Tag Archives: science fiction

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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IF only… The Good News (1-29-1959)

Wrapping up my tour of Kaua’i, here are some pictures I took on the south shore estate of Robert Allerton, whose hospitality is as tremendous as his philanthropy (science fiction-related stuff to follow).

For this installment, I’ve got something a little different.  It’s also the good news half of a good/bad news combination. 

If is a science fiction magazine that has been around since 1952.  Amongst the several dozen that have existed throughout the decade, it is perhaps (outside of The Big Three) the best.  I haven’t followed it very closely, and that’s why I missed the big news.

Two issues ago, Damon Knight (acerbic critic and often brilliant writer) was tapped for the job of editor.  I didn’t find out until a couple of weeks ago, by which time, I’d missed the opportunity to buy the October and December 1958 issues.  February 1959 was still on the stands, however, and I took it with me to Kaua’i. 

Perhaps it’s just the rosy glow imparted from having read mostly on the lovely Kalapaki beach, but it’s really good.  I’ve gotten through the first five stories, and they shall be the topic of today’s discussion.

It is, of course, with trepidation that I read the opening piece, Pipe Dream by Fritz Leiber.  As I’ve explained before, I used to like Fritz a lot (who can forget the brilliant A Pail of Air, which appeared in Galaxy many years ago).  His stuff of late, however, has been pretty lousy.  To be fair, it all appeared in F&SF, so that may have something to do with it.  Anyway, Pipe Dream, about the creation of artificial life, is slickly written and atmospheric, but it’s also disturbing and unpleasant, and perhaps not in the way Fritz intended.  I didn’t like it, though I imagine many would.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Wind People is almost a winner.  It is a haunting tale of a ship’s medical officer who elects to remain on a presumably uninhabited planet rather than expose her newborn child to the risks of hyperdrive travel.  Bradley writes powerfully, and the mystery presented as the protagonist and her son make tentative and increasing contact with the furtive natives of the planet is exciting and engaging.  The ending, however, is a let-down.  One had to wonder if Bradley intended for the story to go in a different direction, one in which the editor was afraid to go.  You’ll have to read it and see.  At least it’s by a woman, stars a woman, and takes place in a universe where women make up half of a starship crew.  Progress!

I’ll skip story #3 until the end, as I’ve got a lot to say about that one.  Number four is The Man who tasted Ashes by Algis Budrys.  This is only the third story of his that I’ve read, and the second really good one; I’m going to look forward to more from him (and perhaps pick up earlier ones I’ve missed).  If ever there was an anti-hero, it is the viewpoint character for this story: a petty political intriguer-for-hire who is contracted by an extraterrestrial concern to facilitate World War III.  Good stuff.

Next up: Love and Moondogs by Richard McKenna (a career Navy man who got a writing degree on the G.I.Bill—now there’s the American Way!) This is a silly story about the lengths some might go in the pursuit of their cause, however frivolous, and the hypocrisy often inherent therein.  In this case, the object of outrage is a Soviet moon-muttnik.  Gentle, pleasant satire.

Now back to story #3: The Good Work by relative newcomer Theodore L. Thomas.  Remember when I talked about overpopulation in stories and the laughably small numbers most authors bandy about as too much for our planet?  Well, Thomas doesn’t play around—there are 350 billion souls inhabiting his Earth, and their life is accordingly regimented and drab.  It’s a satirical anti-utopia (a dystopia?).  The core of the story is the search for meaningful work in an age when everyone has just enough, and everything is automated.  The story has one hell of a barbed punchline.

I think this story is particularly relevant given that we are, I believe, on the cusp of a dramatic change in our economy.  Before the industrial revolution, virtually everyone in the United States was employed in the agricultural sector.  By the early 1800s, the industrial and service sectors began to rise as machines created jobs and allowed for the distribution of wealth; this was balanced by a drop of employment on the farm.  Around 1900, employment in the agricultural sector had dropped to 35%, tied with the service sector and only slightly above the industrial sector.  Industrial sector employment rose to a peak of 37% around 1950, and it has begun a gradual but steady decline since.  Agricultural employment was at just over 10% in 1950, and it is plummeting fast.  Service sector employment makes up the rest.

Projecting out another 50 years, agricultural employment will decline logarithmically, with a limit of zero as time goes to infinity.  Industrial employment may take longer, but with mechanization and (ultimately) roboticization, that sector will also see declining employment.  That leaves the service sector, which means that in the end, our economy will consist of nobody making anything, and everyone doing something for each other.  Except, in the future, I imagine machines will also be my servants.  So what will anyone purchase in 50 years to drive the economy?  How will anyone work?  Perhaps we’ll all be scientists and artists in 2009.  More likely, we’ll develop artificial needs for useless products.  Radio advertising has already been honed to a fine art, and the ad execs are figuring out the television advertising game pretty quickly. 

Maybe we’ll all be employed making advertisements.  That sounds fulfilling.

Anyway, I promised good news, so in summation, If with Damon Knight at the helm promises to be a fine magazine. 

The other shoe will drop on the last day of this month…



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F&SF–for the Right kind of people (February 1959 wrap-up; 1-27-1959)

Do you know who reads The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Clifton Fadiman, writer, editor, judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  It supplies him his “special escape-reading…the finest the field has to offer in the way of short fiction.”

Spring Byington, famous star of the Broadway Stage does.  It improves the imagination, she says.

Basil Davinport, another writer and editor for the Book-of-the-Month Club does.  “F&SF gives us some of the best writing in the field, and the field is one of great importance.”

Orville Prescott, Book Review Editor for the New York Times does.  He says, “People who think that their literary I.Q. is too high for them to enjoy [F&SF] don’t know what they’re missing.”

In other words, snobs read F&SF–and you can be a snob, too.  Unlike those other lowbrow sci-fi mags, F&SF is the real stuff.  Just stay away from Astounding, and for God’s sake, avoid Amazing!

I know H.L.Gold was a bit nose-in-the-air when he contrasted Galaxy with Space Westerns, but F&SF is positively the caviar set by comparison.  I’m for the promotion of science fiction’s respectability, but I don’t think F&SF has the sole claim on quality.  In fact, I think F&SF’s editorial policy leans a bit overmuch toward the superfluously florid.

On the other hand, they are the favored home of more female authors than any other science fiction magazine.  And I’ve never read a Garrett or Silverberg story between its pages, though I did read a horrible Poul Anderson story in F&SF’s, thankfully defunct sister magazine, Venture.

Good-natured ribbing aside, while many issues of F&SF may suffer from overwriting-itis, the February 1959 issue is good stuff all the way though (even if the rest of the magazine is not as amazing as its lead story). 

Continuing where we left off, Misfit by G.C. Edmondson (the only Mexican science fiction author I know of, and a San Diego native!) is a good yarn about the perils of time travel–to the timeline if not the traveler.

Last month’s issue had the first of George Elliot’s Venusian stories, Invasion of the Planet of Love.  Its sequel, Nothing but Love depicts the Venusian counter-attack.  It is less satirical, less impactful, and less interesting.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I liked the first one very much either.  It’s not bad, exactly.  It’s just odd.

I did enjoy Charles Fontenay’s Ghost Planet, in which a presumably failed Martian colony is found to have survived through an unexpected and happy circumstance.  Apparently, Martian sage grass traps oxygen, so as long as one stays crouched within the grass, there is air and warmth. 

Now here’s where I need help: I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen this gimmick before in another story.  Does this sound familiar?  I’m hoping one of my many (Webster defines “many” as “more than three”) readers will solve this mystery for me.  Drop me a line and let me know.  If you don’t know the answer, please share this article with someone who might.

Raymond Banks wrote the next story, Natural Frequency, about what happens when someone’s voice naturally hits the resonant frequency of… well.. everything.  People, glasses, bridges…  It’s a silly story, reminiscent of that scene from the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs, impersonating the great conductor, Leopold, makes an opera singer sing a high note until his pants fall off and his tuxedo rolls up like a Venetian blind.  Filler.

Jane Rice’s The Willow Tree is the last piece of the magazine.  Per the editorial preface, Ms. Rice wrote for Unknown back in the late ’30s, and I have it on good authority that she wrote for a solid ten years after that for various magazines.  This story marks the end of a subsequent ten-year hiatus.  Your mileage may vary, but I liked it, this tale of two children sent to the past after losing their parents.  It is written like a fairly conventional children’s fantasy, much like something Edward Eager would write, but with a much more sinister undertone and ending. 

And thusly, we have come to the end.  I’d say 4 stars out of 5.  The lead story is fantastic, and the rest are decent to quite good.

Normally, one might expect (this being the 27th) that I have the new Astounding and/or F&SF in hand for the next review.  However, I am still out in the Territory of Hawai’i, and deliveries are understandably delayed.  Forward thinker that I am, I will still have something to discuss on the 29th. 

But you’ll just have to wait until then to find out what it is.



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On the Beach! (February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction, Part 2; 1-25-1959)

Aloha from America’s prettiest territory.

Kaua’i is particularly pretty, and one of the less-developed islands.  Just last year, the hit musical South Pacific was filmed here, and I’ve gotten to see its location, the lovely town of Hanalei. 

Yet such is my devotion to all five of my fans (up 25% over last month!) that I have flashed in my latest column to ensure you know what stories in this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction are worth reading.

It’s a bit of a grab bag, really, after that amazing first one, but not a stinker in the bunch thus far:

Following Asimov’s science article is Graveyard Shift by Idris Seabright (the F&SF pen name of feminism and witchcraft enthusiast, Margaret St. Clair).  It’s an exciting, atmospheric piece about a young man working the night shift at a haunted sundries store.  One might label it “modern fantasy,” where beneath the banalities of technological life lie a malestrom of magical undercurrent.

No Matter Where You Go, by Joel Townsley Rogers (of long-time pulp fame), is a strange novelet.  It features a space traveler with the ability to zip between real and counter-Earths.  The two worlds have much in common, but there are also striking differences.  When our hero’s wife falls for the resident of one of the worlds and is subsequently exiled to the other, and the courting Cassanova comes a-calling at the hero’s residence… well, it gets interesting.  Like most F&SF stuff, it is written with pizazz, though I’m not sure I exactly liked it overmuch.

Eleazar Lipsky’s Snitkin’s Law is a satirical look at a future in which justice is meted out perfectly by computer, much to the misery of everyone—that is, until a shyster lawyer, the eponymous Snitkin, is brought from the past to reprogram it.  It’s short and unremarkable.  I suspect Snitkin is a parody of the author, a deputy district attorney (who also wrote the manuscript behind the famous movie, Kiss of Death).

Finaly, for today, is Death Cannot Wither by Judith Merril.  I am always excited to see Ms. Merril’s work, though I’m not quite sure how I feel about this novelette.  It is, first and foremost, a ghost story.  It is dark and a bit disturbing.  The ending is gruesome though perhaps not entirely unhappy.  It is not my cup of tea, but it might well be yours.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much, so I’ll save the wrap-up for the 27th.  And then I have a bit of a departure for you… but we’ll have to wait until the 29th for that, won’t we?

Aloha (a double-service word) and Mahalo for reading!



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The Mixed Men by A. E. Van Vogt (1-23-1959)

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

So here I am on a DC-7C turbo-prop headed for the emerald isle of Kaua’i.  A full week of lying out on the beach with nothing but my family, my typewriter, and a large backlog of books and magazines.  I had intended to write, today, about the rest of the February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Unfortunately, due to a S.N.A.F.U. in bag-packing, that magazine was unavailable to me for the flight out. 

But every cloud has a silver lining.  As it turned out, I had packed a random A.E.Van Vogt novel called The Mixed Men.  It was published some seven years ago, and the original stories from which it was compiled were published during the War.  I finished the short novel in just a few hours, and, as the flight takes nearly half a day, I found myself with time to write this article and flash it to my editor.  On time for the evening edition, no less!

The book is very very good.

I read a lot of science fiction, and precious few authors write advanced technology and settings in a way that is not destined to become dated in short order.  There is an art to boldly plotting the future while keeping the descriptions of the advanced components of technology non-specific.  Van Vogt, of course, is well-regarded for a reason.  A spiritual descendant of Doc Smith, his space opera is both sweeping and plausible. 

In The Mixed Men, it is some tens of thousands of years in the future, and humanity has colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy.  The Imperial Battleship Star Cluster has been dispatched to the Greater Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy of ours) on a ten-year mapping mission.  The vessel is enormous, fully a mile long and crewed by 30,000 men and women. 

Significantly and refreshingly, its skipper is a woman, the viewpoint character Lady Gloria Laurr.  More refreshingly, she is brilliant and capable (gasp!)

The story: at the tail-end of the Star Cluster’s assignment, the ship finds incontrovertible evidence of a human presence spanning the Greater Magellanic Cloud.  Complicating the matter is the revelation that the Magellanic peoples are actually mutant refugees (and their non-mutant allies) from Earth.  The mutants possess superhuman intelligence and strength, but at the cost of their creativity.  The “robots,” as they were pejoratively labelled, were reviled by “normal” humanity and became the victims of a genocidal war prosecuted against them some 15,000 years prior.  They were forced to flee our galaxy to the Magellanic Cloud, where they have now lived for millennia on 50 hidden worlds.

With the discovery of this renegade branch of humanity, Lady Gloria orders the ship to undertake a new mission: the incorporation of the 50 worlds into the Terran Empire—by force, if necessary.  Her aim is not subjugation for its own sake.  The Imperial policy is one of freedom and democracy for all, but no independent states are allowed to exist for fear that an external force might pose a threat to the Empire.

Lady Gloria’s decision predictably leads to an all-out conflict with the Magellanic state, which also has a protagonist in the person of Peter Maitland.  Ostensibly an astrogator on a Magellanic warship, Maitland is actually the hereditary leader of the “Mixed Men,” offspring of the mutants and non-mutants.  These Mixed Men have double-brains conferring to them the brilliance and toughness of the mutants as well as the creativity of normal humans.  Moreover, Mixed Men have the ability to exert psychic domination upon others making them quite formidable indeed.

Just as the mutants were mistrusted and shunned by Earth, so are the Mixed Men discriminated against by the Magellanic Government.  Thus, the Mixed Men are forced to constitute a hidden state within the 50 worlds. 

Confused yet?  And that’s just the set-up!  Yet the story flows quite naturally and with a strong personal connection.  There are wheels within wheels, machination after machination, and best of all, intelligent decisions made all around from beginning to end.  If I have any quibble at all, it is that the second half flags slightly after the brilliance of the first half; Van Vogt was not quite able to completely caulk over the seams of the three stories that make up the book.  I also felt a little uneasy at the mind-control exerted not just by Maitland, but by Lady Gloria (the latter using machinery where Maitland needs only his mind).  But only a little: Van Vogt sensitively restrains himself from portraying mind-rape, for which I am grateful.

In short, The Mixed Men is science fiction that is at once of the widest and narrowest scope.  Whole galaxies are involved, yet the players are few and well-drawn.  I heartily recommend it.  Interestingly, going back over my old Astoundings, I see P. Schuyler Miller didn’t like it much, and he felt the protagonist “wasn’t very convincing.” I wonder which protagonist he’s talking about.  I liked ’em both.  I know, too, that Van Vogt has been attacked for reworking his short stories into “fix-up” novels, but I think it worked pretty well with this one.

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for another article and photos from Nawiliwili Bay!



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First Impressions (February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction;1-21-1959)

The February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction has left me with a variety of impressions, so I preemptively beg your pardon for the scattered nature of this piece.

Firstly, the cover.  It’s a pretty Emswhiller, for certain, but “Under Jupiter’s Red Spot”?  It has been some 250 years since anyone last thought that the Red Spot (Jupiter’s most enduring feature, three times the size of the Earth) was the result of vulcanism or any other “surface” activity.  In fact, the prevailing model is that Jupiter, composed almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium, has no surface.  There is just hydrogen and helium under increasing pressure until it takes on the properties of an ice, Further in, the hydrogen may take on the characteristics of a metal.  There may be a rocky core underneath all of that, but we’d never see it.  There would not be a “surface” as we are familiar with the term. 

Thus, Emsh’s drawing is a weird throwback.  It’s just strange to see it on the cover of a current science fiction digest.

Secondly, the big news:

After ten years at the steady rate of 35 cents a digest, which was standard for “The Big Three,” F&SF is finally upping its rates to 40 cents an issue.  You can also get a year’s subscription for $4.50 (or 37.5 cents apiece).  I don’t think the increase is egregious, especially given that publishing costs have increased 38% since 1949–at least, according to the publisher.  With Galaxy now at 50 cents for a bimonthly, one wonders how long it will be before Astounding raises their rates.  Their production quality is the lowest of “The Big Three,” but I imagine their costs must still have gone up like everyone else’s.

Thirdly, Asimov has another article in this issue.  It’s a pretty short piece about the naming of big numbers–quite handy for describing things like a multitude of stars… or atoms.  It’s worth reading, but hardly his best work.

Fourthly…

Perhaps you wonder why I slog through so much mediocre science fiction every month.  Two stars… three stars… Randall Garrett…  Well, it’s for stories like the opener to this month’s F&SF.

Damon Knight (or damonknight, as he’s known when he’s reviewing), has written a lot.  Much of it is unremarkable.  One of his stories, Four in One, which came out in Galaxy way back in 1952, is one of the niftiest stories I’ve ever read.  His latest work, What Rough Beast, is in that caliber. 

Mike Kronski, the protagonist, is a foreigner.  That is clear from his manner of speech, which seems Eastern European.  He has a very special gift–the ability to change one thing into another.  But the mechanism by which he does this is unique, and its ramifications are both fascinating and chilling.  I don’t want to spoil it anymore.  Suffice it to say that it is excellent.  It’s worth 40 cents just for this story.

So’s you know, my next update may be a day late.  I know my readers (I almost need two hands to count you now!) love my travelogues almost as much as my reviews.  Just for you, the family and I are flying to the island of Kaua’i in the Territory of Hawa’ii.  We will be sure to include photos with the next installment of this column!



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Send the Marines! (1-17-1959)

It’s time for a little timely flag-waving.

Last year, around the time I started this column, Operation Blue Bat wrapped up.  It was one of our better moments, foreign policy-wise.  Who’d even heard of Lebanon before 1958?  But when that country came to the brink of civil war in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolution, American troops, particularly the Marines, were dispatched to help keep the peace.  Their mission successful, the last of them came home on October 25.

Now, I’m as cynical as the next person.  I know our action in Lebanon was political more than humanitarian.  We were calling the bluff of the Soviets, who insisted we not interfere.  We were protecting the pro-west Christian government from the pro-Soviet Arab government.  As Tom Lehrer put it in a recent song, “They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til somebody we like can be elected.”

And yet, I still have to applaud the avoidance of bloodshed, as well as appreciate the now-concrete evidence that the Soviets and the U.S. will not come to blows over petty conflicts (the Suez Crisis of ’56 was the first proof of that.)

So it’s timely that the next story I read in the February 1959 Astounding was The Stoker and the Stars by John A. Sentry (Algis Budrys’ Anglic pen-name).  In this story, Earth had been roundly trounced after an interstellar war, and all of humanity had been confined to our own Solar System.  Only limited trade was allowed.  One proud Marine, defeated but not beaten, became the lynchpin to earning the respect of our cordoning aliens.  It’s an old-fashioned piece, a reminiscence of a space merchant remembering how he’d known the great man “back in the day,” when they had shipped together on one of the last Terran cargo vessels; destination: occupied Alpha Centauri.

It’s jingoistic.  It’s a little maudlin.  It plays into Campbell’s penchant for Terrans-uber-alles stories.  I recognize that.  But the memories of Iwo Jima and Lebanon are still fresh, and a good Marine friend of mine only recently returned from his station in the Middle East. Whatever your politics, it does not hurt to recognize that there are some fine people in the service, and I saw a little of my friend in the hero of Sentry’s story.

Oribtal Cold War department:

Remember Sputnik III?  This was the first “real” Soviet satellite following the bare-bones Sputnik I (which went beep-beep) and the rather stunt-like Sputnik II (which carried the Muttnik, Laika).  Weighing in at over a ton and carrying a dozen experiments, it was certainly a feat of Soviet engineering.

It was also the only Soviet satellite launched throughout all of 1958.  Thus, while the American Vanguard I continues to chatter happily away from orbit, and Explorer IV is also still up there, albeit silent since October, Sputnik III remains the sole Soviet sentinel in orbital space.  So I can just imagine the consternation in the Kremlin when Sputnik III’s signal started to decay and warble like a drunkard’s whistle.  Since December 17, Sputnik III has probably been of little use to anybody.

But the day before yesterday, radio eavesdroppers in Napa, California announced that the poor space lab had recovered (perhaps with fuzz on its geiger counters and the need for some strong tomato juice).  The current theory is that Sputnik III gradually got tipped out of alignment so that its solar cells were no longer getting sufficient charge.  The probe has finally returned to a favorable tilt, and is happily back on the wagon. 

Thus, what began with an American flag-waving has ended with some Soviet flag-waving.  All in the spirit of fairness, of course.


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Tabulating the data (February 1959 Astounding; 1-15-1959)

It’s Astounding time again!

One thing I like about Astounding is that editor John Campbell publishes the results of his reader surveys in the magazine’s “Analytical Laboratory.”  Thus, he (and we) can all see what the reading faithful think of the prior issue’s stories.  Of course, while the technique can be good at better-pleasing your audience, it also runs the risk of specializing oneself into oblivion.  After all, the percentage of your readership who will respond to a reader survey is generally a minority, and often a quirky one at that.  Appealing to your die-hard fans may please them (if they can be pleased at all), but may also narrow the potential audience.

In other words, one picks up Astounding because one knows what to expect.  One avoids it because one knows what’s in it and doesn’t want it.  The feedback loop between conservative fan and conservative editor potentially leads to ossified content.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that Astounding is the most conservative of “the Big Three,” particularly in its outlook on other cultures and on the portrayal of women.

That said, let’s see how the opinions of the readers of Astounding compare to those I’ve published earlier in this column.  The results, and the lessons Campbell learns from them, are interesting.

For the November 1958 issue:

Stimulus, by Andrew Salmond, came far away in first place.
Unhuman Sacrifice by Katherine MacLean, was number two, followed closely by
Part One of A Bicycle Built for Brew by Poul Anderson.
Goliath and the Beanstalk, by Chris Anvil, came in fourth.
Gifts, by Gordy Dickson, was number five.

This is interesting.  I thought the MacLean was a clear number 1, Salmond’s piece being just all-right.  On the other hand, the latter three were so minor (not exactly bad, just utterly mediocre), that I’m not surprised they competed for last place. 

So far, so good.

For the December 1958 issue:

It was clear the fans had trouble picking a favorite given the scores.  Either they were disappointed with the magazine or they loved them all equally.  Campbell’s commentary (more on that below) suggests the former.

Part Two of A Bicycle Built for Brew straggled to the top of the charts.
The Queen Bee, by Randall Garrett, possibly the most offensive story I have read in Astounding, came in second.
Ministry of Disturbance, by H. Beam Piper, was number three.
Triggerman, by R.T. Bone was a solid fourth.
Seller’s Market by Chris Anvil was a clear fifth.

Mack Reynold’s Pieces of the Game didn’t even make the chart, even though I thought it was decent.  I quite enjoyed Ministry of Disturbance and TriggermanSeller’s Market wasn’t great, but it was surely better than the drek voted #1 and #2.

Campbell describes Queen Bee as “humor” along with Ministry of Disturbance, Triggerman and A Bicycle Built for Brew.  He wonders aloud if the comedic content of these stories resulted in their lower rating (with the exception of Queen Bee, which did well).  Of course, Bicycle finished strongly in the ratings.  Campbell wonders if comedy serials just take time to win over their audience.

Campbell also calls Queen Bee a “strong story.”  I suppose editors must love their children universally, so I wouldn’t expect him to publicly denounce Garrett’s atrocity.  That said, it certainly seems like Queen Bee is the kind of story Campbell wants in his magazine and, moreover, it’s the kind of story his readers (at least the ones who fill out the cards) want in his magazine.

Which means, I suppose, we all have much more of the same to look forward to.  Unless Campbell decides that “humor” doesn’t sell.


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