Tag Archives: tom purdom

[May 15, 1962] RUMBLING (the June 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Oh groan.  The lead story in the June 1962 Amazing is Thunder in Space by Lester del Rey.  He’s been at this for 25 years and well knows that in space, no one can hear—oh, never mind.  I know, it’s a metaphor—but’s it’s dumb in context and cliched regardless of context.  Quickly turning the page, I’m slightly mollified, seeing that the story is about Cold War politics.  My favorite! 

Only a few weeks ago, one of my teachers assigned us all to write essays about current affairs, to be read to the rest of the class.  Mine suggested that the government of China is no more to be found on Taiwan than the government of the United States is in London, and it might be wise to drop the current pretense keeping Taiwan in China’s United Nations seat, along with the fantasy of invading mainland China and reinstating Chiang Kai-shek to the power he couldn’t hold on to.  After I had read this, one of the other students turned to me and said, “John . . . are you a communist?” I assured him I am not, but in hindsight, I should have said, “That’s right, Jimmy.  I get my orders straight from Albania.”

Compared to this black and white comic-strip world-view, Thunder in Space is a masterpiece of sophistication—it’s at least on the level of the Sunday funnies, which are in color.  (A few colors, anyway.) There are two nuclear-armed space stations, the US Goddard and the Russian Tsiolkovsky.  An apparent accident destroys the Soviet space fleet, and the American government refuses to help out by resupplying their station unless they unilaterally disarm it. 

But our boys in space are having none of it, and our and their space crews realize they have more in common with each other than with their governments, so there’ll be some changes made.  This feel-good fable for SF fans and other technophiles is not especially plausible—the response of governments to insurrection on military bases in low orbit would likely be speedy and definitive—but the story is reasonably readable and conventionally well-assembled, and refreshing in the acknowledgment that our leadership may be as brutal and ruthless as theirs.  On the other hand, del Rey can’t let the title go, and there are annoying attempts to justify it, such as one character’s declaration that “Most of the thunder down there is caused by the chained lightning we’re carrying up here.” Three grudging stars.

Near-future political problems also preoccupy Tom Purdom in The Warriors, in which a foreign mercenary force is struggling to get to the airport despite the resistance of the local forces.  But violence has been abolished!  So the contending mercenary armies maneuver respectively to evade and to block each other, since touching in combat is now a crime, and the result is a taut narrative of bobbing and weaving.  This all seemed silly and annoying at first, but maybe that’s the point: we’ve got to do something to abolish warfare as we know it, and if not this, what?  Got a better idea? 

So it’s at least thought-provoking: but there’s something else to think about here too.  The casus belli is the USA’s attempt to spirit away the African country Belderkan’s resident genius, Doctor Warren, whose inventions have helped make Belderkan prosperous; the locals are trying to get to him to persuade him to change his mind. 

Right now, we’re in the age of decolonization.  Almost 20 countries have become independent in the last couple of years; Algeria will vote on independence in July, after years of bloody warfare.  But will their independence be real, or just another guise for the exploitation of their resources by more powerful countries?  Consider the former Belgian Congo, which elected someone a little too independent for some tastes, who was quickly deposed and murdered in a rebellion sponsored by the ex-colonial power (and, it is rumored, by others, maybe including us).  I’m not sure Purdom meant to evoke all these concerns, or if he just needed a plot motor, but either way, the result is to his credit and mitigates the story’s weakness as fiction.  Three stars.

But enough of politics; let’s have something gaudy and irresponsible.  The most well-turned piece of fiction here is from J.G. Ballard, though Passport to Eternity is not among his best.  It’s a trifle about an affluent, bored future couple trying to decide where to go on vacation.  Each option is more ridiculous than the last, and then the options show up uninvited at their house with their sales pitches.  It ends badly. 

This hectic lampoon is mostly a satire on the profligate and disjointed invention of much grade-B SF.  Ballard refers to clothing made of “bioplastic materials,” then: “Upstairs in her wardrobes the gowns and dresses purred on their hangers like the drowsing inmates of some exquisite arboreal zoo.” Or: “She was a Canopan slave, hot-housed out of imported germ, a slender green-skinned beauty with moth-like fluttering gills.” So: amusing, but in an hour you’ll be hungry again.  The story’s first line, “It was half past love on New Day in Zenith and the clocks were striking heaven,” recalls the famous first line of Orwell’s 1984.  Is Ballard comparing the tyranny of excessive consumer choice to the tyranny of Big Brother?  Beats me.  Three stars, plus for style and minus for content.

(Note that in this one-dimensional rating system, the middle rating covers a multitude of sins and virtues in various combinations.) [One dimensional indeed! (ED)]

This month’s Classic Reprint is a cut above the usual: ridiculous, but amusingly so, rather than stupidly or offensively.  The Council of Drones by the mysterious W.K. Sonneman, from the October 1936 issue, follows a standard plot of the times: ordinary guy, Fred, living on his father’s farm, is invited by his friend the brilliant scientist to see his invention; things go wrong; perilous adventures ensue.  This time it’s “Cross-Rays, with Lifex Modulation”: swapping of human consciousness with other organisms.  Fred’s father keeps bees, so obviously Fred’s consciousness should be swapped with a queen bee’s.  But the promised five minutes turns into hours and days.  Fred is in despair.  But then his father comes, smoking the hive and stealing the honey, and Fred, enraged, goes bee, as it were. 

He persuades the other bees to go along with his schemes, first of self-defense and then of . . . why not . . . world domination, much assisted by the fact that bees from the eggs the queen lays after the insertion of human intelligence are themselves pretty intelligent.  This is all done straight, or at least straight-faced, with a number of apiaristic footnotes along the way.  Sam Moskowitz’s introduction praises the author’s “intimate knowledge of the bee society,” plausibly speculates that he was a beekeeper himself, and touts the value of “scientifically informative science fiction.” (Come back Lamarck, all is forgiven!) Three charmingly archaic stars.

Ben Bova is back, this time with a science article, Extra-Terrestrial Life: An Astronomer’s Theory.  It is a somewhat rambling and disorganized article touching on how life arose on Earth and what it might look like elsewhere, by way of much biochemistry, emphasizing this DNA stuff we are starting to hear a lot about.  But Bova is an engaging writer and there’s a lot of interesting information here.  Three stars. 

Bova is also featured in the editorial, complete with low-resolution photo, making me wonder whether he is about to replace the unfortunately dull Frank Tinsley as the regular science-monger.  Incidentally, the astronomer of the title is Bova, employed as a “technical communications executive,” but also described as “an ardent amateur astronomer.”

Sam Moskowitz contributes another “SF Profile,” this one The Saintly Heresy of Clifford D. Simak.” It’s reasonably perceptive and informative, but—like his profile of Theodore Sturgeon—it neglects Simak’s excellent recent stories while dwelling in detail on his apprentice work of the 1930s, with no mention, for example, of his well-received novels Ring Around the Sun (1953) and last year’s Time Is the Simplest Thing.  And Moskowitz’s clumsy and often outright ungrammatical writing is even more noticeable than usual.  Three stars.

And finally . . . to break the three-star monotony . . .

Bndct Brdfrt.

[December 21, 1960] Short and Long Term (the January 1961 Analog)

There’s a big difference between weather and climate.  Weather is immediate; climate is gradual.  50 years from now, when the Earth’s average temperature has climbed a half a degree or more, thanks to the warming effects of human-caused pollution, people will still point to a cold day in January as proof that nothing has changed.

That’s because, just as for the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot of water, gradual change is difficult to perceive.  Only by assiduous collection of data, and by the subsequent analysis of that data, can we detect long-term trends.

Thus, it is too early to tell whether or not Analog is ever going to pull itself out of its literary doldrums.  I had such high hopes after December’s issue; January’s has dashed them.

It doesn’t help that Randall Garrett is still one of Campbell’s favorite writers.  I’m not sure if Garrett’s stories are lousy because Campbell tells Garrett what he should write, or if they’re lousy because Garrett writes what he knows Campbell will take.  Or maybe Garrett and Campbell independently share awful taste.  In any event, the long long lead novella, The Highest Treason, is a one-star drek-fest if ever there was one. 

In brief: In the far future, humanity has been reduced to mediocrity after the triumph of bleeding-heart liberal, Commie-pinko sentiments.  Job seniority is determined solely by time in service.  Decisions are made by group-think.  Innovation is scorned as antisocial.  There being no classes, there is no motivation to excel. 

This strawman of a culture is threatened by a Sparta-esque race of bald humans with pointy ears..I mean, complete aliens.  Earth’s defeat is only a matter of time.  One brilliant man dares to reverse the trend by defecting to the enemy with a cunning plan.  He becomes the conquering race’s greatest general, winning battle after battle, becoming the most vile traitor to humanity.  Then he orders the utter decimation of a populous Terran colony. 

This goads the Terrans into activity.  It would not have stirred us to action to have our colonies reduced and their people enslaved.  No.  Only a canny traitor could motivate our rennaissance.  Humans quickly develop superweapons that tilt the advantage Earth’s way.  The war is over in no time, and the era of stifling complacency is over.  Hurrah.

The moral: No alien will ever threaten mankind unless we let them.  And if we let them, only a human can horrify us out of out lethargy—because humans are better than aliens in every way, even being worse. 

Dumb story, dumb premise.  It’s also poorly written and overpadded.  True to Garrett form, only passing mention is made of the existence of women.  Three times to be exact–they are offered as a prize to the traitor, hanged from lampposts by the traitor, and disparaged as fickle philanderers by the traitor.  All excused by the context of course.

Bleah.

The issue only improves from there; how could it not?  Tom Purdom has a weird blood and guts piece called The Green Beret, about a young Black American who joins the UN peacekeeping forces to enforce anti nuclear proliferation rules.  I’m not sure what the point is, but I give Purdom points for giving us an atypical protagonist.  I don’t understand why the UN forces wear green berets, though—they have been wearing blue ones since the Suez Crisis four years ago.  Two stars.

Onward and upward.  Walter Bupp (John Berryman) gives us Card Trick a sequel of sorts to Vigorish.  In the universe portrayed, psi powers exist, and gambling parlors take great pains to ensure they are not used to sway odds.  In this story, a fellow is accused of possessing and abusing psionic abilities to win at cards; then he is strong-armed into joining a union of psionic gamblers.  He’s certain he is a “Normal,” however.  Is it a frame-up?  Or does he have a new kind of power?  Three stars. 

G. Harry Stine provides the non-fiction article for the month, Time for Tom Swift.  It starts off well enough, contending that our current methods for getting into space will never result in a sustainable off-planet presence.  They fail the “grandma test,” he says.  No little old lady can withstand the rigors of rocket take-off..much less afford the ticket!  But then he goes on to describe some cockamaimee futuristic designs that are clearly in the same camp as the Dean Drive and electrostatic boosters.  Two stars.

That leaves “Leonard Lockhard’s” interesting legal study, The Lagging Profession, likely inspired by actual events: In the story, Arthur C. Clarke (the real guy) retains a law firm to investigate the possibility of patenting his idea for geosynchronous (24-hour orbit) communications satellites.  It turns out the idea can’t be patented because it was described in an article 15 years ago.  Moreover, it couldn’t even have been patented at the time because the rockets and miniaturized components required for the concept did not exist.  We are left with the conclusion that high concepts related to space travel are unpatentable under the laws in their current state.

This may well be true.  On the other hand, patents are not the only motivation for invention.  Space travel is such an expensive proposition that the sheer cost will provide the protection from competition normally provided by patents.  I suspect Clarke’s synchronous satellites will be with us well before the decade is out, if our current pace of space development is any indication—you can bet they’ll all have Ma Bell’s name on them, too.  Four stars.

Part Three of “Mark Phillips'” Occasion for Disaster makes up the rest of the issue.  I’ll hold comment until next month.  Giving the serial a three-star placeholder, the January 1961 issue of Analog garners a disappointing 2.5 star rating.

Weather or climate?  Only time will tell.

[July 19, 1960] A New Breed (August 1960 Galaxy)

Last year, Galaxy editor Horace Gold bowed to economic necessity, trimming the length of his magazine and slashing the per word rate for his writers.  As a result (and perhaps due to the natural attrition of authors over time), Galaxy‘s Table of Contents now features a slew of new authors.  In this month’s editorial, Gold trumpets this fact as a positive, predicting that names like Stuart, Lang, Barrett, Harmon, and Lafferty will be household names in times to come.

In a way, it is good news.  This most progressive of genres must necessarily accept new talent lest it become stale.  The question is whether or not these rookies will stay long enough to hone their craft if the money isn’t there.  I suppose there is something to be said for doing something just for the love of it.

As it turns out, the August 1960 issue of Galaxy is pretty good.  I’m particularly pleased with Chris Anvil’s lead novelette, Mind Partner.  It’s a fascinating story involving a man paid to investigate a most unusual addictive substance, the habit of which its victims are generally unable to kick.  Those that manage to break free retreat into paranoid near-catatonia or explode into random streaks of violence.

Chris is a fellow who has churned out reliably mediocre tales for Astounding (now Analog) for years, yet I’ve always felt that he was capable of more.  Just as a good director can coax a fine performance out of an actor, perhaps Anvil just needs a better editor than Campbell.

William Stuart is up next with, A Husband for My Wife, a rather conventional, but not unworthy, time travel story involving the heated competition for affection and success between two friends/nemeses, one exemplifying brains, the other brawn.  The brainy one jumps off into the future with the brawny one’s girlfriend leaving the latter stuck with the brainy one’s domineering wife.  But the meathead and the shrew will be waiting when the brain returns… 

Stuart was the new author who penned the pleasant (though ultimately dark) Inside John Barth in the last issue.  His sophomore effort is not quite as good, but I can definitely see why Gold keeps him around, and he clearly has time to write!

Non-fiction writer Willy Ley is back to his old standard, I think, with his article on the origin of legends: How to Slay Dragons.  I was particularly interested to learn that the mythical dragon, at least in the West, only goes back to the Renaissance.  Apparently the notion of winged lizards cavorting with medieval princesses is anachronistic.

Back to fiction, The Business, as Usual is Jack Sharkey’s second story in Galaxy, and it’s about as bad as his first.  Set in 1962, it portrays, satirically, the top brass of our nation figuring out what to do with a new stealth aircraft.  It’s all a set-up for a groan-worthy last line.

Sordman the Protector is an interesting, ambitious novella by serviceman Tom Purdom about a class of psychically gifted “Talents” who are both prized and reviled for their abilities.  The story is praiseworthy both for its innovative portrayal of future culture and the taut whodunit it presents.  It is clear that the author put a lot into developing the tale’s background universe.  I wonder if he intends to expand it into a novel.

Neal Barrett’s first tale, To Tell the Truth, has a cute title and an interesting set-up.  In an interstellar war where security is of paramount importance, combatants are given pain blocks against torture and suicide triggers that trip if their owners are on the verge of divulging sensitive information.  This provides strong protection for secrets when soldiers get captured.  But what if the secrets were never true to begin with?

Finally, we’ve got L.J. Stecher’s An Elephant for the Prinkip, a rather delightful piece about the difficulties of transporting pachyderms across the stars.  It’s one of those stories that shouldn’t work, being all tell and no show (literally–its narrator is a salty old captain recounting the tale at a bar), but it does.  But then, I’ve always had a soft spot for stories involving interstellar freight.

That leaves the second and final part of Fred Pohl’s short novel, Drunkard’s Walk… but I’ll cover this one separately.

Stay tuned!