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[June 25, 1961] The Twilight Years (July 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the Earth.  There are many hypotheses as to why these great reptiles no longer walk among us.  One current of thinking goes thusly: dinosaurs were masters of the Earth for so long that they became complacent.  Because their reign was indisputed, they evolved in ways that were not optimized for survival.  Thus, the strange crests of the Hadrosaurs.  The weird dome head of the Pachycephalosaurs.  The giant frills of the Ceratopsians.  Like Victorian ladies’ hats, the dinosaurs became increasingly baroque until they were too ungainly to survive.

I worry that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is heading in that direction.  I’m all for literary quality in my sf mags, but F&SF has been tilting so far in the purple direction that it is often all but unreadable.  I present Exhibit A: the July 1961 “All-Star” issue.

Kingsley Amis is perhaps better known as a fan than a writer, his recent New Maps of Hell being a lauded survey of the current sci-fi field.  Something Strange isn’t a bad story, but the fluffy writing can’t relieve or distract from the threadbare plot (a retread of The Twilight Zone’s first episode): Two married couples are stuck on what they believe is a remote interstellar outpost.  A series of increasingly strange things materialize, first outside and, later, inside the station.  Ultimately, the scouts are given a final message from Earth – they have been abandoned for want of funding to retrieve them!  Of course, the keen reader has already figured out that the base is really just a long-term isolation chamber on Earth, the whole thing being an experiment.  Despite the hackneyed plot, it’s still readable.  Three stars, barely.

Package Deal is the latest by Will Worthington, an author given to writing dark pieces.  This one, about a n’er-do-well spoiled rich kid who discovers his latent powers of telepathy, is overly cute and underly memorable.  Two stars.

The new writer, Nicholas Breckenridge, advises ailurophiles to skip the feline ghost story, Cat Lover.  It’s a good suggestion; Lover is a tired retread of familiar ground.  Two stars.

Grendel Briarton has a new Ferdinand Feghoot pun story.  I include it in the interests of completeness; do not mistake presentation for endorsement.

The Zookeeper is the first published story by Otis Kidwell Burger, and also the one piece by a woman (despite the unlikely name) to appear in any of the Big Three magazines this month.  It’s a tale of the far future, a sort of meet cute featuring a woman secured from present day as a sort of pet, and the all-too-human alien, also a pet, who comes to love her.  Another overly oblique piece, but kind of charming nonetheless.  Three stars.

Kris Neville’s Closing Time is more Socratic dialogue than story, a rather insipid piece about disproving the existence of intelligent aliens.  Two stars.

Night Piece, by the usually (these days) excellent Poul Anderson, is even more disappointing.  Something about a scientist becoming aware of dimensions beyond his own, grappling to retain his sanity amid an onslaught to his senses.  It’s all very ponderous and overwrought.  One star.

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction article, Recipe for a Planet, all about the elements that make up the Earth and their proportion to each other.  I especially enjoyed the article’s wrap-up, describing our planet’s composition in cook-book style.

Comprising a good third of the book is its final piece, Brian Aldiss’ novella, Undergrowth.  It is a direct sequel to his previous stories, Hothouse and Nomansland, all set on Earth a billion years from now.  The sun has grown hot, and the planet is a jungle.  Humans have long-since stopped being Earth’s master and are now diminutive, barely sentient creatures.  In this story, we learn of the event that caused our race to topple from power, thanks to the racial-memory tapping talents of the fungoid symbiotes, the morel. 

As usual, Aldiss paints a vivid picture, and a unique one, but somehow the further adventures of Gren and Poyly and their bonded morel have gotten a bit tedious.  It feels more and more like one of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels – enjoyable, but shallow.  I’m looking forward to learning what happened to the lunar explorers from the first novella, and I expect Aldiss has already got that story plotted out.  Three stars.

Measured on the Star-o-Meter(tm), this “All-Star” issue only earns 2.5 stars.  In fact, not a single magazine broke the 3-star barrier this month!  Moreover, just one woman made it to print.  The two facts may not be unrelated…

In any event, if F&SF wants to win the Hugo this year, it’ll have to do better than this.  Otherwise, Analog or Galaxy are likely to take the prize just by failing to decline as steeply.

[Oct. 30, 1960] Halloween Candy (the November 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Halloween around the corner, one might have thought that there would have been an extra spooky issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction this month.  Nothing doing.  The current issue is nothing extraordinary, if not completely forgettable.  Having covered the end novellette in my last article, it’s time to cover the rest of the magazine.

I’ve never heard of Vance Aandahl before, but his tiny It’s a Great Big Wonderful Universe, about a sad Terran who has everything but the planet he hails from, is a good aperitif.  Four stars.

Robert F. Young is up next with his Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used-Car Lot.  It’s a weird extrapolation and intersection of two trends: an increased sanction of promiscuity coupled with a perverse need to be armored against the world.  In this story, everybody, but everybody, is expected to wear their own personal automobile at all times.  To go without is to be shunned as a “nudist.”  It’s all very strange and allegorical, but too silly to be effective.  Once again, it’s not up to the standard set by his excellent To Fell a Tree, though I did appreciate that the protagonist was female, and the story’s focus on the very real difficulties they face vis. a vis. men and society.  Three stars.

Who dreams of Ivy? is another macabre piece by Will Worthington set in a world marred by institutionalized violence and fear.  I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it, or maybe there isn’t much to get.  Is there a message to this dark look at election season, where mayors live in constant fear for their lives, and thus take this fear out on their citizens?  I feel as if Sheckley’s Ticket to Tranai did it better and more humorously.  Three stars.

Next up is an old old reprint, Funk, by John W. Vandercook.  It’s a well-written if somewhat pedestrian tale of dark magic on the steamy coast of West Africa.  What happens when you build a bank vault right square on the spot where the Crocodile God slithers to devour its periodic sacrifices?  Nothing good, I assure you.  The closest we get to a seasonal ghost story.  Three stars.

I did quite enjoy Combat Unit, from newcomer Keith Laumer, in which a damaged but still-sentient robot tank finds itself behind enemy lines.  This is a fine portrayal of metallic, sexless intelligence.  Four stars.

Yes, we have no Ritchard, by Bruce J. Friedman (normally a writer for the slicks), is a cute tale about an usual afterlife situation.  There is a Heaven and a Hell, but no one goes to Heaven, and Hell isn’t so bad.  So how does one distinguish the good from the bad?  And what happens to the ego of a good man in such a demoralizing predicament?  Three stars.

Finally, we have Isaac Asimov’s latest non-fiction piece, The Element of Perfection.  As one might gather from the title, it’s on the discovery of Helium (and, incidentally, the other noble gases).  It’s one of my favorite articles from the good doctor–educational and entertaining.  Five stars.

No surprises this month: an F&SF that finishes slightly on the positive side of three stars.  You won’t regret the expenditure of 40 cents (quite reasonably, really), but I suspect you won’t find yourself returning to this issue very often, either.

Tomorrow, a sneak preview at the month of November!

[May 23, 1960] Month’s End (June 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Astounding so good this month, I suppose it was too much to ask that Fantasy and Science Fiction would also be of high caliber.  While it’s not a bad issue, it’s not one of the better ones, either.

Charles Henneberg (who I understand is actually a Parisian named Nathalie) has the best story of the bunch, The Non-Humans, translated by Damon Knight.  This is the second story the team has published in F&SF, and it is far better than the previous one.  It’s a lovely historical tale of an Italian renaissance painter and the androgynous alien with whom he falls in love.  An historical personage has a supporting part; his identity is kept secret until the end, though the half-clever can deduce it before finishing.

Britisher H.F. Ellis offers up Fireside Chat, a reprint from Punch.  It involves a haunted house and leaves the reader wondering just who are the ghosts, and who are the current residents?

I know many of my readers are Howard Fast fans, but his latest, Cato the Martian is not among his best.  For the past fifty years, the Martians have listened to our radio broadcasts and watched our television programming with avid interest and increasing concern.  A certain Martian lawmaker, nicknamed after the famous anti-Carthaginian Roman, concludes each speech with “Earth must be destroyed!” until, finally, he gets his comrades in litigation to agree.  The ensuing war does not turn out well for the dwellers of the Red Planet. 

It’s not really science fiction.  If anything, it’s perhaps the other side of the coin to Earthmen Bearing Gifts, in which the Martians eagerly await the arrival of their Terran neighbors, but with a similar ending.

The Swamp Road, by Will Worthington, is an interesting After-the-Bomb piece about a community held together by a bitterly strict Christian doctrine a la Salem, Massachusetts.  Every so often, one of the citizens changes, developing a second eyelid and otherwise adapting to a dessicated, alien world.  When the change happens to the storyteller and his love, they are forced out of the village and must learn the true nature of their metamorphosis.  It’s a good, atmospheric yarn, though I feel it could have been longer.  Some subjects deserve more than just a taste.

Some, on the other hand, don’t deserve the space.  Slammy and the Bonneygott is the story of an alien child who crosses dimensions in a tinker toy spaceship and plays with a few children for an afternoon.  It was apparently written by a neophyte named “Mrs. Agate,” and the plot was provided by her six-year old son.  One can tell.

Avram Davidson has two settings: amazing and passable.  The Sixth Season is a passable story about a small crew of humans stuck on an anthropological expedition to a backwoods alien-inhabited world for 200 days.  They endure five miserable seasons–can they survive the sixth?

It reminds me of my days growing up in the desert community of El Centro.  I used to lament that we had four seasons like everyone else, but they were Hot, Stink, Bug, and Wind.  That’s not being entirely charitable, of course.  We had a balmy Winter, too.  For about two weeks.

Asimov’s column this month is Bug-eyed Vonster.  No, it has nothing to do with aliens; it’s how the good Doctor remembers the term BeV.  It is an abbreviation for “Billion electron Volts,” a unit of electric energy commonly encountered when discussing cosmic rays and atom smashers.  I learned what Cerenkov radiation is (the radiation given by particles going faster than the speed of light in a given material).

Cliff Simak’s The Golden Bugs takes up most of the rest of the book.  This time, he trades the poetic farmlands for the prosaic suburbs for the story’s setting.  A swarm of extraterrestrial crystal turtle-beetles ride into town on an agate meteorite and begin to wreak havoc on an average American family.  It’s fun while it lasts, but it ends too abruptly, and there isn’t much to it.  It’s the sort of thing one cranks out between masterpieces.

Finally, there is the nigh impenetrable Beyond Ganga Mata by John Berry, a space-filler originally published in The Southwestern.  A fellow travels to India, meets a holy man, journeys for a year, and meets him again.  Perhaps it was simply the lateness of the hour, but had the story not been blessedly short, I’d have had trouble finishing the magazine.

For those who like to keep score, this issue of F&SF was, depending on how you average things, earned between 2.78 and 2.88 stars.  Compare that to Galaxy, which got between 3 and 3.13 stars, and Astounding, which earned exactly three stars even.

Though it could be argued on the numbers that Galaxy was thus the better magazine, and it was certainly the biggest, I’m going to give the June 1960 crown to Astounding.  All of the fiction was decent to very good, and it’s not Janifer, Anvil, and Berryman’s fault that Campbell wrote a stinker of a “science” article.  Plus, Charley de Milo was the choice story for the month.

Continuing my analysis, this means that the Big Three magazines (counting Galaxy and IF as one) each took the monthly crown twice–all of them tied.  And that’s why I keep my subscriptions to all of them.

A more depressing statistic: there was only one woman author this month, and she wrote under a male pseudonym!

By the way, remember Sputnik 4?  The precursor to Soviet manned space travel?  Well, it looks like the Communists won’t be orbiting a real person any time soon.  In an uncharacteristically candid news announcement, the Soviets disclosed that the ship’s retrorocket, designed to brake the capsule for landing, actually catapulted the craft into a higher orbit.  It’ll be up there for a while.  Oh well.

See you soon with a book review!

[Feb. 6, 1960] Finding my way (February 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Science fiction is my escape.  When the drudgery of the real world becomes oppressive, or when I just need a glimpse of a brighter future to make the present more interesting, I turn to my growing collection of magazines and novels to buouy my spirits.

I like stories of interstellar adventure filled with interesting settings and characters.  I do not like the psychological horrors that have become popular of late.  Sadly, the February 1960 F&SF contains several such pieces.  But it does end well.

I wrote last time about the flaws in Howard Fast’s lead novella that kept me from fully enjoying it. 

Richard McKenna’s Mine Own Ways is particularly chilling.  It involves a rite of passage designed by interstellar anthropologists to winnow the intellectually mature of a race from the primitive by essentially torturing them; one passes the test by realizing that the torture is transitory and enduring it.

Apprentice, by Robert Tilley, isn’t so bad.  It involves an alien who can take over a person’s mind (without ill effect).  The would-be invader possesses a junior flunky on a military base and is revealed when he is able to fulfil tasks that should have been impossible (along the lines of catching snipe, procuring a bottle of headlight fluid or a jar of elbow grease). 

I suppose Jane Rice’s The White Pony, about unrequited love in a future of post-apocalyptic scarcity is decent, too, and well-drawn.  It even has a happy ending, after a fashion even if the world has that feeling of best-days-past shabbiness.

Battle-torn France is the setting for The Replacement, in which a Platoon Sergeant is convinced by a certain Private “Smith” that the war is all in his head, and that the world is nothing but solipsistic figments of his imagination.  It is only after Smith unsuccessfully tries the same trick on the company’s First Sergeant that we see the trick for what it is.  A creepy piece.

Evelyn Smith’s Send Her Victorious is a pun piece whose ending I should have seen coming.  All about a communal colony of aliens who take on the general form of a middle-aged female before time traveling to 19th Century England. 

Algis Budrys has a vignette called The Price about a centuries-old Rasputin(?) surviving an atomic holocaust only to find himself a captive of the few humans who are left.  Are they willing to become gnarled, deranged hunchbacks like him in exchange for eternal life?

Dr. Asimov’s piece, The Sight of Home, is a nice astronomical article about the greatest distance at which the sun might still be visible to the naked eye (answer: 20 parsecs.  Not very far, indeed). 

Then we’re back to the horror.  We are the Ceiling, by Will Worthington, depicts a fellow who books himself into a sanitarium when it appears his wife has begun consorting with troglodytes.  Of course, she turns out to be one, as does his doctor. 

That leaves us the subject of the cover art, The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl, by Ward Moore.  This is the kind of story I read F&SF for—gentle, poignant, starring a woman.  It’s a girl meets boy story set in the depths of the Depression; the boy happens to be an alien.  I shan’t spoil more, and I hope you like it as much as I did.

I’ll have a quick non-fiction stop press tomorrow, and then on to March’s batch of magazines!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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[Oct. 10, 1959] Middle Ground (Nov. 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

It’s going to be a dreary month, if October’s selection of digests is any indication.

Of course, my mood isn’t buoyed by the fact that I must compose this article in long-hand.  I hate writing (as opposed to typing; and typing on an electric is sheer bliss).  On the other hand, I’m the one who chose to occupy much of the next few days in travel, and fellow airplane passengers don’t appreciate the bang bang of fingers hitting keys.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  As I write, I am enjoying my annual plane trip to Seattle for the purpose of visiting my wife’s sister, myriad local friends, and to attend a small but lively science fiction convention.  This one is singular in that its attendees are primarily female, and its focus is woman creators.  People like Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Pauline Ashwell, Anne McCaffrey, etc. 

Once again, I get to ride in the speedy marvel that is the jet-powered Boeing 707.  San Diego to Seattle in just a few hours is a luxury to which I hope I never become jaded.  Although I will concede that the roar of jets is less pleasant a sound than the thrum of propellers. 

I made several attempts to read this month’s Astounding, but I could find nothing in it I enjoyed.  I’ll summarize that effort later.  In the meantime, I have just finished the November 1959 F&SF, and if you can read my chicken-scratch (I hope my editor cleans it up before publication), I’ll tell you all about it.

F&SF often features brilliant stories.  Last month, the magazine had an unheard-of quality of 4.5 stars, just under the theoretical maximum of five.  This month, we’re at the nadir end of quality.  It’s readable but fluffy, forgettable stuff.

Story #1, The Martian Store by Howard Fast, recounts the opening of three international stores, ostensibly offering a limited set of Martian goods.  They are only open for a week, but during that time, they attract thousands of would-be customers as well as the attention of terrestrial authorities.  After the Martian language is cracked, it is determined that the Martians intend to conquer the Earth.  The result is world unity and a sharp advance in technological development.  Shortly thereafter, an American company begins production and sale of one of the Martian products, having successfully reverse engineered the design.

Except, of course, in a move that was well-telegraphed, it turns out the whole thing was a super-secret hoax by that company in order to create a demand for those putatively Martian products.  World peace was a by-product.  Thoroughly 3-star material.

G.C. Edmondson’s From Caribou to Carry Nation is a gaudily overwritten short piece about transubstantiation featuring an old man who is reborn as his favorite vegetable… and is promptly eaten by his grandson.  Two stars, and good riddance.

Plenitude, by newcomer Will Worthington, is almost good.  It has that surviving-after-the-apocalypse motif I enjoy.  In this story, the End of the World is an apparent plague of pleasure-addiction, with most of the human population retreating into self-contained sacks with their brains hooked into direct-stimulation machines.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the quality is such that I anticipate we’ll see ultimately see some good stuff from Worthington.  The editor says there are three more of his stories in the bag, so stay tuned.

There is a rather pointless Jules Verne translation, Frritt-Flacc, in which a miserly, mercenary old doctor is given a lordly sum to treat a patient only to discover that the dying man he came to see is himself.  Two stars.

Then there is I know a Good Hand Trick, by Wade Miller, about the magical seduction of an amorous housewife.  It’s the kind of thing that might make it into Hugh Heffner’s magazine.  Not bad.  Not stellar.  Three stars.

I’ll skip over the second half of Starship Soldier, which I discussed last time.  That takes us to Damon Knight’s column, in which he laments the death of the technical science fiction story.  I think Starship Soldier makes an argument to the contrary. 

Then we’ve got Asimov’s quite good non-fiction article, C for Celerity, explaining the famous equation, E=MC^2.  I particularly enjoyed the etymology lesson given by the good doctor regarding all of the various scientific terms in common physical parlance.  I’ve been around for four decades, and my first college major was astrophysics, yet I never knew that the abbreviation for the speed of light is derived from the Latin word for speed (viz. accelerate).

James Blish has a rather good short-short, The Masks, about the futuristic use for easily applied nail polish sheets.  It’s a dark story, but worthy.  Four stars.

Ending the book is John Collier’s After the Ball, in which a particularly low-level demon spends the tale attempting to corrupt a seemingly incorruptible fellow in order to steal his body for use as a football.  Another over-embroidered tale that lands in the 2-3 star range.

That puts us at three stars for this issue, which is pretty awful for F&SF.  Given that Astounding looks like it might hit an all-time low of two stars, here’s hoping this month’s IF is worthwhile reading.  Thankfully, I’ve also picked up the novelization of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and it’s excellent so far.

Back in a few days with a convention report and a book review!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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