Tag Archives: science fiction

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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Childhood’s End (10-22-1958)

Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you’re so inclined, and I’m generally not) is a cliché.  Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I’d read nothing by the fellow.

This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707.  My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle.  Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover. 

And just barely.  Jets are fast.  It’s hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3.  And that was only a decade ago!

The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke’s best-seller, “Childhood’s End.” I can’t tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can’t chide me anymore for my illiteracy.

Here’s what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order.  It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style.  This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand. 

For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto.  For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters.  Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous.  Still, it is a very fine book.

And I shan’t tell you any more than that.  Because first and foremost, it is a mystery.  Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries.  It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that Childhood’s End is very original and never dull.

I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day.  It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot.  Moreover, Clarke’s future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day.  It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke’s vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.

Disturbing stuff… but then Clarke’s book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff.  Pick it up!  You won’t regret spending four bits.

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October 21, 1958

I became an avid science fiction fan in February 1954 (about four and a half years ago).  At the time, science fiction digests were multiplying, and business seemed to be booming.

Even then, however, there was doom-saying about how the genre had already begun to die.  Apparently, from an explosion that started in 1949 with the start of Fantasy & Science Fiction, quickly followed by the publication of Galaxy Science Fiction (which I have been reading since 1950), the number of books published began to drop off after a peak in 1953.

It is true that Beyond is long gone, and Venture recently disappeared.  I lament the loss of the former–not so much the latter, after the publication of a particularly misogynistic story. 

But that still leaves Astounding, F&SF, Galaxy, Amazing and IF to read, and their quality has remained decent-to-good.

In these past years, I have seen the genre evolve.  I have read good stories and bad stories.  I’ve seen the focus go from our solar system to the stars.  I have occasionally seen the work of female writers, and I have occasionally seen the appearance of female/non-white characters. 

Rarely.  But occasionally.

So I decided it was high time I shared my observations with the public.  From now on, I will be writing short pieces on recent science fiction/fantasy I have read, and perhaps others can use this information somehow. 

Join me on my journey through (the) Galaxy (and F&SF and Astounding, etc.) I can always use the company!

What is this madness?