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[May 11, 1962] Unfixed in the Heavens (The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg)


by Gideon Marcus

A hundred and fifty years from now, the stars are finally attainable.  With the invention of a reliable and quick interstellar drive, the galaxy is now ripe for colonization.  But humanity is too fat and happy to leave the nest; the world government is forced to conscript candidates to become unwilling pioneers.  Six thousand men and women are sent on sixty starships every day toward some farflung world.  The goal: to ensure that the human race can be spread as widely as possible.

This is the premise of Robert Silverberg’s newest piece, a short novel published in the :June 1962 Galaxy called The Seed of Earth.  It’s really two novellas in one, the first half dealing with the lives of four conscriptees as they are selected and prepared for departure, and the second half about what happens to them once they reach their destination. 

Seed has an interesting, complicated history.  The second part originally appeared in the May 1957 issue of Venture as The Winds of Siros.  In this story, two newlywed colonist couples are abducted from their settlement by voyeuristic aliens who lock them in a cave and watch the emotional drama ensue.  After the four escape, the women determine that they were with the wrong men and change partners.  It’s all supposed to be rather daring and progressive.

Venture was a short-lived companion to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, designed to be a “more adult” alternative to F&SF.  What this really meant was more stories about sex, and since the stories were almost exclusively written by men (and modern society being what it is), there were a lot of demeaning, disturbing pieces in Venture

The example that turned me off of the magazine was, in fact, also by Robert Silverberg.  Called Eve and the Twenty-three Adams (March 1958), it featured an all-stag starship crew and the lone woman included on the roster to “service” them.  When she expressed reluctance at her role, she was drugged into submission for the duration of the flight.  It was all very light-hearted, just a rollicking tale.  Like Garrett’s Queen Bee.

Silverberg’s difficulty with the concept of feminine agency was also evident in Siros (and thus, in Seed).  The male colonists get to choose whom they want to marry from among the female colonists, and while the women have the right of refusal for the first few rounds, all of them must end up with someone, ultimately.  Now, as Siros plays out, we see that the system is not particularly rigid and, in the end, the woman colonists do have some choice in the matter.  But it’s informal, and it’s at the sufferance of the men.  Hardly an equal situation.

In fact, there is a strong streak of puritanical prudishness in Seed.  At one point, a woman’s pregnancy is described as “a lapse in virtue.”  I recognize that Silverberg’s intent was to show that our current (late 50’s/early 60’s) morality is antiquated and needs to be shaken up.  Hence, the laudable plot elements of wife-swapping and polyamory that form the core of Siros/Seed Part 2.  But it just doesn’t seem plausible that Earth of 2117 would be exactly as, if not more, conservative as modern day, and that only by unleashing humans on a raw world can they undo the straitjacket. 

Seed’s first part was added to Siros to make the piece long enough for publication as a stand-alone novel.  Ballantine and Doubleday, the “respectable” s-f publishers, rejected it.  H.L. Gold, Galaxy’s editor, accepted Seed for its paperback series (I reviewed one of them: the excellent The City in the Sea), but the series was discontinued before Seed saw print.  Ultimately, it ended up in the magazine proper.

Part One of Seed isn’t bad: a quartet of reasonably interesting character portraits with a bonus view through the eyes of the fellow tasked with finalizing the crew selections.  The characterization is better in this half, which makes sense – the Silverberg writing Part One was older than the one who wrote Part Two.  The problem here isn’t so much the writing or the flow.  It’s the flaws in the fundamental premise.  In Seed, forced emigration has gone on for a generation.  Are there really hundreds of thousands of habitable planets within 30 light years of Earth ripe for colonization without any need for protective technology or planetary engineering?  Are there even that many planets?  Does it make sense to invest just one hundred strangers in a colony rather than shipping more than one load to a promising destination? 

And how is it plausible that a draft for colonization is even required?  To all accounts, Silverberg’s world is no utopia – in fact, it seems hardly different from our current one, societally and technologically.  Surely there would be 2,190,000 immigrant candidates out of billions every year.  Contrast Seed with Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky – there, one was lucky if one could leave Earth. 

The Seed of Earth is ultimately a rather unsuccessful “fix-up” story.  The beginning doesn’t flow well into the end, and neither portion rings very true.  I’d charitably give three stars to the first part and two to the second, for an aggregate of 2.5 stars.  That’s probably overgenerous, but I can give Silverberg credit for the effort, at least.

[Jan. 28, 1960] But how do you really feel? (February 1960 Astounding)

I’ve devoted much ink to lambasting Astounding/Analog editor John Campbell for his attempts to revitalize his magazine, but I’ve not yet actually talked about the latest (February 1960) issue.  Does it continue the digest’s trend towards general lousiness?

For the most part, yes.  Harry Harrison’s serial, Deathworld, continues to be excellent (and it will be the subject of its own article next month).  But the rest is uninspired stuff.  Take the lead story, What the Left Hand was Doing by “Darrell T. Langart” (an anagram of the author’s real name—three guess as to who it really is, and the first two don’t count).  It’s an inoffensive but completely forgettable story about psionic secret agent, who is sent to China to rescue an American physicist from the clutches of the Communists.

Then there’s Mack Reynold’s Summit, in which it is revealed that the two Superpowers cynically wage a Cold War primarily to maintain their domestic economies.  A decent-enough message, but there is not enough development to leave much of an impact, and the “kicker” ending isn’t much of one.

Algis Budrys has a sequel to his last post-Apocalyptic Atlantis-set story called Due Process.  I like Budrys, but this series, which was not great to begin with, has gone downhill.  It is another “one savvy man can pull political strings to make the world dance to his bidding” stories, and it’s as smug as one might imagine.

The Calibrated Alligator, by Calvin Knox (Robert Silverberg) is another sequel featuring the zany antics of the scientist crew of Lunar Base #3.  In the first installment in this series, they built an artificial cow to make milk and liver.  Now, they are force-growing a pet alligator to prodigious size.  The ostensible purpose is to feed a hungry world with quickly maturing iguanas, but the actual motivation is to allow one of the young scientists to keep a beloved, smuggled pet.  The first story was fun, and and this one is similarly fluffy and pleasant. 

I’ll skip over Campbell’s treatise on color photography since it is dull as dirt.  The editor would have been better served publishing any of his homemade nudes that I’ve heard so much about.  That brings us to Murray Leinster’s The Leader<.  It is difficult for me to malign the fellow with perhaps the strongest claim to the title “Dean of American Science Fiction,” particularly when he has so many inarguable classics to his name, but this story does not approach the bar that Leinster himself has set.  It’s another story with psionic underpinnings (in Astounding!  Shock!) about a dictator who uses his powers to entrance his populace.  It is told in a series of written correspondence, and only force of will enabled me to complete the tale.  There was a nice set of paragraphs, however, on the notion that telepathy and precognition are really a form of psychokinesis. 

I tend to skip P. Schuyler Miller’s book column, but I found his analysis of the likely choices for this (last) year’s Hugo awards to be rewarding.  They’ve apparently expanded the scope of the film Hugo from including just movies to also encompassing television shows and stage productions, 1958’s crop being so unimpressive as to yield no winners. 

My money’s on The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

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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[Dec. 17, 1959] Same ol’ Same ol’? (January 1960 Astounding)

There are times that I feel I could trot out the same Astounding review every month.  It would go something like this:

“Editor John Campbell continues to showcase Human-First, psionic stories with young male protagonists and virtually no female characters.  The table of contents features Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, and Murray Leinster.  Yet again, the magazine is a disappointment.”

For the most part, the above summary would serve this month, but there is a kicker at the end of this review.

Skipping the first part of a serial by a fellow of whom I’ve never heard (a Harry Harrison), the issue opens up with one of Murray Leinster’s weaker outings, Attention Saint Patrick.  Leinster is often excellent, but in this one, he’s just boringly droll, telling the story of an Irish space colony that relies on giant serpents to control its vermin problem—in this case, little dinosaurs with diamond teeth. 


by Bernklau

Then we have the truly ridiculous A Rose by Other Name, a Chris Anvil story about how the removal of military and jingoistic jargon from our vocabulary makes it impossible to go to war.  Not good.

Campbell has tried to make his magazine more respectable by including a slick paper non-fiction segment starting this month.  Frank Foote and Arthur Shuck penned Solid Plutonium Headache about the technical and physical difficulties associated with working this dangerous radioactive material.  A more boring article I have never read, which is a shame because there’s nothing wrong with the subject matter.  Until Campbell finds himself an Asimov or a Ley, I think his non-fiction section won’t be worth much—particularly as the slick paper is not at all absorbent.

Poul Anderson’s The Burning Bridge, about a fleet of interstellar colony ships on a 40-year trip to settle a new world, is decent.  Recalled by Earth nearly a few years into their flight, the fleet’s Admiral must determine whether or not they will return or press on.  The cast is nicely international, and women play an important (though oddly segregated) part.


by Bernklau

Then we have The Garrett, in this case Viewpoint.  A fellow dreams himself into the future and discovers a strange new world before snapping back to his original time.  The now-typical Randallian gimmick is that the person is a famous figure from the past, and the destination is now-ish.  It’s not as bad as it could have been, but Garrett loses a star just for being Garrett.

Finally, we have The Silverberg: Stress Pattern.  This story is hard to rate because there are really two things going on here.  On one hand, we have the story of a sociologist and his assistant wife (no doubt inspired by Bob Silverberg’s wife and partner, Barbara) and the slow unraveling and subsequent recovery of their lives.  The characterization and writing are quite good, and I was carried along for the entirety of the tale’s 30 pages.

On the other hand, in the end, the story is a rather ham-fisted argument against the leveling qualities of increased socialism (small “s”) and social welfare.  The message of the story is that while we might keep the lower classes fat and happy, the secure smart people are just going to get bored and restless.  While such an argument could be made against a uniform public school curriculum, and while in true Socialism, the only way to get ahead is to cheat, I don’t think things can progress in America as Silverberg contests.  Moreover, that part just feels tacked on to tickle Campbell’s fancy.  It has that “secret society knows all the answers and can manipulate humanity like a machine” conceit I generally find tiresome.

Still, Bob is coming along.  I think if he tried writing for another magazine, he could put his talent for prolific writing and good portrayals toward making something truly good.  He’s not Randy Garrett, even though he works with him regularly.

All told, it’s a 2.5 star issue.  But I promised a kicker: the serial, Deathworld, is excellent so far, and I’m keenly anticipating next month’s installment.  You’ll have to wait until next February to get the review, but I think it will be a good one!

Stay tuned!

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



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[Oct. 24, 1959] Bleah! (November 1959 Astounding–the worst yet!)

I’ve found the bottom, and it isn’t the Mariana Trench.

They say fifty cents won’t buy you what it used to, and that’s certainly true of Astounding, a science fiction digest.  The November issue, which has a hastily pasted price of four bits on its cover (replacing the original 35 cents) is, without a doubt, the worst pile of garbage I’ve read in a very long time.

I’ll spare you the gory details and give you a quick thumbnail sketch of its contents.  Opening the ish is the first part of a two-part story, The Best Made Plans.  I didn’t even make it through the first half of this first part.  So dull was the tale, so linearly and prosaicly was it told, that I can’t even remember what it’s about.  I’ll read the summary next month and, perhaps, try again.

Eric Frank Russell’s Panic Button features two exploring aliens who happen across a lone Terran on an otherwise uninhabited planet.  Upon finding him, the human pushes a blue button, which frightens off the aliens.  This is all part of a brilliant human scheme to seed the planets of the universe with convicts equipped with panic buttons.  The assumption (proven correct, of course; aliens are so dumb, says editor Campbell) is that the button must do something and the lone humans must be there for a reason, and the overactive imaginations of the would-be conquering aliens do the rest. 

And this is one of the book’s better stories!

Then you’ve got A Filbert is a Nut, by newcomer Rick Raphael.  In this one, a crazy person makes atom bombs out of clay that work.  Or does he?  Passable–for 1953 Imagination, perhaps.

Randall Garrett’s The Unnecessary Man should have been titled “The Unnecessary Story.”  Young man learns that democracy is a sham and the galaxy is run by a dictatorship.  But it’s a benevolent one, so that’s okay.  Bleah.

I’ve never heard of Richard Sabia before, and if his I was a Teen-age Secret Weapon is any indication, I hope I don’t see him again.  Yokel causes harm to anyone around him.  He is eventually inducted into the army, dropped off to be captured by the enemy, and Communism’s collapse ensues.  Lousy.

Finally, we have Robert Silverberg’s Certainty, which is almost decent.  Alien ship lands on a human outpost planet, and the crew of the garrison ship is helpless against the intruders’ mind-control powers.  Again, it’s the sort of thing I’d expect from a decade-old lesser mag.

As for the Analytical Laboratory for the far-superior August issue, the readers’ results are well in line with mine, with Leinster’s The Alien’s a clear winner.

I’m sorry I don’t have anything cheery to report.  It took me most of the month to get through this awful, 1.5 star book.  I’m about ready to cancel my subscription…


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



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The Dregs (August 1959 Galaxy; 6-09-1959)

Writing a column is 50% inspiration and 50% deadline.  Normally, I get pleny of ideas for articles from the fiction I read, the movies I watch, the news I hear.  But sometimes, nothing seems to spark that desire to put fingertips to typewriter, and I wrack my brain trying to thing of something interesting to convey to my readers (both of you) before the all-powerful deadline sweeps over me.

The problem, ya see, is that the rest of this month’s Galaxy just isnt very good.  Nevertheless, it’s all I have to write about. 

Robert Silverberg’s Mugwump Four is, like most of his work, strictly mediocre.  A poor fellow gets stuck in a temporal and interdimensional war between roly-poly mutants and baseline humans only to find himself in an endless time loop (though the protagonist jumps to that conclusion awfully quickly).  About the most noteworthy aspect of the story is the illustration provided by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin.  The style is very recognizable.

License to Steal, by Louis Newman, is this month’s “Non-fact” article, Galaxy’s attempt at humor.  I wish they’d stop bothering.  In summary: alien obtains a License to Steal, abducts an apartment building from Earth, sells its inhabitants off as willing slaves (read “guests”) to a very pleasant family, and then runs into legal troubles. 

I did rather enjoy W.T. Haggert’s Lex, about a fellow who invents an automated factory that ultimately develops intelligence and becomes his “wife.”  The science behind the invention seems pretty sound (a combination of organic and electronic computing), and I’m happy to see a robot story that doesn’t end in disaster, though this tale’s end is bittersweet.

William Tenn’s The Malted Milk Monster, about a fellow who gets trapped in a deranged girl’s dream world, is suitably horrifying but not terribly rewarding. 

Finally, rounding out the issue is Fred Pohl’s The Waging of the Peace, a “funny” story about the dangers of outlawing advertisement in conjunction with building automated factories.  I skimmed, truth to tell.

The best part of the latter half of this month’s book was Floyd Gale’s review of Mario Pei’s The Sparrows of Paris, a modern werewolf tale.  For those of us who are fans of Pei’s linguistic work, it’s a treat to learn that he also does fiction.

Not that interesting today?  My apologies.  I’ll be better next time…

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Last of the old-time Satellites (May 1959 Satellite; 4-28-1959)

It’s another one of those bittersweet months, much like when I discovered IF only to see it die. 
This month’s Satellite (the best in science fiction) is a fair bit better than last month’s issue, which makes the magazine’s fate all the more tragic.  But we’ll talk about that at the end.

The lead tale, Sister Planet, by Poul Anderson, is excellent–except for the last two pages.  I strongly recommend simply stopping before reading the end.  It takes place on Venus, specifically an ocean-planet version.  There is too little oxygen to breathe, and the air is eternally muggy and over-warm.  Yet men (not women, at least not yet) populate a floating base to conduct science and to trade with the natives.  As one would expect, the Venusians are not at all humanoid; their closest terrestrial analog is the bottlenose dolphin, cute, playful creatures.  They have worked out a trade deal with the humans–art and tools for Venusian fire gems.

The characters are well-realized, the descriptions lush and poetic, and the scene in which a Venusian takes the protagonist for a ride down to the underwater city of the cetoids is absolutely spellbinding.  Following which, there is a fine discussion of the pros and cons, moral and economic, of opening Venus up for colonization at the expense of its sentient denizens.  There is also a lot of interesting geophysics, the kind I’ve come to associate with Anderson, who is a trained scientist.

But then the end…  it’s a complete pill, and it makes no sense.  Such a shame.  Thankfully, one can skip the last portion with little ill effect.

E Gubling Dow, by Gordon Dickson, is something of a second-rater.  An egg-like being crashes to Earth in a spaceship, is rescued by a couple of rural types, and dies slowly, agonizingly, from its wounds.  Sad and unpleasant.

On the other hand, the non-fiction column continues to be excellent.  This month’s feature (by Sam Moscowitz) spotlights the short but prolific life of Stanley G. Weinbaum.  It’s nearly unbelievable that this fellow wrote so much in just one year’s time before his untimely death.  A short-short of Weinbaum’s is included at the back of issue–it’s called Graph.

The other non-fiction piece, on French fantasist Albert Robida (by Don Glassman), is a bit florid but educational.  I never would have known about this 19th century poor-man’s Verne otherwise.

Oh, and there’s a silly short non-fiction piece by Ellery Lanier speculating that the reason “real” scientists haven’t ventured a design for a hyperspace drive is because they are too terrified of the great unknown.  Right.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with an over-needy person (what my friends and I knowingly call a “black hole of need”) then the plot of Robert Silverberg’s Appropriation will ring true.  Clingy aliens come within an ace of consumating a psychologically unhealthy relationship with a set of human colonists, but the terrestrials are saved by a bit of bureaucratic chicanery.  The best part of the story is the empathic aliens. 

Last, but definitely not least, is a beautifully atmospheric story about a Great War veteran and the French wood he falls in love with.  The Woman of the Wood, by A. Merritt, naturally has a twist: the trees are really dryads engaged in a centuries-long slow war with the French peasants who occupy the same land.  Really good stuff. 

With an issue that started and ended so well, not to mention the advertisements for a new Frank Herbert story and a biography of Hugo Gernsback, I was really looking forward to picking up the June edition.  But shortly after picking up this issue and last month’s, I learned that publisher Leo Margulies has tossed up the sponge.  Satellite joins the long list of science fiction publications that has recently disappeared.  I’m even told that the June issue was printed, but that it’s not going to be distributed.  What a treasure that would be to find. 

As sad as that is, at least I still have that stack of Galaxy novels to get through.  And next up, provided there are no new space spectaculars, I’ll be previewing the movie I saw last week with my little girl.  I know, I know.  I’m an irresponsible dad, not for taking her to see sci-fi horror films, but for taking her to see bad ones.

So stay tuned.  I’m sorry about the widely varying spaces between articles–between work and my hands, it can be tough to stick to a regular schedule.  Rest assured, I will keep up the fight.

P.S. And if that pair of teens I met at the record store is reading, thanks for joining the (small) club!

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The shoe drops.. (March 1959 Astounding wrap-up; 2-14-1959)

Now that you’ve all read Despoilers of the Golden Empire, I imagine you’ll want to know my thoughts.

I feel as if I waited an inordinate amount of time for the shoe to drop only to be hit in the ear with a wet sock.

As I read Garrett’s piece, I kept thinking to myself, “All right.  This is clearly modeled on Pizarro’s trek through Peru.  What’s he going to do with it?”  Was he going to reveal his feelings about intolerant imperialism, either favorably or unfavorably?  Was his protagonist going to bring about the ironic ruin of the father Empire through hyper-inflation?  I mean, what’s the point of an analogy without a point?

And then I got to the end, and there was no analogy at all.  It was the literal story, and the only reason one might think it was supposed to be science fiction was the fact that appeared in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction.

Perhaps Garrett’s work was supposed to be a dig against inferior science fiction. After all, H.L. Gold opened up Galaxy by denigrating the “space western.”  Maybe this piece was made to show how easy it is to dress up non-science fiction as science fiction with the minimum of trappings.

Somehow, I don’t think so.  I think this was an early April Fool’s prank, and not a very clever one.  Here Garrett was leading us to think there was going to be a trick ending to the story… and there actually wasn’t (though he might argue that was the trick all along).

Oh well. 

The rest of the book is pretty unimpressive, too.  George O. Smith’s Instinct, is about the abduction of an Earther by aliens who have tried seven times to smash humanity back into the Stone Age only to have us come back as world-beaters every time.  The aliens want to know what makes us tick so they can stop us once and for all or peacefully integrate us into their galactic federation.  Their plan backfires in the biggest of ways.  Not badly written, but not much of a story.

Silverbob’s Translation Error is really bad.  It’s not the concept–meddling alien returns to Earth 50 years after having ended the Great War early hoping to find a backward but peaceful world.  Instead, he finds that none of his historical changes took, and the resultant world (our world) is on the brink of nuclear war and the threshold of space.  I like alternate histories.  The problem with this one is there are about three pages of story and ten more pages of recapitulation.  It is poorly written, repetitive stuff with a conclusion so obvious, one wonders why it was written at all.  This is the worst story, technically, that I’ve read in Astounding.  Interestingly enough, my 17 year-old nephew, David, loved this story.  There’s no accounting for taste.

The only bright spot (aside from part 2 of Murray Leinster’s serial, which I have not yet read, and which I shan’t review until next month along with part 3) is Algis Budrys’ The Man who did not Fit.  It’s another in the genre where an advanced civilization has figured out how to determine the ideal employment for each of its citizens.  Of course, the few who do not fit in to the system are destined to rule.  Seen it.  Read it.  Many times.  But this one is nicely done with a rich setting: a conquered Earth at the crossroads of interesting interstellar politics.  The protagonist is the son of the Terran government-in-exile (a bit of self-insertion by the author, whose father was the consul general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile after the Soviet take-over).  Not a brilliant story, but a good one, and it shines in comparison with the rest.

Thus, excluding the Leinster, the issue barely manages to cross the 2 star mark.  I suppose that if you enjoyed Part 1 of The Pirates of Ersatz, you should pick up this issue for Part 2, but there’s precious little else for you in the March 1959 Astounding.

Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.  If you want to recommend any appropriately romantic science fiction, I’m all ears! 



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Par for the course (February 1959 Astounding; 1-19-1959)

It is still truly a man’s world, at least between the covers of Astounding magazine.  I recognize that we live in a culture where men aren’t allowed to take cooking or shorthand classes (these are women’s topics, after all), but I’d like to think that science fiction writers are more progressive.

Perhaps I’m the one who’s wrong, however.  Maybe women will remain “separate but equal” into the foreseeable future…

Ahem.  Where was I?  Ah, yes.  The rest of February 1959’s Astounding.  To be fair, the remaining four stories actually range from decent to good.  They are typical in their construction: an interesting set-up, a presented conundrum, and then a “gotcha” ending, but the execution is generally competent.  Each had an interesting tidbit that stood out to me, a place where the writer dared to dream–or failed to do so.  I’ll point each one out as I go.

Hi Diddle Diddle is by Calvin M. Knox (Robert Silverberg–why he needed a pseudonym, I’m not sure; perhaps Campbell wants us to think more than one person writes for his magazine).  I think Campbell would call it a “funny” story, but it’s pretty decent stuff about the crew of a small moonbase trying to come up with a way to synthesize food for provisions on the moon.  There are no women in the small crew, of course, though there is a line to suggest that is not always the case.  And, of course, everybody smokes.  Even on the moon, where air is (presumably) at a premium.

What I found compelling was Silverberg’s conjecture that, by 1995, there would be eight moon bases: three American, three Soviet, one Chinese, and one Indian.  Moreover, by then, the Cold War will have thawed considerably.  I’m happy when any writer remembers there is more to the world than the Eagle and Bear, and I think the timeline is quite plausible.  As for the story, well, as I said above, it’s pretty formulaic, but competently written.  Like all of Silverberg’s stuff.

So far as I can tell, Peter Baily, author of the next story, Accidental Death, has not written anything else.  That would set up alarm bells that he is someone’s pseudonym, but none of my reliable sources can tell me if that truly be the case.  In any event, Baily’s tale is of Earth’s first interstellar ship, and the first contact it makes with a race of creatures that possesses the ability to adversely affect probability.  A “Jinx” race, if you will.  Not a bad story, but the part that stuck out to me is when the protagonist, dictating his last thoughts for posterity, suggests that his memoir would make big news if someone could get it to a radio station or a newspaper office.  Baily’s story takes place in a future with starships, but media is stuck in 1940.  It just goes to show that science fiction writers need be careful to avoid the intrusion of current (or even latter)-day items and technologies lest they kill the verisimilitude.

Frank Herbert is a newish writer.  His Missing Link is nothing special.  A Terran spacer is involved in first contact with an alien race with delusions of superiority.  The Earther soon puts the alien in its place with go ol’ Terran ingenuity.  Lest I forget what magazine I’m reading.

Finally, The Professional Touch by “Leonard Lockhard” (actually the duo, Charles L. Harness and Theodore L. Thomas) is a fascinating, satirical piece on patent law, and its many current deficiencies.  It’s worth reading just as a treatise on the subject, particularly on the topics of “obviousness” and “flash of genius,” and just how arbitrary are those tests that determine the worthiness of a patent. 

All told, 3 stars.  Nothing terribly offensive.  Nothing strikingly original.  I’m looking forward to further installments of the Leinster series, though.



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January 1959 Astounding (2nd of 3 parts; 11-28-58)

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving from sunny San Diego!  Sorry for the delay, but the travails of travel put a crimp in my bi-daily update schedule.  I am now happily back at the typewriter and ready to tell you all about….

The January 1959 Astounding was particularly lackluster.  Filled with turgid tales of men running world governments with smug omnipotence, it was quite the slog.  Some details:

“To Run the Rim,” was the stand-out exception, as described earlier this week.  Sadly, it simply set the bar higher for the subsequent stories, which did not even try to clear the hurdle.

Gordy Dickson’s “By New House Fires,” wasn’t bad so much as inconsequential.  In this story, humanity has made the planet unlivable for any but humans, animals being found solely in preserves.  I’ve seen this concept before, and I never buy it.  I have no trouble believing that humans will run pretty roughshod over planet Earth, and many thousands if not millions of species will be the casualties.  We may pollute the world into a stinking mess and/or incinerate the surface in atomic hellfire, but we’ll never reduce its inhabitants to people and food-yeast.  Of course, Dickson’s set-up is necessary for the tale, the story of the world’s last dog, and the master he adopts.

Oh look!  The next story is a Poul Anderson, surprise, surprise.  In premise, “Robin Hood’s Barn,” is not unlike Piper’s story in the last Astounding following the leader of a decadent Empire.  In this case, the Empire is solely terrestrial, only one inhabitable extrasolar world having yet been discovered.  This is the story that predicated my recent rant on the dearth of women in science fiction.  Though it takes place far in the future, all government is run by men, and worse still, it is one of those smug stories where the person in charge has perfect Machiavellian control of the various competing factions beneath him. 

I suppose I must sound hypocritical.  After all, I gave Piper’s story a pass (and even a favorable grade).  I think the difference is two-fold: Piper’s story was meant to be somewhat fanciful.  Moreover, I’ve seen Piper write strong women.  Anderson’s never tried (except that isn’t quite true—he managed five years ago in Brainwave, his one excellent book).  Maybe Piper is just as bad, but Anderson was the straw that broke my back.

“Seedling,” by Charles V. de Vet (he worked with Katherine MacClean in Astounding earlier this year) is a pleasant, albeit brief, interlude about the drastic steps one might take to establish relations with an alien race.  The twist is nice, too.

All too soon, we’re plunged back into another top-level womanless depiction of world government: “Deadlock,” by Robert and Barbara Silverberg.  This is one of those old-fashioned stories in which a problem is introduced and the solution comes as a gotcha at the last second.  What’s particularly frustrating is the Silverbergs spend 40 pages on what should have been a 10-page tale. 

Here’s the set-up: It is a hundred years from now, and humanity is on the eve of settling Mars.  The Americans want to terraform the planet; the Chinese want to biologically engineer humans to settle the planet as is.  One intrepid U.N. representative is tasked with finding a suitable compromise.  This set-up is described over and over again in several slightly varying ways (newspaper clippings, interviews with officials on both sides) until the inevitable and unclever solution is presented.  It would be fine as backdrop to characterization, or as bookends to a novel, but it just can’t bear the weight of a novella.

One has to wonder if John Campbell simply needed to fill space and asked the Silverbergs to pad their submission out.  Since authors are paid by the word, I can imagine there was little resistance to the idea.

Now, I do have some praise for the story.  I am impressed with anyone willing to throw her or his hat over the fence and make a timeline of future history, especially when it makes assumptions that few others do.  For instance, in this world, the Soviet Union collapses in the early 21st century not from American success in a Third World War, but from economic inadequacy.  An economically revitalized (but probably still Communist) China takes its place as a superpower.  The U.N.’s power is enhanced after an abortive and politically fraught Space Race.  While this makes for a more peaceful Earth, preventing large-scale conflicts, it also means that any plan to settle other planets requires a consensus of most of the Earth’s countries.  Hence, the presented dilemma.  It’s a plausible set-up, they just don’t do much with it.

I am also impressed with how far science fiction (and science) have come.  Just 16 years ago, Heinlein was writing about transforming humanity at glacial speed through selective breeding a la Mendel.  Genetic engineering reduces the process time to a single generation.  I look forward to seeing more stories with this development as a component.

There’s more, but I find myself in danger of over-writing this column, so I’ll save it for next time.

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Predicting the Future (hand-waves, Astounding, smoking, and women; 11-25-1958)

Writing good science fiction is hard.  Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity.  Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society.  Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities.  I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s. 

Take smoking, for example.  Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco.  They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer.  Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction.  You would think someone would portray a smokeless future. 


Another example is the portrayal of women.  For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men.  The trend has historically been in their favor.  They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact.  In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes.  There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard.  Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip.  You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common.  Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own.  It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer.  Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors.  This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm.  We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light.  Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that.  That’s a hand-wave.  Psionic powers are another hand-wave.  People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe.  I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street.  Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds.  The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves. 

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else.  And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world.  Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece.  I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

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