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[November 19, 1961] See Change (December 1961 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Every successful endeavor goes through the cycle of growth, stability, decline, and renewal (or death, in which case, there’s no cycle).  Science fiction magazines are no exception.  A particularly far-sighted editor can plan for decline by setting up a successor.  For instance Galaxy‘s H.L. Gold has turned over the reigns to Fred Pohl with no apparent drop in the digest’s quality.  Anthony Bourchier transitioned to Robert Mills at F&SF, and I understand that Renaissance Man Avram Davidson is waiting in the wings to take over.  That event can’t happen too soon, as F&SF has been lackluster of late.

Analog has had the same master since the early 30s: John W. Campbell.  And while Campbell has effected several changes in an attempt to revive his flagging mag (including a name change, from Astounding; the addition of a 20-page “slick” section in the middle of issues; and a genuinely effective cover design change (see below)), we’ve still had the same guy at the stick for three decades.  Analog has gotten decidedly stale, consistently the worst of The Big Three (in my estimation).

You can judge for yourself.  Just take a gander at the December 1961 issue.  It does not do much, if anything, to pull the once-great magazine from its shallow dive:

As has been the case for a couple of years now, the serialized novel (in this case, the first part of Black Man’s Burden, by Mack Reynolds) is the best part of the book.  Burden is the story of modernization in near-future North Africa.  Reynolds is currently living in the Mahgreb, so his tale is laced with authentic cultural insight.  Reynolds’ Tuareg tribesmen read like the best-developed sf alien cultures…except they’re for real!  I’m looking forward to see where this goes; rating reserved until I’ve read the whole thing.

Next up is a cute little time travel story involving an historian who attempts to change the course of events for a little nascent country called Texas.  I’ve never heard of R. R. Fehrenbach, so I assume Remember the Alamo! is his first story.  As such it’s not bad, though I tend to prefer my viewpoint not wander from character to character at the convenience of the author.  Three stars.

Tom Godwin is a fellow whose works get published in the magazines I don’t follow, so The Helpful Hand of God is the first story of his I’ve read.  Rapacious Terran Empire is thwarted by a bevy of scantily clad conscientious objectors.  Readable, but not very good.  Two stars.

This issue’s cake-taker is the ridiculous “science fact” article by Randall Garrett: Engineer’s Art.  It’s on dowsing, fer chrissakes.  You know, that mystical art of finding water by holding a couple of steel rods in front of you?  Truly a new low for this magazine.  One star.


How Campbell finds his stories and articles

It’s followed by a short, uncredited piece on a Neptune Orbit Observatory, whose main purpose would be to derive accurate distances to the stars through trigonometry (we’d know the angles and the length of the base of the triangle made up of points Earth, Neptune, and target star; the longer the base can be, the more precise our ability to measure the other sides of the triangle).  It’s a cute idea, though I suspect our telescopes will be good enough for the task long before our interplanetary engines are developed sufficiently for exploration of the eighth planet.  Three stars.

Randall Garrett (as David Gordon) offers up some fiction in the form of The Foreign Hand-Tie, a story of telepathic Cold War espionage.  As such things go, it’s not bad.  Reynolds probably could have done it better, but he can’t write the entire issue, can he?  Three stars.

Finally, the disappointing Sleight of Wit, by Gordon Dickson, portraying a battle of brains between a human planetary scout and his alien competitor.  It is disappointing because it requires the alien to be so featherbrained, the course of events the human relies on so convoluted.  Gordy does better when he ignores this mag.  Two stars.

Analog has only topped a three-star overall rating thrice this year, and this wasn’t one of those times.  That’s pretty lousy.  F&SF has done it seven times, and Galaxy never earned less than three.  I’ll be very surprised if Analog gets nominated for the Hugo for 1961. 

It’s time for a change, methinks.

[Oct. 26, 1961] Fading Fancy (November 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn’t satisfy like it used to?  I’m a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could.  That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee…mmm. 

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn’t done it for me.  The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold.  The flavor doesn’t seem as bold, the crust as crispy.  I’ve started giving dessert menus a serious peruse.  Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert — saved for last and savored.  These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don’t look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did.  This month’s, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:

Keith Laumer is an exciting newish author whose work I often confuse with Harry Harrison’s — probably because Retief reminds me of “Slippery Jim” diGriz.  Laumer has a knack for creating interesting sentient non-humans.  He gave us intelligent robot tanks in Combat Unit, and this month, he gives us sentient, symbiotic trees in Hybrid.  It’s a story that teeters on the edge of greatness, but its brevity and rather unpleasant ending drag it from four to three stars.

The Other End of the Line is the first new story from Walter Tevis in three years.  Ever wonder what happens if you break a bootstrap paradox (i.e. one where your future self gives your present self a leg up)?  Well…it’s not a good idea.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Rick Rubin is back with his second story, the first being his excellent F&SF-published Final MusterThe Interplanetary Cat is a weird little fantasy involving an incorrigible feline with an insatiable appetite.  It’s almost Lafferty-esque, which means some will love it, and some will hate it.  I’m in the middle.  Three stars.

Faq’ is the latest by George P. Elliott, whose Among the Dangs was a minor masterpiece.  Elliott’s new story is in the same vein — a Westerner who finds a fictional yet plausible tribe of people, alien from any we currently know.  It’s got a nice, dreamy style to it, but it lacks the depth or the powerful conclusion of Dangs.  Three stars.

Doris Pitkin Buck is another F&SF new author.  Green Sunrise, like Buck’s last work (Birth of a Gardner), Sunrise features a lovers’ squabble between a scientist man and a non-scientist woman.  Once again, the language is evocative, but the plot is weak, the impression fleeting.  Two stars.

The Tunnel Ahead is an overpopulation dystopia-by-numbers tale by Alice Glaser.  Cramped living conditions?  Check.  Algae-based food products?  Check.  Drastic, random population reduction methods?  Check.  Two stars?  Check. 

Randy Garrett’s been skulking around F&SF lately, but I don’t know that it has been to the magazine’s benefit.  Mustang is essentially Kit Reed’s Piggy, but not as good.  Two stars.

Dethronement is Isaac Asimov’s latest article, a sort of screed written in response to a bad review of his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science by biologist Barry Commoner.  The latter objected to the former’s obliteration of the line between non-living and living matter.  This, Commoner maintained, destroyed the field of biology entirely.  The Good Doctor explains that finding bridges between disciplines does not destroy the disciplines any more than bridging Manhattan with the other four burroughs of New York makes Manhattan no longer an island.  It’s a good piece.  Four stars.

Alfred Bester covers Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in his books column.  He didn’t like it either. 

John Updike has a bit of doggerel about scandalous neutrinos called Cosmic Gall.  It is followed by Algis Budrys’ rather impenetrable article on science fiction, About Something Truly Wonderful.  Both rate two stars. 

Part 2 of Gordy Dickson’s Naked to the Stars rounds out the otherwise lackluster issue.  It deserves its own article, but you’re going to have to wait for it, since Rosemary Benton and Ashley Pollard will be covering some exciting scientific developments, first.  I’ll give you a hint — they involve the biggest rocket and the biggest boom.

[September 18, 1961] Balancing Act (October 1961 Analog)

Science fiction digests are a balancing act.  An editor has to fill a set number of pages every month relying solely on the stories s/he’s got at her/his disposal.  Not to mention the restrictions imposed if one wants to publish an “all-star” or otherwise themed issue. 

Analog has got the problem worst of all of the Big Three mags.  Galaxy is a larger digest, so it has more room to play with.  F&SF tends to publish shorter stories, which are more modular.  But Analog usually includes a serialized novel and several standard columns leaving only 100 pages or so in which to fit a few bigger stories.  If the motto of The New York Times is “All the news that’s fit to print,” then Analog’s could well be, “All the stories that fit, we print.”

How else to explain the unevenness of the October 1961 Analog?  The lead novella, Lion Loose, by James Schmitz, is 60 pages of unreadability.  It’s a shame since Schmitz has written some fine work before, but I simply unable to finish this tale of space piracy and teleporting animals.  Your mileage may vary.  One star.

Gordie Dickson’s Love Me True fares better, though it is a bit Twilight Zone-esque.  Space explorer risks all to bring a cute fuzzy-wuzzy back from Alpha Centauri as a pet.  In the end, it turns out the bonds of domestication run the other way.  Nicely written, but the idea is two decades behind the times.  Three stars.

The Asses of Balaam is Randall Garrett’s contribution, under the pseudonym “David Gordon” used by many Analog writers.  It’s the best piece in the book (didn’t expect that from Garrett!), a first contact story told from the point of view of some all-too human aliens.  I particularly appreciated the imaginative setting, the priority placed on ecological conservation, and the cute (if not unpredictable) twist at the end.  I must say – Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have become axiomatic to all science fiction.  Four stars. 


by Schoenherr

Now, the science fact column of Analog is the worst of those included in the Big Three mags, usually filled with the crankiest of crank hypotheses.  I have to give credit to editor Campbell’s printing of Report on the Electric Field Rocket, by model rocketeer, G. Harry Stine.  This report is, in fact, an experimental refutation of H.C. Dudley’s dubious proposal to use the Earth’s electric field to help launch rockets.  Actual science!  Three stars.

Harry Harrison’s Sense of Obligation continues, to be completed next issue.  It’s reminiscent of Harrison’s excellent Deathworld in that it features a man made superhero by virtue of having grown up on a hostile planet.  Sense is not as good as Deathworld, though.  Full rating when it finishes.

That leaves The Man Who Played to Lose, another disappointing outing from a normally good author, in this case, Laurence Janifer (writing as “Larry M. Harris).  Interstellar Super Spy is sent to a planet in the throes of civil war.  His job is to stop the insurrection – by making it too successful!  A smug, implausible story, with far too much preaching at its tail.  Two stars.

This all adds up to a sub-par score of 2.6 stars out of 5.  This is not the worst Analog has gotten, but it’s not all that unusual, either.  This is why it usually takes me the longest to get through an issue of Campbell’s magazine.

Next up… a special article from a surprising source!

[August 13, 1961] Predicting the Future (September 1961 Analog)


by Gideon Marcus

Everyone who writes has got an agenda, but Science fiction writers may be the most opinionated of authors.  That’s because their pigeon involves prediction, which in turn, is a personal interpretation of current trends.  They can’t help but express their own biases in their work.  And so we have Robert Heinlein and his penchant for plugging love of cats, libertarianism, and nudism (not necessarily in that order!).  Dr. Asimov denounces anti-scientific themes in his works.  It is no secret that I advocate for the equal representation of women and minorities.

John W. Campbell, editor of the monthly science fiction digest, Analog, is a big fan of psi – the ability of the human mind to alter matter.

Psi is one of those “pseudo-sciences.”  To date, I don’t think there has been a scrap of compelling research as to the existence of ESP or telepathy or precognition, save in the parlors of the less reputable carnivals.  Yet it can make for interesting storytelling, a sort of modern magic.  I don’t mind it so much in my stories, any more than I mind Faster than Light space travel, which is just as baseless.

That said, Campbell, who has more power projection than a single writer, is a psi fanatic.  It’s rare that an issue of Analog appears without at least one psi-related story, and most have several.

Like this month’s, the September 1961 issue:

I’ll skip over part 1 of Harry Harrison’s serial, Sense of Obligation, saving its review for after its completion.  That brings us to Donald Westlake’s short They Also Serve.  If you read Asimov’s The Gentle Vultures, about a bunch of pacifist aliens patiently waiting for humanity to blow itself up so that they could take up residence on our planet, then you’ve essentially read Westlake’s story.  It’s exactly the same plot.  Convergent evolution or recycling?  One star.

Up next is a novella by an unlikely duo: The Blaze of Noon by Randall Garrett and Avram Davidson.  My disdain for the former is well documented, but I have also noted that, when he writes with a buddy, the results are often pretty good.  Set in the far future, after an intragalactic civil war has left Earth’s outer colonies unvisited for three centuries, Blaze chronicles the attempts of a fellow named Tad to build a teleportation grid on the backward world of Hogarth.  Said planet was a metal-poor pleasure planet 300 years ago, and it has since regressed to rough feudalism.  The reasoning behind making Hogarth the first world to bring back into the fold is that, if reconnection can be accomplished under the least favorable of conditions, it can be done anywhere.

Teleportation grids require metal.  As all of Hogarth’s warlords jealously guard their own meager hoards, Tad must resort to refining magnesium and sodium from seawater, a tedious process that takes the better part of a year.  During the grid’s construction, pressure builds up between the area’s political factions, each wanting control of the build site and its increasing trove of precious metal.  On the eve of the grid’s completion, a struggle breaks out, and lusty warriors cleave into the grid’s magnesium-clad sodium beams with stone implements, attempting to steal pieces.  During a rainstorm.  The result is a chemical inferno that devours the grid and its assailants.

A decidedly downbeat ending is averted when the head of the local Barons, who foresaw the grid’s greed-fueled destruction, celebrates the fiery death of the most avaricious nobles.  Now, he believes, the stage is set for the more level-headed nobles to give up their stores of iron for the building a proper grid, one that can help everyone.

It’s a good story.  I particularly liked that Tad is unable to maintain his smug disdain for the provincial Hogarthians (which might have been the case in other stories appearing in Analog; Campbell likes his smug).  One aspect of Blaze I found puzzling, however.  Throughout the story, there is absolutely no mention of any women.  Not a single one.  To write forty pages of prose, involving a cast of thousands, and not portray a single female requires serious dedication.  Perhaps this is not misogyny but an actual prediction – in the future, humans will reproduce via a masculine form of parthenogenesis?  Four stars.

(Sadly, this is the one story in this issue on which I have been unable to secure reprinting rights.  I am in contact with the author, and I will notify you if and when this change.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for its anthologizing, though there is no guarantee you will live to see it…

Captain H.C. Dudley is back with a science fact article, Scientific Break-throughs.  Unlike Dudley’s last one, which was rather crack-pot, his latest is a genuinely interesting piece on the myriad sub-atomic particles that have been discovered in the last decade.  Beyond electronics, neutrons, and protons, there are even smaller neutrinos and mesons and who knows what else.  There may well be no end to the layers of atomic structure, at least until we get to the turtles.  Three stars.

I promised psi, and the last third of the magazine delivers.  Walter Bupp returns with Modus Vivendi, a continuation of his previous stories set in a future where a neutron bomb blast has caused the birth of hundreds of “Stigmatized” or psi-endowed people.  I like Bupp’s take on the societal factors that stem from having a sub-race of different, superior humans; I appreciate the parallels he draws with our current inequality issues; I’ve enjoyed Bupp’s stories in the past.  However, something about the writing on this one, a bit too consciously colloquial, made Modus tough sledding.  Two stars.

Finally, there is Darell T. Langart (Randy Garrett, again) and his Fifty Per Cent Prophet.  This is also a sequel, featuring The Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research: an agency of psi enthusiast kooks with a secret, truly psionic society within.  Prophet is about a parlor prognosticator who turns out to have a true touch of second sight.  The story’s first few pages, told from the point of view of the not-quite-sham, suggest we might be treated to a nuanced character study.  Sadly, Garrett abandons the clairvoyant for his more typical omniscient and (Campbell’s favorite) smug style. 

I wonder if Davidson wrote Prophet’s beginning.  Two stars.

I’m not a psychic, but I’m willing to make a prediction about the October 1961 Analog: It’ll be another middlin’ quality issue, and it will feature at least one story about psionics.  Anyone want to take that bet?

[July 15, 1961] Saving Grace (The August 1961 Analog)

Recently, I told you about Campbell’s lousy editorial in the August 1961 Analog that masqueraded as a “science-fact” column.  That should have been the low point of the issue.  Sadly, with one stunning exception, the magazine didn’t get much better.

For instance, almost half the issue is taken up by Mack Reynold’s novella, Status Quo.  It’s another of his future cold-war pieces, most of which have been pretty good.  This one, about a revolutionary group of “weirds,” who plan to topple an increasingly conformist American government by destroying all of our computerized records, isn’t.  It’s too preachy to entertain; its protagonist, an FBI agent, is too unintelligent to enjoy (even if his dullness is intentional); the tale is too long for its pay-off.  Two stars.

That said, there are some interesting ideas in there.  The speculation that we will soon become over-reliant on social titles rather than individual merit, while Campbellian in its libertarian sentiment, is plausible.  There is already an “old boy’s club” and it matters what degrees you have and from which school you got them.  It doesn’t take much to imagine a future where the meritocracy is dead and nepotism rules.

And, while it’s hard to imagine a paperless society, should we ever get to the point where the majority of our records only exist within the core memories of a few computers, a few revolutionaries hacking away at our central repositories of knowledge could have quite an impact, indeed! 

Flamedown, by H.B. Fyfe is a forgettable short piece about a spaceman who crashes onto the surface of a Barsoomian Mars and is trailed by a lynch mob of angry Martians.  There is a twist at the end, but it’s a limp one.  Two stars.

I don’t know who Walter B. Gibson is, but his impassioned defense of psionics in our legal system, The Unwanted Evidence, is wretched.  It reads like a series of newspaper clippings from the back page of the newspaper, or maybe one of those sensational books on UFOs and mystic events that are in vogue.  One star.

Analog perennial Randall Garrett, an author I tend to dislike (yet one of Campbell’s favored sons) gives us Hanging by a Thread, about an interplanetary ship holed by a meteor.  It could have been engaging, but the smug, detached tone, and the overly technical and uninteresting solution make this a dreary read.  Perhaps even Garrett knew he could do better; maybe that’s why he penned this one under the name “David Gordon.”  Two stars.


by Douglas

Laurence Janifer also appears a lot in Analog, often paired with Garrett (either as a true duet, or just side by side).  He’s usually the better of the two, but Lost in Translation is a typical lousy “clever Terrans beat aliens” story, not worth your time.  Again, it’s pseudonymous (Larry M. Harris), perhaps on purpose.  Two stars.

This is a pretty damning litany, isn’t it?  A series of 2-star stories and a pair of 1-star “science fact” articles.  Is there any reason I don’t just toss this issue into the kindling box?

There is.

Cyril Kornbluth shuffled off this mortal coil far too soon, some three years ago.  He wrote a lot, both by himself and with partners.  Perhaps his most famous partnership was with Fred Pohl, who now runs Galaxy and IF magazines.  The Pohl/Kornbluth pair is best known for their novels, including the acclaimed The Space Merchants, but they also produced a plethora of short stories.  Interestingly, many have only reached print after Kornbluth’s death.  I can only imagine these were skeletal affairs that Pohl has recently completed.

The Quaker Cannon, their latest piece, is very good.  It’s the story of First Lieutenant Kramer, a veteran of a war fought in the 1970s, between East and West.  In this war, he had been captured by the Communists and subjected to complete sensory deprivation as a torture and interrogation technique.  Unlike most of his captured compatriots, he neither went incurably mad nor held out until death.  He simply resisted as long as he could, then he cracked and gave up what he knew.  He was later repatriated.

Now 38 and still a First Lieutenant despite years of service, blacklisted from any significant role, he is suddenly recruited into Project Ripsaw: a new attempt to invade Asia.  As the commanding general’s aide-de-camp, he oversees Ripsaw’s growth from a cadre of three to an organization of hundreds of thousands, privy to all of the unit’s secrets and plans. 

As the vast force prepares to invade, Kramer learns of “The Quaker Cannon,” a parallel invasion unit that exists only on paper.  Its purpose is to serve as a blind to confuse the enemy as to the real plan.  The Soviets call this kind of deception maskirova, and it’s worked time and time again.

Just prior to D-Day, Kramer is betrayed to the enemy.  In short order, the Lieutenant is back in the “Blank Tank,” all of his senses completely deadened.  Hours pass by in seconds, each a drag on his sanity.  Though Kramer’s defiance is admirable, his ultimate submission, as before, is only a matter of time.  He, of course, divulges the Ripsaw plan in its entirety.  When Kramer returns to coherence, he is back home.  Rather than being punished for his lapse, he is given a high honor.

Ripsaw was the ghost.  “The Quaker Cannon” was the real invasion.  Kramer’s confession was all part of the plan.  The story ends with that reveal.

In the hands of Randall Garrett, or even Mack Reynolds, the focus would have been on the gimmick, to the detriment of the story.  Pohl and Kornbluth let Kramer be the narrator, albeit in a third person fashion.  They paint a vivid portrait of a battle-fatigued soldier, almost numb to life (as though he never left the Blank Tank) until Ripsaw gives him purpose again.  We are made to feel his anxiety at the thought and ultimately the reality of returning to the Blank Tank.  We feel disgust at his being used as a tool, yet we also fundamentally understand why.  Cannon is not a triumphant story.  It is a beautifully told, weary story of a weary man, not only capturing the psyche of a battered soldier, but also the perversity of the military structure and mentality.

Hard stuff, but it deserves five stars. 

So, as a whole, the issue gets just 2.2 stars.  Nevertheless, thanks to that half-posthumous pair, the August 1961 Analog will be reserved a place on my shelf, not in the garbage. 

[June 16, 1961] Analog astounds… (July 1961 Analog)


Thomas

I’m going to stun you all today. 

There are plenty of writers in this genre we call science fiction (or sometimes “scientificition” or “s-f”).  I’ve encountered over 130 of them in just the few years that this column has been extant.  Some are routinely excellent; many are excellently routine.  A few have gotten special attention for being lousy.

One such writer is Randall Garrett.

This is the fellow whose smug misogyny and his utter conformity to John Campbell’s peculiar editorial whims made his works some of the worst I had the displeasure to review.  Sure, the stuff he wrote with other authors (Bob Silverberg and Laurence Janifer, for instance) was readable, but when he went solo, it was a virtual guarantee of disaster.  It is thus with no undue trepidation that I dug into this month’s Analog which features Garrett’s pen in the first two tales.

Folks, I’m as amazed as you are.  They were actually pretty good.

For instance, A Spaceship named McGuire, about an investigator who travels to Ceres to find out why a brainy spaceship consistently goes insane, has a solid hook, a good female character, vivid settings, and a crunchy adherence to science.  My main beef with McGuire is that it’s a mystery, but rather than giving us clues, Garrett just tells the gimmick at the end.  It feels rushed and arbitrary.  It’d probably make a good novel, though.  Three stars.

Tinker’s Dam is by Joseph Tinker, a name so clearly pseudonymous that it must belong to a fellow with another piece in this issue.  Based on the style, I’ll eat my hat if it’s not also a Garrett story.  Anyway, it’s about telepaths in the near future and the national security risk they pose.  Not only is it a pretty interesting piece, but it stars a fellow of Romany extraction (unfortunately nicknamed “Gyp,” but he seems fine with it).  It’s an ethnicity one doesn’t often see in stories, and it lends color to Dam without being the point.  Three stars.


Van Dongen

Herbert D. Kastle wrote an admirable first piece in Galaxy last month; his submission for the July Analog, The First One , suggests that Breakdown wasn’t a fluke.  First tells of a man’s somber homecoming.  He is both famous and yet changed: strangely repellent, alone even in the presence of friends and family.  The reveal is fairly well telegraphed and not particularly momentous, but I assume there is a deliberate metaphor here for the experience of returning battle fatigued soldiers.  It’s about two pages too long though it is never bad.  Three stars.

On the other hand, Chris Anvil’s The Hunch, about a Galactic Scout sent out in a ship full of untested equipment, is just silly.  Some might find the hero’s tribulations as he thumbs through endless manuals to be comical.  I found it stupid.  Two stars.

The rest of the issue is take up with Harry B. Porter’s incredibly dull article on high-temperature rocket materials (Hell’s own problem; one star) and the exciting conclusion to Simak’s The Fisherman (four stars). 

Summed up, the book gets an uninspiring 2.7 stars.  On the other hand, there is a lot of readable stuff in here, and at this point, I should be used to Campbell’s inability to get a decent science writer.  Moreover, if Randy Garrett has finally learned to write, that bodes well for issues to come given his perennial relationship with Analog.

A cup half-full, I’d say!

ADDENDUM:

A fan in the know tells me my guess was wrong, and Tinker’s Dam was actually by John Berryman.  That makes sense — he is also an Analog regular, and he writes readable stories about things psychic.  Thanks to Tom Smith for pointing that out!

[May 21, 1961] Pineapple Upside-down Month (June 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Have you ever heard/seen Karl Orrf’s Carmina Burana?  It’s an opera of sorts, the performance of a set of medieval poems to music.  It is likely that you’re at least familiar with its opening number, the catchy Oh Fortuna!.  Well, having seen Carmina, I can tell you that even Orff knew there wasn’t much to the rest of the piece – as evidenced by the fact that Oh Fortuna! gets performed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end.  You can snooze through the rest.

This month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction is like Carmina: a tremendous beginning followed by a largely snoozeworthy remainder.  I suppose that, if you want to complete the analogy, you can simply read the opening piece again after finishing the book.  You probably will.

For Cordwainer Smith’s Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.  Most tales of the future are either frustratingly conventional or completely opaque.  Not so in Boulevard, which features a world dominated by “Instrumentality”, an omniscient computer dedicated to the happiness of humanity.  16,000 years from now, after a placid, highly regulated existence, people are, at last, offered the luxury of uncertainty (or at least the illusion thereof). 

With just a few subtle strokes of his pen, Smith presents the trappings of an alien yet utterly believable world: the trio of reborn humans, programmed to think themselves French; the compelling homunculi, servant animals bred into a mockery of the human shape; the servile androids; the contrived movie-set surroundings; the ancient, decayed ruins of the old technology.  Moreover, Boulevard has a great story, the quest for meaning in a predestined world.  It’s a masterpiece – evocative and brilliant.  Five stars.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Crime on Mars is an adequate (but not exceptional) little art heist mystery.  I find it interesting that he publishes these very straight sf stories here rather than other, perhaps more suited, mags.  Perhaps there wasn’t room in the other digests (or perhaps F&SF pays the best rates!) Three stars.

George, on the other hand, by John Anthony West, is a dreadful slog: a henpecked husband slowly succumbs to a creeping paralysis over the course of an evening; the story is told mostly in shrill exchanges between the afflicted and his spouse.  One Star. 

Doris Pitkin Buck’s Birth of a Gardener is another domestic dispute piece with some vague nonsense about anti-matter.  Although Gardener makes good use of Buck’s personal expertise in horticulture, her knowledge of science is less complete.  Two stories.

Mark Twain’s reprinted A Curious Pleasure Excursion, an advertisement for a comet ride in the style of the great ocean cruises of the last century, is clever and funny — an all-too-brief island of quality in an sea of dreck (to continue the sailing metaphor).  Four stars.

Go for Baroque is the second woman-penned piece in the magazine, by mystery writer Jody Scott.  I think it’s about a crazy time traveler who cures the sane of our world with his chaotic, exuberant madness.  Maybe.  It’s hard to tell.  It is written in this “modern” style that I see more and more in more literary places, half stream-of-consciousness, half nonsense.  I really don’t like it.  Two stars.

By popular demand, I include this month’s pun-ishment, the latest tale of Ferdinand Feghoot.  Read at your personal peril.

Older writers are interesting.  They tend to stick to old techniques and tropes even as they adapt them to current themes.  Miriam Allen Deford’s, The Cage, reads like a Lovecraft tale, complete with a mad scientist regaling a young reporter of his horrifying plan.  In this case, it is the breeding of a race of super-insects to supplant humanity in the event of a nuclear war.  But the author somehow elevates the story to something more than the sum of its parts, steering it subtly to a thoughtful conclusion.  Three stars.

What do you get when you combine the carefree misogyny of Randall Garrett with the increasingly impenetrable prose of (the once masterful) Avram Davidson?  Why, Something Rich and Strange, about a connoisseur of seafood and women who sails off to find a mermaid to love, a task at which he is ultimately successful.  With many pages devoted to lurid descriptions of pescatory cuisine, I had a strong suspicion that the tale would end with the protagonist eating his fishy sweetheart.  Rather, it turns out that the siren is an old hag with, nevertheless, admirable culinary talents.  The punchline is thus, “She’s not much to look at, but she sure can cook!”  One star.

So perhaps I may end up owing my friend, Mike, a beer or two after all, since he may be right that 1961 will not be F&SF’s year to win the Best Magazine Hugo.  Normally my favorite of the Big Three SFF digests, F&SF came in at the bottom of the heap this month at just 2.75 stars.  Compare this to Analog’s 3 stars, and Galaxy’s stellar 3.5 stars. 

On the plus side, this month saw the most stories by women: four out of twenty-two.  I won’t call it a trend until I see this proportion again, of course.  Interestingly, the top contenders for Best Story were both written by Cordwainer Smith.  Maybe the fellow should start his own magazine…

[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.

[December 21, 1960] Short and Long Term (the January 1961 Analog)

There’s a big difference between weather and climate.  Weather is immediate; climate is gradual.  50 years from now, when the Earth’s average temperature has climbed a half a degree or more, thanks to the warming effects of human-caused pollution, people will still point to a cold day in January as proof that nothing has changed.

That’s because, just as for the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot of water, gradual change is difficult to perceive.  Only by assiduous collection of data, and by the subsequent analysis of that data, can we detect long-term trends.

Thus, it is too early to tell whether or not Analog is ever going to pull itself out of its literary doldrums.  I had such high hopes after December’s issue; January’s has dashed them.

It doesn’t help that Randall Garrett is still one of Campbell’s favorite writers.  I’m not sure if Garrett’s stories are lousy because Campbell tells Garrett what he should write, or if they’re lousy because Garrett writes what he knows Campbell will take.  Or maybe Garrett and Campbell independently share awful taste.  In any event, the long long lead novella, The Highest Treason, is a one-star drek-fest if ever there was one. 

In brief: In the far future, humanity has been reduced to mediocrity after the triumph of bleeding-heart liberal, Commie-pinko sentiments.  Job seniority is determined solely by time in service.  Decisions are made by group-think.  Innovation is scorned as antisocial.  There being no classes, there is no motivation to excel. 

This strawman of a culture is threatened by a Sparta-esque race of bald humans with pointy ears..I mean, complete aliens.  Earth’s defeat is only a matter of time.  One brilliant man dares to reverse the trend by defecting to the enemy with a cunning plan.  He becomes the conquering race’s greatest general, winning battle after battle, becoming the most vile traitor to humanity.  Then he orders the utter decimation of a populous Terran colony. 

This goads the Terrans into activity.  It would not have stirred us to action to have our colonies reduced and their people enslaved.  No.  Only a canny traitor could motivate our rennaissance.  Humans quickly develop superweapons that tilt the advantage Earth’s way.  The war is over in no time, and the era of stifling complacency is over.  Hurrah.

The moral: No alien will ever threaten mankind unless we let them.  And if we let them, only a human can horrify us out of out lethargy—because humans are better than aliens in every way, even being worse. 

Dumb story, dumb premise.  It’s also poorly written and overpadded.  True to Garrett form, only passing mention is made of the existence of women.  Three times to be exact–they are offered as a prize to the traitor, hanged from lampposts by the traitor, and disparaged as fickle philanderers by the traitor.  All excused by the context of course.

Bleah.

The issue only improves from there; how could it not?  Tom Purdom has a weird blood and guts piece called The Green Beret, about a young Black American who joins the UN peacekeeping forces to enforce anti nuclear proliferation rules.  I’m not sure what the point is, but I give Purdom points for giving us an atypical protagonist.  I don’t understand why the UN forces wear green berets, though—they have been wearing blue ones since the Suez Crisis four years ago.  Two stars.

Onward and upward.  Walter Bupp (John Berryman) gives us Card Trick a sequel of sorts to Vigorish.  In the universe portrayed, psi powers exist, and gambling parlors take great pains to ensure they are not used to sway odds.  In this story, a fellow is accused of possessing and abusing psionic abilities to win at cards; then he is strong-armed into joining a union of psionic gamblers.  He’s certain he is a “Normal,” however.  Is it a frame-up?  Or does he have a new kind of power?  Three stars. 

G. Harry Stine provides the non-fiction article for the month, Time for Tom Swift.  It starts off well enough, contending that our current methods for getting into space will never result in a sustainable off-planet presence.  They fail the “grandma test,” he says.  No little old lady can withstand the rigors of rocket take-off..much less afford the ticket!  But then he goes on to describe some cockamaimee futuristic designs that are clearly in the same camp as the Dean Drive and electrostatic boosters.  Two stars.

That leaves “Leonard Lockhard’s” interesting legal study, The Lagging Profession, likely inspired by actual events: In the story, Arthur C. Clarke (the real guy) retains a law firm to investigate the possibility of patenting his idea for geosynchronous (24-hour orbit) communications satellites.  It turns out the idea can’t be patented because it was described in an article 15 years ago.  Moreover, it couldn’t even have been patented at the time because the rockets and miniaturized components required for the concept did not exist.  We are left with the conclusion that high concepts related to space travel are unpatentable under the laws in their current state.

This may well be true.  On the other hand, patents are not the only motivation for invention.  Space travel is such an expensive proposition that the sheer cost will provide the protection from competition normally provided by patents.  I suspect Clarke’s synchronous satellites will be with us well before the decade is out, if our current pace of space development is any indication—you can bet they’ll all have Ma Bell’s name on them, too.  Four stars.

Part Three of “Mark Phillips'” Occasion for Disaster makes up the rest of the issue.  I’ll hold comment until next month.  Giving the serial a three-star placeholder, the January 1961 issue of Analog garners a disappointing 2.5 star rating.

Weather or climate?  Only time will tell.

[Oct. 20, 1960] Fiction > Non-fiction… sometimes (the November 1960 Analog)

Each month, I lament what’s become of the magazine that John Campbell built.  Analog‘s slow decline has been marked by the editor’s increased erratic and pseudo-scientific boosting behavior.  Well, I just don’t have the heart to kick a dog today, and besides, the fiction is pretty good in this month’s (November 1960) issue.  So let’s get right to it, shall we?

“Mark Phillips” (Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer) have a new four-part serial in their Malone series.  Set in the 1970s, the series details the adventures of a couple of federal agents, who are helped in their cases by a telepath who believes herself (and may actually be) Queen Elizabeth I.  I won’t spoil the details of this one, Occasion for Disaster, but I’ve liked the previous novels, so I suspect Occasion will also be pleasant reading.

Heading off the magazine’s short stories is a fun piece by Theodore L. Thomas, half of the pseudonymous duo that previously brought us a fascinating study into the world of copyright, The Professional TouchCrackpot continues in that vein, featuring a brilliant old scientist (Prof. Singlestone… get it?!) who convinces the world that he’s gone senile.  His aim?  To make his work so disreputable that no government agency will want it, so that no university will employ him, so that he can for the first time in his life enjoy working as a truly free agent.  So that when his invention proves to be utterly unignorable, he will be the master of its fate.  Cute stuff.  Three stars.

Next up is E.C. Tubb’s The Piebald Horse.  It starts out well enough with a Terran spy trying to escape a repressive alien world with his brain full of sensitive knowledge.  The jig seems up for him when the aliens employ telepaths as mind-screen agents, but they are foiled when the protagonist pickles himself continuously until he can depart the planet.  I’m pretty sure I just saw this tactic in Fred Pohl’s Drunkard’s Walk.  2 stars.

These two stories are followed by a pair of execrable “non-fiction” articles.  Captain, MSC, US Navy H.C. Dudley, PhD (he must be authoritative–look at all the titles!) has the first: The Electric Field Rocket.  He maintains that the Earth’s electrostatic field can be used to assist rocket launches; he implies that the Soviet’s lead in the Space Race is attributable to their taking advantage of said phenomenon.  Not only is the article unreadable, but I suspect the science is bunk.  Time will tell.  1 star.

Speaking of which, Editor Campbell contributes the second article: Instrumentation for the Dean Drive.  I’m not even going to dignify with a review this next piece in an endless series on Dean’s magical inertialess engine.  He needs to knock it off already.  1 star.

Blessedly, the rest of the issue is quite good.  The reliable Hal Clement is back with Sunspot, an exciting, if highly technical, account of a group of spacemen who ride a comet around the Sun.  What better shielding exists for a close encounter with a star than billions of cubic tons of ice?  Four stars.

At last, we come to H. Beam Piper’s Oomphel in the Sky.  The set-up is great: a Terran colony world in a binary star system courts disaster when the planet makes a close approach to the usually far-away sun.  This triggers unrest amongst the natives, threatening Terran and native interests alike.  I’m an unabashed fan of Piper, and this is a good tale, although he does get a little patronizing toward the do-gooder but ineffective Terran government.  I like the strong anthropological bent, and I appreciate the respect with which he treats the natives and their interests.  Four stars.

In sum, the November 1960 Analog (I almost typed “Astounding“) is quite decent, fiction-wise.  Campbell needs to do what Galaxy’s Gold has done and hire a ghost editor, and a real non-fiction author.  I can’t believe there isn’t another budding Asimov or Ley out there champing at the bit to be published…

The fourth and last Kennedy/Nixon debate is tomorrow night!  I hope you’ll all watch it with me, but if you can’t bring yourself to sit through another hour of sparring, I’ll give you the full details the following day.