Tag Archives: randall garrett

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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Bad History Repeats (August 1959 Astounding, second part; 7-18-1959)

All right, all right.  There is no putting off at least an initial review of this month’s Astounding.  Actually, I’m more than half done, but I covered The Aliens earlier, so there was much reading to do to have anything of substance to report.

Randall Garrett’s Dead Giveaway literally put me to sleep several times before I was able to finish it.  The premise isn’t so bad, though it is quite hoary: humanity finds a long lost alien civilization whose technologies seem to dovetail perfectly with our own.  A bunch of eggheads (male, white, of course) determine that the abandoned city is actually a gift designed to give us a leg up.  It is also a test—do we have the ability, as a species, to accept the help?

This is discussed in one of the more ludicrous paragraphs ever written by Randy (and there is much competition):

Scholar Duckworth said: “It takes a great deal of humility—a real feeling of honest humility—to admit that one is actually inferior to someone—or something—else. Most people don’t have it—they rebel because they can’t admit their inferiority.”

“Like the examples of the North American Amerindian tribes.” Turnbull said. “They hadn’t reached the state of civilization that the Aztecs or Incas had. They were incapable of allowing themselves to be beaten and enslaved—they refused to allow themselves to learn. They fought the white man to the last ditch—and look where they ended up.”

“Precisely,” said Duckworth. “While the Mexicans and Peruvians today are a functioning part of civilization—because they could and did learn.”

“I’d just as soon the human race didn’t go the way of the Amerindians,” Turnbull said.

I’m reasonably certain that this is not how history went in the Americas.  If I’m not mistaken, the native Mexicans and Peruvians were devastated and supplanted by an imported European aristocracy.  Sure, they didn’t end up on reservations, but it is also disingenuous to suggest that they gratefully accepted European wisdom and, as a result, are better off than their impoverished North American counterparts (who had the temerity to, you know, fight for their lives).

I was going to give this story two stars, but upon reflection, I think it belongs at the bottom of the ash heap.  Which is too bad, because it is sandwiched between two quite good tales.

Which brings us to The Outsiders, the second of the Rim stories by A. Bertram Chandler.  It is a direct sequel to To Run The Rim, about the adventures of a pack of oddball space traders on the edge of the galaxy.  And it’s well worth reading.  In the last tale, Calvert and his band of misfits saved an interstellar liner and secured a tidy reward.  In The Outsiders, the crew buys its own ship and attempts operation as an independent concern.  I was happy to see that the ship’s complement is half-female by the end, all of them competent, hardened spacers.

Of course, for Calvert the dreamer, a hardscrabble life of tramp spacing isn’t enough.  Instead, he wants to chase legends of alien ghost ships floating Outside in the vast emptiness of intergalactic space.  Following a hot lead, he and his crew ultimately find what they’re looking for…

But we won’t know the resolution of this tale until the next story.  Or perhaps the one after that.  I strongly suspect there will be a book compilation of these stories when all is said and done, and it will be worth buying.  A strong, four-star story.  It only misses five stars for being so clearly a bridging piece.

Next time: the rest of the magazine and a review of the Analytical Laboratory!



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With a grain of salt… (May 1959 Astounding, first half; 4-21-1959)

The penultimate magazine offering this month, at least that has made it into my house for review, is Astounding.  As always, my bar is pretty low with that mag, though last month’s issue made me dare to hope.

In fact, I’m not quite sure how I feel about the May issue.  This may come out rather stream of consciousness, so bear with me!

Gordy Dickson, who has written much I like, starts a new serial this month uninspiringly called Dorsai! I am both enjoying it and somewhat off-put by it.  It’s the story of a young mercenary from a planet whose primary export is mercenaries.  It is written in this sober, manly style, and there is lots of posturing and fighting.  At the center of it all is the sole female character, who is bound by contract to a rather odious fellow, and whom it appears the protagonist is trying to save, somehow.

Story-wise, it’s not really my cup of tea.  Yet it is well written, and I’ve seen enough of Dickson’s work to know that he is facile in a number of styles (i.e. he must be writing this way for a reason) so I’m going to go with it and see where it takes me.  I will send you postcards along the way.

We didn’t do anything wrong, hardly, by Roger Kuykendall (of whom I know nothing) might well be called I didn’t write anything, hardly.  Children build a space ship out of spare parts and snag a Russian satellite.  I guess Campbell is reduced to buying Danny Dunn rejects these days.

(Please note that Mr. Kuykendall has given me permission to distribute his story, but Mr. Campbell has not.  If he expresses his displeasure, I shall let you know.)


by EMSH

Cum Grano Salis isn’t bad.  Of course, I had to get past the distaste that just comes naturally from seeing “Randall Garrett” on the byline (or, in this case, his nom de plume, David Brown).  In this tale, a colonizing team (all men, natch) are stuck on a planet with too few provisions to survive until relief.  All of the food on the planet tests poisonous.  Yet one crewmember, a hypochondriac with a supply of nostrums, manages to eat the local fruit and thrive.  The solution is interesting.

(Again, I have distribution permission from the author, not the editor.)

So that takes me exactly half-way through the magazine, so I will leave the other half (including a rather good tale by George O. Smith) for day-after-tomorrow.  Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!

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The shoe drops.. (March 1959 Astounding wrap-up; 2-14-1959)

Now that you’ve all read Despoilers of the Golden Empire, I imagine you’ll want to know my thoughts.

I feel as if I waited an inordinate amount of time for the shoe to drop only to be hit in the ear with a wet sock.

As I read Garrett’s piece, I kept thinking to myself, “All right.  This is clearly modeled on Pizarro’s trek through Peru.  What’s he going to do with it?”  Was he going to reveal his feelings about intolerant imperialism, either favorably or unfavorably?  Was his protagonist going to bring about the ironic ruin of the father Empire through hyper-inflation?  I mean, what’s the point of an analogy without a point?

And then I got to the end, and there was no analogy at all.  It was the literal story, and the only reason one might think it was supposed to be science fiction was the fact that appeared in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction.

Perhaps Garrett’s work was supposed to be a dig against inferior science fiction. After all, H.L. Gold opened up Galaxy by denigrating the “space western.”  Maybe this piece was made to show how easy it is to dress up non-science fiction as science fiction with the minimum of trappings.

Somehow, I don’t think so.  I think this was an early April Fool’s prank, and not a very clever one.  Here Garrett was leading us to think there was going to be a trick ending to the story… and there actually wasn’t (though he might argue that was the trick all along).

Oh well. 

The rest of the book is pretty unimpressive, too.  George O. Smith’s Instinct, is about the abduction of an Earther by aliens who have tried seven times to smash humanity back into the Stone Age only to have us come back as world-beaters every time.  The aliens want to know what makes us tick so they can stop us once and for all or peacefully integrate us into their galactic federation.  Their plan backfires in the biggest of ways.  Not badly written, but not much of a story.

Silverbob’s Translation Error is really bad.  It’s not the concept–meddling alien returns to Earth 50 years after having ended the Great War early hoping to find a backward but peaceful world.  Instead, he finds that none of his historical changes took, and the resultant world (our world) is on the brink of nuclear war and the threshold of space.  I like alternate histories.  The problem with this one is there are about three pages of story and ten more pages of recapitulation.  It is poorly written, repetitive stuff with a conclusion so obvious, one wonders why it was written at all.  This is the worst story, technically, that I’ve read in Astounding.  Interestingly enough, my 17 year-old nephew, David, loved this story.  There’s no accounting for taste.

The only bright spot (aside from part 2 of Murray Leinster’s serial, which I have not yet read, and which I shan’t review until next month along with part 3) is Algis Budrys’ The Man who did not Fit.  It’s another in the genre where an advanced civilization has figured out how to determine the ideal employment for each of its citizens.  Of course, the few who do not fit in to the system are destined to rule.  Seen it.  Read it.  Many times.  But this one is nicely done with a rich setting: a conquered Earth at the crossroads of interesting interstellar politics.  The protagonist is the son of the Terran government-in-exile (a bit of self-insertion by the author, whose father was the consul general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile after the Soviet take-over).  Not a brilliant story, but a good one, and it shines in comparison with the rest.

Thus, excluding the Leinster, the issue barely manages to cross the 2 star mark.  I suppose that if you enjoyed Part 1 of The Pirates of Ersatz, you should pick up this issue for Part 2, but there’s precious little else for you in the March 1959 Astounding.

Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.  If you want to recommend any appropriately romantic science fiction, I’m all ears! 



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A challenge to you (Despoiler of the Golden Empire; 2-12-1959)

Today’s article is going to be quite brief, not because I don’t have much to say, but because I want your input, and saying anything about the topic at hand will spoil it.

Suffice it to say, I have schlepped the March 1959 Astounding with me to Hawai’i in back (and the paper, as I left, mentioned that the territory is already planning a big party for its impending, but yet unscheduled, statehood).  Yet I only got around to start reading it yesterday. 


Illustration by Kelly Freas

The lead novella is Despoiler of the Golden Empire, by David Gordon (really the beloved Randall Garrett in disguise).  Now, I want you to read this story, not because it is amazing, but because Randall is trying to do something here, and I want to know if you think he succeeded.  I’ll give my thoughts in the next article so you have time gather and communicate your thoughts.

“But I don’t have the March 1959 Astounding!” I hear you wail.  Fear not.  I have graciously been granted permission by the author to freely distribute this piece.  It thus follows this column entirely uncut and unexpurgated.

Despoiler of the Golden Empire by Randall Garrett.

Don’t worry–there is no brutalization of women in this one.  There are, in fact, no women.  It’s probably better that way.



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Predicting the Future (hand-waves, Astounding, smoking, and women; 11-25-1958)

Writing good science fiction is hard.  Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity.  Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society.  Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities.  I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s. 

Take smoking, for example.  Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco.  They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer.  Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction.  You would think someone would portray a smokeless future. 


Another example is the portrayal of women.  For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men.  The trend has historically been in their favor.  They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact.  In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes.  There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard.  Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip.  You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common.  Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own.  It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer.  Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors.  This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm.  We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light.  Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that.  That’s a hand-wave.  Psionic powers are another hand-wave.  People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe.  I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street.  Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds.  The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves. 

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else.  And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world.  Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece.  I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

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Astoundingly bad (11-15-1958)

I’m willing to concede that we (currently) live in a “man’s world.” Men make up most of the protagonists and characters in science fiction, and the vast majority of science fiction authors are men.  This month’s Astounding does not buck this trend–virtually every story has no, or at best a token, female presence.  I suppose I should be grateful for this, however, as I would rather have no women in my stories than see them horribly mistreated and poorly portrayed, as I saw happen rather gratuitously in the second half of the magazine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Poul Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” ended as it started with a fine premise, an interesting if whimsical storyline, and horrible execution.  The resourceful engineer of the Mercury Girl managed to escape from the occupied planet by fashioning a ship from a sealed crate and several barrels of beer (providing the reaction mass for propulsion).  The national and gender stereotypes were tired by page 2 of the last installment, and they don’t get better here.  All’s well that ends, and I was happy to see this story finish.

Miller’s pre-book-review column focused on UFOs, which are still popular.  I remember reading in an Asimov or Ley article that the number of UFO sightings climbed sharply in the late ’40s coincident with the testing of new jets and sounding rockets.  At the same time, the number of reported demonic encounters dropped dramatically.  You may draw your own conclusions from this.

“Seller’s Market,” by Chris Anvil, is another inconsequential but readable story of the type that has characterized his writing since he started.  It depicts a small military force on a harsh planet as it struggles against a nominally superior but fatally flawed foe.

And now, I can put it off no longer.  The story that ruined my morning and my impression of Randall Garrett, and by extension, Astounding magazine: “Queen Bee.”

I don’t think misogyny can adequately convey the sentiment in this story.  “Hatred of women,” may get closer to the mark.  The setting of the story was interesting-enough: Four men and three women marooned on a wild planet for life.  However, the story begins with the viewpoint character hitting a woman (she was hysterical, of course), and it goes downhill from there.

It is decided, pursuant to codified law (!) that the males and females must breed constantly and switch partners each time such that a colony with a maximum of genetic diversity can be produced.  One of the women, the only married one, seems fine with this, much to the consternation of her old-fashioned husband.  The other two women resist the idea for some reason.  One of them is diagnosed by the resident doctor as a “man-hater,” and the other is a Taming of the Shrew Kate-type character.  That’s all right–the male characters beat sense into them, quite literally.  The man-hater, after being walloped a good one realizes the error of her ways and becomes pregnant shortly thereafter.

But the other hold-out won’t budge despite several clouts and a full course of spanking (!!) Eventually, she kills the other two women so that she, as the only woman, can enjoy an indispensable (and perhaps beating-free) status.  Given the circumstances, I’m not sure that I find her actions unreasonable.  Of course, the men are horrified, and they exact a horrible revenge… er… mete out appropriate justice.  They hold a trial and find her not guilty by reason of insanity.

And then they lobotomize her, turning her into a mindless child-bearing factory.

What is so maddening about this story is its contrast with Judith Merril’s story in this month’s F&SF.  The set-up is quite similar, except the women don’t have to resort to constant brutality to keep the men-folk in line.  One could argue that the arrangement in Merril’s story was consensual and thus a whole different matter.  This only emphasizes the horror of Garrett’s scenario: the women in his story didn’t sign up to be mothers of a colony.  They certainly never agreed to be dominated and brutalized by their fellow castaways. 

Perhaps, if the story had been meant as satire, I could have taken it.  But I think Randy Garrett’s premises, that men should automatically be in charge, that a woman’s duty is to bear children, and violence against women is the best method to keep them in line, must ring natural and true to Mr. Garrett, to Mr. Campbell, and if the readers of Astounding do not subscribe to them, I imagine they do not generally find them egregious.

Well, I did.  This is worse than the story that turned me off of Venture (“Eve and the Twenty-Three Adams” by Robert Silverberg; the set-up was similar–in that one, all starships came equipped with a ship’s whore, and when the story’s ship’s whore wouldn’t perform, the Captain drugged her up so that she could fulfill her role while unconscious).  Garrett’s lost me as a fan, and I am sending a copy of this article straight to Mr. Campbell. 

Sorry to end this piece on a down note.  I will hopefully have cheerier things to discuss next time around.  The final score: 4 stars for the first half, 1.5 stars for the second, 2.25 for the whole magazine.

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