by Victoria Silverwolf
To be successful, a fiction magazine often needs to strike a balance between established authors and new blood. Experienced writers can generally be counted on to provide work of professional quality, while fledging storytellers may keep the magazine from seeming stale and predictable.
Such a strategy can be seen in the latest issue of Fantastic. Two famous names, one well known to readers of science fiction and the other familiar to almost anybody with a television set, appear on the cover. No doubt this will increase the sales of the magazine on the newsstand. Once the purchase is made, the reader might find the offerings from unknown authors more interesting.
Leading off the issue is Randall Garrett, whose fiction can be found in a large number of publications under a variety of names. Hardly an issue of Astounding — excuse me, I mean Analog — goes by, it seems, without at least one of his stories within its pages. As with many prolific writers, the quality of his work is variable.
Most likely inspired by Lloyd Birmingham’s silly cover illustration, Hepcats of Venus brings us Garrett in his comic mode. The title is misleading, as the scene of aliens in a hip coffeehouse playing instruments made up of parts of their bodies is only a small portion of the story.
It seems that Earth has been monitored for thousands of years by a Galactic Observer and his assistant. When we first meet these characters, they take the form of a stereotypical British Lord and Lady. Later they transform themselves into equally clichéd beatniks. Without going into detail, the plot involves shapeshifting aliens sneaking to Earth in order to expose the world’s leaders to a substance which will render them hypnotized slaves. It’s inoffensive, but not particularly intriguing or amusing. Two stars.
The success of Perry Mason on the small screen, as well as novels, motion pictures, and radio, makes Erle Stanley Gardner one of the most popular writers of crime fiction of all time. This issue’s “Fantasy Classic” brings us another side of this bestselling author. First published in Argosy in 1931, The Human Zero is an action-adventure yarn with a hardboiled detective, a spunky girl reporter, and a mad scientist. Even for an old-fashioned pulp story, it’s poorly written and unoriginal. The science fiction content – a substance which cools human beings to absolute zero, causing them to vanish, leaving only empty clothes behind – is unconvincing, to say the least. I had to struggle through it, so only one star.
The rest of the issue features one author who has published a handful of stories, and three who are making their debuts. Paul Dellinger’s first publication is Rat Race, a tale narrated by a physician confined to a wheelchair who confronts an alien intelligence which has possessed the body of a rat. It’s a fairly typical science fiction horror story, with a minor twist at the end. Two stars.
Much more substantial is This is Your Death by Albert Teichner, who published the interesting story Sweet Their Blood and Sticky a couple of months ago in the pages of If, as regular followers of this column will recall. If that story reminded me of a moodier Lafferty, this one seems like a darker version of Sheckley. It’s a grim satire of the entertainment industry. The title, of course, alludes to a popular, if controversial, television program, which has sometimes been accused of invading the privacy of those it profiles. Teichner raises the ante by imagining a program which films the deaths of patients suffering from terminal diseases. The cutthroat maneuvers of executives behind the scenes remind me of Rod Serling’s television drama and feature film Patterns. It’s a disturbing story, one which many readers will find unpleasant, but in my opinion it deserves four stars.
Atonement is the first story from Jesse Roarke, and it’s an unusual one. Written in an affected, archaic style, the setting would at first seem to be the mythical ancient world of sword and sorcery. We soon find out, however, that we are in the future, after a devastating war has left a planet with few survivors. The protagonist undergoes a ritual which is meant to atone for humanity’s destruction of itself. The final scene of this brief tale is surprising, and may be confusing. I found the story haunting, even if I didn’t fully understand it. Three stars.
Our final new author is Gordon Browne, whose initial creation is The Empathic Man. The title character is a gentle, kindhearted fellow whose compassion for the suffering of others is so extreme that he takes on the physical characteristics of those he pities. Despite an ending which is predictable, it’s a powerful story which leads one to consider the pain endured by our fellow creatures. Three stars.
I’m pleased that editor Cele Goldsmith has continued to publish new authors, despite the controversy raging in the letter column about David R. Bunch and his tales of Moderan. I am also happy to see that she has not turned her back on more experienced writers, particularly the way in which she has revitalized the career of the great Fritz Leiber. As we approach the new year, it’s appropriate to remember that January was named for the Roman god Janus, who was wise enough to look at both the past and the future.