Tag Archives: richard banks

[June 13, 1962] THE SINCEREST FORM? (the July 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

The July Amazing starts off ambiguously, with Stonehenge on the cover—often a bad sign, you could find yourself in Atlantis if you’re not careful.  But it illustrates A Trace of Memory, a new serial by the reasonably hardheaded Keith Laumer, so we may be spared any deep wooliness.  I’ll defer reading and comment until it’s complete.

So what else is there?  Excepting the “Classic Reprint,” this is the Literary Pastiche issue of Amazing.  The first of three short stories is The Blonde from Barsoom by Robert F. Young, featuring an aspiring fantasy writer whose work is virtually plagiarized from Edgar Rice Burroughs, as we are shown entirely too clearly.  It is vivid, because he has a knack for projecting himself into Burroughs’s world, and it soon enough occurs to him that maybe he could project himself into a more pleasant and less strenuous world.  Two stars for this slick but annoying trifle.

Then there is Richard Banks’s The Last Class, a Zola pastiche, which we know because it is subtitled (With Apologies to Emile Zola), and the blurb-writer helpfully adds that Zola wrote a similar story of the same title set just after the Franco-Prussian War.  This version is set in a regimented future world where people seem to live underground and get around via matter transmitter, and features a schoolteacher who tells her students about the Twentieth Century, when people were free, and gets caught at it.  It’s pretty well done, except that the teacher is referred to throughout as Miss Hippiness because she has big hips.  Would anyone refer to a sympathetic male central character as Mr. Beergutty or Mr. Hairybackish?  It’s an annoying distraction from an otherwise reasonably commendable story, holding it at three stars. 

This Banks—not to be confused with the more established and prolific Raymond E. Banks—has published one prior story in F&SF and one that sounds pretty SFnal (Roboticide Squad) in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

In between these two is William W. Stuart’s A Prison Make, in which a guy wakes up in a disgusting institutional setting which proves to be a jail, charged with something that he doesn’t remember—but in this world, law enforcement can rummage around in your mind, and they can damage your memory doing it.  He’s got a lawyer—a robot on wheels in very poor repair who doesn’t hold out much hope.  The story is about his adjustment to his absurd and outrageous situation, and if it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s a downmarket SF rendition of Kafka’s The Trial.  As with the other stories, you don’t have to figure it out on your own, since the blurb-writer refers to it as a “Kafkaesque tale.” Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, or at least the most interesting.  This one too is well done if a little heavyhanded in places, but without any stupid missteps like Mr. Banks’s character-naming gaffe.  Four stars.

So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have SF writers emulating great mainstream writers of the past.  Who’s next?  I hear James Joyce is kind of interesting.  Just—please—no more Hemingway.  (See Hemingway in Space by Kingsley Amis from last year’s Judith Merril “best of the year” anthology.)

Interestingly, there is no editorial comment other than in the blurbs on the fact that three of the five fiction items here are overtly derived from the work of other authors.

The “Classic Reprint” this month, G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s The Chamber of Life from the October 1929 Amazing, is actually pretty good.  Once more we have the nearly omnipresent plot device of this old SF: ordinary guy is invited by scientific genius to check out his invention, and trouble follows.  But Wertenbaker could write: he had a plain and understated style which compares well to the clumsier and more stilted diction of some of his contemporaries, and he avoids the tiresome digressions of the recent Buck Rogers epic.  Here the invention is the ultimate motion picture: all senses are engaged and the viewer is precipitated into an encompassing hallucinatory world, in this case, a regimented utopian society of the future.  This guy was ahead of his time; too bad he hung it up in 1931, after only half a dozen stories.  Four stars.

Ben Bova contributes another science article (the second of four, we are told), The Three Requirements of Life in the Solar System, which is better organized and more to the point than the one in the previous issue.  The three requirements are a “building block atom” for construction of large molecules, a solvent medium in which large molecules can be built, and an energy exchange reaction.  On Earth, these are of course carbon, water, and hydrogen-oxygen respectively.  Bova then runs down the possibilities for life on each of the planets (for Mars, “almost certainly”; for Venus, “quite possibly”; Jupiter “might”; and the rest, “probably not” or worse).  That “almost certainly” is a surprise; but Bova asserts, “Even the most conservative astronomers will now grudgingly admit that some form of plant life no doubt exists in the greenish areas of the Red Planet.” That’s certainly news to me.  Three stars.

Bova’s articles, by the way, are illustrated by Virgil Finlay (unlike Frank Tinsley’s, which had at most diagrams or badly printed photos)—an interesting conjunction.  Finlay illustrates this month’s sober rendition with something like a fanged lobster with tentacles (“Artist’s rendition of author’s conception of Jovian sea-creature”), and last month he presented a pageant of DNA, the animal kingdom from trilobite to H. Sapiens overlaid with the double helix, its meticulous detail badly betrayed by Amazing’s mediocre printing.

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One other item of interest appears in Or So You Say, the letter column: one Julian Reid of Canada takes Mark Clifton to task at great length for the misanthropy of his recent stories in Amazing, and compares them knowledgeably and unfavorably with Clifton’s earlier work.  Clifton replies at almost the same length, asserting variously that he was just kidding, he venerates humanity and that’s why he bothers to needle it, and his mail is running fifty to one favorably about those stories. 

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And, looming inescapably, in inexorable pursuit . . . B_______ B_________.

(Don’t miss your chance to see the Traveler LIVE via visi-phone, June 17 at 11 AM!  A virtual panel, with Q&A, show and tell, and prizes!)

[March 30, 1961] F&SF + XX (the April 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

If you’ve been a fan in the scientificition/fantasy genre for any length of time, you’ve likely been exposed to rumors of its impending doom.  The pulps are gone.  The magazines are dying.  The best writers are defecting for the lucre of the “slicks.” 

And what is often pointed to as the cause of the greatest decline of an entity since Commodus decided he liked gladiating more than emperoring?  The visual media: science fiction films and television.  Why read when you can watch?  Of course, maybe the quality’s not up to the standards set by written fiction, but who cares?

All this hubbub is silly.  There are two reasons why printed sf/f isn’t going anywhere, at least for the next few decades.  The first is that the quality isn’t in the films or television shows.  Sure, there are some stand-outs, like the first season of The Twilight Zone, and the occasional movie that gets it right, but for the most part, it’s monsters in rubber suits and the worst “science” ever concocted. 

But the second reason, and this is the rub, is the sheer impermanence of the visual media.  If you miss a movie during its run, chances are you’ve missed out forever.  Ditto, television.  For instance, I recently learned that an episode of Angel (think I Love Lucy, but with a French accent) starred ex-Maverick, James Garner.  I’m out of luck if I ever want to see it unless it happens to make the summer re-runs. 

My magazines, however, reside on my shelves forever.  I can re-read them at will.  I can even loan them out to my friends (provided they pony up a $10 deposit).  They are permanent, or at least long-lived. 

And that’s why I’ll stick with my printed sf, thank-you-very-much.

Speaking of permanence, I think April 1961 will be a red-letter date remembered for all time.  It’s the first time, that I’m aware of, that women secured equal top-billing on a science fiction magazine cover.  To wit, this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction features six names, three of which belong to woman writers.  Exciting stuff, particularly given my observation that, while female writers make up only a ninth of the genre’s pool, they produce a fourth of its best stuff.

Case in point: Evelyn Smith’s Softly while you’re sleeping is a clever piece about a young woman from the old country who is wooed by a passionate vampire.  She ultimately resists his advances, unwilling to undergo the transformation that is the inevitable end of his draining attentions.  The story is older than Stoker, but the writing and the social commentary are entirely modern.  Four stars.

The Hills of Lodan, by the newish Harold Calin, on the other hand, is a comparatively clumsy piece.  Think The Red Badge of Courage, but with a different kind of enemy.  I appreciated the message, but the execution needs work.  Two stars.

The next story is something special.  Every so often, a story comes along that introduces something truly new.  The Ship Who Sang, by new author Anne McCaffrey, brings us the lovely concept of sound-minded but hideously crippled children given mechanical bodies and groomed to become the “brains” of interstellar ships.  These are two-person scout vessels, the other crew-member being the “mobile” element.  Inevitably, the relationship is a close one, and this bonding makes up much of the plot (and charm) of Ship.  In fact, if I have a complaint at all about this story, it is that it is too short; such an intriguing courtship should have more fully developed.  McCaffrey’s detached style feels a bit too impersonal for the piece, as well.  Still, Ship gets an unreserved four stars.

If Anne McCaffrey had gotten the space reserved for the succeeding piece, a reprinted Robert Graves story called Dead Man’s Bottles, I imagine the issue would have been much improved.  Bottles features a minor kleptomaniac (a matches and pencil thief), an unpleasant wine aficionado, and the mysterious haunting that succeeds the latter’s death.  It’s standard, low-grade F&SF filler.  Two stars.

The third woman-penned piece of the book is Kit Reed’s Judas Bomb, a sort of Post-Apocalyptic parable of the Cold War with gangs taking the role of nations.  It’s a quirky, layered piece, and I look forward to seeing more by this San Diegan turned Connecticutian.  Three stars.

My Built-in Doubter is Isaac Asimov’s article for this month, all about how science’s apparent rigidity to crackpot ideas is a virtue, not a liability.  Less information, more editorial, but a fun read, nevertheless.  Four stars.

Richard Banks’ Daddy’s People is a stream of consciousness wall of words about an overlong bedtime story and the weird folks one meets when crossing the planes.  It is difficult reading, and my first temptation was to give it a one-star review.  Something restrains me, however.  So I give it two stars.

Finally, Brian Aldiss is back with the sequel to the superb Hothouse: the superior, if not quite as excellent, Nomansland.  This novella is set in the same steambath Earth of the future, when the Sun has grown hot, and the tidally locked Earth is dominated by semi-intelligent plant life.  We get to learn what happened to Toy and the other human children after the departure of the adults into space.  It’s all a bit like Harrison’s Deathworld without the high technology.  Once again, Aldiss delivers the goods, although the third-person omniscient expositions, while informative, break the narrative a little.  Four stars.

The overall score for this magazine is just over 3 stars — less than Galaxy’s 3.5, and more than Analog’s 2.5.  Yet, despite the uneven quality of its contents, I feel it is in some ways the worthiest of this month’s magazines.  It takes risks; thus, its highs are higher.  As predicted, most of the highs were provided by the female authors — and to think the State of Alabama still won’t let women serve on juries…

As for this month’s best story, I think Aldiss gets the nod, but just barely.  I’d almost call it a tie between Nomansland and The Ship who Sang

What do you think?