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[Oct. 17, 1962] It’s Always Darkest… (The November 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Ah F&SF.  What happened to one of my very favorite mags?  That’s a rhetorical question; Avram Davidson happened.  The new editor has doubled down on the magazine’s predilection for whimsical fantasy with disastrous (to me) results.  Not only that, but it’s even featuring fewer woman authors now than Amazing, of all mags.  I am shaking my head, wishing this was all some Halloween-inspired nightmare.  But no.  Here it is in black and white with a forty cent price tag.  Come check out this month’s issue…but don’t say I didn’t warn you:

The Secret Flight of the Friendship Eleven, by Alfred Connable

We all know astronauts are lantern-jawed, steely eyed, terse test-pilots.  Great for getting the job done, not so great for poetic inspiration.  Eleven is the tale of a corps of artistic types selected specifically so as to describe their journeys in more approachable terms.  But space has the last laugh.

Every so often, a brand new author knocks one out of the park on the first at bat.  This is not one of those cases.  For satire to work, it has to be clever, and this is just mundanely droll.  One star.

Sorworth Place, by Russell Kirk

It’s October, so ghost stories are thoroughly appropriate.  This one, however, set in a battered Scottish castle, is neither original nor particularly engaging.  Two stars.

Card Sharp, by Walter H. Kerr

I really have no idea what Kerr’s poem is about.  Even Davidson’s explanation is no help.  One star.

Hop-Friend, by Terry Carr

Thus begins about twenty pages of relative quality, an island of the old F&SF in a sea of lousiness.  Newish author Carr finds his feet with this sensitive and striking tale of first contact between Human and Martian.  Introverts can never fathom extroverts, and similarly, xenophobes find xenophiles, well, alien!  But extroverted xenophiles, even from different species, are birds of a feather.  Four stars (even if Carr’s Mars conforms more to older theories of the Red Planet’s atmosphere).

Pre-Fixing it Up, by Isaac Asimov

How many rods in a furlong?  How many grains in a pennyweight?  I have no idea…and with the metric system, it doesn’t matter.  The Good Doctor explains the ins, outs, and many merits of the new standard that lets you measure everything from an atom to a universe with a series of easily manipulated units.  Four stars.

Landscape With Sphinxes, by Karen Anderson

Back into the sea with a Sphinx-themed riddle: What earns four stars at its prime, two stars when it doesn’t try, and three stars most of the time?  The Anderson family of writers.  No matter how good an author one is, it takes more than a promising beginning to make a story.  Two stars for this third of a vignette.

Protect Me from My Friends, by John Brunner

There is a fine line between innovation and illegibility.  I read Brunner’s first person account of an overwhelmed telepath twice (it’s short), and I still don’t like it.  Two stars.

You Have to Know the Tune, by Reginald Bretnor

Another half tale from the fellow we know better as Grendel Briarton (of Feghoot “fame” — and that entry is truly bad this month).  Industrialist on the way to Africa hears a tale of the pied bassoonist of the veldt only to find it’s likely no legend.  Trivial.  Two stars.

The Journey of Joenes (Part 2 of 2), by Robert Sheckley

As any of my readers knows, no greater fan of Robert Sheckley walks the Earth.  His short stories are funny, thought-provoking, chilling, clever — by turns or all at once.  In the last decade, he wrote enough to fill six excellent collections, none of which will ever leave my library.

Where he falters is novels.  Somehow, Sheckley can’t keep the pace for 150 consecutive pages, and the result is, while never bad, never terrific.  Cases in point: Time Killer and The Status Civilization.  Bob seems to be cognizant of this weakness.  In his latest book, The Journey of Joenes he attempts to overcome it by writing a novel composed of short, somewhat independent narratives.  The result is something that is, to my mind, no more successful than his previous book-length works.  You may, of course, disagree.

Joenes is a pure satire, putatively written in a post-apocalyptic 30th Century Polynesian.  It details the life of Joenes, an American-born Tahitian power engineer, who is one of the few to survive the worldwide cataclysm.  The tale is told by others: Polynesian historians; excerpts from the memoirs of Joenes’ beatnik companion, Lum; edifying tales recorded anonymously. 

There is a plot — Joenes comes to the United States, winds up before a Court on the charge of sedition, is sentenced to a mental hospital for the Criminally Insane, flees to become a professor of Polynesian Cultural Studies, goes into government, and ultimately escapes nuclear anhilation.  This, however, isn’t the point.  Rather, we see our own modern culture through a mirror darkly, distorted not just as a satire of our society, but of legend in general.  The history of the United States is mixed liberally with that of Ancient Greece.  Historical and mythical personages are referenced with equal frequency.  It’s effectively done, essentially doing for 20th Century America what Homer did for 12th Century B.C. Greece.

Joenes is clearly an attempt by the author to make the philosophical treatise for the 1960s, the equivalent of Stranger in a Strange Land or Venus Plus X.  The satire is approachable, even for the layman, and there is some sex in it.  Whether it succeeds wildly like Heinlein’s piece or fizzles like Sturgeon’s, only time will tell. 

I can only speak for myself.  While Sheckley is always readable, I felt that the joke went on too long, particularly in the latter portions.  Perhaps I’m just too close to the subject matter he was aping.  In any event, I give Joenes three stars.  If this kind of thing is your bag, I suspect you’ll rate it more highly.

And that’s that for this month.  More disappointment in 130 pages than I’ve seen in a long time, if ever.  When I do the Galactic Stars next month, I’m certain F&SF won’t be on the list, and that saddens me.  Nevertheless, I hope against hope that this is just a phase, and the once proud digest will someday return to its former glory.  Time will tell…




[June 25, 1962] XX marks the spot (July 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I’ve been thundering against the new tack Editor Avram Davidson has taken The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for several months now, so much so that I didn’t even save what used to be my favorite magazine for last this month.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when, in synchronicity with the sun reaching its annual zenith, the July edition also returns to remembered heights.  Of course, Davidson’s editorial prefaces are still lousy, being at once too obvious in describing the contents of the proceeding story, and at the same time, obtuse beyond enjoyment.  If there’s anything on which I pin the exceeding quality of this issue, it’s the unusual abundance of woman authors.  It’s been a long time, and their absence has been keenly marked (at least by me).  For the most part, the fellas aren’t too bad either.  Take a look:

Darfgarth, by Vance Aandahl

Hundreds of years from now, or perhaps thousands of years ago, a mesmeric bard named Darfgarth came to a little Colorado town.  He exerted his influence like a God, but men aren’t Gods, and men who aspire to be Gods usually meet an unpleasant end.  A nicely atmospheric story, though the seams showed through a bit too much.  Three stars.

Two’s a Crowd, by Sasha Gilien

A pair of polar opposite souls struggle for ascendancy in the tabula rasa mind of a newborn.  Gilien’s first published piece reads like one – uneven and with a hackneyed ending.  Two stars.  (Take heart – this is the only sub-par story in the book!)

Master Misery, by Truman Capote

When a thought-vampire steals all of your dreams, what is left to live for?  I tend to look dimly upon reprints as a cheap way to fill space, but it’s hard to complain about the inclusion of this story, by a very young Capote, fresh off the success (and controversy) of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.  It’s a dreamy, metaphorical piece, both in theme and delivery, and it works.  Four stars.

Stanley Toothbrush, by Carl Brandon

Newcomer Brandon has written a timeless yet incredibly now story about a tired young man, his fetching (but physically demanding) girlfriend, and the improbably named fellow who literally comes out of nowhere to threaten their relationship.  It’s the youth’s owned damned fault, but he doesn’t know it.  A very The Twilight Zone sort of piece that’s rising action all the way to the very pleasant end.  Four stars.

Subcommittee, by Zenna Henderson

Henderson’s first non-The People story in a good long while is a tale of finding common ground between two seemingly implacable foes.  In this case, the enemy is a fleet of alien exiles, the “good guys” the denizens of Planet Earth a few decades from now.  The cynical side of me groans at the naivete of the piece.  The romantic side of me kicks the cynical side a few times and reminds it that Henderson still spins a compelling yarn, and we can use a little hope in this harsh world.  I only cringe slightly at the highly conventional gender roles of Subcommittee – but then, I expect Henderson is making more of a statement about today than a prediction about the future.  Let’s hope HUAC doesn’t investigate her for being a commie peacenik.  Four stars.

Brown Robert, by Terry Carr

A gritty time travel story with a twist, but the set-up doesn’t quite match the ending, and the thing falls apart on closer inspection.  Good twist, though.  Three stars.

Six Haiku, by Karen Anderson

Better known as the better half of prolific writer Poul Anderson, Karen seems to be embarking on an independent career; her first story came out just two months ago.  Anyway, this handful of poetic trifles is worth the time you’ll spend on them, plus the customary 20% mark-up.  Three stars.

My Dear Emily, by Joanna Russ

A fine take on Stoker from the victim’s point of view, but is the increasingly unshackled Emily really a victim?  Russ doesn’t write often, but when she does, the result is always unique.  Four stars.

Hot Stuff, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor serves up an article on a subject near and dear to my astronomically-minded heart: the death of stars.  You may find it abstruse, but careful reading will reward.  Four stars.

Meanwhile, Alfred Bester continues to savage books he hasn’t actually read, to wit, his utterly missing the point of The Lani People.  Moreover, he refuses to do more than describe the plot of Catseye, so affronted is Bester by the grief Andre Norton gave him for his review of Shadow Hawk.  Ms. Norton was entirely in the right – I, too, was incensed when Bester proclaimed, “women just can’t write adventure.”  Firstly, Norton does not represent all of womanhood.  Secondly, Norton has proven countless times that she can.  And lastly, when’s the last time you wrote anything, has-been Alfred? 

It’s a good thing I don’t rate book review columns…

The Man Without a Planet, by Kate Wilhelm

A rendezvous on the way to Mars between the man punished for unlocking the heavens and the boy he inspired to reach them.  A great idea if not a terrific story.  Three stars.

Uncle Arly, by Ron Goulart

Yet another Max Kearney story.  This time, the avocational exorcist takes on the spirit of a buttinsky ad-man who won’t stop haunting a young man’s TV until he agrees to marry the ghost’s niece.  The prime requisite of a comedic story is that it be funny.  I chuckled many-a-time; call this one a success.  Four stars.

Throw in a conclusory Feghoot (the groan it elicits is a sign of its potency) and you’ve got an issue that comfortably meters in at 3.5 stars.  Four woman authors marks a record for the digest – any s-f digest, in fact.  Perhaps it is this quality issue that prompted “Satchmo’s” profuse praise, which now graces the back of the magazine:

[Apr. 28, 1962] Changing of the Guard (May 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

I never thought the time would come that reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction would be the most dreaded portion of my duties…and yet, here we are.  Two issues into new Editor Avram Davidson’s tenure, it appears that the mag’s transformation from a great bastion of literary (if slightly stuffy) scientifiction is nearly complete.  The title of the digest might well be The Magazine of Droll Trifles (with wry parenthetical asides).

One or two of these in an issue, if well done, can be fine.  But when 70% of the content is story after story with no science and, at best, stream-of-consciousness whimsy, it’s a slog.  And while one could argue that last issue’s line-up comprised works picked by the prior editor, it’s clear that this month’s selections were mostly Davidson’s. 

Moreover, Robert Mills (the outgone “Kindly Editor”) used to write excellent prefaces to his works, the only ones I would regularly read amongst all the digests.  Davidson’s are rambling and purple, though I do appreciate the biographical details on Burger and Aandahl this ish. 

I dunno.  Perhaps you’ll consider my judgment premature and unfair.  I certainly hope things get better…

Who Sups With the Devil, by Terry Carr

This is Carr’s first work, and one for which Davidson takes all the credit (blame) for publishing.  It sells itself as a “Deal with Diablo” story with a twist, but the let-down is that, in the end, there is no twist.  Two stars.

Who’s in Charge Here?, by James Blish

A vivid, if turgid, depiction of the wretched refuse that hawk wares on the hot streets of New York.  I’m not sure what the point is, and I expect better of Blish (and F&SF).  Two stars.

Hawk in the Dusk, by William Bankier

This tale, about a vicious old prune who has a change of heart in his last days, would not be out of place in an episode of Thriller or perhaps in the pages of the long-defunct Unknown.  In other words, nothing novel in concept.  Yet, and perhaps this is simply due to its juxtaposition to the surrounding dreck, I felt that it was extremely well done.  Five stars.

One of Those Days, by William F. Nolan

From zeniths to nadirs, this piece is just nonsense piled upon nonsense.  It’s the sort of thing I’d expect from a 13-year old…and mine (the Young Traveler) has consistently delivered better.  One star.

Napoleon’s Skullcap, by Gordon R. Dickson

Can a psionic kippah really tune you in to the minds of great figures of the past?  Dickson rarely turns in a bad piece, and this one isn’t horrible, but it takes obvious pains to be oblique so as to draw out the “gotcha” ending as far as possible.  Three stars, barely.

Noselrubb, the Tree, by Eric Frazee

Noselrubb, about an interstellar reconnaissance of Earth, is one of those kookie pieces with aliens standing in for people.  Neophyte Frazee might as well throw in the quill.  One star.

By Jove!, by Isaac Asimov

Again, I am feeling overcharitable.  It just so happens that I plan to write an essay on Uranus as part of my movie that took place on the seventh planet.  Asimov’s piece, about the internal make-up of the giant planets, is thus incredibly timely.  It’s also good.  Five stars (even though the Good Doctor may have snitched his title from me…).

The Einstein Brain, by Josef Nesvadba

F&SF‘s Czech contributor is back with another interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain.  Brain involves the creation of an artificial intelligence to solve the physical problems beyond the reach of the greatest human minds.  The moral – that it’s okay to stop and smell the flowers – is a reaction, perhaps, to the Soviet overwhelming emphasis on science in their culture.  We laud it, but perhaps they find it stifling.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: L, by Reginald Bretnor

Possibly the worst Feghoot…and there’s no small competition.

Miss Buttermouth, by Avram Davidson

The unkindly Editor lards out his issue with a vignette featuring a protagonist from the Five Roses, complete with authentic idiom, and his run-in with a soothsayer who might have a line on the ponies.  It’s as good as anything Davidson has come up with recently.  Two stars.

The Mermaid in the Swimming Pool, by Walter H. Kerr

Mr. Kerr is still learning how to write poetry.  Perhaps he’ll get there someday.  Two stars.

Love Child, by Otis Kidwell Burger

Through many commas and words of purplish hue, one can dimly discern a story of an offspring of some magical union.  Mrs. Burger reportedly transcribes her dreams and submits them as stories.  The wonder is that they get accepted and published.  Two stars.

Princess #22, by Ron Goulart

If Bob Sheckley had written this story, about an abducted princess and the android entertainer for whom she is a dead ringer, it probably would have been pretty decent.  Goulart makes a hash of it.  Two stars.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, by Vance Aandahl

Young Vance Aandahl made a big splash a couple of years ago and has turned in little of note since.  His latest, a post-apocalyptic tale of love, savagery, and religion, draws on many other sources.  They are less than expertly translated, but the result is not without some interest.  Three stars.

***

Generously evaluated, this issue garners 2.7 stars.  However, much of that is due to the standout pieces (which I suspect you will not feel as strongly about) and to a bit of scale-weighting for the three stars stories…that are only just. 

(by the way, is it just me, or does the cover girl bear a striking resemblance to the artist’s spouse, Ms. Carol Emshwiller?)