Tag Archives: robert f. young

[July 26, 1962] The Long and Short of It (August 1962 Fantastic)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Victoria Silverwolf

July isn’t quite over yet, and already I feel overwhelmed by all that’s been going on in the world:

Two new nations, Rwanda and Burundi, have been created from the Belgian territory of Ruanda-Urundi.  Similarly, France has recognized the independence of its former colony Algeria.

Despite protests, the United States continues to test atomic weapons.  The USA also detonated a hydrogen bomb in outer space, hundreds of miles above a remote part of the Pacific Ocean.  The explosion created a spectacular light show visible from Hawaii, more than seven hundred miles away.  It also disrupted electronics in the island state.  An underground nuclear explosion created a gigantic crater in the Nevada desert and may have exposed millions of people to radioactive fallout.

AT&T launched Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite (which we’ll be covering in the next article!)

The world of literature suffered a major loss with the death of Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner.

In Los Angeles, young artist Andy Warhol exhibited a work consisting of thirty-two paintings of cans of Campbell’s Soup.

The Washington Post published an article revealing how Doctor Frances Oldham Kelsey, a medical officer for the Food and Drug Administration, kept thalidomide, a drug now known to cause severe birth defects, off the market in the United States.

Even popular music seems to be going through radical changes lately.  Early in the month the charts were dominated by David Rose’s raucous jazz instrumental The Stripper.  It would be difficult to think of a less similar work than Bobby Vinton’s sentimental ballad Roses are Red (My Love), which has replaced it as Number One.

It seems appropriate that the latest issue of Fantastic offers no less than nine stories, one long and eight short, to go along with these busy days:

Sword of Flowers by Larry M. Harris

Vernon Kramer’s cover art for the lead story captures something of the mysterious mood of this mythical tale.  The setting is a strange world where the climate is so gentle that the inhabitants have no need for shelter.  They also have the ability to create whatever they imagine.  However, because their lives are so simple and happy, they rarely use this power.  An exception is a man, twisted in mind and body, who comes up with the concepts of royalty and servitude, so that another man in love with a beautiful woman can become her slave.  It all leads to tragedy, and an ending directed at the reader.  It’s a compelling legend written in poetic language.  Five stars.

The Titan by P. Schuyler Miller

This issue’s Fantasy Classic has a complex history.  Serialized in part in the 1930’s, although never published in full until revised for the author’s 1952 collection, this is its first complete magazine appearance.  The story takes place on a dying planet where the decadent upper class takes blood from the healthy lower class.  The plebeian hero follows the patrician heroine above ground and falls in love.  They become involved in a plot to violently overthrow the rulers and confront a huge, dangerous creature known as a Star Beast.  Most readers will be able to figure out what planet is involved and the true nature of the Star Beast.  Although said to be daring for the 1930’s, it’s pretty tame for the 1960’s.  Unfortunately, this is the longest story in the issue.  Two stars.

Behind the Door by Jack Sharkey

A woman who seeks out dangerous experiences encounters a mysterious man whom she believes will provide the ultimate thrill.  He turns out to be something other than expected.  A fairly effective horror story.  Three stars.

The Mynah Matter by Lawrence Eisenberg

A man determined to purchase a talking bird deals with a pet store owner who refuses to sell any of his animals.  It seems that they are all reincarnations of famous people.  This is a slight, whimsical comedy, but somehow likable.  Three stars.

And a Tooth by Rosel George Brown

A woman whose husband and children die in an accident goes into a coma from the shock.  Experimental brain surgery restores her to consciousness, but gives her two separate minds.  The author does a good job of narrating from both points of view, and the effect is chilling.  Four stars.

A Devil of a Day by Arthur Porges

This is yet another variation on the old deal with Satan theme.  A man sells his soul for the chance to have absolute power over the city of Rome at a certain time during the Sixteenth Century.  Readers familiar with a specific historical event will be able to predict why this is a very bad bargain.  Two stars.

Continuity by Albert Teichner

A precocious student raises a peculiar question that haunts a physics teacher.  If our universe consists of matter that we can sense and forces that we cannot sense, could the reverse be true in another universe?  The result is unexpected.  This is an odd, philosophical story, intriguing but not always clear.  Three stars.

Horseman! by Roger Zelazny

A new writer, who also appears in this month’s issue of Amazing, offers a brief prose poem.  A mysterious rider appears in a village asking after others of his kind.  What happens when he finds them is surprising.  The story is beautifully written, and one hopes that the author will go on to produce longer works.  Four stars.

Victim of the Year by Robert F. Young

A man down on his luck receives a note from a woman at the unemployment office.  She claims to be an apprentice witch with the assignment to cast spells to make his life miserable.  She repents of her actions, and together they must face the wrath of her coven.  The story reads something like a less elegant version of a Fritz Leiber fantasy.  Three stars.

The best stories in this issue are short ones, proving once again that good things come in small packages.  Speaking of which, stay tuned for an article on the series of small packages circling the Earth that are making an outsized impact on their mother planet…

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  A chance to discuss Soviet and American space shots…and maybe win a prize!)




[June 23, 1962] Only the Lonely (July 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

In this age of Cold War tensions, it’s a little disconcerting to discover that the United States made two failed attempts this month to detonate a nuclear warhead in space.  The project, whimsically known as Operation Fishbowl, launched Thor missiles from Johnston Island, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean under the command of the US Air Force.  The missiles launched on June 2 (Bluegill) and June 19 (Starfish) had to be destroyed in flight due to technical problems.  (Radar lost track of Bluegill, and the Starfish rocket engine stopped prematurely.) Some of the debris from Starfish landed on Johnston Island, potentially contaminating persons stationed on the atoll with radioactive material.

If that weren’t scary enough, the three inmates who escaped from Alcatraz a couple of weeks ago are still at large.  It’s probable that they drowned in San Francisco Bay, but I’d advise those of you who live in the area to keep your doors locked.

Raising the alarm in these troubling times are two newly published documents drawing attention to the problems we face.  The left-wing organization Students for a Democratic Society released a manifesto entitled The Port Huron Statement a week ago, promoting universal disarmament and other social and political reforms through non-violent civil disobedience. 

(It’s interesting to note the cover price is the same as that of the magazine I’ll eventually get around to reviewing.)

At the same time, The New Yorker (which costs ten cents less than Fantastic or The Port Huron Statement) published an excerpt from Silent Spring, an upcoming book from marine biologist Rachel Carson which discusses the danger posed to the environment by chemical pesticides.

With all of this depressing news, it’s not surprising that a melancholy ballad of loneliness and lost love has been at the top of the charts for the entire month.  Ray Charles isn’t the first musician to have a hit with Don Gibson’s 1958 country song I Can’t Stop Loving You — besides Gibson himself, Kitty Wells released a popular version the same year, as did Roy Orbison in 1961 — but his version is by far the most successful.  It seems likely that this unique combination of rhythm and blues with country-western will have a powerful impact on popular music.

In keeping with this mood, it’s appropriate that many of the stories in the current issue of Fantastic feature characters haunted by loneliness, isolation, and lost love.

The great Emsh provides the cover art for The Singing Statues by British author J. G. Ballard.  It takes place in the futuristic resort community of Vermillion Sands, which has already appeared in a handful of Ballard’s stories.  The narrator is an artist who creates sculptures that produce sound in response to those who view them.  (There are also indications that these works of art are somehow grown in the surreal landscape of Vermillion Sands, with its copper beaches and dry sea beds.) A beautiful, wealthy, and reclusive young woman purchases one of his works, believing that it sings to her in a way which perfectly reflects her soul.  Unbeknownst to her, however, the artist has actually placed an electronically distorted recording of his own voice inside it.  When the recording runs out, he goes to her luxurious home under the pretext of making repairs to the statue, actually placing new recordings within it.  His deception leads to unexpected revelations.  Ballard writes with a fine sense for imagery.  His tales of the decadent inhabitants of Vermillion Sands may not be for all tastes, but they are skillfully rendered works of art.  Four stars.

This month’s Fantasy Classic is The Dragon of Iskander by Nat Schachner, from the pages of the April, 1934 issue of Top-Notch, a magazine which published adventure fiction from 1910 to 1937. 

Things start with a bang, as an archeological expedition in a mountainous region of Chinese Turkestan is attacked by a flying, fire-breathing dragon.  Our two-fisted American hero, along with his loyal servant and a couple of suspicious characters, makes his way into the mountains, where he discovers a lost kingdom founded by Alexander the Great.  Daring escapes and violent action results, and it’s no surprise that a beautiful young woman shows up to stand by the hero’s side.  This story is typical of old-fashioned pulp action yarns, and certainly moves at the speed of lightning.  It’s marred by some casual racism (the Chinese character is often called “yellow,” and non-Americans are generally cowardly and treacherous) and the fact that the true nature of the dragon isn’t terribly convincing.  Two stars.

After this tale of an isolated nation, we turn to a story about a lonely individual.  A Drink of Darkness by Robert F. Young deals with a man who has destroyed his marriage and ruined his life through alcohol.  At the end of his rope, he meets a gaunt man who takes him to a strange land where a journey across a dark plain leads him to a towering mountain.  The alcoholic assumes that the gaunt man is Death.  During their trek he opens mysterious doors which lead to various times in his past life.  He relives the loss of his happiness to the bottle.  This is a bleak story, but it offers a glimmer of hope.  The true identity of the gaunt man is concealed until the end, although an astute reader may pick up a clue earlier.  Whether or not you believe the twist ending is appropriate, you are likely to respond to the story’s emotional power.  Four stars.

The second half of Poul Anderson’s short novel Shield continues the adventures of the fellow who has invented a force field.  Held captive by a crime boss, sought by both the Americans and Chinese for the secret of his invention, he receives help from an unexpected source.  An extended chase follows at a fast and furious pace.  Not quite as interesting as the first half, this section still provides plenty of action and a complex, fully developed character in the aide/mistress of the crime boss, who proves to be another example of the persons suffering from emotional loss in this issue.  Three stars.

The people in The Thinking Disease by Albert Teichner have become isolated from each other by their own technology.  Robots designed to self-destruct when there is any possibility of harming human beings (with a nod to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics) somehow change from loyal servants to berserk killers at unpredictable times.  Their masters live in fear of leaving their homes.  The protagonist discovers a way to project his consciousness outside his body, enabling him to fight off the rebel machines.  The explanation for how the robots could hurt people, and the manner in which they can be controlled, is rather disappointing.  Two stars.

One Long Ribbon is, I believe, the first published story from Florence Engel Randall.  The protagonist is a recently widowed mother with a young son.  Her husband was a pilot, stationed at one air base after another, who was never able to give her a stable home.  Years before his death, he made arrangements to purchase a house for her in case of his demise.  When she moves in, she discovers that the other people living on her street act as if they can’t see her.  Her son claims that he can’t see the children that she sees playing outside.  This is a Twilight Zone kind of story with an unexpected explanation for its strange events.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a pretty good issue, although I wouldn’t recommend reading it alone.

[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.

***

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. 

***

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!)

[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.

[February 23, 1962] Material Reading (March 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The coverage for John Glenn’s orbital flight was virtually non-stop on the 20th.  My daughter and I (as many likely did) played hooky to watch it.  During the long countdown, the Young Traveler worried that the astronaut might get bored during his wait and commented that NASA might have been kind enough to install a small television on the Mercury control panel.

But, from our previous experience, we were pretty sure what the result of that would have been:

CAPCOM: “T MINUS 30 seconds and counting…”

Glenn: “Al, Mr. Ed just came on.  Can we delay the count a little bit?”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “You are on internal power and the Atlas is Go.  Do you copy, Friendship 7

Glenn: “Al, Supercar‘s on now.  Just a little more.”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “The recovery fleet is standing by and will have to refuel if we don’t launch soon…John, what’s with the whistling?”

Glenn: “But Al, Andy Griffith just came on!”

So, TV is probably out.  But a good book, well…that couldn’t hurt anything, right?  And this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction was a quite good book, indeed.  Witness:

Jonathan and the Space Whale, by Robert F. Young

Two years ago, Mr. Young began an issue of F&SF with a bang.  He does it again with Whale.  Young is a master of writing compelling relationships between two utterly alien beings – in this case, that between a restless, aimless young man of many talents, and the space whale that swallows him whole.  Great stuff.  Five stars.

Wonder as I Wander: Some Footprints on John’s Trail Through Magic Mountains, Manly Wade Wellman

It is hard to pack a lot of wallop into a half-page vignette, but I must say that Wellman has pulled it off here – repeatedly.  Footprints is a set of short-short shorts designed to be interstitials for a collection (due to be published later this year) of stories about John the balladeer, a Korea veteran with a silver-stringed guitar and a facility with white magic.  Some are truly effective, and all are worthy.  Five stars.

The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity, by Fritz Leiber

Friends is a readable story with a stingless tail.  I suspect Leiber is past his prime, riding on his name rather than putting much effort into things.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIX, by “Grendel Briarton”

One of the more contrived and less funny of Reginald Bretnor’s punnish efforts. 

A War of No Consequence, by Edgar Pangborn

This, then, is the jewel of the issue.  Pangborn’s last tale of a young redheaded runaway from the Eastern seaboard of a bombed-out America, was sublime.  This one is just about as good, only being inferior for its shorter length.  A great story of the futility of war, and the bonds it can forge among ostensible enemies.  Five stars.

The 63rd St. Station, by Avram Davidson

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, about a staid, devoted brother who contemplates leaving his shut-in sister for a new love at the age of 45.  The ending is rendered extremely obliquely, and I suspect it makes more sense to a New Yorker familiar with subway trains and such.  Not bad, but a little too opaque.  Three stars.

(Per the editor’s blurb at the front of the issue, Bob Mills is stepping down as editor and turning over the reins to Mr. Davidson.  Given the latter’s penchant for the weird and the abstruse, recently to the detriment of his stories (in my humble opinion), I have to wonder if this will take the magazine in a direction less to my taste.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see.)

Communication by Walter H. Kerr

There is not much to say about this rather purple, but still pleasant, poem about a certain race’s limitations and strengths in the realm of communication.  Three stars.

That’s Life!, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor (will the friendly banter between Asimov and his “Kindly Editor” continue under the new regime?) has turned out an entertaining and informative piece this month, in which he attempts to present an accurate definition of life.  It’s a fine lesson in biology with some neat bits on viruses.  Four stars.

The Stone Woman by Doris Pitkin Buck

I really want to like Mrs. Buck, an esteemed English professor from Ohio, who has seen several science fiction luminaries in her class.  This latest piece, a poem, reinforces my opinion that her stuff, while articulate, is not for me.  Two stars.

Shadow on the Moon by Zenna Henderson

Henderson’s The People stories have always been personal favorites, and the last one, Jordan, was sublime.  Shadow, on the other hand, falls unexpectedly flat.  It follows the tale of two siblings who enlist themselves in an endeavor to take themselves and kin back into space – to the Moon, particularly.  All the elements of a People piece are there: the esper-empowered, alien-born humans; a well-drawn female protagonist; the sere beauty of Arizona; the light, almost ethereal language.  Somehow, the bolts show on this one, however, and there isn’t the emotional connection I’ve enjoyed in previous Henderson stories.  Three stars.

Doing my monthly mathematics, I determine that the March F&SF garnered an impressive 3.8 stars.  Astronaut Glenn certainly could have whiled away the long pre-launch hours (not to mention all the previous scrubbed launches) with a lot worse reading material.

Next up…what’s likely to be worse reading material (but who knows?): the March 1962 Analog!

[September 20, 1961] Theme and Variations (October 1961 Fantastic)

As promised, a surprise article from a surprising source.  Victoria Silverwolf has been an asset to this column for three years, providing commentary that might as well have been an article in and of itself (not to mention being 95% in alignment with my views).  Imagine my joy when Ms. Silverwolf offered to contribute an article every month.  Since to date I have only been able to cover four of the six major science fiction digests, we decided that Vic’s greatest contribution would be in the coverage of another.  And so, for your viewing pleasure, a review of the October 1961 Fantastic from our newest Mistress of the Weird…


by Victoria Silverwolf

Greetings from the night side. Our esteemed host has invited me to step out of the shadows and offer some thoughts about the literature of the uncanny, of the unnatural, of the unimaginable.  Shall we proceed? Take my hand, and don’t be afraid of the dark.

Fantastic magazine – or, to use its complete title, Fantastic Stories of Imagination, not to be confused with Fantastic Adventures or Fantastic Universe — has had a checkered career during its nine-year lifetime.  Started as a publication dedicated to literate fantasy fiction, much like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it soon had to attract readers from its older sister, Amazing Stories, by printing more science fiction.  Unfortunately, low payment rates, the glut of science fiction magazines during the 1950’s, and indifference from management resulted in contents of poor quality. 

This situation showed signs of improvement a little less than three years ago when Cele Goldsmith, originally hired as a secretary and general assistant, rose to the position of editor for both magazines.  She has improved the quality of the publications by introducing readers to talented new authors such as Keith Laumer, Ben Bova, and David R. Bunch, as well as bringing Fritz Leiber out of retirement with a special issue of Fantastic featuring no fewer than five new stories from that master of speculative fiction.  It remains to be seen whether Goldsmith’s editorship will lift the magazines’ sales out of the doldrums.  One sign of hope is the fact that, for the first time since the Hugo Awards were initiated, Amazing Stories was nominated for Best Professional Magazine in 1960 and 1961.

With an optimistic mood, therefore, let’s take a look at the latest issue of the younger sibling.  By coincidence, it neatly divides into two halves, each dealing with a particular theme.

The first part of this issue involves the survival of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.  The cover art by Alex Schomburg (a Goldsmith favorite) for Robert F. Young’s novelette Deluge II might lead one to expect a simple retelling of the legend of Noah.  Fortunately, the story is much more complex than that. 

In a future world where most people have fled to the stars in the face of radiation storms, those who remain are of mixed race, except for a few stubborn whites who refuse to integrate.  Known as “apartheids,” these people barely survive like cavepeople, while the rest of the humanity lives in decadent luxury in Old York (formerly New York, now that there is another New York on a distant planet), the only city of any size left on Earth.  The radiation has left these people sterile, but with greatly extended lifetimes.

It should be noted here that all this background information is only revealed bit by bit over the course of the story, avoiding clumsy lumps of exposition.  Other speculative concepts, such as instantaneous teleportation anywhere on Earth, and “time windows” that allow one to view any event in the past, are introduced as the story progresses, and all prove to be relevant.

The plot begins with the protagonist, a man of mixed race who predicts that a gigantic flood is going to destroy all remaining life on Earth, coming across a female apartheid in the hunting preserve he owns.  Since trespassing on the preserve (and killing one of the animals for food) is punishable by death, he convinces her to become his mistress instead.  (In this society, this doesn’t necessarily imply anything sexual.  Wives and mistresses are both status symbols in a world which is even more patriarchal than out own.) In one of the story’s many ironies, the “pure white” woman has much darker skin than the mulatto protagonist, even though she addresses him with the harshest of all racial insults.

Much more happens in this darkly satiric tale, which rewards careful reading.  Three stars.

Humanity faces another crisis in The Mother, a reprint from 1938 by pioneer science fiction author David H. Keller, M.D.  (He always seemed to use his medical degree in his byline.) Appearing originally in a fanzine of very small circulation, this story is likely to be new to almost all readers.

Due to its age, I expected this to be a primitive example of “scientifiction” from the pre-Campbell era.  As predicted, it begins with the characters discussing their situation in an old-fashioned method of exposition.  The population of the Earth has been greatly decreased by an illness known only as the Mysterious Disease.  A man and woman of superior mental and physical health have been selected to produce dozens of offspring, as part of an effort to repopulate the planet with the best possible children.  The ending of this brief story is unexpectedly gentle and touching, raising it to two and one-half stars.

Since this issue contains the second half of Manly Banister’s novella Magnanthropus, I decided to play fair with the author and seek out a copy of the previous issue in order to read the entire story.  It turns out that the very detailed synopsis of the first half included in the new issue would have been sufficient. 

In the late twentieth century, a future of atomic cars and enforced leisure, a vast cataclysm brings Earth in collision with a planet from another dimension.  The protagonist, along with a young boy and a twenty-five-year old “girl,” makes his way across this bizarre new land in search of a mysterious man whom he is pursuing for reasons not even he understands.  All kinds of strange encounters result, from fairy-like butterfly people to an enclave of telepathic superhumans.  Some readers will enjoy the breakneck pace of this wild adventure.  It never bored me, but I found the plot too chaotic for my taste.  Two stars.

The second half of the issue deals with the familiar theme “crime does not pay.” In the oddly titled tale A Cabbage Named Sam, John Jakes offers us another decadent future, where there is no need to steal for wealth, so thieves practice their trade just for the glory of getting away with it.  A lower class man and an upper class woman set out to steal rare art from a luxurious mansion, which happens to be located at the gigantic, fully automated cabbage factory of its owner.  It isn’t long before the man winds up among the cabbages being processed into coleslaw.  If the intent is comedy, it’s very dark indeed.  Two stars.

“The Last Druid” by Joseph E. Kelleam provides proof that Fantastic hasn’t completely lost its roots in fantasy.  Set in the kind of magic-filled world that never existed except in the pages of Weird Tales, this is the story of two thieves who foolishly enter the domain of a druid to steal a giant ruby, as well as to ravish the beautiful white-skinned woman said to dwell there.  As you might expect, they pay for their nefarious intent.  This kind of tale depends on the author’s style to create an exotic and eerie mood.  Although not as elegant and witty as Leiber’s accounts of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, this journey into a supernatural setting is effective enough for its brief length.  Two and one-half stars.

We turn to another classic kind of fantasy, the horror story, in David Ely’s Court of Judgment.  Yet another warning against theft, this tale deals with a fellow who cheats another out of a valuable painting, which is said to carry a curse.  You won’t be surprised by anything that happens, but it’s quite well written.  Three stars.

Overall, this issue earns a respectable, if not outstanding, two and one-half stars.  There are no masterpieces to be found, but no worthless stories either.  The way in which the authors tackle similar themes in very different ways provides ample evidence that there is no limit to fantastic stories of imagination.

(I suspect Victoria’s 2.5 is a 3 for me.  After consultation with the author, I shall revise the Star score, if necessary.)

[January 29, 1961] Take a little off the bottom (February 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Greetings from sunny Kaua’i!  It seems like only yesterday I was reporting from this island’s idyllic shores.  Much has changed, of course–Hawai’i is now a state!  50 is a nice round number, so perhaps we won’t see any new entries into the Union for a while.

Accompanying me on this trip is the last science fiction digest of the month, the February 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  On a lark, I decided to read from the end, first.  In retrospect, I’m glad I did, but it certainly made the magazine a challenge.  You see, the stories at the end are just wretched.  But if you skip them (or survive them, as I did), the rest of the magazine is quite excellent.

Let’s get the drek over with straight-away, shall we?

Some unknown named C. Brian Kelly offers up the disgusting and sadistic The Tunnel, three pages about a vengeful cockroach that you need never read. 1 star.

Meanwhile, the normally excellent Robert F. Young offers the strangely prudish Storm over Sodom, which somehow rubbed me the wrong way all the way through.  2 stars.

Whew.  Now let’s go to the beginning and pretend the last 20 pages never happened. 

Brian Aldiss, who wrote the variable fix-up Galaxies like grains of sand is back with what I hope is the first in a series of tales about life on Earth in the very distant future.  Hothouse portrays a hot, steamy world dominated by vegetable life.  Indeed, a single banyan tree has become a global forest, and within it reside a myriad of mobile plant creatures that comprise almost all of the planet’s species.  Humanity is a savage race, clearly on the decline.  Their only hope, perhaps, will come from the outer space they once called their own domain. 

It’s a beautifully crafted world, the characters are vivid, and if the science stretches credulity, it does not entirely break it.  Five stars

Time was is a pleasant piece by Ron Goulart involving a homesick young woman, the trap that tries to lure her back to the 1939 of her childhood, and the dilettante detective of occult matters who tries to save her.  Four stars.

I’ve said before that Rosel George Brown is a rising star, and Of all possible worlds is my favorite story of hers yet.  A beautiful tale of an interstellar explorer and the almost-humans he meets on a placid, emerald-sand beach.  They seem to be primitives, but sometimes the end result of scientific progress is a pleasant, contemplative rest.  Anthropology, biology, love, and loss.  Five stars.

Marcel Ayme is back with his The Ubiquitous Wife, about a young woman who can multiply herself infinitely and thus live a thousand lives at once.  Like his other stories, it is droll and engaging.  The translator did a good job of conveying Ayme’s clever turns of phrase.  Three stars.

Theodore L. Thomas provides The Intruder, a subtle time travel story featuring a backpacker fishing trilobites at the dawn of the Devonian era.  In a nice touch, it turns out he is not the intruder; rather it is the little blot of algae that threatens to inevitably populate the fisher’s pristine, lifeless world.  Four stars.

Finally, we have Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Order, Order!, on the subject of entropy (the amount of energy unavailable for work; or the amount of disorder in the universe). It’s a topic that everyone knows something about, but few have a real handle on.  The Good Doctor does an excellent job of explaining this esoteric matter.  Four stars.

What a pity–if not for the two lodestones at the end of the issue, this would be a rate 4-star magazine.  Still, even with them, the score is a comfortable 3.5 stars, which makes F&SF the best digest of the month.  It also has the best story of the month: Hothouse.  Finally, it features fully 50% of the month’s woman authors; sadly, there are just two. 

See you on February Oneth–if NASA’s hopes are fulfilled, I will have an exciting Mercury Redstone mission to talk about!

[January 2, 1961] Closing out the month (the January 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

If you are in the accounting profession, you are familiar with the concept of “closing the books,” wherein you complete all your reconciliations and regard a month as finished.  Here at the Journey, Month’s End does not occur until the last science fiction digest is reviewed.  Thus, though the bells have already rung for the new year of 1961, December 1960 will not officially end until I get a chance to tell you about the latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

It’s an uneven batch of stories, but definitely worth wading through the chaff for the wheat.  Avram Davidson’s The Sources of the Nile combines both in roughly equal proportions.  The story begins with an encounter between the narrator, a down-on-his-luck writer, and a haggard old fellow who once was able to predict the whims of fashion with uncanny accuracy.  Is it precognition?  Time travel?  Excellent taste?  No–as the protagonist learns, the source of his success is a modest family in a modest apartment that just seems to know.  Next year’s popular books, next year’s clothing fads.  Well, the narrator is denied certain fortune when, after a glimpse of this locus of prescience, he loses contact with the family.  He is thus doomed, like the guy who tipped him off, to search the world for this holy grail.

Davidson has adopted an avante garde style these days.  At first, I was much impressed.  After a dozen pages of over-cute overexertion, I was tired of it.  I applaud innovation, but not at the expense of readability.  Three stars.

Then we have Vance Aandahl’s The Man on the Beach, sort of a poor man’s The Man Who Lost the Sea.  Aandahl is not Ted Sturgeon, and his short tale, of an astronaut who lost his ship to murderous aborigines, somehow misses the mark.  Two stars.

But then there’s the ever-reliable Cliff Simak with Shotgun Cure, in which an ostensibly benevolent alien visits a country doctor (how Cliff loves those rural settings!) and offers him a cure for every illness in the world.  There’s just one catch: it also lowers the intelligence of the cured.  What price health!  A fair idea told in excellent Simak style.  Four stars.

Charles De Vet’s The Return Journey is also worthy: What recourse exists when a colony of Terrans expands beyond the boundaries set by treaty with the native aliens?  Sometimes the winning move is never to have played.  Four stars.

Rehabilitated, by Gordon Dickson, is a cross between Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Sturgeon’s More than Human.  A fellow seems ill-suited for work in the modern (read: near future) era.  He is rescued from a life of crime by a do-gooder outfit that rigorously trains him for a new profession: planetary colonist.  But it turns out that he is wholly unqualified for the job, having an IQ of just 92.  What was the point, then?  The organization is actually a network of telepathic misfits, all suffering from some degree of mental illness, from instability to retardation.  Working together, they maintain a balance such that each member’s strengths compensate for another’s weaknesses.  The training for colonization was just a a sort of dry run.  I have “Three stars” listed in my notes, but upon reflection, I think I’ll bump it up to Four. 

This trio of excellence is followed by a twosome of mediocrity.  William Eastlake’s What Nice Hands Held is a story of romance, infidelity, poverty, status, and magical realism in an heterogeneous Indian lodge.  Again with the trying too hard.  The other is Robert Young’s silly Hopsoil, about Martians visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth and raising a most unusual crop in our oddly fertile soils.  Two stars for both.

Asimov’s article this month, Here it Comes, There it Goes, is a bit of a disappointment.  It’s a summary of one of the current fads in cosmology, the idea that matter is created and disintegrated continuously, and that’s how the Universe is, always has been, and always will be.  The Good Doctor’s arguments (which are, to be fair, not his) are not particularly compelling.  Three stars.

F&SF is trying out poetry again.  Lewis Turco’s A Great Grey Fantasy didn’t strike my fancy.  Perhaps it will strike yours.  Two stars.

Rounding out the issue is a tour de force from an author who has been on fire these days, Poul Anderson.  Time Lag is a gripping novelette of the attempted conquest of one Terran colony by another.  It is told from the point of view of Elva, a married mother from the peaceful, apparently pastoral planet of Vaynamo.  Her husband is killed and her village savaged by an advance party of Chertkonians lead by the ruthless Captain Bors.  Elva is forced into the position of Bors’ mistress, and while Bors is not particularly cruel about it, we are never made to forget that Elva is an unwilling partner. 

Interstellar travel is a relativistic affair in this story.  The journeys between Vaynamo and Chertkoi take fifteen years of objective time even though they take only weeks of subjective time.  Thus, Time Lag is told in a punctuated series.  Through Elva’s eyes, we get a glimpse of the overcrowded and polluted Chertkoi, stiflingly authoritarian and caste-conscious.  Elva is taken along for the second assault on Vaynamo, in which the capital is atomized from orbit.  She bravely confers with a captured general under the guise of extracting intelligence and learns that the Vaynamonians, possessed of a highly advanced science themselves (as one would expect; they did come from star-travelling stock), are not quite so helpless as the Cherkonians have surmised.  Elva uses her position as consort to the increasingly prestigious Bors to obtain a degree of succor for the Vaynamonian captives, though her efforts are never entirely successful. 

The third assault from Chertkoi is the last.  Thousands of ships, the fruits of the labor of billions of oppressed souls, are unleashed against Vaynamo, a planet with a population of just ten million.  Bors, now a Fleet Admiral, is certain of his victory.  But is it really assured?

What elevates this story above a simple good-versus-evil story is the parallel drawn between the planetary and personal conflicts.  Elva has been enslaved, but she has not been defeated.  Her strengths go far beyond the blatantly visible.  Bors never breaks her; in fact, Elva quickly becomes his master, though he is never aware of the fact.  Similarly, Vaynamo does not need to win by matching the vulgar rapacity of Cherkoi; rather, the world relies on compassion, deliberateness, and immense inner strength.

Time Lag is a refreshingly feminine story from a feminine viewpoint, something which Anderson has been getting pretty good at.  I appreciated that there was no suggestion of taint upon Elva for her plight.  Like Vaynamo, she endured violations and pain, but she emerged an unbroken heroine. 

Five stars.

That comes out to an aggregate of 3.25 stars making F&SF the winning digest for the month (IF was just behind at 3.2, and Analog trailed far behind at 2.5).  I think IF wins the best story prize, however, with Vassi, and IF certainly wins the “most woman authors” award, with two (the only ones to appear in all three magazines).

And now 1961 can truly begin!

[Oct. 30, 1960] Halloween Candy (the November 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Halloween around the corner, one might have thought that there would have been an extra spooky issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction this month.  Nothing doing.  The current issue is nothing extraordinary, if not completely forgettable.  Having covered the end novellette in my last article, it’s time to cover the rest of the magazine.

I’ve never heard of Vance Aandahl before, but his tiny It’s a Great Big Wonderful Universe, about a sad Terran who has everything but the planet he hails from, is a good aperitif.  Four stars.

Robert F. Young is up next with his Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used-Car Lot.  It’s a weird extrapolation and intersection of two trends: an increased sanction of promiscuity coupled with a perverse need to be armored against the world.  In this story, everybody, but everybody, is expected to wear their own personal automobile at all times.  To go without is to be shunned as a “nudist.”  It’s all very strange and allegorical, but too silly to be effective.  Once again, it’s not up to the standard set by his excellent To Fell a Tree, though I did appreciate that the protagonist was female, and the story’s focus on the very real difficulties they face vis. a vis. men and society.  Three stars.

Who dreams of Ivy? is another macabre piece by Will Worthington set in a world marred by institutionalized violence and fear.  I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it, or maybe there isn’t much to get.  Is there a message to this dark look at election season, where mayors live in constant fear for their lives, and thus take this fear out on their citizens?  I feel as if Sheckley’s Ticket to Tranai did it better and more humorously.  Three stars.

Next up is an old old reprint, Funk, by John W. Vandercook.  It’s a well-written if somewhat pedestrian tale of dark magic on the steamy coast of West Africa.  What happens when you build a bank vault right square on the spot where the Crocodile God slithers to devour its periodic sacrifices?  Nothing good, I assure you.  The closest we get to a seasonal ghost story.  Three stars.

I did quite enjoy Combat Unit, from newcomer Keith Laumer, in which a damaged but still-sentient robot tank finds itself behind enemy lines.  This is a fine portrayal of metallic, sexless intelligence.  Four stars.

Yes, we have no Ritchard, by Bruce J. Friedman (normally a writer for the slicks), is a cute tale about an usual afterlife situation.  There is a Heaven and a Hell, but no one goes to Heaven, and Hell isn’t so bad.  So how does one distinguish the good from the bad?  And what happens to the ego of a good man in such a demoralizing predicament?  Three stars.

Finally, we have Isaac Asimov’s latest non-fiction piece, The Element of Perfection.  As one might gather from the title, it’s on the discovery of Helium (and, incidentally, the other noble gases).  It’s one of my favorite articles from the good doctor–educational and entertaining.  Five stars.

No surprises this month: an F&SF that finishes slightly on the positive side of three stars.  You won’t regret the expenditure of 40 cents (quite reasonably, really), but I suspect you won’t find yourself returning to this issue very often, either.

Tomorrow, a sneak preview at the month of November!

[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!