Tag Archives: science fiction

Where’s my script?  (F&SF Part… um… Pioneer IV update!; 3-08-1959)

Isn’t it frustrating when you try to tune into your favorite program and hear nothing but static? 

Sorry folks!  I’d planned to give you Part 2 of this (last) month’s F&SF.  Well, the last third of the issue is taken up by a Poul Anderson novelette, and I know I won’t be able to devote a whole article to just that, assuming I can even get through it.  But I don’t have enough to fill an article with the remaining stories. 

Therefore, I have resolved to just give you all an extra-long column day-after-tomorrow!  It will be worth the wait, I promise.  There are some fine stories this month.  And who knows?  Maybe the Anderson story will be good.

(gasp)

All right, I can’t hold my breath that long.

——–

In other news, if you’ve been tracking the flight of Pioneer IV, you may have heard that we finally lost communications with the plucky little probe at more than 400,000 miles away.  This isn’t the fault of the ground antennas, which could probably track the vehicle much further out.  The satellite’s batteries just ran out of juice.  Hopefully, when we have bigger rockets (perhaps the Air Force’s Thor “Hustler”?), we can send out satellites with solar panels on board that can broadcast indefinitely.

Anyway, the Russians are crowing that their Mechta made it further, but we’re saying that our science was better.  But can we really trumpet our mission as a triumph without a sodium flatulence experiment?

See you on the 10th!



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Second chances (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-6-1959)

I promised a book review today, but then I misplaced my book.  Life is like that.  So, for your reading pleasure, I instead offer my meanderings through the March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction (you know, the one I was supposed to have done last month instead of the prematurely secured April issue).

As with the last (next) ish of F&SF, it starts with a bang.  Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—“ is an unique tale of time travel.  Everyone has heard of the Grandfather’s Paradox, but what if you end up being your own granpaw?  I have to give extra credit to Heinlein for having a transsexual protagonist (i.e. someone who has been both male and female).  I hope I’m using that word correctly–it’s brand new.

I like Asimov’s science article, Nothing, in which he points out that the mass of all the “empty” spaces between the galaxies actually exceeds the mass contained in the galaxies by a significant margin.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is odd to conceptualize.  I guess the Great Watchmaker needs to stir up the universe just a little more to get the lumps out…

Ray Bradbury has a tale involving mermaids in this issue called The Shoreline at Sunset.  Any mermaid story in F&SF naturally invites comparison to Sturgeon’s mermaid story A Touch of Strange (published in the Jan. 1958 issue).  Unfortunately, unlike Sturgeon’s quite brilliant piece, Bradbury’s is well-written but somewhat pointless.  But then, I might say that any time I compare Bradbury to Sturgeon.

Have you been following Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People”?  Human in form but possessed of tremendous psychic powers, these interstellar refugees have been trapped on Earth in hiding for many years.  They dwell in their sequestered valleys, occasionally venturing forth to rescue isolated members of their kind raised by native Earthers.  Henderson’s stories are always beautiful, often with a touch of sadness.

Well, with Jordan, the castaways finally have the opportunity to be rescued.  More “civilized” members of their race arrive in a spaceship with an invitation to settle on a new planet, one on which they won’t have to hide their powers or use rough technology to do what their powers could do more elegantly.  Yet the exiled People have grown to love the Earth and even the crude methods they’ve had to employ to survive.  Can they leave it all behind? 

According to the editorial blurb preceding the story, it looks like Ms. Henderson finally has enough stories of The People to fill an anthology.  I definitely recommend picking it up when it hits the shelves.

See you on the 8th!



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Odds and Ends (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 2-24-1959)

A bit of a grab bag today as I finish off the odds and ends before the new (diminishing) crop of magazines comes in. 

Firstly, the sad news regarding Vanguard II has been confirmed: the wobbly little beachball has got the orbitum tremens and is unable to focus its cameras on Mother Earth.  So much for our first weather satellite.

Secondly, the sad news regarding the April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Yes, Poul Anderson does have a story in it.  The Martian Crown Jewels is a science fiction Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  As a mystery and as a story, it is fairly unremarkable.  Still, Doyle-philes may enjoy it.  As can be expected, both for the genre and for the author, the only women’s names are to be found gracing ships, not characters.

There are a couple of oddball pieces in this issue.  One is a translated Anton Checkhov parody of a Jules Verne story called The Flying Islands.  Perhaps it’s better in the original Russian. 

There is also a chapter of Aldous Huxley’s new book, Brave New World Revisited, comparing the myriad of mind-altering substances available today to the simple and perfectly effective soma that appeared in the original Brave New World.  It is an interesting contrast of prediction versus reality.  It is also a great shopping list for some of us.

As I mentioned earlier, Damon Knight is out of an editorial job after just three issues at the helm of IF.  F&SF has found him a new place to hang his reviewer’s hat–as the new writer for the magazine’s book column.  Good news if you like damonknight.

Jane Roberts, an F&SF regular, contributes a two-page mood piece called Nightmare.  It’s another two-minutes-to-midnight fright.

But the real gem of the latter portion of the magazine is Fred Pohl’s To see another Mountain about a nonagenarian supergenius being treated for a mental illness… but is he really sick?  Interestingly, I never liked it when Pohl and Kornbluth teamed up, but Pohl by himself has been reliably excellent.  This story is no exception. 

Where does that leave us in the standings?  There isn’t a bad piece in the bunch (the Anderson and Chekhov being the least remarkable).  Let’s say “four”, maybe “four-and-a-half” given the greatness of the lead story.

Two days to Asimov!



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A study in contrasts (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction, Part 2; 2-22-1959)

Happy birthday to me!  I entered my fifth decade of life yesterday; I hope middle age will be kind to me.

This month’s F&SF certainly has been.  I have an interesting mix of stories about which to relate. 

It has often been said that, to be a good writer, one must be an avid reader.  There is no better way to learn the tricks of the trade than to see how others have manipulated the printed word.  I, myself, have been a writer for two decades, but I still often find some new technique that impresses me sufficiently to enter my repertoire.


Permission to republish graciously granted by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Something that struck me while reading Gordon Dickson’s quite good modern fantasy, “The Amulet,” was its focus on sensual descriptions.  You always know the temperature and flavor of the air, the tactile qualities of a seat, the character of sound and light.  It makes this a very feeling story, very visceral.

The following psi/space-travel story, by brand-newcomer Anne McCaffrey, The Woman in the Tower, is far more spare in its descriptions.  The focus is on a series of telepathic conversations that presumably carry little sensual information.  It is a story drawn almost in skeleton sparseness, and it makes sense in the context.

Seeing the two techniques in stark juxtaposition really drove home how important it is to focus (or choose not to focus) on the scenery.  Frankly, when I write fiction, I am often afraid to lavish attention on the background or prosaic items for fear of boring my audience.  Yet spending some extra time describing an item or sensation is the literary equivalent of conveying the focus of a character’s attention.  It happens in real life, so it should happen in a story, where appropriate.

So an oldish dog can learn new tricks!

Aside from all that, you probably want to know more about the stories, themselves.  Well, The Amulet has witches and all the paraphernalia associated with them.  It’s a dark story with a dark viewpoint character, about as different from The Man in the Mailbag (April 1959 Galaxy) as you can get.  Gordy’s got some range.

McCaffrey’s tale features a future in which a few supremely powerful telepaths with the ability to teleport matter have become the foundation for an interstellar transportation system.  It is a first contact story in several ways, and it is also a love story.  I found it very good though perhaps with a bit of the rough-hewn quality one associates with new writers.  I hope we see more of Anne in the future.

Speaking of unusual writing styles, Asimov has a piece of fiction in the issue in addition to his science article.  Unto the Fourth Generation is an interesting mood piece involving the evolution of a name’s spelling and pronunciation over time.  Perhaps the only “Jewish” piece I’ve seen Asimov write, it is a departure from his usual unadorned, functional technique.  I liked it.

That’s that for this installment, but there are still several more stories on which to report.  And if you’re an Asimov-o-phile, you’ll like this column ’round the end of the month.

Stay tuned!

P.S. Some have inquired as to what happened to the March F&SF and how I got my hands on an early April release.  The answer is simple–the author of this column pulled a “Charlie Gordon” (as opposed to a “David Gordon,” which some would argue is worse).  I actually managed to pick up both the March and April copies at the same time at the source, the latter being a pre-release proof.  So entranced was I by the cover that I started reading and forgot that I needed to do March first. 

Please forgive me, and if the order bothers you, I recommend swapping your left eye for your right, or perhaps reading upside down.



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Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 2-20-1959)

Wow.

The April 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction opens with a bang.  The lead novella, Flowers for Algernon, is destined to go down as a classic, I’m sure. 

But first, a quick detour to Asimov’s column for the week.  The old polymath (older than me–I don’t turn 40 until tomorrow!) has been on a gloom kick lately.  First it was melting ice caps.  Now, he points out that the limiting factor to the density of life on Earth is the limited quantity of terrestrial phosphorous.  Sure, there are lots of chemicals that are vital to life, but phosphorous is the one with the greatest imbalance between its concentration in living things and its abundance in nature.

Basically, living things have used up all the phosphorous, and if we want any more, we have to get it from the dead.  In the ocean, this cycle is maintained by currents that scoop up dead creatures from the bottom and bring them to closer to the surface.  On land, however, our rivers pour thousands of tons of soil into the ocean every year, and it comes back much more slowly than it leaves.  COULD THIS SPELL DOOM FOR LIFE ON EARTH?

I suspect not.  I am willing to wager that there is a nice equilibriating mechanism that we just haven’t discovered yet, much like the one that regulates the ocean’s salinity, sadly for those who wished to use the ocean’s salinity as a yardstick to determine the age of the Earth.

But back to Flowers.  Its writer is Daniel Keyes, who I know slightly from his work for Atlas Comics and as editor of the long defunct pulp, Marvel Science Stories.  It follows the life of high-functioning moron Charlie Gordon, who wishes to become smarter.  Diligent and good-natured, he is selected for a radical brain surgery that, if successful (as it had been for the eponymously named lab mouse, Algernon) will treble his I.Q.

The story is written in the style of a journal kept by Charlie.  We get to see him progress from a barely functional human being to the highest level of genius–and then back down again.  It turns out that the effect of the process lasts only a few weeks, barely enough time for Charlie to taste of brilliance before sinking to his former state.

What really makes this novella is the writing.  Keyes really captures the phases of Charlie’s transformation.  At first, Charlie is a simple person.  Not childlike, which would have been, perhaps, easier to pull off.  Just stupid, barely managing to write due to months of prior effort.  Charlie then becomes a genius, and that is when childishness enters the style, because Charlie is really a newborn at that point.  He spends a lonely several weeks in virtual isolation, unable to communicate, as those he once found unspeakably brilliant become universally less gifted than he.  This part resonated with me, a fairly bright person (though by no means a genius).  I remember in 4th Grade, a teacher once chastised me saying, “you think you are so smart–how would you like it if everyone was as smart as you?”  I replied, earnestly, “I’d love it!  Then I’d have people to talk to!”

The poignancy of the story as Charlie declines and nearly dies is tear-jerking, but what really affected me was Charlie’s condition at the end of the tale.  He may still have an I.Q. of 68, but now he has the memory of being a genius.  He is aware of his former place in society–a laughing-stock.  Now Charlie burns to accomplish something, to recover, by the dint of his own effort, even the barest fraction of what he has lost.

And thus, we’re left with hard questions: Is it better to have been smart and lost it than never to have been smart at all?  Is ignorance bliss? 

What do you think?



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A challenge to you (Despoiler of the Golden Empire; 2-12-1959)

Today’s article is going to be quite brief, not because I don’t have much to say, but because I want your input, and saying anything about the topic at hand will spoil it.

Suffice it to say, I have schlepped the March 1959 Astounding with me to Hawai’i in back (and the paper, as I left, mentioned that the territory is already planning a big party for its impending, but yet unscheduled, statehood).  Yet I only got around to start reading it yesterday. 


Illustration by Kelly Freas

The lead novella is Despoiler of the Golden Empire, by David Gordon (really the beloved Randall Garrett in disguise).  Now, I want you to read this story, not because it is amazing, but because Randall is trying to do something here, and I want to know if you think he succeeded.  I’ll give my thoughts in the next article so you have time gather and communicate your thoughts.

“But I don’t have the March 1959 Astounding!” I hear you wail.  Fear not.  I have graciously been granted permission by the author to freely distribute this piece.  It thus follows this column entirely uncut and unexpurgated.

Despoiler of the Golden Empire by Randall Garrett.

Don’t worry–there is no brutalization of women in this one.  There are, in fact, no women.  It’s probably better that way.



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Interstellar eavesdroppers (April 1959 Galaxy wrap up; 2-08-1959)

Since the second decade of this century, humanity has been indiscrimately pouring out a star’s worth of electromagnetic waves.  First with radio and now television, there is a sphere of information heading out to the stars at the speed of light that has already passed Arcturus, Capella, and is just now reaching Alderamin.  Imagine what conception an alien race must have of us judged solely on the basis of our advertisements, entertainment programming and news bulletins.

Now imagine an alien whose very form is shaped by these media.  That’s the premise behind Avram Davidson and Laura Goforth’s cleverly titled Love Called This Thing.  Like all of Davidson’s stuff, it’s short and brilliant (I have not heard of Ms. Goforth before; perhaps the story was her idea).  Read it if you can.

Security Plan by Joe Farrell is no great shakes, but it is a cute and diverting tale of time travel involving the years 1959 and 1991.  There is apparently a lot of profit to be had in inflation.  My favorite parts dealt with the outrĂ© styles of the future; they are extreme extrapolations of modern beat culture.  Absolutely sub-zero, o-daddy!

Fred Pohl’s The Bitterest Pill is another science fiction potboiler involving an eidetic-memory drug.  You’ll see the ending a mile away.  Possibly the weakest entry of the bunch.

Rounding out the issue is Gordy Dickson’s The Man in the Mailbag, which I liked very much.  Not quite a first contact story, in this one, humanity is trying to negotiate diplomatic and trade relations with a race that is singularly unimpressed with humans.  It’s not difficult to see why: the aliens (Dilbians) are all eight feet tall if they’re an inch.  Prideful, honorable, and incredibly strong, humans are comparatively puny and inspiring of mistrust.  As it is put by one of the elder Dilbians (in my favorite passage of the story), “What if, when you were a lad, some new kid moved into your village?  He was half your size, but he had a whole lot of shiny new playthings you didn’t have, and he came up and tapped you on the shoulder and said, ‘C’mon, from now on we’ll play my sort of game?’  How’d you think you’d have felt?”

Solving the diplomatic and economic impasse is left to the temperamental young redhead, John Tardy.  It so happens that a young lady, nicknamed “Greasy Face” has been abducted by a Dilbian tough (with the ominous and deserved name of Streamside Terror), and Tardy’s boss believes that sending a Terran out to rescue her is just the ticket to demonstrates humanity’s pluck and worthiness.  To ensure that Tardy makes it all the way to Streamside Terror without being waylaid, he is dispatched as a mail parcel to be carried on the back of a Dilbian postman.  This is about the safest place to be as the proud Dilbian postal service has a work ethic that would be familiar to anyone who served in the United States (or Persian) Postal Service.  Of course, this story has a twist, and the damsel in distress is not quite so distressed (and far more resourceful) than one might think. 

What I really like about this tale is that this time, for a change, despite all our unquestionable technological prowess, humanity is on the weaker footing and the writer treats the aliens with respect.  But then, this isn’t Astounding.  Or Cliff Simak.

Feeding the issue into JOURNEYVAC, this issue comes out a solid 3.75 stars.  The magazine seems to be weathering the format change reasonably well, so far.

See you on the 10th!  And if you’re new to the column, leaf through the older entries.  Feel free to share them with your friends, too.



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The City of Force (April 1959 Galaxy; 2-06-1959)

If you are a devout follower of my column, you know that I love First Contact stories.  From Arthur C. Clarke to William Tenn, I love a good yarn about the meeting of two races.  Lucky for me, Daniel Galouye (a fairly seasoned writer from Louisiana), has delivered a solid, if not outstanding, addition to my library of such stories.

The City of Force kicks off the April issue of Galaxy.  Here’s the set-up: not too far in the future (it can’t be too far–the conversational slang is all straight out of today’s movies), incorporeal spherical aliens show up and blow up all of our cities.  They set up shop, erecting cities of their own.  These cities are just as insubstantial as the aliens.  They are towering, radiant, multi-hued things, whose walls of force shift to fulfill every need of the aliens, from shelter to sustenance.  Humanity is left to scratch out a primitive existence in the wilderness.  Any attempt to use electricity is met with vindictive zapping. 

Except some humans have figured out how to live inside the cities.  They have discovered that the alien force fields are activated by thought–any sentient thought.  And so the humans live within the walls of the alien city like rats.  Their life is virtually idyllic.  There is plenty of food, and it tastes like whatever one wants.  The force fields mold easily into furniture and even conveyances.

Of course, every so often, the aliens try to exterminate the human vermin, just as we might do with rats, but the risk is considered worth it.

Enter Bruno, a young man from one of the wilderness tribes.  His destination is one of the cities.  His intention: to make contact with the aliens and convince them that we are sentient and deserve to be able to coexist on Earth.  Once in the city, he discovers he has a particular affinity for force field manipulation, and a few experiments establish his ability to convert harmless yellow and green constructs into explosive red ones. 

At first, the city-dwellers welcome Bruno and try to convert him to their posh style of living.  Bruno eats better than ever before, falls in love, and nearly succumbs to temptation.  But only nearly.  Spurning the trappings of comfort, Bruno redoubles his efforts to make contact despite the danger.  When his attempts are at last successful, the story reaches a genuine climax of excitement.

Unfortunately, what ensues is rather rushed and disappointing.  Once communication is established, the aliens lose all of their mystery and become rather pedestrian human analogues.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I wish Galouye had written a longer story and kept the aliens more mysterious.  Tenn did a better job in Firewater.

Still, there are a lot of good ideas in this story.  The force cities are very well realized and interesting.  The aliens are suitably alien throughout most of the story.  The characters are reasonably well realized, though their incessant use of modern slang is jarring, particularly when the story is supposed to take place several hundred years in the future.

Next up–the rest of the magazine… unless events overtake me again.  Let’s hope the news is better next time.



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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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What IF (the bad news; 1-31-1959)

Wow!

I do declare, the February 1959 IF really is something else.  Not a stinker in the book, and some truly excellent stuff.  If if had always been like this, I think it would have dislodged Astounding and jostled its way into the top tier of science fiction digests.

Without further ado…

The other day, I read in the newspaper that Andrei Gromyko (the Soviet foreign minister) lauded the strength of the Communist Bloc, stating that the counterbalance of the two superpowers actually insured against an atomic apocalypse.  Be that as it may, I don’t see how we can live persistently at two minutes to midnight without snapping some taut nerves.  The Last Days of L.A., by George H. Smith, is a brutal second-person piece about cracking up under the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.  I’d be very interested to see statistics on this phenomenon, because I bet it is happening quite often. 

I advise you not to read this piece right before going to sleep. 

Have you heard of Rosel George Brown?  She’s an up-and-comer, and Virgin Ground is her third published story.  It is a spin on the “pioneer spouse” trope: in this case, it’s brides for Mars.  This is another dark story with an unhappy ending, but there’s no question but that it’s well-written. 

I found Discipline, by Katherine St. Clair, to be excellent.  It is a tale of archaeological rivalry, but with a setting in space.  One has to wonder how often it happens that scientific integrity is squandered to preserve an attractive thesis.  In this story, one man’s pride spells another’s doom, but the ending is pleasantly unexpected.

Another newcomer is David R. Bunch.  His In the Jag-Whiffing Service is good, funny stuff, but it is so short that to tell you anything about it would spoil the whole thing.  Take my word for it.  Better yet, read it yourself.

Star of Rebirth, by Bernard Wall (of whom I’ve never heard; perhaps he is an incognito Damon Knight), is one of the few rays of light in this rather dark set of stories.  Set far in the future after a devastating nuclear war, it is a convincing and touching piece following the leader of a tribe of primitive survivors.  I liked it a lot.

Finally, you’ve probably all heard of Cordwainer Smith.  His No, No, not Rogov! is a piece of present-day scientifiction (yes, that word is still in vogue) about a husband-and-wife science team working in the Soviet Union; their super-secret work into the field of electric clairvoyance yields unexpected results.  Of all of the stories in this magazine, I predict this one may go down in history as a classic. 

I think I can see a trend in Damon Knight’s editorial choice.  Most of these tales are bleak things, though they are of indubitably good quality.  However, there is just enough hope leavening the mix to make the book palatable.  In any event, it is clear that Mr. Knight was a solid choice to navigate IF out of the sales doldrums.

Except I did promise you bad news, didn’t I?

Just after I’d picked up this magazine, I learned that publisher James L. Quinn is throwing in the towel.  IF is for sale, and there’s no telling when (or if) the magazine will resume publication.  It’s really a shame.  Mr. Knight really hadn’t had a chance to bring the magazine back from the brink, and I’m sure that he could have.

On the other hand, I don’t think his stable of authors will quit writing.  Maybe Galaxy will get enough material to go back to a monthly format.  Fingers crossed!

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for…. I’m not sure yet.  I’m playing this one by ear!



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