Tag Archives: science fiction

Farmer in the Sky (11-09-1958)

When I started this column, I had not expected this to turn into a travelogue.  Given that I do much of my reading on a plane heading somewhere glamorous and exciting, I suppose it can’t be helped.  I hope you can all bear with me.

Northwest Orient, a Seattle-based airline, has been filling the air waves with advertisements about their shorter route to “The Orient” (i.e. East Asia).  Well, I decided to bite, and this weekend found us on a plane to the Far East.  There is no direct route to Japan, but Northwest has the next best thing: after a hop back to Seattle (how familiar!), there was a short layover in Honolulu.  Less than a day after takeoff from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, we arrived at Tokyo’s modern air hub, Haneda airport.  The DC-7 is not as fast as the 707, but I think I prefer the gentle drone of propellers to the loud roar of jets.  Call me old-fashioned.

When I get used to the time difference (they should come up with a term for that logy feeling you get after long-distance air travel), I’ll tell you all about the wonders of Japan.  Or perhaps not–you come here for the science fiction commentary, don’t you?

With Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” deterring me from rushing off to finish this month’s Astounding, I decided to catch up on my burgeoning backlog of Heinlein novels.  I liked “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” recently serialized in F&SF, so I read Farmer in the Sky on the trip.

The book was published eight years ago in 1950, but it feelst up-to-date.  It is the story of an Eagle Scout in his mid teens emigrating out to a newish colony on Ganymede with his family.  Interestingly enough, nearly half of its length is devoted simply to getting there: the application, the preparation, the flight to Ganymede on the Mayflower.  Once there, the tale emulates prior settler stories.  You have the hard times, the loving description of food raised and eaten, the triumphs, and the tragedies.  All throughout, Heinlein does a pretty good job of portraying the physics involved in spaceflight as well as a primer on agronomy on a recently dead world.  The book ends satisfyingly if on a slightly bittersweet note.

A few of interesting points from the book:

Bill, the book’s protagonist, is from San Diego, like me. 

As usual, the author does a good job with technology predictions.  His “quickthaw” and “autoresponder” are plausible and seamlessly executed.  I always find it a little jarring when “slipsticks” (slide-rules) are in copious evidence.  In these days of IBMs and UNIVACS, am I alone in thinking that portable computing machines are the wave of the far future?

California has around 50 million people in the book’s indeterminately dated (but probably the mid-to-late 21 century) future.  This is five times that recorded in the 1950 census.  Extending this to the world population, there must be some 10 billion people on Earth.  I talked about this in an earlier piece; 10 billion sounds like a lot, but not in the doomsday area.  But Heinlein’s future Earth has food rationing, and it is big impetus for leaving the planet. 

I would be okay with this, but Heinlein’s depicted future also has developed complete matter conversion drives and power plants.  Humans have the ability, in the book, to manufacture a breathable atmosphere for Ganymede.  As Bill’s father says early on in the story, “Wherever Man has mass and energy to work with and enough savvy to know how to manipulate them, he can create any environment he needs.” It seems to me that once humanity taps the limitless power afforded by mass conversion, or even thermonuclear fusion, providing food for even 10 billion people should be a trifling concern. 

There is a little bit of gentle misogyny: Bill’s father tells his step-daughter that she’s not allowed on the bridge of the Mayflower because she’s a girl, though this may be meant teasingly.  Bill notes that girls should be kept in a well until they are sixteen, and then a decision made to let them out or leave them there.  Again, I don’t know how out of character this is for a teenaged boy.  On the other hand, there is a skilled female pilot, Hattie.  She’s not the most likable of characters, but she knows her job, and she’s been at it for a long time. 

These are minor quibbles.  The book is good and should fire the imagination of many a young (and old!) reader.  It’s worth it just for the chapters describing the trip to Ganymede.

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December 1958: Astounding (1st half) 11-08-1958

With December’s Galaxy and F&SF done and reviewed, I now turn to the last of the Big Three: Astounding.  The elephant in this magazine is, of course, the second half of Poul Anderson’s dreary short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew.” It lurks at the end of the magazine like an oncoming train at the end of a tunnel.  Thus, I abandoned my usual haphazard reading habits and began at the beginning, like normal people.

Good thing, too.  The first three stories, comprising 65 pages, are good and somewhat of a theme.  I have to congratulate myself for making it through a full three quarters of Campbell’s blatherous editorial before skipping to story #1.

“Ministry of Disturbance” is a fun story of a week in the life of the august ruler of a 1300-planet galactic imperium, one that has persisted virtually unchanged for centuries.  At first it seems that it will be a sort of light farce, but the story takes several turns before arriving at an unexpected conclusion.  It’s a little bewildering: there are a lot of moving parts including a large cast of characters and several concurrent event threads.  Ultimately, there is something of a happy ending.  My favorite line from the story is, “If you have a few problems, you have trouble, but if you have a whole lot of problems, they start solving each other.”

Did I mention it’s by H. Beam Piper?  That should be enough to recommend it.  He did that lovely tale, Omnilingual (from which story the lady in my masthead derives), which you can find in the February 1957 Astounding.

Next up is “Triggerman” by a fellow I’d never heard of before, an “R.T. Bone.” Rather than a tale of the far future, it is highly contemporary.  We’ve all heard of the metaphorical “button” on which the collective finger of the President and his generals rests, the pressing of which initiates atomic armageddon.  In Bone’s story, the button is real, and one man has his finger on it.  It’s a silly concept, but it is thankfully just the set up for a interesting short tale of an overwhelmingly destructive attack on the United States.  As with the last story, there is a surprise, and the subject matter is not apolitical.

The third in the initial trio is “Pieces of the Game” by Mack Reynolds.  Mack has been around for a while, bouncing from digest to digest, but I believe this is his first appearance in Astounding.  Like “Triggerman,” it is set in the Cold War, but a few years in the future, in a recently Communist Austria.  There is mention of a war, but it is clear that both sides are still active, as this story is a tale of espionage by an unlikely-looking agent.  It’s a pretty standard thriller; I hesitate to even call it science fiction.  But it is entertaining, and it fits in well with the theme of the first two stories.

That makes a solid 4 out of 5 stars for the first half of December’s Astounding!  Lord knows where that score will finish, however…

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December 1958 F&SF, 2nd half (11-05-1958)

Boy, am I glad I read from front to back this time!

As my faithful readers (should that be plural?) know, the first half of this month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction was pretty lackluster stuff.  It turns out I was mistaken about Tony Boucher’s story–it was not a new one, but some old thing from 1945 under the name “William A. P. White.” At least I know one of Boucher’s pseudonyms now.

The second half, thankfully, was far superior.  Story #1 was “Honeysuckle Cottage” by P.  G. Wodehouse.  I have not read much by this famous ex-patriate English humorist.  I think all of the stories I have encountered by him were published in F&SF.  This particular tale came out in 1928.  One wonders if Wodehouse is desperate for cash since being, perhaps unfairly, chased out of his home country for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.  Or perhaps Boucher could only afford an old reprint.  Either way, it’s a fun little story about a mystery writer being cursed with the haunting of his romance-writing aunt.  I liked it.

“Wish upon a star,” by famed anthologist Judy Merril, is an excellent story about coming of age on a generation ship.  For those not in the know, a generation ship is a starship, generally traveling slower than the speed of light, designed to colonize a planet after a journey of many tens or even hundreds of years.  Because the mission takes so long, it is anticipated that several generations will be born before the ship reaches its destination.  Unusually, though quite plausibly, in this story, most of the crew and all of the officers of the ship are women.  The only thing wrong with the story is its length–I would love to see a novella or full-length novel on the topic–by Ms. Merril, preferably.

Though Boucher no longer edits F&SF, he still does the book-review column.  He spends most of it praising Theodore Sturgeon but expressing his dissatisfaction with “The Cosmic Rape.” This, Sturgeon’s third novel, is an expansion on the novelette, “To Marry Medusa,” which appeared in Galaxy a few months ago.  Alternatively, the Galaxy story may be a pared-down version of the novel.  I recall the story, which was about an interstellar hive-mind’s attempts to incorporate humanity, had said all that was needed to be said.  I have to wonder what purpose the extra verbiage served.

Next up is “Dream Girl,” a slight head-trip penned by Ron Goulart, who had an interesting story back in July called “The Katy Dialogues.” The following story, “Somebody’s Clothes, Somebody’s Life,” by mystery-writer Cornell Woolrich, is written like a play and could easily be an episode of F&SF’s counterpart to X Minus One.  It’s sheer fantasy involving a Countess with a gambling problem, a young woman with bigger problems, and the Russian clairvoyant who crosses their paths.  Good affecting stuff.  Finally, there is a cute three-page story by Walter S. Tevis, which I shan’t spoil for you, but it’s worth reading. 

So that’s that.  2.5 stars out of 5 for this week’s F&SF, but that’s only because the first half is a 1.5 and the latter is a 4.5.

You should all know that I am flying out to Japan this Friday with my family.  This should not stem the tide of articles, however.  I am bringing along this month’s Astounding, two unread Heinlein novels, and I expect to catch up on my giant monster movies.  It’s my understanding that Godzilla has a sequel, and other movies by that studio have also recently come out.  Here’s hoping these films uphold the fine standard set by the first of them.

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Decmber 1958 F&SF, 1st half (11-03-1958)

I’m afraid this month’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) thus far has been a bit of a let-down.  I recognize that this sister magazine to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has a reputation to uphold as the most “literary” of the Big Three science fiction digests (a lofty standing it shares with Galaxy and Astounding), but I think it has gone a bit too far.

Perhaps it’s the doing of the new editor, Robert P. Mills, who took the reins when Anthony Boucher stepped down to pursue a more active writing career.  Maybe this is what the audience wants.  Maybe it’s a phase.  In any event, the stories are all long on imagery and short on plot and/or comprehensibility.  I know I’m prone to writing purplish prose, and I’ve certainly got a strong snobbish streak, but this month’s stories go too far even for me.

“The Eye and the Lightning” is an Algis Budrys-penned tale about a future in which (I think) scanning devices have given people almost unlimited ability to surveil, to destroy, and to teleport.  People live in constant fear of being murdered at any moment by an unknown assailant who tired of his peepshow subject.  They go to town swaddled in concealing clothes as some version of the Law of Contagion makes it easier to be a target of surveillance and attack if some of your clothes, skin or blood falls into someone else’s possession.  This tale chronicles what happens when one of the inhabitants of this dystopia invents a detector that allows a scanned person to identify and retaliate against his or her scanner.

Very atmospheric, but it didn’t make much sense to me.

Asimov’s science article goes too far in the other direction, perhaps.  It is a primer on escape velocity, the minimum speed necessary to escape a body’s gravity.  There is not much to it.  We would have been just as well served had he just submitted the charts showing escape velocity by planet without bothering with the explanation.

“Pink Caterpillar” is Tony Boucher’s recent foray into writing: a mildly cute, but somewhat fluffy story about the paradox caused by the impossibility of being in two places (or times) at once.

At least I understood it.  The same cannot be said for Fritz Leiber’s “Poor Little Miss MacBeth,” which (I think?) is about an old witch in a post-apocalyptic setting.  It’s a short mood piece, and it doesn’t make any sense.  Perhaps one of my three fans can read it and tell me what a dunce I am.

The final tale of the first half of the magazine is “Timequake,” by Miriam Allen Deford.  Per the editorial forward, she’s written a lot, but I’ve never heard of her.  This story is about the consequences of the clock resetting 12 hours into the past, eliminating all actions done in that period, but leaving the memories of everyone intact.  An interesting, if silly, premise.  It’s turned into a trivial, short tale.

Oh well.  Here’s hoping Part 2 comprises more substantial stuff.

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Wrapping up the December 1958 Galaxy (10-30-58)

On a walk down the block on a warm autumn afternoon, I finished the rest of the December 1958 Galaxy.  I’d worked my way backward from the end, as I’d wanted to finish the next installment of “Time Killer.”  Thus, I got to the lead novella, “Join Now” by Finn O’Donovan, last. 

Both the name and the style were familiar.  18 pages into the tale, I recalled that O’Donovan is a pen name for Robert Sheckley.  It is obvious from the writing style that it’s a Sheckley story, and given that Time Killer is being serialized in the same issue, I am not surprised Galaxy used a pseudonym.

Of course, this means that of the 142 pages, a good half of them were penned by Sheckley.  Galaxy is becoming Satellite (a bi-montly magazine which features a full-length, though short, novel plus a short story or two)!

Being a Sheckley short, it’s great.  It’s not science fiction, per se, or perhaps you might call it soft science fiction.  This is the kind of stuff Galaxy pioneered and Sheckley excels at.  This particular tale is about a “Splitter,” one of class of people in the future who splits his/her personality into three parts: the aggressive “id,” the conscientious and dull “superego,” and the fun-loving “libido.”  The superego remains in its own body while the other two parts are put into super-realistic androids. 

Traditionally, the polite superego stays on overcrowded Earth while the libido heads to Mars, which is mostly a fleshpot and tourist resort.  The tough id heads out to Venus, a wide-open jungle frontier.  Sheckley’s tale follows superego-bearing Crompton, as he travels to Mars and Venus, desperate to re-unite with his other parts. 

I think my favorite parts of the story involve Crompton’s libido-bearer, Loomis, and his speeches justifying his hedonistic lifestyle by which he makes fine money as a gigolo and escort.  There’s compelling satire here:

“Today everything is biased toward the poor as though there were some special virtue in improvidence.  Yet the rich have their needs and necessities, too.  These needs are unlike the needs of the poor, but no less urgent.  The poor require food, shelter, medical attention.  The government provides these admirably. 

But what about the needs of the rich?  People laugh at the idea of a rich man having problems, but does the mere possession of credit exempt him from having problems?  It does not!  Quite the contrary, wealth increases need and sharpens necessity, often leaving a rich man in a more truly necessitous condition than his poor brother.” 

To the question, “Why doesn’t the rich man give up his wealth,” Loomis replies, “Why doesn’t a poor man give up his poverty?  No, it can’t be done.  We must accept the conditions that life has imposed on us.  The burden of the rich is heavy; still they must bear it and seek aid where they can.”

The poor, poor rich people.  Also amusing is Loomis’ justifications for engaging in adultery.  He’s quite convincing, too…

Finishing up this month’s Galaxy is a short tale by the team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.  This was obviously written some time ago since Kornbluth died quite unseasonably of a heart attack in March of this year.  He was only 34 (places hand over heart).

The story is called, “Nightmare with Zeppelins,” and it is less science fiction than an exercise in writing anachronistically.  Specifically, it is a tale told by someone living during the Great War reminiscing about his travels in Africa in 1864.  It is fun, ironic stuff; the point of such an exercise, of course, is really to comment on the present.  I might try my hand at it some time.

Next up: December 1958’s F&SF!

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Make Room!  Make Room! (Musings on overpopulation; 10-29-58)

The December 1958 Galaxy came in the mail on the 26th, and I’ve read about half of it.  Willy Ley’s column, on the amazing alien world beneath the surface of the sea, is fascinating stuff.  The third part (of four) of Sheckley’s Time Killer is engaging, though not in the same class as most of his short stories.  The short murder mystery, “Number of the Beast,” by Fritz Leiber, might have made an interesting novella; as it is, it is too underdeveloped to be interesting.  Too bad.  Fritz is good.

But what inspired this blog was veteran Jack Vance’s latest: “Ullward’s Retreat.”  It is a tale about how a little bit of privacy and living space is a status symbol in an overcrowded world; but, in a society used to being crowded together, too much privacy and living space is undesirable.

Recent figures show that our population is about to hit the 3 billion mark.  Given that we reached 1 billion in 1800 and 2 billion in 1927, it is understandable that a good deal of science fiction depicts an overpopulated future. 

I find it laughable when an author describes shoulder-to-shoulder crowding with a population of (gasp) 7-10 billion!  I recognize that some of our cities are pretty crowded these days, but even tripling the population is not going to squish people together–it will just spread the cities out.  Most of the world is still uninhabited, and I can only guess that science will make more of the world inhabitable.

Vance’s Earth, however, has a whopping 50 billion souls on it, and that seems a reasonable strain on space limitations.  The story starts in the spacious apartment of the eponymous Ullward, a wealthy man.  His home comes with a real garden and an honest-to-goodness oak tree.  His guests are suitably impressed: their homes are tiny cubicles with doors that exit right onto the commuter slidewalks.  To overcome claustrophobia, walls are replaced with image panes that display scenery to convey a convincing illusion of greater space.

Interestingly enough, in Ullward’s Retreat, whole planets are available to colonize with relative ease.  Ullward leases a continent and invites his friends to visit.  They quickly tire of the vast vistas and the pervasive loneliness.  They pine to investigate the “good parts” of the world, which are rendered off-limits by the planet’s owner.  Ultimately, Ullward forgoes his enormous estate and returns to his comparatively (to his peers, not to us) extravagant abode, which has proven, despite its smaller scope, much more impressive to Ullward’s friends.

Vance’s story is a trivial one and not to be taken especially seriously.  I did like some points, however.  For one, it depicts an overcrowded future as not dystopian, simply different.  Anyone who has been to Japan (before or after the war) has seen a society far more used to crowding than ours.  They don’t seem to mind it.  They just make do with smaller gardens and narrower houses; they adapt with greater politeness and cultural rigidity.  The people in Ullward’s Retreat like their little privileges, but those privileges become meaningless without a social context.  I guess it’s the difference between having a 1 karat diamond ring and a 50 karat hunk of diamond in your closet. 

I also like that the ability to colonize does not reduce the population pressure on mother Earth.  Columbus and Cabot finding America did not make Europe any less populated.  It just led to the Americas being more populated (after the colonists did some depopulation of the natives, of course).  Moreover, in a world where people are happier in close quarters with their neighbors, it makes sense that the colonizing spirit would be correspondingly lower. 

Was it a good story?  Is it worth 35 cents?  Sort of, and, probably not.  Nevertheless, it did provoke thought, and can you put a price on that?

Stay tuned.  I’ll have more on this month’s Galaxy in a day or two!

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A Disturbing Sign (10-27-1958)

Uh oh.

I received my December 1958 Galaxy magazine in the mail yesterday.  I have a very set pattern when I read my Galaxies: I start with the editorial, move on to Willy Ley’s science column (“For Your Information”), finish any serial novels in process, and then enjoy the rest.

I was in for a shock right out of the gate, however.  Per Mr. Gold (the editor), Galaxy is going to a bi-monthly format.  Instead of 142 pages for 35 cents every month, Galaxy will be a 192-page magazine coming out every other month for 50 cents.

Now, Mr. Gold puts as positive a spin on it as he can.  He describes the change in schedule as being done to accommodate his desire to offer a bigger magazine rather than reflecting an inability to publish on a monthly schedule. 

“We can fill 196 pages every other month with really good science fiction.  We can’t do it on a monthly schedule.  Nobody can.

Transposed western and detective stories cosmetically disguised as science fiction, oversexed Playboy rejections, witless space wars, extraterrestrial spies, post-atomic societies, biblical greats who turn out to be aliens or visitors from the future, cave-dweller Ugh who discovers how to chip flint or make fire or meets the gods with six arms or ray-flannel buckskins, the road or valley that proves to be a time fault into the future or past, good guy and bad guy marooned on an asteroid, psionics that have long psickened us with their psenseless psamenesses — there are enough of these literary cinders to fill any number of slagpile magazines.  But Galaxy quality?  Enough for 196 packed pages every two months is all we dare hope for, all we can safely promise.”

I wish Mr. Gold would tell us how he really feels about his competitors.

In sum, to hear Mr. Gold tell it, he just can’t get enough good stories.  I have a nagging suspicion that the truth is he is getting hit by the same economic pinch as his competitors, perhaps the continuing fallout from the demise of the American News Company, last year’s event that disrupted magazine distribution nationwide and effectively killed the last of the pulps.  This is borne out by a rumor I have heard from a reliable source that Galaxy is cutting its pay in half: from three cents per word to just one-and-a-half cents per word.  No wonder Mr. Gold expects he will have trouble filling issues!

Interestingly enough, Mr. Gold has also solicited a new round of suggestions from his readers for changes in the magazine’s format.  He is interested in knowing whether we want to keep serial novels or go to a mostly short story contents page.  He also wants to know if we want a letters column (something we strongly rejected eight years ago, and which I would encourage us all to do again). 

Mr. Gold even wants to know how we feel about Mr. Ley’s monthly (now bi-monthly) science column.  I don’t know about you, but Willy Ley, that great German rocket-designing expatriate turned science popularizer is the reason I started subscribing to Galaxy in the first place.  His readable style and interesting topics are well worth picking up back issues for.  I think Galaxy would do well to anthologize his articles as they do their fiction (and as I understand Asimov is doing/plans to do with his articles in Astounding/F&SF). 

I hope going to bi-monthly, and the accompanying floundering for a new magazine design, doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for Galaxy, and by extension, science fiction magazines as a whole.  I understand that we live in a world where science fiction has become fact, and that the headlines of our daily newspapers are nearly as thrilling as the contents pages of our digests.

But dreams are important, too.  We need to keep dreaming one, two or ten steps ahead of reality so that we have an incentive to progress and make the headlines.  To support these dreams, we have to buy these magazines and keep them going, or all we’ll have left is newspaper headlines, and in time, maybe not even those.

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X Minus One!  (10-26-1958)

“X minus 5…4…3…2…X minus 1… Fire.

From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space.  These are stories of the future adventures, in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe-worlds.  The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, presents:

X!  Minus!  One!”

Has it really been almost a year since X Minus One went off the air?

What?  You’ve never heard of X Minus One?

Sit down, Lucy.  I’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. 

As you know by now, I am a big fan of Galaxy Science Fiction (except they changed their name to simply “Galaxy” earlier this year; perhaps they are trying to diversify their audience, or perhaps spine lettering costs too much per letter).  Galaxy is one of the Big Three s-f digests.  Its content ranges from decent to excellent.  So you can imagine how excited I was when NBC partnered with Galaxy to adapt some of its best stories into half-hour radio shows.  And this from the network known for the Dinah Shore show and The Great Gildersleeve!

I was lucky enough to catch the show at the beginning thanks to the ads that appeared in Galaxy.  I’m sure I’ve listened to the better part of a hundred of them.  I never missed an episode by choice (even though I was familiar with all of the stories, all of them having appeared in Galaxy’s pages before).  But, family matters sometimes took precedence, and on a few occasions, NBC switched up its broadcast schedule, leaving me rather steamed for the evening.

It is my understanding that there was another show early on in the decade with similar content, and I found out after the fact that John Campbell (editor of Astounding) tried doing his own science fiction dramatization show for a year or so, but I never caught a listen before it went off the air.

I only wish they would make more, or at least there might be some place I might listen to them all again. In case any of you find that NBC recorded them all on 33s somewhere, here are some of my favorites:

  • “Skulking Permit” by Robert Sheckley
  • “Junkyard” by Cliff Simak
  • “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber
  • “Star, Bright” by Mark Clifton
  • “Hallucination Orbit” by J.McIntosh (or was it J.M’Intosh?)
  • “Saucer of Loneliness” by Ted Sturgeon
  • “Something for Nothing” by Robert Sheckley

I think that’s the order in which I heard them.  In any event, even if you can’t get your ears on the X Minus One adaptations, I’m sure you can find the written stories.  They are all worth reading.  I’m pretty sure Katherine MacLean, who I talked about a few days ago had one, too, though I don’t remember its name. 

Being unable to listen to these shows again drives home just how ephemeral broadcast entertainment really is compared to the written word.  We lament the loss of the Library at Alexandria, but we still have hundreds of surviving Classical works.  X Minus Zero is just.. gone. 

If NBC ever revives this show, I’m going to buy an old wire recorder or (since they are becoming quite affordable these days) a reel-to-reel tape recorder just so I can listen to episodes over and over.  Maybe I’ll be the modern-day Alexandria of science fiction!

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Amazing? November 1958 (10-25-1958)

When Galaxy came out in 1950, the old pulp magazines were still doing reasonably well, though they were clearly on the decline.  Galaxy editor Horace L. Gold put out a one-page ad on the back of the first issue making fun of the Space Westerns that had typified the pulps since the 20’s and promising that no such trash would appear between the covers of his fine magazine. 

Gold kept his promise and seems to be having the last laugh.  The pulps were pretty well gone by the time I’d gotten hooked on science fiction digests (1954), and the digests that continue the tradition of the Space Western seem to be dying out.

Except for Amazing.  The first of the science fiction magazines has not changed its content in a long time, and reading an issue is like traveling back ten or twenty years.  Tales of strong-chinned heroes and tough-talking thugs and beautiful damsels gallivanting around the planets like folks taking the stage from Pecos to El Paso, with terrain to match.  This latest issue (November 1958) includes a story that takes place on the moon, which is adorned with volcanoes and vegetation.  In 1958!  Just to make sure I was with the times, I went into my daughter’s room and leafed through Roy A. Gallant’s fine hardcover, “exploring the planets,” (lower-case transcribed faithfully).  Sure enough, the moon is dead and airless.  Gallant’s book was published this year, and I don’t doubt its accuracy.  I guess someone needs to tell Paul Fairman (Amazing’s editor) what decade this is.

Now, I suppose I’m going to get a lot of negative comments such as the ones that I read in a similar magazine, “Imagination,” (“Madge” to its readers) before it, too, went out of print.  “Madge” was filled with angry letters and defiant editorials denigrating “egghead sci-fi.” After a long day at work (the editor said) a guy just wanted some adventure yarns.  He shouldn’t have to think so hard. 

(Of course, I only read “Madge” for Fandora’s Box, Mari Wolf’s excellent round-up of conventions and fanzines.  I miss her.  I believe her replacement on the column by Robert Bloch in ’56 was the proximate cause for the magazine’s recent demise.  And the lousy stories.  Oh, did I say that out loud?)

Anyway, back to Amazing.  I can’t imagine there is much of an audience anymore for the kind of backward stuff appearing in its pages.  Anyone into such fare would be better served by the sci-fi movies coming out these days.  I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Amazing will be off the shelves before the decade is through. 

Of course, I reserve the right to pretend I never made this prediction if Amazing does survive.  My fans (bless both of you!) will be kind enough to burn their copies of this article, I’m sure.

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Astounding Science Fiction, November 1958 (10-24-1958)

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: An actual review of an actual science fiction magazine! 

NOVEMBER 1958, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION

I usually save Astounding for last among my subscriptions.  I have mixed feelings about this magazine.  On the one hand, it is physically of the lowest quality compared to its competitors (F&SF being easily the highest).  Editor John Campbell, with his ravings about psionics, perpetual motion and Hieronymous machines, as well as his blatant human-chauvinism, is tough to take.  But he has a fine stable of authors, and some of the best stories come out of his magazine.

This issue’s headliner, Poul Anderson’s short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew,” does not look like it will be among them.  It is the first half of a two-parter set some time in the next century in the Asteroid Belt.  The setting is interesting, and so is the set-up: a renegade faction of an Irish-colonized nation of asteroids has taken over Grendel, a small asteroid under the sovereignty of the “Anglians,” and the crew of the trader, Mercury Girl is stranded until it can find a way out. 

Unfortunately, this is one of those “funny” stories, the kind of which Bob Sheckley is a master and Poul Anderson is not.  Moreover, Anderson phonetically transcribes the exaggerated accents of his multinational cast of characters, which quickly becomes a slog to read.  I had high hopes for Anderson after “Brainwave” (1953), but everything since then has been generally (though not entirely) mediocre to turgid.  It’s all very chauvinistic stuff, too.  More so than most contemporary authors.

“Goliath and the Beanstalk,” by Chris Anvil is forgettable, like all of Anvil’s stuff I’ve read to date.  He and Robert Silverberg are much alike: prolifically generating serviceable, uninspired space-filler.

The next story is by a fellow named Andrew Salmond, a name so unfamiliar to me, that I suspect it is a pseudonym for one of the regular contributors.  “Stimulus” is a mildly interesting yarn about Earth being the one planet in the universe made of contra-terrene matter (also known as anti-matter), and the effect this has on spaceflight and humanity’s future in general.  The gotcha is that the situation was recently imposed upon the Earth–right before our first moon launch, in fact.  Can you guess how the Earth figured out what had happened?  I (he said smugly) did quite early on. 

By the end of the story, humanity is the most powerful race in the galaxy and rather insufferable about it, too.  I’m sure this appealed to Editor Campbell, given his taste (editorial requirement?) for stories where humans are better than everyone else. 

Gordy Dickson’s “Gifts…” is not science fiction at all, and it reads like a screenplay for a short television episode.  It is about a man given the opportunity to wish for whatever he wants, and his decision whether or not to use the power.  Slight stuff.

Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” is reason enough to buy this issue.  I had not read much of MacLean’s stuff before, but I will be on the look-out for her stories from now on.  Her tale of a spaceship crew’s encounter with an alien species with a singular life cycle, told from the viewpoint of both the humans and the aliens, is fascinating and haunting.  I won’t spoil it by telling you anything more. 

Asimov’s new science column continues.  This time, it attempts to answer why, in a galaxy filled with billions of suns, Earth has yet to be contacted by alien civilizations.  He ultimately concludes that galactic civilizations are likely to form in the center, where stars are densest, and may well avoid the backward edges, where we live.  He further opines that we may well have been discovered by vastly superior races (for any race that could find us must be far beyond us, at least technologically) and are being left alone so as not to disturb our development.  It’s a cute idea, but it is also indistinguishable from our being undiscovered.  Until the flying saucers announce themselves outside of the deep Ozarks, we have to assume We Really Are Alone.

P. Schuyler Miller’s book review column remains the most comprehensive available.  His comparing and contrasting of Bradbury with Sheckley, Matheson and Beaumont is interesting and arch.  The rest is good, too.

The issue wraps up, as always, with Campbell’s letter column, Brass Tacks.  I skipped it, as always.  Campbell may fill his magazine with fine stories, but I find the quality of his own opinions (like the quality of Astounding’s paper) to be lacking. 

New magazines come out on the 26th.  Stay tuned!

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