Tag Archives: robert bloch

[November 12, 1962] HEADS ABOVE THE CLOUDS (the December 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Science fiction becomes science fact!  Well not quite, fortunately for us all.  It appears that we came to the brink of nuclear war last month but our leaders on both sides had sense enough to turn back from it.  These grave events reverberated even here, far from any population center or promising military target.  We were herded to a school assembly to be addressed by the principal, very briefly.  It went more or less like this:

“We, ah, don’t think . . . er, anything . . . is going to . . . ah, happen, but if, er, . . . something . . . ah, happens . . . classes will be dismissed and you will return to your homes” (these last clauses delivered with accelerating confidence, unlike the earlier ones).

Shortly thereafter, I was outside in gym class (physical education, as they call it here).  In a corner of the large outdoor area, the school’s paper trash was burning in a concrete enclosure.  (Isn’t there a better way of disposing of this stuff than burning it in the open air?  There ought to be a law.) The wind shifted, and fine bits of ash began drifting down on us.  “Fallout!” someone yelled.

So much for existential terror, at least in the so-called real world.  There’s a fair dose of it in the December Amazing, however, and this issue is noticeably wider awake than its recent predecessors.

Raymond F. Jones contributes the lead story Stay Off the Moon! Jones is an intermittently prolific 20-year veteran who has produced a lot of cut-to-specs product but sometimes comes up with clever oddball ideas, and here’s one of them.  Our guys at Mission Control succeed in putting a remote-controlled mobile laboratory device on the Moon to take soil (i.e. rock) samples, analyze them, and transmit the results.  Turns out the atomic weights and energy levels are different from the matter we know.  How can that be?  The Moon must have originated a long, long way away, in a place where the laws we thought are universal don’t quite work.  Well, what else is going on up there?  Finding the bizarre but logical (and terrifying) answer is the rest of the story.  This is the kind of thing only an SF geek can appreciate, but within those bounds it’s imaginative and well done.  Four stars.

Roger Zelazny’s Moonless in Byzantium—his second Amazing story, fourth published—might have a broader appeal.  It’s a surreal riff on one of the more familiar plots in the warehouse, the lone rebel face to face with an oppressive regime, in this case the Robotic Overseeing Unit.  In this dystopia, machines are in charge, people are mostly machines, and our protagonist is charged with writing Sailing to Byzantium on a washroom wall.  He is also charged with illegal possession of a name—William Butler Yeats, which he appended to Yeats’s poem.  This is the world of Cutgab, in which language itself is drastically restricted and simplified, and writing forbidden.  ROU accuses: “You write without purpose or utility, which is why writing itself has been abolished—men always lie when they write or speak.” The outcome is inevitable save for the accused’s final and futile defiance.  This is one that succeeds on sheer power of writing; in theme and style, it suggests Bradbury with sharper teeth.  Four stars for bravura execution of a stock idea.

This month’s Editorial indicates that some readers thought that this Roger Zelazny was himself a fictional character, and prints Zelazny’s reassurance that he exists; his Polish ancestors were armorers and the name comes from the Polish for “iron”; he’s 25, and possesses an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, military training as a guided missile launcher crewman, and his old copies of Captain Future.

The Zelazny is followed by Far Enough to Touch, by Stephen Bartholomew, who had a couple of stories in If and one in Astounding a few years ago.  A space mission is returning from the Moon, and suddenly one of the crew—the young one who seemed most entranced by space—has gone out the airlock in his spacesuit.  Rescued, he’s in an ecstatic delusional fugue, and stays that way.  And the point?  It escapes me, but the story is very smoothly written.  Two stars.

Stewart Pierce Brown contributes an equally well-turned but insubstantial story in Small Voice, Big Man, in which the voice of a washed-up singer suddenly is emanating from radios everywhere, to benign effect.  And the singer, Van Richie, is trying to make a comeback, but had a hard time singing loudly enough until the producer’s electrician rigged up an amplifier for him to wear.  OK, clear enough, but so what?  Two insipid stars—but this one is also smoothly written, not surprisingly from a writer who’s been in Bluebook, Collier’s, Playboy, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, who served up a dish of broken glass in the last issue, is back with something more soothing.  Measureless to Man takes place on yesterday’s Mars, where explorers travel on foot through the mountains with tents and sleeping bags, people get around by flagging down the mail jet, and the fauna include cute scaly sand mice and banshees, giant, stupid but dangerous flightless birds.  I suspect that this story was at least started a decade ago in hopes of a sale to the now-deceased pulps that Bradley admired.  Anyway, it concerns an expedition into the said mountains to the ancient city Xanadu, abandoned ages ago by the seemingly extinct Martians, from which no previous expedition has returned, and you can more or less guess what happens, in broad outline at least.  This used furniture is rearranged agreeably enough, with a slightly ironic, newer-style ending.  Three stars.

Sam Moskowitz’s “SF Profile” this issue is “Psycho”-logical Bloch, which is a little puzzling; Moskowitz readily concedes that Robert Bloch is a fairly inconsequential SF writer and that his main credentials are in horror and psychological suspense, at this point chiefly in film and TV.  Apparently Bloch is here in this series featuring the likes of Asimov and Heinlein because he’s popular among fandom.  But for a relatively pointless article, it’s perfectly readable and informative.  Three stars.

Finally, Frank Tinsley is back with The Mars Supply Fleet, doing his best to make space travel pedestrian again.  Two stars for making interesting information boring.

But still, cause for hope: two items in this issue poke their heads above the cloudbank of routine, in very different ways…




[May 26, 1962] Home is the Sailor (June 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

In recent days the eyes of the world were focused on the most important event yet during the administration of President Kennedy. No, not Scott Carpenter’s successful, if suspenseful, orbiting of the Earth, so ably reported by our host. I’m talking about Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to the leader of the free world in a skintight beaded dress that drew at least as much attention as her little girl’s voice.

In other musical news, after three weeks at the top of the Billboard’s Hot 100 with their smash hit Soldier Boy, the Shirelles, pioneers of the girl group sound, have yielded the position to British clarinetist Mr. Acker Bilk with his performance of Stranger on the Shore.  (Bilk is only the second artist from across the pond to make it to Number One on the American pop charts. The first was just slightly less than a decade ago, when Vera Lynn reached that position with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart. I suppose we’ll have to wait another ten years before the British invade the Yankee airwaves again.)

Bilk’s haunting, melancholy melody could easily serve as background music for the cover story in the June 1962 issue of Fantastic.

Another beautiful painting from young artist George Barr graces the latest offering from editor Cele Goldsmith.  It perfectly suits – and, I imagine, provided the inspiration for – Robert F. Young’s lead novelette The Star Fisherman.

The protagonist’s profession takes him deep into interstellar space, where he uses nets to capture small meteors which are used as jewels to be worn in women’s hair.  Already the reader can tell that this is a romantic and poetic tale with the mood of a legend.  I was reminded, to some extent, of the work of Cordwainer Smith.  The fisherman captures the body of an old man in a spacesuit and a photograph of a young woman in the severe clothing of a religious cult.  He instantly falls obsessively in love with her and uses the clue of her attire to track her down.

The author takes many risks here.  He deliberately offers us a science fiction story which has the mood of fantasy.  He walks a very thin line between heartfelt emotion and sentimentality.  He creates a character with whom one must empathize, but who sometimes does terrible things.  I believe that he succeeds, as well as constructing an intricately designed plot which leads to an inevitable conclusion.  For all these reasons I must award a full five stars.

I wish I could say the same about Ended by David R. Bunch, since I have generally been a defender of his unique style.  Unfortunately, this story begins in such an opaque manner that I had no idea what was happening.  Eventually it becomes clear that two very strange characters who were about to fight each other instead dig down to a region where they are offered the opportunity to pay for hedonistic pleasures.  Apparently the author intends a satire of the modern world ignoring the possibility of universal destruction and instead wasting time in pursuit of escapism.  With a character named Glob Gloul the Gloul and a place called the Hall of Hedo-and-a-Ho-ho, it’s hard to take the allegory seriously.  Two stars.

A step up is the first half of Poul Anderson’s short novel Shield.  It’s a fast-moving, action-packed adventure story set in a thoughtfully worked out future which is only revealed slowly as the plot progresses, much in the manner of Robert A. Heinlein.  The protagonist has just returned to Earth from one of several missions to Mars, which is inhabited by intelligent life.  (The author is wise enough to provide only a glimpse of these aliens, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.) With the help of a Martian friend, he has invented a device which creates a force field around the wearer.  Anderson provides a plausible explanation for this technology, and describes its abilities and limitations in realistic detail. 

Although the hero is intelligent and capable, he is young and somewhat naïve about political realities.  Not realizing the full importance of his invention, he is soon pursued by American Military Security agents, who are the most powerful force in a world where the United States, after a nuclear war, has forced all other nations to disarm.  He is also the target of Chinese spies.  (The Soviet Union is not mentioned, and the reader may presume that it was the loser of the war.) As if that were not enough, he has to fight off low level crooks as well as a sinister crime lord and his beautiful assistant.  It all reads like a futuristic version of one of Ian Fleming’s bestselling spy novels.  The author writes in a vivid, clear style and draws the reader into the story right from the beginning.  Although the crime boss is a bit of a stereotype, his female aide is a complex, fully realized character.  Four stars.

This issue’s so-called Fantasy Classic is less than a decade old.  The Past Master by Robert Bloch is reprinted from the January 1955 issue of Bluebook.  Three different viewpoint characters are used to tell the tale of a mysterious man who arrives out of nowhere with immense amounts of money.  He attempts to purchase many great works of art.  When legitimate methods fail, he hires criminals to obtain them.  The man’s motive may not come as a great surprise to readers of science fiction, but the story is effectively told.  The author’s ability to write in a trio of distinct voices is a nice plus.  Three stars.

By coincidence, both Fantastic and this month’s issue of Analog offer stories about weather control.  “Rain, Rain, Go Away” by James A. Cox deals with the political effects of such technology as well as its unintended consequences.  It’s fairly predictable and not very engaging.  Two stars.

***

Robert F. Young’s tragic love story alone is worth paying a dime and a quarter for the magazine.  Whether Poul Anderson is able to maintain the suspense of his novel remains to be seen.

[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

It doesn’t take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy.  Why Galaxy?  Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it’s 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I’ve seen in a long while.  Come take a look with me – I promise it’ll be worth your while.

First up is A Planet Named Shayol, by Cordwainer Smith.  Smith’s is a rare talent.  There are few writers who not only excel at their craft, but they somehow transcend it, creating something otherworldly in its beauty.  Ted Sturgeon can do it.  I’m having trouble thinking of others in this class.  Almost every Smith story has this slightly lilting, 10% off-plane sense to it. 

Shayol is set in the far future universe of the “Instrumentality,” a weird interstellar human domain with people on top, beast creatures as servants, and robots at the bottom of the social totem pole.  This particular novelette introduces us to the most peculiar and forbidding of Devil’s Islands, the planet Shayol.  Just maintaining one’s humanity in such a place of horrors is a triumph.  The story promises to be a hard read, yet Smith manages to skirt the line of discomfort to create a tale of hope with an upbeat ending.  Plus, Smith doesn’t shy from noble woman characters.  Five stars.

Robert Bloch comes and goes with little stories that are either cute, horrific, or both.  Crime Machine, about a 21st Century boy who takes a trip back to the exciting days of gangster Chicago, is one of the former variety.  Three stars.

Another short one is Amateur in Chancery by George O. Smith.  A sentimental vignette about a scientist’s frantic efforts to retrieve an explorer trapped on Venus by a freak teleportation mishap.  Slight but sweet.  Three stars.

I’m not quite sure I understood The Abominable Earthman, by Galaxy’s editor, Fred Pohl.  In it, Earth is conquered by seemingly invincible aliens, but one incorrigible human is the key to their defeat.  The setup is good, but the end seemed a bit rushed.  Maybe you’ll like it better than me.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science article is about the reclaimed lowlands of Holland.  It’s a fascinating topic, almost science fiction, but somehow Ley’s treatment is unusually dull.  I feel as if he’s phoning in his articles these days.  Two stars.


Art by Dick Francis

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, is another swing and miss.  An interesting premise, involving a race that reproduces parthenogenetically via musical stimulation, is ruined by a silly ending.  Two stars.

Jack Sharkey usually fails to impress, but his psychic first contact story, Arcturus times Three, is a decent read.  You’ll definitely thrill as the Contact Agent possesses the bodies of several alien animals in a kind of psionic planetary survey.  What keeps Arcturus out of exceptional territory is the somehow unimaginative way the exotic environs and species are portrayed.  Three stars.

If you are a devotee of the coffee house scene, or if you just dig Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, then you’re well acquainted with the Beat scene.  Those crazy kooks with their instruments and their poetry, living a life decidedly rounder than square.  It’s definitely a groove I fall in, and I look forward to throwing away my suit and tie when I can afford to live the artistic life.  Fritz Leiber’s new story, The Beat Cluster is about a little slice of Beatnik heaven in orbit, a bunch of self-sufficient bubbles with a gaggle of space-bound misfits — if you can get past the smell, it sure sounds inviting.  I love the premise; the story doesn’t do much, though.  Three stars.

Last up is Donald Westlake, a fellow I normally associate with action thrillers.  His The Spy in the Elevator is kind of a minor masterpiece.  Not so much in concept (set in an overcrowded Earth where everyone lives in self-contained city buildings) but in execution.  It takes skill to weave exposition with brevity yet comprehensiveness into a story’s hook – and it does hook.  Westlake also keeps a consistent, believable viewpoint throughout the story, completely in keeping with the setting.  I find myself giving it five stars, for execution, if nothing else.

Add it all up and what do you get?  3.3 stars out of 5, and at least one story that could end up a contender for the 1961 Hugos (I really enjoyed the Westlake, but I feel it may not be avante garde enough for the gold rocket).  Now that’s something to smile about!

[June 19, 1960] Half Measures (July 1960 IF Science Fiction)

I’m glad science fiction digests haven’t gone the way of the dodo.  There’s something pleasant about getting a myriad of possible futures in a little package every month.  You can read as much or as little as you like at a time.  The short story format allows the presentation of an idea without too much belaboring.

Every month, I get several magazines in the mail: Astounding and Fantasy and Science Fiction are monthlies; Galaxy and IF are bi-monthlies, but since they’re owned and edited by the same folks, they essentially comprise a single monthly.  I don’t have subscriptions to the other two digests of note, Amazing and Fantastic (again, both run by the same people); they just aren’t worth it, even if they occasionally publish worthy stuff.

This month, IF showed up last; hence, it is the last to be reviewed.  As usual, it consists mostly of moderately entertaining stories that weren’t quite good enough to make it into Galaxy.  Let’s take a look:

In a Body is the lead novella by J.T. McIntosh, and it’s frustrating as all get out.  I often like McIntosh, though others find him competently forgettable.  This particular story has all the makings of a great one: shape-changing alien is shipwrecked on Earth and must find a soulmate to survive.  She adopts human form and chooses a man afflicted with leukemia to be her husband–but he’s already betrothed to another.  In the hands of Theodore Sturgeon, this could have been a classic.  Even had McIntosh just given it a good rewrite, showing more and telling less, it would have easily garnered four of five stars.  As is, it is readable, even compelling, but it could have been much more.

Psycho writer Robert Bloch’s Talent, on the other hand, is perfect as is.  Featuring a boy with an extraordinary talent for mimicry, Talent is one of those stories that starts intriguingly and descends slowly into greater horror.  The style is nicely innovative, too.  This piece is easily the highlight of the issue.

It is followed by one of the lesser lights: Time Payment by Sylvia Jacobs, a rather incoherent tale about a device that allows one to time travel to the future.. sort of.  Really, one just lives one’s life normally, but with no lasting memory of living, until the destination time is reached.  Then, the recollections all flood in.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The prolific and not-untalented Jim Harmon offers us The Last Trespasser, a 3-star tale about the humanity’s encounter with a race of beneficial symbiotes and the one fellow who finds himself unable to take on an alien “Rider.”  It’s a little uneven, and the reveal doesn’t quite make sense, but I liked his creative prediction of future slang.

Usually reliable Fred Pohl has an uninspired entry called The Martian in the Attic, about a rather nebbishy would-be blackmailer who discovers that the inventor behind many of the wonders of the Modern Age actually had help from a pet alien.  It feels archaic. 

The Non-Electronic Bug, by newcomer E. Mittleman, is a bog-standard psi-endowed card sharking tale better suited to the pages of mid-1950’s Astounding than a modern magazine.  It is in English, however, and perhaps Mr. Mittleman will improve with time.

Capping off this issue is Hayden Howard’s Murder beneath the Polar Ice, a talky, technical thriller involving an American Navy frogman and the Soviet listening post he investigates in the Bering Strait.  Howard has been in hibernation as a writer for seven years after a short stint penning tales for the defunct Planet Stories, and Murder doesn’t herald an auspicious re-awakening. 

And that brings us to the end of our journey through July 1960’s magazines.  F&SF is the clear winner, at 3.5 stars to IF‘s and Astounding‘s 2.5s.  It’s hard to award a “best story”–it may well be Bloch’s Talent, but it might also be It is not My Fault from F&SF.  I think I’ll give the nod to the former.

Finally, out of the 20 stories that appeared in the Big Three, just three were penned by women.  Unless it turns out “Mr.” Mittleman is a woman.  That’s actually a number we haven’t seen since February.  Here’s hoping we break 15% in the months to come!

[Nov. 17, 1959] Dead Center (December 1959 Galaxy and wargames)

Hello, fellow travelers!  As promised, here’s a round-up of this month’s Galaxy magazine.

Or should I say Galaxy Science Fiction?  According to editor Horace Gold (and I somehow missed this), Galaxy was misprinted last month with the old logo and the old price!  They really lost their shirt on that issue, sadly.  On the other hand, Gold is going to try not being ashamed of what he peddles and see if it affects sales positively or adversely.  I’m hoping for the former.

Diving into the stories, George O. Smith continues to write in a workmanlike fashion.  His The Undetected is part thriller, part who-dunnit, part romance, and features a psionic detective looking for a psionic criminal.  And you thought it could only happen in Astounding.


Virgil Finlay

The often-excellent Phillip K. Dick has a lackluster story in this ish: War Game.  In the future, the tricky Ganymedians are constantly trying to sneak subversive toys past our customs censors.  In this case, they succeed by occupying the attention of a pair of said censors with a sort of automated toy soldier kit.  It’s the sort of throwaway tale I’d have expected ten years ago.


Wallace Wood

On the other hand, it provides an excellent segue to an exciting new arena of gaming.  A hundred years ago, the Germans invented sandbox “wargaming,” wherein they simulated war with a set of rules and military units in miniature.  A half-century later, H.G. Wells proposed miniature wargaming as a way of scratching the human itch for violence without bloodshed.  Fletcher Pratt, popularized the naval miniature combat game in World War 2, playing on the floor of a big lobby.

A fellow named Charles Roberts has taken the concept of miniature wargaming and married it to the tradition of board-gaming (a la Scrabble and Monopoly or Chess, perhaps a prototype wargame).  Thanks to his revolutionary Tactics, and its sequel Tactics II, two players can simulate war on a divisional scale between the fictional entities of “Red” and “Blue” using a gameboard map, cardboard pieces, and dice.  While perhaps not as visually impressive as facing off thousands of tin soldiers against each other, it is far more accessible and inexpensive. 

War leaves me cold; I am a confirmed pacifist.  But there is fun in the strategy and contest that a wargame provides.  I look forward to seeing what new wargames Roberts’ Avalon Hill company comes up with.  Perhaps we’ll see games with a science fictional theme in the near future—imagine gaming the battles depicted in Dorsai! or Starship Soldier

To the next story: Jim Harmon is a fine writer, and his Charity Case, about a fellow hounded by demons who cause his luck to be absolutely the worst, starts out so promisingly that the rushed ending is an acute disappointment.  Maybe next time.


Dick Francis

Fred Pohl’s The Snowmen is a glib, shallow cautionary tale covering subject matter better handled in Joanna Russ’ Nor Custom Stale.  In short, humanity’s need to consume compels it to generate power from heat pumps that accelerate the process of entropy leaving Earth in a deep freeze. 

I did like Robert Bloch’s Sabbatical, about a time traveler from 1925 who quickly determines that the grass is always greener in other time zones, and one might as well stay home.  I enjoyed the off-hand predictions about the future—that Communism will no longer be the big scare, to be replaced with Conservativism; the patriarchy will be replaced with a matriarchy; the average weight of folks will be dramatically higher.  I guess we’ll see which ones come true.

Finally, we have Andy Offut’s Blacksword.  I had hoped for an epic fantasy adventure.  Instead, I got one of those satirical political romps wherein one man plays chess with thousands of inferior minds, and things work out just as he planned.  And then it turns out he’s just a pawn (or perhaps a castle) in a bigger political chess game.  Inferior stuff.


Wallace Wood

All told, this issue tallied at three stars.  The problem is that this issue wasn’t a mix of good and bad but rather a pile of unremarkable stories.  With the exception of the Sheckley and the Ley article, and perhaps Bloch’s short story, it was rather a disappointment.

Of course, this month’s Astounding prominently features Randall Garrett, again.  Out of the frying pan, into inferno.

See you in two!  Try not to get involved with any rigged quiz shows…


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P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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