Tag Archives: neal barrett

[April 30, 1961] Travel stories (June 1961 Galaxy, first half)

My nephew, David, has been on an Israeli Kibbutz for a month now.  We get letters from him every few days, mostly about the hard work, the monotony of the diet, and the isolation from the world.  The other day, he sent a letter to my brother, Lou, who read it to me over the phone.  Apparently, David went into the big port-town of Haifa and bought copies of Life, Time, and Newsweek.  He was not impressed with the literary quality of any of them, but he did find Time particularly useful.

You see, Israeli bathrooms generally don’t stock toilet paper…

Which segues nicely into the first fiction review of the month.  I’m happy to report I have absolutely nothing against the June 1961 Galaxy – including my backside.  In fact, this magazine is quite good, at least so far.  As usual, since this is a double-sized magazine, I’ll review it in two parts.

First up is Mack Reynolds’ unique novelette, Farmer.  Set thirty years from now in the replanted forests of the Western Sahara, it’s an interesting tale of intrigue and politics the likes of which I’ve not seen before.  Reynolds has got a good grasp of the international scene, as evidenced by his spate of recent stories of the future Cold War.  If this story has a failing, it is its somewhat smug and one-sided tone.  Geopolitics should be a bit more ambiguous.  It’s also too good a setting for such a short story.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column immediately follows.  There’s some good stuff in this one, particularly the opening piece on plans to melt the Arctic ice cap to improve the climate of the USSR (and, presumably, Scandinavia and Canada).  Of course, if global warming happens on schedule, we won’t need any outlandish engineering marvels to make this happen; we can just continue business as usual.  Hail progress!

I also appreciated Ley’s reply to one of his fans, who asked why he rarely covers space launches anymore.  His answer?  They come too quickly!  Any reporting would have a 4-5 month delay – an eternity these days.  It’s hard enough for me to keep up.  Four stars.

The Graybes of Raath is Neal Barret, Jr.’s third story in Galaxy.  It should be a throw-away, what with the punny title, the non-shocker ending, and the hideous Don Martin art.  But this tale of a well-meaning immigration agency attempting to find the home of a family of itinerant alien farmers is actually a lot of fun.  Barrett is nothing if not consistent.  Three stars.

Now here’s a weird one.  Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth have a new duet out called A Gentle Dying.  Now, the two have worked together for many years; that’s not the surprising part.  Nor is the fact that the story, about an incredibly elderly and beloved children’s author’s last moments, is good.  No, it’s strange because Kornbluth has been dead for five years!  I can only imagine that Pohl (now de-facto editor of Galaxy, per last month’s F&SF) dusted this one off after having waited for the right venue/slot-size.  Three stars.

Last up is R.A. Lafferty’s absolutely lovely The Weirdest World.  Can a marooned alien blob find sanctuary, even happiness, among aliens so strange as those that live on Earth?  I’ve always kind of liked Lafferty, but this one is his best to date, with its gentle writing, and its spot-on portrayal of cross-species telepathy.  Five stars.

This column began with travel, and it ends with travel.  My wife and I are in Las Vegas for a weekend, enjoying the food and the sights.  Sinatra doesn’t seem to be at the Sands right now, but that’s all right.  We’ll catch Ol’ Blue Eyes another time.

While we were here, we ran into Emily Jablon, a famous columnist and Jet Setter who spends much of her time flitting across the world.  She gave us some tips on travel that were new even to us!  Of course, we introduced her to Galactic Journeying, and what better way than with this month’s Galaxy?

[September 1, 1960] Looking up (October 1960 Galaxy, second half)

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting like caught fish (with baited breath), so I shan’t keep you in the dark any longer regarding the October 1960 Galaxy.  The second half of the magazine is better than the first, but it is not without its troubles.

Neal Barrett is back with his sophomore effort, The Stentorii Luggage.  This engaging little tale highlights the dangers involved in running a hotel for dozens of disparate (and mutually incompatible) alien races.  It also justifies the “no pets” policy common to most places of lodging. 

A Fall of Glass gets my nomination for the best story of the issue.  This is also a second effort, by Stanley R. Lee, in this case.  Breezy, light touch tales are hard to pull off, but I think Lee has managed in this one, a romance set inside a climate-controlled, post-apocalyptic dome.  Superficially similar to World in a Bottle in subject matter, but far better in execution.

That brings us to Edward Wellen’s “non-fact” article, Origins of the Galactic Short-Snorter.  It’s an unwieldy title, to be sure, and these droll attempts at humor generally fall flat.  But this one, about a museum of obsolete currency, isn’t bad.

The one familiar name in the issue is Gordon Dickson.  He can usually be counted on to turn in a decent story; his The Hours are Good is rather masterful.  It’s not the vaguely futuristic setting or the details of the plot that stand out.  What distinguishes this thriller is the measured, deliberate way Dickson reveals what’s going on in, culminating in a nice kicker.  I like stories that show rather than tell, and it’s all show in this one.

Sadly, the issue doesn’t stop there.  It’s final tale, David Duncan’s The Immortals, is a loser.  In brief: the inventor of immortality wants to know the effects his efforts will have on civilization.  He enlists the aid of a computer simulations expert.  When the projection shows that everlasting life leads to cultural torpor, the pair insert themselves into the simulation to learn more.

Duncan’s story is B-Movie fare.  The idea that a computer could predict the future with perfect accuracy, so long as it is fed sufficient data, is silly on its face.  Anyone with a background in mathematics knows that even single equations often have several answers; many have an infinite number.  Add to that implausibility the idea that one could wander around this virtual reality and interact with its denizens using computers of current vintage…well, let’s just say I’ll need a splint for my strained credulity.

It’s really too bad.  The societal impacts of everlasting life are worth exploring.  So is the notion of creating “life” within the memory banks of a computer.  Either would merit a novel of development.  Both get short shrift in this clunky novelette.

In more positive news, my family enjoyed a lovely, sunset stroll down Grand Avenue in nearby Escondido a few days ago.  I picked up copies of my reading material for this month, so you can expect reviews of Sheckley and Sturgeon in short order.

[July 19, 1960] A New Breed (August 1960 Galaxy)

Last year, Galaxy editor Horace Gold bowed to economic necessity, trimming the length of his magazine and slashing the per word rate for his writers.  As a result (and perhaps due to the natural attrition of authors over time), Galaxy‘s Table of Contents now features a slew of new authors.  In this month’s editorial, Gold trumpets this fact as a positive, predicting that names like Stuart, Lang, Barrett, Harmon, and Lafferty will be household names in times to come.

In a way, it is good news.  This most progressive of genres must necessarily accept new talent lest it become stale.  The question is whether or not these rookies will stay long enough to hone their craft if the money isn’t there.  I suppose there is something to be said for doing something just for the love of it.

As it turns out, the August 1960 issue of Galaxy is pretty good.  I’m particularly pleased with Chris Anvil’s lead novelette, Mind Partner.  It’s a fascinating story involving a man paid to investigate a most unusual addictive substance, the habit of which its victims are generally unable to kick.  Those that manage to break free retreat into paranoid near-catatonia or explode into random streaks of violence.

Chris is a fellow who has churned out reliably mediocre tales for Astounding (now Analog) for years, yet I’ve always felt that he was capable of more.  Just as a good director can coax a fine performance out of an actor, perhaps Anvil just needs a better editor than Campbell.

William Stuart is up next with, A Husband for My Wife, a rather conventional, but not unworthy, time travel story involving the heated competition for affection and success between two friends/nemeses, one exemplifying brains, the other brawn.  The brainy one jumps off into the future with the brawny one’s girlfriend leaving the latter stuck with the brainy one’s domineering wife.  But the meathead and the shrew will be waiting when the brain returns… 

Stuart was the new author who penned the pleasant (though ultimately dark) Inside John Barth in the last issue.  His sophomore effort is not quite as good, but I can definitely see why Gold keeps him around, and he clearly has time to write!

Non-fiction writer Willy Ley is back to his old standard, I think, with his article on the origin of legends: How to Slay Dragons.  I was particularly interested to learn that the mythical dragon, at least in the West, only goes back to the Renaissance.  Apparently the notion of winged lizards cavorting with medieval princesses is anachronistic.

Back to fiction, The Business, as Usual is Jack Sharkey’s second story in Galaxy, and it’s about as bad as his first.  Set in 1962, it portrays, satirically, the top brass of our nation figuring out what to do with a new stealth aircraft.  It’s all a set-up for a groan-worthy last line.

Sordman the Protector is an interesting, ambitious novella by serviceman Tom Purdom about a class of psychically gifted “Talents” who are both prized and reviled for their abilities.  The story is praiseworthy both for its innovative portrayal of future culture and the taut whodunit it presents.  It is clear that the author put a lot into developing the tale’s background universe.  I wonder if he intends to expand it into a novel.

Neal Barrett’s first tale, To Tell the Truth, has a cute title and an interesting set-up.  In an interstellar war where security is of paramount importance, combatants are given pain blocks against torture and suicide triggers that trip if their owners are on the verge of divulging sensitive information.  This provides strong protection for secrets when soldiers get captured.  But what if the secrets were never true to begin with?

Finally, we’ve got L.J. Stecher’s An Elephant for the Prinkip, a rather delightful piece about the difficulties of transporting pachyderms across the stars.  It’s one of those stories that shouldn’t work, being all tell and no show (literally–its narrator is a salty old captain recounting the tale at a bar), but it does.  But then, I’ve always had a soft spot for stories involving interstellar freight.

That leaves the second and final part of Fred Pohl’s short novel, Drunkard’s Walk… but I’ll cover this one separately.

Stay tuned!