rocket assembly to about 12 miles up and then detach, whereupon solid rockets fire and subsequently detach.  Finally, the rocket’s own engines (presumably liquid fuel) ignite to finish the journey.

Both of these stories are products of their era.  Until 1953, rockets were pretty small affairs.  In the 30s, they were strictly hobbyists’ stuff.  Even in the 40s, the vaunted German V-2 was what would now be classified a Short Ranged Ballistic Missile (SRBM).  Missile development languished in the early post-war compared to the prodigious effort expended on the development of jet engines.  To science fiction writers, it seemed any space rocket would have to be purpose-built, and it would take a tremendous number of these small engines to get a craft to orbit.  That’s why most predictions saw humanity reaching the moon around the end of the century.  Clarke was particularly visionary in Childhood’s End when he wrote about a manned lunar mission as early as 1975 using atomic rockets.

What few authors predicted was the InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) race.  In 1954, the Air Force and Army began working in earnest to develop titanic missiles to send nuclear warheads across the world.  Since all must crawl before walking, their first product was the Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missle (IRBM), which will be based in Europe.  The Army finished their first proto-IRBM, the Redstone, in 1956.  All of a sudden, the United States had an off-the-shelf method to send payloads into orbit.  With the completion of the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in 1957, as well as the Navy’s Vanguard (not a military vehicle but based on the earlier Viking, in turn based on the V-2), America suddenly had a stable of boosters.

That year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.  They didn’t use a purpose-built space booster; they borrowed an ICBM from their arsenal and stuck a satellite on top.  We know it was an ICBM for two reasons: the Soviets had, just a few months before, announced that they’d built and tested an ICBM.  And Sputnik III, which used the same launcher as Sputniks I and II (presumably) weighed a ton-and-a-half, so an ICBM class booster was needed to loft it.

We don’t know how many individual rockets make up the Soviet booster, but the Redstone, Thor and Jupiter use just one.  Of course, it is more efficient to send multi-staged rockets into orbit, so the Juno-I that launched the first Explorer actually has 14 engines (the one on the Redstone and 13 solid-fueled Sergeants on top).  The Juno-II also has 14 (Jupiter plus 13 Sergeants).  The Junos are stopgaps, however.  The Thor-Able that launched Pioneers 0-2 only has three engines.  The first crop of American ICBMs, the Atlas and the Titan, have just 2-3 engines.  Even Von Braun’s proposed lunar mission monsters will only have around 12, tops.  So much for cluster rockets with dozens of engines.

It is no coincidence that the Space Race started when it did.  It is a direct side-effect of the ICBM race.  Science fiction authors are going to have to revise their timetables as well as their portrayals of rockets.  It just goes to show that science progresses awfully fast when we want it to, sometimes faster than our ability to predict its progress.

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