Tag Archives: robert sheckley

[Oct. 17, 1962] It’s Always Darkest… (The November 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Ah F&SF.  What happened to one of my very favorite mags?  That’s a rhetorical question; Avram Davidson happened.  The new editor has doubled down on the magazine’s predilection for whimsical fantasy with disastrous (to me) results.  Not only that, but it’s even featuring fewer woman authors now than Amazing, of all mags.  I am shaking my head, wishing this was all some Halloween-inspired nightmare.  But no.  Here it is in black and white with a forty cent price tag.  Come check out this month’s issue…but don’t say I didn’t warn you:

The Secret Flight of the Friendship Eleven, by Alfred Connable

We all know astronauts are lantern-jawed, steely eyed, terse test-pilots.  Great for getting the job done, not so great for poetic inspiration.  Eleven is the tale of a corps of artistic types selected specifically so as to describe their journeys in more approachable terms.  But space has the last laugh.

Every so often, a brand new author knocks one out of the park on the first at bat.  This is not one of those cases.  For satire to work, it has to be clever, and this is just mundanely droll.  One star.

Sorworth Place, by Russell Kirk

It’s October, so ghost stories are thoroughly appropriate.  This one, however, set in a battered Scottish castle, is neither original nor particularly engaging.  Two stars.

Card Sharp, by Walter H. Kerr

I really have no idea what Kerr’s poem is about.  Even Davidson’s explanation is no help.  One star.

Hop-Friend, by Terry Carr

Thus begins about twenty pages of relative quality, an island of the old F&SF in a sea of lousiness.  Newish author Carr finds his feet with this sensitive and striking tale of first contact between Human and Martian.  Introverts can never fathom extroverts, and similarly, xenophobes find xenophiles, well, alien!  But extroverted xenophiles, even from different species, are birds of a feather.  Four stars (even if Carr’s Mars conforms more to older theories of the Red Planet’s atmosphere).

Pre-Fixing it Up, by Isaac Asimov

How many rods in a furlong?  How many grains in a pennyweight?  I have no idea…and with the metric system, it doesn’t matter.  The Good Doctor explains the ins, outs, and many merits of the new standard that lets you measure everything from an atom to a universe with a series of easily manipulated units.  Four stars.

Landscape With Sphinxes, by Karen Anderson

Back into the sea with a Sphinx-themed riddle: What earns four stars at its prime, two stars when it doesn’t try, and three stars most of the time?  The Anderson family of writers.  No matter how good an author one is, it takes more than a promising beginning to make a story.  Two stars for this third of a vignette.

Protect Me from My Friends, by John Brunner

There is a fine line between innovation and illegibility.  I read Brunner’s first person account of an overwhelmed telepath twice (it’s short), and I still don’t like it.  Two stars.

You Have to Know the Tune, by Reginald Bretnor

Another half tale from the fellow we know better as Grendel Briarton (of Feghoot “fame” — and that entry is truly bad this month).  Industrialist on the way to Africa hears a tale of the pied bassoonist of the veldt only to find it’s likely no legend.  Trivial.  Two stars.

The Journey of Joenes (Part 2 of 2), by Robert Sheckley

As any of my readers knows, no greater fan of Robert Sheckley walks the Earth.  His short stories are funny, thought-provoking, chilling, clever — by turns or all at once.  In the last decade, he wrote enough to fill six excellent collections, none of which will ever leave my library.

Where he falters is novels.  Somehow, Sheckley can’t keep the pace for 150 consecutive pages, and the result is, while never bad, never terrific.  Cases in point: Time Killer and The Status Civilization.  Bob seems to be cognizant of this weakness.  In his latest book, The Journey of Joenes he attempts to overcome it by writing a novel composed of short, somewhat independent narratives.  The result is something that is, to my mind, no more successful than his previous book-length works.  You may, of course, disagree.

Joenes is a pure satire, putatively written in a post-apocalyptic 30th Century Polynesian.  It details the life of Joenes, an American-born Tahitian power engineer, who is one of the few to survive the worldwide cataclysm.  The tale is told by others: Polynesian historians; excerpts from the memoirs of Joenes’ beatnik companion, Lum; edifying tales recorded anonymously. 

There is a plot — Joenes comes to the United States, winds up before a Court on the charge of sedition, is sentenced to a mental hospital for the Criminally Insane, flees to become a professor of Polynesian Cultural Studies, goes into government, and ultimately escapes nuclear anhilation.  This, however, isn’t the point.  Rather, we see our own modern culture through a mirror darkly, distorted not just as a satire of our society, but of legend in general.  The history of the United States is mixed liberally with that of Ancient Greece.  Historical and mythical personages are referenced with equal frequency.  It’s effectively done, essentially doing for 20th Century America what Homer did for 12th Century B.C. Greece.

Joenes is clearly an attempt by the author to make the philosophical treatise for the 1960s, the equivalent of Stranger in a Strange Land or Venus Plus X.  The satire is approachable, even for the layman, and there is some sex in it.  Whether it succeeds wildly like Heinlein’s piece or fizzles like Sturgeon’s, only time will tell. 

I can only speak for myself.  While Sheckley is always readable, I felt that the joke went on too long, particularly in the latter portions.  Perhaps I’m just too close to the subject matter he was aping.  In any event, I give Joenes three stars.  If this kind of thing is your bag, I suspect you’ll rate it more highly.

And that’s that for this month.  More disappointment in 130 pages than I’ve seen in a long time, if ever.  When I do the Galactic Stars next month, I’m certain F&SF won’t be on the list, and that saddens me.  Nevertheless, I hope against hope that this is just a phase, and the once proud digest will someday return to its former glory.  Time will tell…




[September 18, 1962] On the Precipice (October 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Are the times changing?

Summer threatens to change to Fall, and the kids are going off to high school and college.  Is this just another turn of the wheel, or are we on the verge of something different, what Historian of Science Thomas Kuhn might call a new “paradigm?”

I had this feeling once before.  In ’53, right after Korea, and after Stalin died, America seemed poised on the edge of an unprecedented era of stability.  Well, really stagnation.  The pendulum had swung heavily in the direction of conservatism.  Black soldiers had come home from the war and were being treated worse than ever.  Ditto women, who had for a while gotten to enjoy some of the rights of men while they were off to war.  The swing music from the prior two decades had gotten overripe and shmaltzy, only somewhat mitigated by the western, blues, and latin music I was able to tune into on nights with clear reception.  The one truly bright spot was science fiction, which had been booming since the late ’40s.

Then rock and roll hit, and boy was it a breath of fresh air.  Sure, you couldn’t hear Black songs on White stations, but there’s no color bar on the airwaves.  Fragile 78 records gave way to durable 45s.  The vacuum tube started to step aside for the transistor.  We were building the missiles that would soon blast us to orbit.  At the same time, sf started to wane.  We went from forty magazines to six over the course of the decade. 

This, then, has been the recent paradigm.  Here we are nine years later, but Elvis and the Everley Brothers still dominate the airwaves.  A new President has asked us what we could do for our country, not what it could do for us; tasking us to go to the Moon before the decade is out, but Black men must still fight even for the right to go to school or ride a bus in much of the nation.  There are now ten thousand Russian troops in Cuba and ten thousand American soldiers in South Vietnam, but are these transitory brush fires or the tip of a belligerent iceberg?

Are the 1960s going to be a continuation of the 1950s?  Or are we overdue for a new epoch?  You tell me.  I’m no soothsayer. 

I suppose in one way, the shift has already happened.  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has become quite different since new editor Avram Davidson took over earlier this year.  It’s not bad, exactly, but it has meandered even further into the literary zone.  This has rendered one of my favorite mags almost unreadable on occasion.  The October 1962 issue does not have this problem, for the most part, but it’s not great.

Enough dilly-dallying.  Here’s the review:

A Kind of Artistry, by Brian W. Aldiss

The son of a baroque and decadent far future Terra journeys across the galaxy to make contact with a most unusual alien intelligence.  Upon his glorious return, he must decide if he has the strength to break the stultifying conditioning of his inbred upringing.

Aldiss wishes he were Cordwainer Smith, and he just isn’t.  Nevertheless, despite some rough patches, there are some good ideas here.  The extraterrestrial has a wildly implausible biochemistry, but the meeting of species is genuinely gripping.  Three stars.

There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, by Robert F. Young

Overpopulation continues to be the theme of many of our current science fiction stories.  A common concept is the idea that excess population can be shipped to the stars, but as any student of history knows, neither England, Spain, France, Portugal, nor any other country ever became empty as a result of colonization.  We can’t expect spaceships to change that equation. 

Neither does Young.  His story is cute, if one-note, holding our interest for as long as the idea can be stretched.  Three stars.

Twenty-Four Hours in a Princess’s Life, With Frogs, by Don White

What if all the fairy-tale princesses were pals, all living together in Hans Christian Andersonville with intersecting storybook plotlines?  Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel… the whole neurotic gang of them.  Don White explores that possiblity in a clever, funny piece that makes me hope that Disney never tries to combine its franchises.  What a mess that would be!  Four stars.

Inquest in Kansas (A Modern American Ballad) by Hyacinth Hill

The unknown Ms. Hill (I understand she may be Virginia Anderson) has a poetic piece about a woman seduced from her home and family by a unicorn.  Whether you find it horrifying or liberating depends on how you infer her life history.  Two stars, as it didn’t grab me.

Measure My Love, by Mildred Clingerman

What a fascinating, almost excellent, but ultimately disappointing piece this was.  Dodie is a youngish spinster whose actress cousin, Althea, has a penchant for melodramatic love affairs.  When Althea’s irresistible romantic nature meets the immovable, unwinnable affections of a married man, Dodie takes her cousin to the local witch, Maude, to cure her of her of broken heart.  Turns out the “witch” is more than meets the eye, but it’s an open question whether or not her panoply of equipment can remedy Althea’s condition. 

Clingerman is one of the most seasoned veterans our field, and her work has a pleasantly old-fashioned tone to it — appropriate both for the era (just post-war) and the protagonist portrayed.  The story moves you along the plot, slowly unfolding things to maintain your interest.  What hurt Measure for me was that, near the end, Maude mentions that she might also be able to cure Dodie’s “little problem,” hitherto undiscussed but strongly hinted at.  But then the problem turns out to be something completely different from what I expected (given the close relationship of the cousins, and Dodie’s unending patience where things Althea-related are concerned). 

I wonder if I guessed wrong, or if the ending was changed at the editor’s insistence for being a bit too…unconventional.  Either way, it turned a four-star story into a three-star one.  I’m probably being unfair, but unsatisfying endings sit poorly with me.

Slow Burn, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor touches on one of my favorite scientific topics — the theory of Phlogiston and how its research eventually led to the discovery of oxygen.  It’s one of those fascinating models that almost but not quite got things right, like impetus theory in the 13th Century ultimately led to the concept of momentum.  I mentioned Kuhn’s “paradigms” earlier, and Phlogiston is a perfect example of the concept.  Four stars.

The Unfortunate Mr. Morky, by Vance Aandahl

One of my readers once said that Mr. Aandahl really wants to be Ray Bradbury.  Surely, there must be loftier goals.  In any event, this incomprehensible piece about the connection between time travel and the profusion of milquetoast personalities isn’t worth your time.  On the other hand, it’s only a few pages, so you might as well see why I gave it only one star (and perhaps you’ll disagree with me).

The Journey of Joenes (Part 1 of 2), by Robert Sheckley

At long last, Bob Sheckley has come back to us.  It’s my understanding that he’s been writing mainstream mysteries and such, which probably pays better than sf.  His latest work, which Editor Davidson says is a hacked up version of the novelized form due out later this year, follows the adventures of Joenes, an American ex-power engineer raised in Polynesia.  His pilgrimage to the Mainland to find his destiny is a series of satirical vignettes told from a foreign and futuristic perspective that turns the story into a kind of dark Canterbury Tales.

It’s a fun read, though I hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Sheckley is better at short stories than novels, so the format plays to his strengths.  I do have to wonder why F&SF prints chopped up novels to fill up half of two consecutive magazines.  I expect that of Ace Doubles, not a high-end digest.  Three stars so far.  We’ll see what happens.

And so we find ourselves on the other side of another issue.  On the face of things, it seems to reinforce the trend that F&SF is in a new and duller era.  Will we soon have enough data points to know if the larger world has changed, too?




[November 6, 1960] Take Five (Store of Infinity by Robert Sheckley)

There are few folks who have taken greater advantage of the Silver Age of science fiction (i.e. the Post-War boom and bust of the digests) than Robert Sheckley.  As of last month, the fellow had already published four collections of his works.  The beneficiaries of this production are Bob’s pocketbook…and every reader who gets hands on his stuff.  Sheckley’s mastery of the science fiction short story, whether straight, humorous, cynical, or downright horrific, is legendary.

Now, Notions: Unlimited, Sheckley’s fourth collection, just came out in June.  Moreover, I’d had reason to believe that November would be a month of slim pickings for new fiction.  Imagine my surprise (and delight!) at finding yet another Sheckley collection on sale.

This one, Store of Infinity, may be my favorite of them all.

All of the stories are reprints of magazine stories, and there are no clunkers in the bunch.  Going through in order, we have:

The Prize of Peril (May 1958 Fantasy and Science Fiction): In the near future, the most popular gameshow on television is a live manhunt.  At every turn, the fugitive is pursued not just by would-be killers, but also a camera crew and a vapidly excited host.  Can a contestant survive?  And what price victory?  The theme was recycled for a part of Sheckley’s recent novel, The Status Civilization.

The Humours (originally Join Now in December 1958 Galaxy): This rewrite is substantively similar to the original, but the premises are completely different.  In the future, it is possible to transfer parts of one’s personality to a perfectly realistic android.  In the original story, this was done to address a labor shortage on Mars and Venus; individuals would split their personalities in three to work on all of the solar system’s inhabited planets simultaneously.  In The Humours, the split is therapeutic, a remedy for Multiple Personality Disorder.  Both tales feature the journey of the “original” (at least, the personality piece inhabiting the human body) to reintegrate his brother personas.  A fun ride.

Triplication (May 1959 Playboy): A set of three humorous vignettes, the kind that are usually droll and forgettable.  Sheckley does it better.

The Minimum Man (June 1958 Galaxy): Who is best equipped to investigate a wild planet for colonization?  Not trained mercenaries, not seasoned jungle trekkers, not veteran explorers–for though they may survive the ordeal, their experience will not tell you if your average, civilization-softened settler can handle the place.  No, you want to send the least qualified pioneer possible.  If he can survive, anyone can.  Sounds like a silly premise, but it’s really a beautiful story of a clod, his robot, and an untamed world.  Probably my favorite piece of the book.

If the Red Slayer (July 1959 Amazing): When resurrection technology is perfected, what’s to keep a soldier from fighting forever in an endless war?  Nothing, apparently.  A bitter story with an ironically light touch; contrast with the jingoistic Dorsai! and Starship Troopers

The Store of the Worlds (September 1959 Playboy): Would you give up ten years of your life and your worldly possessions for a jaunt to an alternate Earth where all of your dreams have come true?  And just what kind of world would you have to have come from to make this trade appealing.  I tell you, Bob Sheckley is reason enough to get a subscription to Heffner’s magazine…you read it for the articles, don’t you?

The Gun without a Bang (June 1958 Galaxy): A silent weapon may be great for an assassin or a spy, but not so great against dumb animals.  After all, it is the loud report of a rifle as much as anything that scatters the wolfpack.  Still, a bangless gun can have some utility…  The weakest story of the collection, which is to say it gets three stars rather than four or five like the others.

The Deaths of Ben Baxter (July 1957 Galaxy): An excellent multiple-timeline story in which folks from a doomed future attempt to thwart their fate by adjusting the past.  The critical juncture involves the meeting of the same two men in three disparate settings (British, Hindu, and familiar New York).  My second favorite piece. 

4.5 stars.  Pick it up while you can!

[September 4, 1960] Flawed jewel (The Status Civilization, by Robert Sheckley)

Readers of my column know of my affection for Bob Sheckley’s work.  A fellow landsman, he has turned out a regular stream of excellent short stories over the past decade.  He’s already published four collections, and they are all worth getting.

But though Sheckley gets an A for his shorter works, his novel-writing talents earn him, at best, a B-.  He’s written two thus far, both of them novelizations of serials.  One was the tepid adventure, Timekiller.  The other, The Status Civilization, was serialized in Amazing earlier this year.  It just came out in book form; I’ll let my readers tell me if it’s been substantially changed.

The novel has a great hook: Will Barrent, age 27, wakes up from the deepest of sleeps to find he has no memories of his former existence, not even his name.  Then he is informed that he is guilty of a murder he can’t remember, and is sentenced, along with several hundred other mind-wiped criminals, to spend the rest of his days on the prison planet, Omega.

Like Devil’s Island and Australia, this convict-ruled place of exile is a society completely apart.  New arrivals start with the rank of peon, and only through a long period of virtual slavery can they rise in status.  Or they can get away with murder, literally, and take the fast elevator. 

Omega is a paradoxical hell world where evil is lauded, even canonized.  There is law, and it is strictly enforced.  And yet, status only comes when one successfully evades the law.  Usually, this involves surviving the punishments for transgression–generally some kind of public gladiatorial spectacle.  Of course Barrent (without much explanation) is able to survive these trials by combat and do quite well for himself.

Despite this, Barrent becomes increasingly confident that he is not a murderer, and this eventually lands him in the hands of an underground group of non-violent political criminals, whose goal is to somehow return to an Earth they know nearly nothing of.  Barrent is sent on a lone mission of reconnaissance to his forgotten homeworld, which turns out to be the mirror image of Omega, or perhaps just the other side of the same coin. 

The Status Civilization is an entertaining but unsatisfying read.  Stylistically, it feels unpolished, even rushed.  I see less of Bob Sheckley here and more of Murray Leinster on a bad day.  Whole episodes of the story are glossed over, particularly some potentially exciting action bits. 

Sheckley introduces us to a pair of fascinating worlds: Omega, where evil is lauded, and status is gained by murder; and Earth, where society is static, and status fixed.  Neither society is stable.  Both will fail at some point, though there is the suggestion that in their violent union, salvation might be found. 

These are topics worthy of significant elaboration, but Sheckley gives them rather minimal treatment.  Upon further reflection, I determined that he gave them the minimum treatment possible to effectively convey them.  I admire his economy of words (The Status Civilization is quite a short novel), but I was left feeling hungry for more.

Which brings us to an interesting literary question: need a story be further written if it accomplishes what it was made to do?  In this case, I’m going to say yes.  I think Sheckley could have had a masterpiece to his name with this one if he’d just put it through the ringer one more time.  It needs to either be longer or better-written. 

As it is, however, The Status Civilization is worth reading.  The questions it raises are compelling, even if they are incompletely answered by the author, and the writing, while workmanlike, is engaging.

3.5 stars.

[By the way, the World Science Fiction Convention is going on as we speak in Pittsburgh.  I’ll have a report on the con and the 1960 Hugo Awards in a few days.  If you are an attendee, please feel free to add your anecdotes!]

[June 16, 1960] Skimming the Cream (Robert Sheckley’s Notions: Unlimited)

As a rule, I don’t review anthologies.  By definition, they are composed of stories already published elsewhere, and since I cover the magazines regularly, chances are I’ve already seen most of an anthology’s contents.

I make an exception for Bob Sheckley.

Sheckley is the master of the science fiction short story.  They are sometimes humorous, sometimes terrifying, never bad.  And since the novel I’d planned on reading, Mark Clifton’s Eight Keys to Eden bored me right out of the gate, I gratefully picked up a copy of Sheckley’s new anthology Notions: Unlimited.

Here’s what I found:

Gray Flannel Armor features a young man within whom, behind his drab gray exterior, beats a heart yearning for romance.  This cute little story gives a sneak preview into the world of commercially arranged dating.  It’s a cynical story, but not so much as his earlier works dealing with romance.  This makes sense: it was published in 1957, after his marriage to his second wife.

The Leech, and Watchbird are of a kind, though their plots differ widely.  In each, a problem is presented, a solution is found, and it then turns out that the solution makes everything worse.  Both are older stories.  The former is better than the latter.

A Wind is Rising is a good, evocative piece about a colonist who gets stuck out of shelter during one of its frequent super-hurricanes.  As someone who used to live in the windy desert, where sandstorms would turn the landscape into something from Mars, I can empathize with his situation.

Morning After deals with one of my favorite subjects of science fiction: just what will we all do for a living once everything has been mechanized?  In this case, we all become freelance voters, tossing our ballot for the candidate who schmoozes us the most.  And when that ceases to be of sufficient interest, we go elsewhere…

Native Problem is a fun story in the classic silly Sheckley mold.  A social misfit decides to colonize his own planet on the frontier.  His life is a lonely paradise until a new bunch of colonists, arriving via generation ship sent out decades before, makes planetfall. 

Feeding Time is another older story, a very short piece about a young, inexperienced bibliophile who takes up gryphon-rearing.  As is well known, the gryphon feeds only on young virgins.  The results are… predictable.

I’d never read Paradise II before, about a pair of space explorers who come across a planet rendered lifeless by biological warfare, such destruction being triggered by intense resource competition, particularly squabbling over limited food stocks.  Upon investigating a station orbiting around the planet, one of them is absorbed by the structure’s brain, and the other finds himself a linchpin solving the planet’s food problem.  It’s a dark story, and rather ridiculous, a little bit like what Ellison has written late last decade.

Back to the fun ones, Double Indemnity involves an unscrupulous time traveller attempting to collect on a particular clause of his insurance that pays out when one finds oneself duplicated in the course of a chronological excursion.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is a pleasure to read.

Almost all of these stories came out in Galaxy, Sheckley’s prefered home, so I was surprised to discover that the next one, Holdout was published in F&SF.  It involves a dramatically multi-racial crew, and the one intolerant fellow who refuses to work with a person of a particular ethnic background.  Of course, the mystery of the story, not revealed until the end, is the identity of that ethnicity. 

Dawn Invader, another F&SF story, pits a human and an alien against each other in symbolic mental combat.  It’s a bit like Ellison’s The Silver Corridor, which had been published in Infinity the year before, but with a happier ending.  I like happy endings–they are harder to write.

Finally, we have the excellent The Language of Love, in which a young suitor refuses to marry his sweetheart until he can find the exact words to express his feelings toward her.  The punchline is hilarious, and it has been much bandied about my household ever since my wife and I read it.

Of the four collections Sheckley has published to date, Notions may be my least favorite.  That is not to say it is bad; it’s just his least good.  It’s still well worth reading, and I zoomed through it quite quickly and enjoyably.

[Feb. 23, 1960] Cepheid Oscillations (March 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

From the depths of mediocrity to the peaks of quality, it looks like our long literary winter may finally be over.  Perhaps the groundhog didn’t see a shadow this year.

First, we had an uncharacteristically solid Astounding.  This month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction is similarly exceptional without a clunker in the bunch, and some standouts besides.

I used to see Poul Anderson’s name and cringe.  The author who had impressed me so much with 1953’s Brainwave turned out consistent dreck for the next several years, though to be fair, he generally did so within the pages of Campbell’s magazine, not Boucher’s.  A couple of years ago he got back into his groove, and his stuff has been generally quite good again. 

He has the lead novella in the March F&SF, The Martyr, set in a far future in which humanity has met a race of clearly superior psionicists.  We are so jealous of these powers, and the possessors so unwilling to give up their secrets, that a small human contingent takes several aliens prisoner to coerce the secrets of psi out of them.  But what if it’s a secret better left unrevealed?

It’s a beautiful story, but there is nastiness here, and it can be a rough read in places.  It is no less recommended for that, however.  Just giving fair warning.

Ray Bradbury is an author I’ve never held in much regard, but his Death and the Maiden, about a withered rural crone who shuts herself in an ancient house in defense against mortality, isn’t bad. 

It doesn’t even suffer too badly when compared to Ted Sturgeon’s subsequent Like Young, perhaps because the subject matter is so different (Ray was less successful when both he and Ted wrote mermaid stories in quick succession, Ted’s being, by far, the superior.) In Sturgeon’s tale, the last surviving 504 humans, rendered sterile by radiation, decide to give their race a kind of immortality by planting cultural and scientific relics so as to bootstrap humanity’s evolutionary successor.  The joke is on us in the end, however.

John Collier’s Man Overboard is an atmospheric piece about a dilettante sea captain pursuing an elusive sea-going Loch Ness Monster.  It feels old, like something written decades ago.  I suspect that is a deliberate stylistic choice, and it’s effective.

Then we have a cute little Sheckley: The Girls and Nugent Miller, another story set in a post-atomic, irradiated world.  Is a pacifist professor any match against a straw man’s Feminist and her charge of beautiful co-eds?  The story should offend me, but I recognize a tongue permanently affixed to the inside of the cheek when I see one.

Miriam Allen DeFord has a quite creepy monster story aptly called, The Monster, with an almost Lovecraftian subject (the horror in the cemetery that feeds on children) but done with a more subdued style and with quite the kicker of an ending.

The Good Doctor (Isaac Asimov) is back to form with his non-fiction article on the measuring of interstellar distances, The Flickering Yardstick.  I must confess with some chagrin that, despite my astronomical education, I was always a bit vague on how we learned to use Cepheid variable stars to compute galactic distances (their pulsation frequency is linked to their brightness, which allows us to determine how far away they are).  Asimov explains it all quite succinctly, and I was gratified to see a woman astronomer was at the center of the story (a Henrietta Leavitt).


“Pickering’s harem,” the computers of astronomer Edward Pickering (Leavitt is standing)

Avram Davidson has a fun one-pager called Apres Nous wherein a dove is sent to the future only to return wet and exhausted with an olive leaf in its mouth.  I didn’t get the punchline until I looked up the quote in a book of quotations.

The remainder of the issue is filled with a most excellent Clifford Simak novella, All the Traps of Earth, in which a centuries-old robot, no longer having a human family to serve, escapes inevitable memory-wiping and repurposing by fleeing to the stars.  We’ve seen the “robot as slave” allegory before in Galaxy’s Installment Plan.  In fact, it was Cliff, himself, who wrote it, and I remember being uncomfortable with his handling of the metaphor in that story. 

I had no such problems this time—it’s really a beautiful story of emancipation and self-realization, by the end of which, the indentured servant has become a benevolent elder.  A fine way to end a great issue.

So pick up a copy if you can.  At 40 cents (the second-cheapest of the Big Four), it’s a bargain.


“Spacecraft landing on the Moon” – cover artwork without overprinting – Mel Hunter

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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[Jan. 14, 1960] Twin Stars (February 1960 Galaxy)

Galaxy editor Horace Gold is hard up for writers these days now that he’s cut payment rates.  In this month’s (February 1960) editorial, he notes that he’s getting all kinds of low-quality stuff, and would these would-be authors please try reading a scientific journal or two to get better ideas!

Be that as it may, thus far, this double-sized issue of Galaxy is quite enjoyable.  I’m splitting the book into two columns so as not to overwhelm you and give you a chance to follow along at home.

Bob Sheckley has a new story out: Meeting of the Minds.  I think I’ve mentioned in an earlier column how one of my best friends has a profound aversion to stories involving a take-over of the body a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.  He’d have to give Meeting a miss, because that’s its central theme: the bug-like Quedak, psychic coordinator for the extinct hive-mind species of Mars, hitches a ride back to Earth where he intends to conduct a similar conquest. 


Dick Francis

While Bob tends to write in a flip sort of way, he also is capable of some downright creepy prose.  I particularly like how the Quedak is portrayed in glances through other characters’ eyes.  The use of limited viewpoints is quite effective.  Moreover, it would be interesting to viscerally feel what a bird or pig or other human feels, were the cost not losing one’s individuality to a hive-mind.

Unsettling, but good.

Margaret St. Clair has been a busy bee, with stories appearing both here and in IF this monthThe Nuse Man is a shaggy dog story about a brick salesman from the future, and how he ran afoul of political intrigue in ancient Mesopotamia. You won’t remember it long after you read it, but you will enjoy it.


Wallace Wood

Newcomer James Stamers is another author who is filling the pages of two Golden magazines in one month. Dumbwaiter is cute, but eminently forgettable (clearly, as I had to rack my brain for several minutes to remember what it was about!) It opens, excitingly enough, with a master smuggler attempting to secret an extraterrestrial animal through customs.  That half of the story is a pleasant cat and mouser.  The remainder, wherein the animal turns out to be a sort of eager-to-please teleport, who charms the smuggler’s fiancée by bringing her numerous treasures, is not as engaging.


Dillion

Finally, in The Day the Icicle Works Closed, we have a solid extraterrestrial whodunit by Fred Pohl featuring body-swapping, kidnapping, politics, and a reasonably compelling detective.  It starts out rather prosaic, but the pace accelerates as the pieces fit together, and the end is worth waiting for.  I shan’t spoil any more in the event you want to take a crack at some armchair sleuthing.


Dillon

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll discuss Willy Ley, Zenna Henderson (two women in one Galaxy!) and more.

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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[Nov. 6, 1959] In someone else’s skin for a while (December 1959 Galaxy)

Whenever I read the book review columns by Floyd Gold, Damon Knight, Groff Conklin, etc., or the science articles by Willy Ley and Isaac Asimov, I’m always as fascinated by the little personal details they disclose as the information and opinions they provide.  It’s a glimpse into their lives that humanizes their viewpoint.  Anecdotes make fun reading, too.

Since I assume all of my readers (bless the five of you!) feel similarly, otherwise why bother reading my column, I thought I’d share a little bit about how information gets into my brain prior to article composition.

My issues all come by mail subscription now as it is significantly cheaper than buying them on the newsstand and more consistent.  It means I’m no longer hunting the newsstands for other magazines, but now that there are so few active digests, this seems the best way to go. 

I have an evening ritual that I’ve preserved since my teen years, particularly in the Fall and Winter when the sun sets early.  After coming home from work, the rays of sunlight slanted sharply against my driveway, I pull out my portable radio and a beverage, rest my back against a tree or lamppost, and read until the sun dips below the horizon.  Here in Southern California, we get a nice mix of White, Negro, and Latin stations, so I can listen to all the latest Rock ‘n Roll and Rumba as well as the insipid croonings of Paul Anka and Pat Boone.  It makes for a delightful half hour of escape from the real world better than M, reefer, or any other drug you’d care to mention.

What have I been reading, you ask?  This bi-month’s issue of Galaxy, of course—December 1959 to be exact.  Galaxy is the most consistent of the four magazines to which I have subscriptions, generally falling in the upper middle of the pack.


EMSH

As always, I started with Willy Ley’s column.  I’m impressed that after ten years of writing, he still finds interesting topics to teach about.  In this one, he discusses the (probably) extinct Giant Sloth and the efforts naturalists have made over the centuries to learn more about the creature.  I love paleontology, so it was right up my alley.  By the way, for the overly curious, this piece I read while soaking in a nice hot bath over the weekend.

Leading the book is Robert Sheckley’s newest, Prospector’s Special.  The setting is Venus , where a handful of hardscrabble miners brave the blazing heat and sandwolves of the Venusian deserts in the hopes of finding a vein of Goldenstone.  It’s one of those stories where the protagonist runs into worse and worse luck and has to use wits to survive to the end, which has a suitably happy ending.  Bob is invariably good, particularly at this kind of story, and I polished this one off in the same aforementioned bath. 


DILLON

Rosel George Brown continues to be almost good, which is frustrating, indeed.  Her Flower Arrangement is the first-person narrated story of a rather dim housewife and how the bouquet she and her kindergartener made turned out to unlock the secrets of the universe.  It comes from a refreshing female perspective, but it’s just a bit too silly and affected to work well. 


DILLON

Con Blomberg’s only written one other story, and that one appeared in Galaxy two years ago.  His Sales Talk is interesting, about two salesmen who try to sell a recalcitrant unemployed fellow on the joys of living vicariously through the taped memories of others.  The would-be mark makes a compelling argument against the dangers of becoming a worthless consumer.  There is, of course, a twist, which I half-predicted before the end. 

There’s an interesting point to the story.  In the first place, it predicts a “post-scarcity” economy.  Let me explain: There are three sectors to the economy.  They are Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Service.  Until a few hundred years ago, Agricultural was far and away the dominant sector, with most people relying on subsistence farming.  Then the Industrial Revolution hit, and the peasants moved to the city to work on the assembly line, while farming became more and more mechanized, requiring fewer people.  As industry became more efficient, the Service sector grew—waiters, courtesans, attorneys, doctors, advertisers, artists, etc. 

But what happens when industry and agriculture become fully mechanized?  What if robots take over the Service sector?  What is left for humans to produce?  The world only has so much need for art, music, politics, and religion.  In a post-scarcity economy, most of us will become consumers, so the more pessimistic predictions go.  And all we’ll do all day is lie around living other people’s dreams, predicts Blomberg.


MORROW

Is the idea that plugging oneself into a memory-tape machine, experiencing all five senses and the feelings of the original senser, all that different from watching a film or reading a good story?  After all, both take you out of reality for a while, make you feel along with the protagonists.  When full “Electronic Living” becomes possible, will it really be a revolution or just evolution?  Food for thought.

That’s what I’ve got so far.  Stay tuned soon for further reviews of this extra-thick magazine.  You’ll next hear from me in sunny Orlando, Florida!


Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.
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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Ol’ Reliable (April 1959 Galaxy, First Part; 2-02-1959)

Reading Galaxy is like coming home.

Galaxy is the only science fiction magazine that I have bought consistently since its inception.  For nine years, I have read every story, enjoyed every Willy Ley article, perused every Bookshelf column, reviewed every Gold editorial.

There are some who say that Galaxy’s heyday was the first half of this decade, and that the story quality has deteriorated some (or perhaps the content simply isn’t as revolutionary as once it was).  Editor Gold is famously exacting and difficult to work with, and now he’s paying less for content.  The magazine is down to a bimonthly schedule, and Gold is still suggesting there might be a letters column (padding at best, a slog at worst).

And yet…

Galaxy is consistent.  I rarely feel as if I’ve suffered when I close its pages.  I haven’t read any offensive Garrett or Silverberg stories in Gold’s magazine, and the Leiber stories Gold publishes are the good ones.  When Bob Sheckley appears in print, it’s usually in Galaxy.  Of course, this consistency results in a kind of conservatism.  The tone of the magazine has not changed in a decade even though the world around it has changed significantly.  It is not a liability yet, but as new authors and new ideas arise, I hope Galaxy can adapt to fit our new science fiction culture.

Enough blather.  My April 1959 Galaxy has arrived, and it’s time to tell you about it!

As usual, I’ve done a lot of skipping around.  My practice is to eat dessert first (i.e. the authors I know and love) and then proceed to the main course. 

First up was Ley’s excellent, if dry, article on the Atlantic Missile Range.  These days, you can’t go a week without hearing about some new missile launch, and the twin but not identical facilities of Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base are usually the launch point.  Ley gives a detailed account of his experiences witnessing a recent Atlas test.  It is a good behind-the-scenes.  Ley also describes “failures” philosophically explaining that they are always learning experiences even when they don’t achieve their mission objective.  Easy for engineers to understand, not so easy for those who hold the purse-strings.

I then, of course, jumped to “Finn O’Donnevan’s” (Robert Sheckley’s) The Sweeper of Loray.  Unscrupulous Earther wants to steal the secret of immortality from a race of “primitives” and gets more than he bargained for.  It’s a dark tale, especially the betrayal at the hands of his partner for the sake of preserving a thesis (similar in concept if not execution to Discipline by Katherine St. Clair). 

J.T. McIntosh can always be relied on to turn out a good yarn, and his Kingslayer does not disappoint.  Terran spacer has an accident while ferrying royal tourists and ends up in an alien pokey.  Can he get out?  Does he even want to?  The story does rely on a bit of silliness to keep the reader in the dark about the spacer’s fate until the very end, but it’s worth reading naytheless.

Finally for this installment, there is Cordwainer Smith’s When the People Fell.  The title says it all, but you’ll have to read the story to understand what it means.  The Chinese figure prominently in this tale of Venusian colonization, which should come as no surprise when you know that Smith is one of the world’s premier sinologists and godson of none other than Sun Yat-Sen!  A haunting story, it is also a commentary on the Chinese people and government… as well as a cautionary tale.  I don’t know if Chairman Mao would approve.

That’s that for now.  More in two days, like clockwork!



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February 1959 Galaxy Wrap-up (12-16-1958)

At long last, the February 1959 Galaxy is done, and I can give my assessment of the new bi-monthly format.  It is likely that this issue was composed of material the editor, Mr. Gold, had accumulated before the decision to reduce the number of annual issues.  Therefore, the real proof of the pudding will happen when the next issue comes out in the first week of February next year. 

Two stories remained to be read when last you saw me.  One is by newcomer, Ned Lang, whose short story, Forever is about the peril one faces when one has developed the world’s first immortality serum.  Or, at least, when one thinks he/she is the first.  It’s not a bad story, and it has a cute ending, but the writing has a certain clunkiness to it.  I suppose allowances have to be made for neophytes, especially ones working for a penny-and-a-half a word.

The other story, a novella by J.F. Bone called Insidekick, is quite good.  This is, in part, because it turns a genre on its head.  Thanks to people like Bob Heinlein, the “Body Snatcher” trope is well-known: Evil, amorphous alien insinuates itself into its host human and turns it into a hollow shell.  In particularly gory instances, the parasite eats its host like the larvae of the Digger Wasp.  I have a friend who is relatively immune to the most nauseating of phenomena, but show him a movie about bodysnatching beasts, especially when they enter through cranial orifices, and he fairly faints.

In Insidekick, however, the symbiont is charitable rather than menacing.  The Zark, as it is known, only wishes to help its host survive as best it can, for in doing so, the chances of success for both host and symbiont is maximized.  The host, in this case, is a government agent by the name of Johnson, who is investigating a corrupt interstellar corporation under suspicion of growing tobacco illegally for profit on the planet Antar.  Johnson is quickly fingered, and he certainly would not have lasted long were it not for the happy accident of his meeting with the Zark, a native to Antar.  As the union of the two creatures occurs while Johnson is unconscious, he is unaware of the relationship.

The results, however, quickly become obvious.  In Bone’s story, all humans have a certain degree of psionic potential.  Practitioners of psi, on the other hand, are universally psychotic and, thus, only marginally useful.  The Zark unlocks Johnson’s psionic potential without precipitating any nasty psychological effects.  Johnson gradually realizes he has become a telepath and has the ability to teleport.  Telekinetic and precognitive ability follow soon after.  With his newfound skills, he is able to evade death and take down the criminal organization.

What makes the story so fun is how nice the Zark is.  Who wouldn’t want a benevolent guardian angel living inside him/her, and thus enjoy a panoply of superpowers?  Better yet, there is no sting in the story’s tail.  Johnson isn’t doomed to die prematurely; it doesn’t turn out the Zark is really planning on eating Johnson; the Zark isn’t part of an alien invasion.  The story simply is what it is—the happy tale of a man and his symbiont.  The only weakness is the two-page coda, which feels tacked on. 

If I did not know that Bone is a real flesh-and-blood person, I’d think he was a cover for Bob Sheckley (who also appeared in this issue, finishing up Timekiller).  Insidekick has that same light, pleasant touch.

To wrap things up, let’s give the new giant-sized Galaxy a final score.  Timekiller was decent, Installment Plan was flawed and disturbing in its politics, but the rest of the magazine ranged from good to quite good.  Let’s call it three out of five stars. 

And good news!  I managed to secure a copy of F&SF.  Stay tuned!

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