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[March 28, 1962] Paradise Lost (April 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I used to call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction “dessert.”  Of all the monthly sf digests, it was the cleverest, the one most willing to take risks, and the most enjoyable reading.  Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a slow but decided trend into the realm of “literary quality.”  In other words, it’s not how good the stories are, or how fun the reading – they must be experimental and erudite to have any merit.  And if you don’t get the pieces, well, run off to Analog where the dumb people live.

A kind of punctuation mark has been added to this phenomenon.  Avram Davidson, that somber-writing intellectual with an encyclopedic knowledge and authorial credits that take up many sheets of paper, has taken over as editor of F&SF from Robert Mills.  Five years ago, I might have cheered.  But Davidson’s path has mirrored that of the magazine he now helms: a descent into literary impenetrability.  Even his editorial prefaces to the magazine’s stories are off-putting and contrived. 

I dunno.  You be the judge.

Gifts of the Gods, by Jay Williams

The premise of Gifts isn’t bad: aliens come from the stars to find Earth’s most advanced nation, and it turns out they’re the most primitive, technologically.  It’s three shades too heavy on the sermon, and it fails by its own rules (i.e. one can lambast states as a whole for not being perfectly self-actualized, but surely there are a thousand qualifying people within any given country that fulfill the ET’s requirements).  But then, these aliens seem to have shown up just to rub our noses in it.  Advanced indeed.  Two stars.

The Last Element, by Hugo Correa

Editor Davidson touts Sr. Correa as a brilliant find from Chile.  Sadly, this meandering piece involving (I guess) space soldiers who are undone in their attempts to mine a psychotropic mineral from a distant planet, feels incompletely translated from the Spanish.  It reads like an Italian sf film views.  Two stars.

The End of Evan Essant… ?, by Sylvia Edwards

A cute piece, more The Twilight Zone than anything else, about a fellow who is so determined to be a nebbish that he psychosomatically disappears.  It’s no great shakes, but at least it has a through line and is written in English.  Boy, my standards have dropped.  Three stars.

Shards, by Brian W. Aldiss

The editor advises that one give this story time to make sense lest you judge it prematurely.  He has a point.  This piece innovatively describes a traumatic out-of-body experience, and when you know the context, it’s not bad.  On the other hand, the context is laid out with surprising artlessness especially given the effort Aldiss puts into the first part (which is only readable in hindsight).  Three stars for effort, though your meter may hover at one star through most of the actual experience.

The Kit-Katt Club, by John Shepley

Something about a young, serious boy who abandons his starlet mother’s dissipated hotel life to frequent a bar with a literal menagerie of clientele.  I didn’t understand this story, nor did I much like it.  Maybe I’m just bitter at being made to look foolish.  Two stars.

To Lift a Ship, by Kit Reed

One of the few bright lights of this issue is Reed’s take on love, hope, greed, and despair involving two test co-pilots of a psionically driven aircraft.  I love how vividly we see through the eyes of the protagonist, and the subtlety (but not to the point of obtuseness!) with which the story unfolds.  Four stars.

Garvey’s Ghost, by Robert Arthur

I haven’t seen much from Arthur lately.  His stories have all been pleasant, fanciful fare and this one, about a most contrary ghost and the grandson he haunts, is more of the same.  Three stars.

Vintage Wine, by Doris Pitkin Buck

The English professor from Ohio is back, this time with a piece of ‘cat’terel (as opposed to the canine variety, which is not as good) that I actually quite enjoyed.  Four stars.

Moon Fishers, by Nathalie Henneberg

Charles Henneberg was a popular French fantasist who, sadly, passed away in 1959.  His wife, with whom he collaborated, has taken it upon herself to flesh out a number of remaining outlines for publication, Damon Knight providing the translations.  She has written well before, but her talents fail her this time.  This tale of time travel, Atlanteans, and ancient Egypt fails to engage at all.  One star.

The Weighting Game, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor takes on the subject of elements and how we determined their mass.  Just discovering that elements had mass was a critical step in understanding the nature of atoms.  Sadly, this article is really a highly abridged and much compromised version of his excellent book, The Search for the Elements, which came out two months ago.  I recommend you grab a copy and skip this article.  Still, substandard Asimov is still decent.  Three stars.

Test, by Theodore L. Thomas

A vignette about failing a driving test.  There’s the germ of a good story here, but the ending is too abrupt and affected to work.  Two stars.

Three for the Stars, by Joseph Dickinson

This piece is noteworthy for having one of the least intelligible Davidson prefaces.  Other than that, its a rather overwrought story about a chimp sent to Mars and back, and the scars he bears of the Martians he met.  Satire or something.  Two stars.

***

This issue ends up with a lousy 2.4 star score – by far, the worst magazine of the month, and possibly the worst F&SF I’ve read!  It’s a disappointing turn of events.  F&SF used to be the smart sf mag, and last month’s issue was a surprise stand-out.  With the arrival of Davidson, F&SF seems to be careening back toward smug self-indulgence.  I see that the back cover no longer has pictures of notables heaping praise on the book.  I wonder if they’re jumping ship… 

[July 27, 1960] Footloose and Fancy Free (Japan and the August 1960 Fantasy & Science Fiction)

Perhaps the primary perquisite of being a writer (certainly not the compensation, though Dr. Asimov is the happy exception) is the ability to take one’s work anywhere.  Thanks to ‘faxes and patient editors, all of this column’s readers can follow me around the world.  To wit, I am typing this article in the lounge of my hotel deep in the heart of Tokyo, the capital of the nation of Japan. 

Japan is virtually a second home for me and my family, and we make it a point to travel here as often as time and funds permit.  Now that the Boeing 707 has shrunk the world by almost 50%, I expect our travels to this amazing, burgeoning land will increase in frequency.

Tokyo, of course, is one of the world’s biggest cities, and the crowds at Shinjuku station attest to this.  And yet, there are still plenty of moments of almost eerie solitude–not just in the parks and temples, but in random alleyways.  There are always treasures to find provided one is willing to look up and down (literally–only a fraction of Tokyo’s shops is located on the ground floor!)

Gentle readers, I have not forgotten the main reason you read my column.  In fact, the timing of my trip was perfect, allowing me to take all of the September 1960 digests with me to the Orient.  But first, I need to wrap up last month’s batch of magazines.  To that end, without further ado, here is the August 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction!

Robert F. Young has the lead short story, Nikita Eisenhower Jones.  I’d liked his To Fell a Tree very much, so I was looking forward to this one, the story of a young Polynesian who finagles his way onto the first manned mission to Pluto only to find it a lonely, one-way trip.  Sadly, while the subject matter is excellent, the tale is written in a way that keeps the reader at arm’s length and thus fails to engage in what could have been an intensely powerful, personal story. 

The Final Ingredient is a different matter altogether.  Jack Sharkey had thus far failed to impress, so I was surprised to find him in F&SF, a higher caliber magazine, in my opinion.  But this tale, involving a young girl whose efforts at witchraft are frustrated until she abandons love entirely and embraces wickedness, is quite good indeed. 

John Suter’s The Seeds of Murder, a reprint from F&SF’s sister magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery, is about telling the future through regressive (or in this case progressive) hypnosis.  It’s cute, but something I’d expect to find in one of the lesser mags.  I suppose this should come as no surprise–this is Suter’s first and only science fiction/fantasy story, so far as I can tell.

Rosel George Brown is back with another dark tale: Just a Suggestion.  When aliens subtly introduce the idea that the way to win friends and influence people is to be less impressive than one’s peers, the result is economic downturn and, ultimately, planetary destruction.  Obviously satirical; rather nicely done.

This brings us to Robert Arthur’s novelette, Miracle on Main Street.  A boy wishes on a unicorn horn that all of the folks in his small town, good and bad, should get what they deserve.  There is no ironic twist, no horrifying consequences.  It’s a simple tale (suitable for children, really) that very straightforwardly details the results of the wish.  It should be a vapid story; Arthur goes out of his way to ensure there are no surprises.  Yet, I enjoyed it just the same.  I suppose a little unalloyed charm is nice every so often. 

The Revenant, by Raymond Banks, is a fascinating little story about human space travelers who explore a planet less fixed in sequence and probability than ours.  Their lives are far less dependable, but infinitely more varied and interesting.  The closest approximation would be if our dreams were our waking lives and vice versa (and perhaps this was the tale’s inspiration).  Good stuff.

Avram Davidson has a one-pager, Climacteric, about a man who goes hunting dragons in search of romance.  He finds both.  It is followed by G.C.Edmondson’s Latin-themed The Sign of the Goose, a strangely written story about an alien visitation that, frankly, made little sense to me.  It stars the same eccentrics as The Galactic Calabash.

Asimov has an article about the Moon as a vacation spot whose main attraction is the lovely view of Earth.  Catskills in the Sky, it is called, and it’s one of his weaker entries.

Finally, we have Stephen Barr’s Calahan and the Wheelies, about an inventor who creates a species of wheeled little robots with the ability to learn.  The concept is captivating, and the execution largely plausible.  Sadly, the story sort of degenerates into the standard sci-fi trope: the robots, of course, become sentient and rather malicious.  It’s played for laughs, but I can just imagine a more serious story involving similar machines being put to all sorts of amazing uses.  Imagine a semi-smart machine that rolled around your house vacuuming and mopping your floor.  Or a programmable dog-walker.  I like robots that don’t look like people or act like living things, but which are indispensible allies to humanity.  I want more stories featuring them.

All told, I think this issue clocks in about a shade over 3 stars.  A thoroughly typical F&SF, which is no bad thing.

See you in a few days with more from the Land of the Rising Sun!

Dreams of Summer (September 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, first half; 7-28-1959)

Hello, all.  I’d meant to report on the newest issue of IF, but the fershlugginer thing hasn’t arrived yet.  My Fantasy and Science Fiction is in my hot little hands, however, and it is off to a strong start.  Fasten your seatbelts!

The cover is quite lovely, and in fact, it is available for purchase if you are so inclined.  It features the next-generation upper stage being designed as we speak to turn the Thor and Atlas missiles into powerful orbital boosters.  The rocket is called “Vega.” I have heard rumblings, however, that the thing may not actually make it to fruition as the Air Force has a very similar booster in the works, and what’s the point of inventing the wheel twice, simultaneously?

Heading the issue is Edgar Pangborn’s The Red Hills of Summer.  Mr. Pangborn has not written very much—looking through my records, I see he did a whimsical story for Galaxy called Angel’s Egg way back in 1951.  Summer is almost excellent, the story of a generation ship arriving at an inhabitable planet after a 15-year journey.  The stakes are high—Earth has become bombed-out and nigh unlivable.  Four members of the crew, evenly divided by gender, must conduct a preliminary survey to ensure that the destination, called Demeter, will support the 300 colonists.

The ecology is a little too undeveloped to be plausible, and also a bit too terrestrial.  But the writing is sound, the situations tense and interesting.  It doesn’t quite hit 5 stars as it trails off more than ends.  Perhaps Pangborn will turn this into the opening section of a novel, which would be quite readable.

Asimov’s article is on infinity, and the many different types of infinite counting.  Engaging, but dry.

The next piece is called Quintet and is a bit of an experiment.  There are five pieces, two poetry and three prose, one of which was penned by a pre-teen, and the rest by four distinguished authors.  We’re supposed to guess who wrote what.  All of the prose pieces have substantial spelling and grammatical errors of a patently unbelievable nature.  This is, I suppose, an attempt to portray the writings of a juvenile.  They go too far, though, to be fair, correspondence written by my current employer look quite similar.  The conceit makes the pieces well-nigh unreadable.  I’m going to guess that the youngster penned one of the pieces of poetry (I’m guessing it’s the first of two).  We’ll see if I’m right next month.

Finally, for today, we have The Devil’s Garden, a “Murchison Morks” story by Robert Arthur, the same fellow who brought us Don’t be a Goose (and of similar vintage).  It is a light-hearted but creepy story of telepathic transference of pain as a form of punishment.  The resolution is satisfying and a little (but not very) surprising.  I enjoyed it.

In two days, I’ll have the rest for you.  Thus far, we’re in 3-star territory.

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A break from it all (June 1959 F&SF, first half; 5-09-1959)


by Erich Lessig

It’s been heavy reading following the papers these days what with the Communist siege of Berlin seemingly without end.  These potential flashpoints between East and West get more frightening every day, particularly as both sides perfect methods of delivering atomic weapons across the globe.

Thankfully, I can rely on my monthly installment of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (often the highlight of my literary science fiction experience).  Thankfully, it doesn’t look like F&SF is going the way of IF, Satellite, or even Galaxy.  And its quality remains high, if not stellar.

James Blish opens the issue with a bang, quite literally.  This Earth of Hours is a really good tale of first contact and interstellar war… one in which the Terrans are hopelessly outmatched.  A proud terrestrial fleet is completely destroyed save for two segments of its flagship that crash to the surface of an alien planet.  There, what’s left of the crew finds a race of sentient hive mind centipedes that communicate through telepathy.  Not only is are the aliens (collectively) smarter than us, but they span a federation of like-minded aliens that spans much of our galaxy.  In short, humanity doesn’t have a chance against them.  Beaten, the crew repair their ship and embark on a tortuously long journey back to Earth to dissuade humanity against further bellicose expeditions.

If there’s anything wrong with the story, it’s the fact that it’s too short.  It’s a brilliant opening couple of chapters to a bigger novel, but I don’t know if a novel is forthcoming. 

Asimov has an interesting article, Planet of the Double Sun, which examines the effect on ancient mythology of having an extra sun in our sky a la the situation that might exist around Alpha Centauri.  Of course, Isaac sort of misses the point–in a world where true darkness happens rather rarely (perhaps a quarter of the year), I should think evolution would have ended up quite a bit differently, not to mention the effects another star’s gravitational influence might have had on our planet’s formation.  Whatever ancient society might have developed in this hypothetical situation probably wouldn’t have been human in any sense of the word.

Lee Sutton hasn’t written a lot.  So far as I can tell, his only work prior to this issue of F&SF was the juvenile novel Venus Boy, about which I know nothing.  Soul Mate is his latest story, and it’s a rather chilling, decidedly unromantic story about what happens when a dominating middle-aged telepathic male crosses path with a naive, sexually liberal young telepathic woman.  There is a meeting of the minds, but it is anything but pleasant, and the end is truly horrifying.  Plausible, but icky.

About Venus, More or Less, by Punch writer, Claud Cockburn, is so slight a story, that I quite forgot it was even in the issue until I re-checked the table of contents. 

Josef Berger is another author unknown to me.  His Maybe we got something is about a band of fisherman who, in a post-apocalyptic era, trawl up the head of Lady Liberty, herself.  It’s nothing special.

The last story for today is the rather amusing The Hero Equation, by Robert Arthur (first printed in 1941 as Don’t be a Goose! When a milquetoast scientists transports himself into the past to inhabit the body of a hero, he is surprised that the heroic form he comes to possess is not human at all… 

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to secure permission to distribute these stories freely.  On the other hand, with the exception of the first one, they are diverting but unremarkable. 

But stay tuned!  There’s a second half to cover in a few days…

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