Tag Archives: willy ley

[July 9, 1962] To the New Frontier (August 1962 Galaxy Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Since humans have been a species, there has always been a frontier.  Whether it be Alaska for the first settlers of the Americas, or the New World (for Europeans), or the Wild West (for White Americans), there has always been an “over there” to explore.  Today, our frontiers are the frozen Arctics, the deep seas, and the vastness of orbital space.

Science fiction has always stayed one step ahead.  A hundred years ago, Jules Verne took us 20,000 leagues under the sea.  A generation later, Edgar Rice Burroughs took us to Darkest Africa, lost continents, and fancifully rendered nearby planets,.  Astounding and its ilk of the 30s and 40s gave us scientific jaunts through the solar system. 

These days, one is hard-pressed to find stories that take place on Mars or Venus.  Now that four men have circled the Earth and probes have flown millions of miles from our planet, tomorrow’s frontier lies among the stars.  Thus, science fiction has taken up residence in the spacious quarters of the Milky Way, light years away from home. 

As you’ll see if you pick up this month’s most worthy issue of Galaxy:

The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance

An alien empire known as The Rule has smashed the human federation, reducing the free population of Terrans to a few scattered planets.  On one barren world, people are confined to two rocky valleys, their technology regressed to the Renaissance.  There is the ever-present threat of attack from the reptilian aliens whenever the nearby red sun, Coralyne, draws near. 

But the humans have an ace up their sleeve: generations ago, a raiding vessel was defeated and its complement of aliens impressed into slavery.  Since then, they have been bred and specialized into a myriad of soldier castes called “dragons,” from the fierce Termagant infantry to the enormous Juggers and Fiends. 

Will this baroque force be able to withstand the next inevitable attack of The Rule, who have created their own caricatures of people to be their shock troops and mounts?  And what is the role of the weird “sacerdotes,” nude ascetic humans who may possess a tremendous hidden technology?

Masters really is an impressive piece of world-building, a page turner that will keep you guessing until the end.  I particularly enjoyed the moral questions the novella raises, demonstrating the implicit repugnance in the breeding of sentients by mirroring our raising of “dragons” with the domestication of human animals by The Rule.  The only issue which knocks Masters from perfection is I found the combat scenes a bit overlong.  Great illustrations by GAUGHAN, though.  Four stars.

Handyman, by Frank Banta

Brief moody piece about a prisoner whose solitary confinement even a well-meaning Carpenter can’t assuage.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Rotating Luminous Wheels in the Sea, by Willy Ley

Our favorite German science popularizer returns with an update on those mysterious luminous pinwheels that have been spotted by mariners over the last half-century.  He last wrote about them in the December 1960 and June 1961 issues, and they just get more intriguing.  Are they bioluminescent creatures stimulated by propellers?  Billboards for Martians?  Mass hallucinations?  Read and find out.  Three stars.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey


Schelling

The adventures of Lieutenant Jerry Norcriss, the psychic xenobiologist who hops into the minds of alien animals as part of pre-colonial surveys, is easily Jack Sharkey’s best series to date.  In this installment, we see that even the slightest damaging of a symbiotic relationship can be fatal to an ecosystem.  Harsh stuff.  Three stars.

Three Portraits and a Prayer, by Frederik Pohl

Terminally ill Dr. Rhine Cooperstock is convinced to make one last contribution to science before dying, but when his plowshares are turned into swords, he must sacrifice his last moments to right things.  Beautifully told, but the plot strains credulity.  Three stars.

Always a Qurono, by Jim Harmon

Leave it to slave-to-routine aliens to break the routine of a set-in-his-ways marooned space captain.  Supposed to be a funny piece, but it fails the laugh test.  A disappointing turn from a reliable author.  Two stars.

The Luck of Magnitudes, by George O. Smith

A fluffy piece on how lucky we are to have been growed on a planet that’s not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  I’m sure the Martians and Venusians have their own versions.  Two stars.

One Race Show, by John Jakes

Art is wordless communication, and what could be more universal a subject than the dark recesses of the human soul?  But is humanity ready to see its ugliness laid bare and exhibited in art galleries?  An interesting topic robbed of its impact by shallowly sardonic delivery.  Two stars.

***

Thanks to the dip at the end, this issue wraps up at just 2.9 stars.  Nevertheless, this does little credit to Vance’s story which, if it’s not in quite the same class as Moon Moth, isn’t far below.  Think of the August 1962 Galaxy as an Ace Double with a superior front and a mediocre back.  And at the very least, one gets a peek at a startling number of rich vistas, wild frontiers lying just beyond the current ken of humanity…

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)

[May 4, 1962] Cleft in Twain (June 1962 Galaxy, Part 1)


by Gideon Marcus

A few years ago, Galaxy Science Fiction changed its format, becoming half again as thick but published half as often.  196 pages can be a lot to digest in one sitting, so I used to review the magazine in two articles.  Over time, I simply bit the bullet and crammed all those stories into one piece – it was cleaner for reference.

But not this time.

You see, the June 1962 issue of Galaxy has got one extra-jumbo novella in the back of it, the kind of thing they used to build issues of Satellite Science Fiction around.  So it just makes sense to split things up this time around.

I’ve said before that Galaxy is a stable magazine – rarely too outstanding, rarely terrible.  Its editor, Fred Pohl, tends to keep the more daring stuff in Galaxy’s sister mag, IF, which has gotten pretty interesting lately.  So I enjoyed this month’s issue, but not overmuch.  Have a look:

The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass, by Frederik Pohl

Instead of an editor’s essay, Pohl has written a cute vignette on overpopulation without remediation.  Old Man Malthus in a three-page nightmare.  Apparently, good old Phineas didn’t think to pack Enovid when he brought perfect health back in time to the Roman Empire.  Anyway, I liked it.  Four stars.

For Love, by Algis Budrys

Budrys strikes a nice balance between satirical and macabre in this post-alien-invasion epic.  The last remnants of Homo Sapiens, driven underground after a tremendous ET tetrahedron crashes into the base of the Rockies, launch a pair of daring attacks against the invaders.  But at what cost to their humanity?  Four stars.

The Lamps of the Angels, by Richard Sabia

I viciously panned Sabia’s first work, I was a Teen-Age Superweapon; his latest is an improvement.  A thousand years from now, the human race is on the verge of reaching out for the stars, and one Mexico City-born pilot is selected for the honor of scouting Alpha Centauri.  But if humanity was meant to explore beyond the sun, surely God would have given us hyperdrives at birth.  A bit clunky in that “translated foreign languages way” (and I can be guilty of the same charge), but also compelling.  Three stars.

For Your Information: Names in the Sky, by Willy Ley

Every now and then, Ley returns to his former greatness and gives us a really good article.  This one, on the origins of the names of planets and stars is filled with good information pleasantly dispensed.  Of course, I’m always more kindly disposed towards articles that deal with etymology and/or astronomy… Four stars.

On the Wall of the Lodge, by James Blish and Virginia Blish

The latter portion of the magazine takes a sad turn for the worse.  Lodge is an avante garde piece about (I believe) a fellow whose life takes place in a television show.  It tries too hard and doesn’t make a lot of sense.  More significantly, it lost my interest ten pages in.  Thus, I must give it the lowest of scores: one star.

Dawningsburgh, by Wallace West

A cute piece about a callow tourist on Mars, who resents the other callow tourists of Mars, and the attempts to revive departed Martian culture with robots, to make a few bucks for the callow tourist industry.  Three stars.

Origins of Galactic Philosophy, by Edward Wellen

Wellen’s Origins series has deteriorated badly.  This latest entry, involving a space entrepreneur and the robot society he finds, is utterly unreadable.  One star.

Dreamworld, by R. A. Lafferty

Last up is a whimsical piece on a literal nightmare world with an telegraphed ending made tolerable by Lafferty’s unique touch.  Worth two or three stars, depending on your mood (and on which side of the bed one woke).

***

I’ll save The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg, for next time.  Here’s hoping it is in keeping with the first third rather than the second third of the magazine.  In the meantime, stay tuned…and try not to get drafted.

[March 10, 1962] Mail Call! (The April 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

If there is any true measure of fame, it might well be the amount of fan mail you get.  Many stars employ services to plow through their truckloads and give each missive personal response.  Jack Benny came out on his TV stage last night holding a giant sack of fan mail – of course, it was really filled with trash and old cans… 

Galactic Journey’s popularity lies somewhere inbetween; we do get our fair share of postcards, but I haven’t needed to hire help to read them…yet.  Truth be told, it was for these correspondences that I started this column.  I love meeting you folk – you start the most interesting conversations! 

Science fiction magazines get letters, too.  Many of these digests feature letter columns: Analog, IF, Amazing, and Fantastic.  The two notable hold-outs are Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy.  I suspect the main reason for F&SF is lack of space, it being the shortest of the monthly mags.

Galaxy‘s reasoning is more complex.  In fact, its editors (first H.L. Gold, now Fred Pohl) have polled readers to see if they wanted a lettercol.  In the last 12 years’ of the magazine’s existence, the answer has always been no.  Ironically, as much as I love talking to fellow fans, I think I’m in agreement (though I do like letters in comic books).  More room for stories!

Speaking of which…have a look at the stories that came out in this month’s quite good Galaxy, dated April 1962:

A Planet for Plundering, by Jack Williamson

Things start a bit slowly with our lead novella.  Wain Scarlet is an anachronism – an atavistic maladjust in an interstellar society of humans.  Where his countrymen are universally beautiful in form and thought, Scarlet is ugly and venal.  Dispatched to the remote star system of Sol to determine whether or not to melt the Earth to use as a galactic stoplight, his sole concern is which of the parties involved can bribe him the most.  Even the revelation that the third planet of the system may well be the ancestral home of humanity means little to him.

Jack Williamson has been around a long time, and his pulpish instincts often creep to the fore in this tale of first contact.  Planet has moments of engagement, and the protagonist is delightfully anti-heroic, but the rough patches bog it down.  Two stars.

Tail-Tied Kings, by Avram Davidson

Davidson, now editor for F&SF, continues his slide into mediocre self-indulgence.  If you recall Miram Allen Deford’s Oh Rats! from issue before last, you’ve got the plot of this one – superrats escape from captivity, poised to take over the world from their bipedal erstwhile masters.  Not unreadable (like some of Davidson’s other recent stuff), but why bother rehashing the same story?  And so soon?  Two stars.

Star-Crossed Lover, by William Stuart

Ah, but then we have William Stuart, who rarely disappoints and usually delights.  This Galaxy veteran offers up a fun, tongue-in-cheek tale of romance between a loveable schlub and an eager-to-please, highly wanton ET.  What could go wrong when you’ve got the literal woman of your dreams?  You’ll have to read and find out.  Four stars.

For Your Information, by Willy Ley

Everyone’s favorite German returns this bi-month with a piece on shaped charges.  These are explosive shells whose effectiveness is multiplied by how the powder inside is molded.  Pretty fascinating stuff, actually, but the letter Q&A portion afterward is lackluster.  Three stars.

The Long, Silvery Day, by Magnus Ludens

You ever have one of those perfect days?  When everything goes just perfectly?  Ever wonder if someone was behind it?  The impressively named Magnus Ludens is a brand new author, and he hits a triple his first time at bat.  Four stars for this charming story.

Big Baby, by Jack Sharkey

If Stuart is a name that raises expectations, Sharkey’s is one that lowers them.  Big Baby is the next in his series starring Jerry Norciss, a telepathic member of the Contact service.  His job is to jump into the minds of beasts on various planets to learn more about the local ecology.  It’s not a purely scientific mission – there’s always a colony in trouble.  The tidbits about the lonely, junkie-esque life of the esper are compelling, but Baby‘s menace isn’t as interesting as the ones in his last story, there’s far too much exposition, and the solution is clumsily rendered.  Two stars.

Gourmet, by Allen Kim Lang

I’ve no particular reason to like Gourmet, about a spacer who can do wonders with algae rations – but I do.  Perhaps it’s because I fancy myself a gourmand, or because Lang is pretty good with the typewriter.  Either way, it’s a swell story.  Four stars.

Founding Father, by J.F. Bone

Did the slaveowners think they were righteous?  Do the Whites who lynch Blacks feel good about what they do?  Founding Father puts us in the minds of a pair of reptilian aliens who investigate modern-day Earth.  Their ship has insufficient fuel for the return trip, so they place mental taps into a married couple and compel them to collect some. 

What ensues is a difficult read, particularly if mental coercion is your weak point.  There is no happy ending, and the enslaved’s resistance is slowly, methodically destroyed.  Yet the slavemasters are not uncivilized.  Their actions are justified, at least to themselves.  And it’s all rendered with a somewhat insouciant touch, appropriate given whose viewpoint we see through.  Chilling.

This is an awfully hard piece to be objective about.  It’s a cruel story, all the more shocking for its lightness of tone.  But I think it’s deliberate.  I’ve read enough of J.F. Bone to be assured that he knows what he’s doing.  If you finish Father without having addressed your feelings about slavery, racism, and the indignity of nonconsensual control, then you’re either not getting the point, or you may have no soul.  Tough stuff, but worthy.  Four stars.

Moondog, by Arthur C. Clarke

About an astronaut and the dog who saves him, even over a distance spanning hundreds of thousands of miles, several years, and the veil of life.  This is a rather pedestrian tale from perhaps the most preeminent of British sf authors, but to be fair, I’m more of a cat lover.  Three stars.

So there you go – a jumbo-sized issue of Galaxy that finished on the good side of decent.  Something to write home about?  I leave that to you to decide…

[January 12, 1962] Odd one out (February 1962 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction is a broad genre.  It includes hard scientific, nuts-and-bolts projections that read like modern tales with just a touch of the future in them; this is the kind of stuff the magazine Analog is made up of.  Then you’ve got far out stuff, not just fantasy but surrealism.  The kind of work Cordwainer Smith pulls off with such facility that it approaches its own kind of realism.  In this realm lie the lampoons, the parables, the just plain kooky.  They get labeled as “science fiction,” but they don’t predict futures that could actually happen, nor do they incorporate much real science.  Rather, they end up in the sf mags because where else would they go?  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction showcases this type as a good portion of their monthly offerings (appropriately enough — “Fantasy” is in the name).

Galaxy magazine has always trod a middle road, delivering pure scientific tales, fantastic stories, and pieces of psychological or “soft” science fiction that fall somewhere in between.  It’s that balance that is part of what makes Galaxy my favorite magazine (that and stubborn loyalty – it was my first subscription). 

The first Galaxy of 1962, on the other hand, veers heavily into the fantastic.  Virtually every story presented has a distinct lack of grounding in reality.  Does it work?  Well…see for yourself.

Fred Pohl and his lately deceased frequent partner Cyril Kornbluth wrote a whole lot together.  In fact, I think they’ve published more since Kornbluth’s death than while he was alive!  I have to think Pohl is doing most of the work on Kornbluth’s outlines, but perhaps there’s something mystical going on.  Anyway, Critical Mass is the latest from this duo, a satirical “if this goes on” piece combining the mania for construction of bomb shelters and the public passion for baseball.  An entertaining piece though lacking in nuance.  Three stars.

LaGrange points, those places of gravitational stability involving two celestial bodies, were the topic of a recent Asimov piece.  Willy Ley now discusses them in his latest science column, For Your Information: Earth’s Extra Satellites.  There’s interesting stuff here though I’m afraid the Good German no longer has the gift for presentation that the Good Doctor possesses.  Three stars.

Shatter the Wall is an odd piece by newcomer, Sydney Van Scyoc.  Television, now taking up entire walls of houses, has become the object of the world’s attention.  In particular, a prosaic domestic drama featuring four stars whom everyone tries to emulate.  Wall reads like a dream, and if taken in that way, is a neat story.  I found it a little too off-kilter to really connect, however.  You might feel differently.  Three stars.

There’s a new hobby I’ve discovered called “board wargaming.”  Players do battle using cardboard chits representing military units and a set of rules considerably more involved that those of, say, Chess or Checkers.  Avalon Hill, a publishing company, started the fad with Tactics II, a simulation of modern strategic warfare, and recently followed it up with a D-Day game and a couple on Civil War battles.

Now, imagine if the world stopped settling their differences with armed conflicts and instead resorted to simulated fighting. 

That’s the premise of James Harmon’s The Place Where Chicago Was.  All war is simulated, presumably facilitated by computer.  Big cities are not actually destroyed in enemy pseudo-attacks.  Rather, they are simply quarantined for twenty years and left to fend for themselves.  Residents are forbidden to leave; outsiders are restricted from entering.  To enforce the peace, giant psycho-transmitters are set up that broadcast pacifistic thoughts to the populace. 

It’s such an implausible idea that I have to think Harmon is attempting some kind of satire.  On the other hand, it doesn’t read like satire.  It’s well written, but I don’t quite know what to make of it.  Three stars.


by Cowles

The Martian Star-Gazers is a “non-faction” piece by Ernst Mason, whom I’ve never heard of.  It tells the sad story of the erstwhile inhabitants of the Red Planet, done in by their fear of the heavens.  I appreciated Mason’s take on Martian constellations, particularly their contrast with terrestrial counterparts.  Three stars.

Algis Budrys writes deep, thoughtful stuff with a somber edge.  The Rag and Bone Men features a stranded alien intelligence that has taken over the Earth but only wishes to be able to go back home.  Terran science simply isn’t up to the task, and neither are the mind-slaved humans who labor at it.  A weird, perhaps overly poetic story.  Three stars.

Ed Wellen is back with another non-faction “Origins” piece, Origins of Galactic Fruit Salad.  A catalog of intergalactic service decorations, it’s in the same vein as his last piece: Origins of the Galactic Short-Snorter.  Sadly, unlike that work, Galactic Fruit Salad commits the cardinal sin of any comedic piece – it’s not funny.  One star.

The Big Engine, by Fritz Leiber, is solipsism done backwards.  The world is a giant machine, all of its pieces playing preordained parts save for the few components that become self-aware.  There’s not much to this story, but I must confess that I found it all the more memorable for having read it on a busy street corner, where the thrum of Leiber’s mechanical world was most immediate.  Three stars.

The balance of the issue comprises Part 2 of Poul Anderson’s Day after Doomsday, which as I said in my last article, was disappointing in comparison to the promising first half. 

While I applaud the effort toward experimentation in this issue, the result is an oddly monotonous clutch of stories, no “real” sf here.  Each of the tales might have been decent sandwiched between traditional stories, but they become an abstract, off-putting blob in unrelieved combination.  Galaxy would do well to return to its heterogeneous mix of sf types; I think trying to beat Analog or F&SF at their own games would be a bit of a forlorn hope.

See you in two with a “Fantastic” update!

[November 8, 1961] Points East (Air Travel and the December 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

How small the world has gotten!

Less than a decade ago, trans-oceanic travel was limited to the speed of a propeller.  If you journeyed by boat, as many still do, it would take two weeks to cross the Pacific.  Airplanes were faster – with a couple of stops, one could get from California to the Orient in less than two days.  As a journalist and travel columnist, I spent a good amount of time in both hemispheres during the early 1950s.  I got to be quite seasoned at the travel game.

I have to tell you, things are so much faster these days.  The jet engine has cut flight times in half, taking much of the tedium out of travel.  Oh, sure, I always had plenty to do in the air, between writing and reading and planning my next adventures, but for my poor fellow travelers, there was little to do but drink, smoke, and write letters.  For hours and hours. 

These days, the Journey is my primary occupation.  I can do it from anywhere, and I often do, bringing my family along with me.  As we speak, I am writing out this article with the roar of the Japan Airlines DC-8’s jets massaging my ears, music from pneumatic headphone cords joining the mix.  It’s a smooth ride, too.  It would be idyllic, if not for the purple clouds of tobacco smoke filling the cabin.  But again, I suffer this annoyance for half the time as before.  I’ll abide. 

We’ve just lifted off from Honolulu, and in less than 8 hours, we will touch down at Haneda airport, in the heart of Tokyo, Japan’s capital.  We will be in the Land of the Rising Sun for two weeks, visiting friends and taking in the local culture.  I’ll be sure to tell you all about our adventures, but don’t worry.  I’ve also brought along a big stack of books and magazines so I can continue to keep you informed on the latest developments in science fiction.  Moreover, I’m sure we’ll see a movie or two, and we’ll report on those, too.

Speaking of reports, I’ve just finished up this month’s Galaxy Science Fiction.  I almost didn’t recognize this December issue as it lacks the usual fanciful depiction of St. Nick.  Instead, it features an illustration from Poul Anderson’s new novel, The Day After Doomsday, whose first part takes up a third of the double-sized magazine.  As usual, I won’t cover the serial until it’s done, but Anderson has been reliable of late, and I’ve high hopes.

The rest of the magazine maintains and perhaps even elevates Galaxy’s solid record.  The first short story is Oh, Rats!, by veteran Miriam Allen DeFord (the first of three woman authors in this book!) Rats reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone — I could practically hear Serling’s narrating voice as the story of SK540, a super-rat bent on world domination, unfolded.  Tense and tight, if not innovative.  Three stars.

Willy Ley has returned to original form with his latest non-fiction article, Dragons and Hot-Air Balloons.  Did the Montgolfier brothers get their lighter-than-aircraft ideas from the Chinese?  Have balloons been around since the Middle Ages?  Has the winged ancestor of the pterosaurs been discovered?  And, as an aside, did the Nazis really invent the biggest cannon ever?  Good stuff.  Four stars.

Satisfaction Guaranteed is a cute tale of interstellar commerce by Joy Leache.  Washed up salesman and his assistant try to figure out a profitable-enough endeavor for the elf-like denizens of Felix II such that they might join the Galactic Federation.  It’s a genuinely funny piece.  I’ve only one complaint: very early on, it is made clear that the woman assistant is the brains of the operation, yet she feels compelled to give credit the the fellow.  I prefer my futures looking a little less like the present!  Three stars.

Now, Algis Budrys, on the other hand, has no trouble breaking with the familiar entirely.  His Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night, involving a corporate executive whose plan to release television’s successor is thwarted by a seemingly immortal competitor, is a chilling mystery.  Just what gift did the Martians grant the businessman’s rival to make him so powerful?  And was it really a boon after all?  Four stars.

R.A. Lafferty tones his whimsical style down just a touch in his latest, Rainbird.  It’s a sort of biography of one Higgston Rainbird, an inventor who could have been, in fact was the greatest tinkerer in human history.  It just goes to show that a person’s greatest ally, and also one’s greatest impediment, is oneself.  Four stars.

An Old Fashioned Bird Christmas is Margaret St. Clair’s contribution, delivered in that off-beat, slightly macabre, but ever-poetic fashion that is her trademark.  A story of good vs. evil, of Luddism vs. progress, archaic religion vs. new, and with a strong lady protagonist to boot!  Four stars.

We’re treated to a second piece of science fact by Theodore L. Thomas, called The Watery Wonders of Captain Nemo.  Thomas praises the literary great, Jules Verne, for his writing skill, but then excoriates the French author’s use (or rather, lack of use) of science.  Every technical aspect of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is evaluated and picked apart.  To hear Thomas tell it, Verne knew about as much about science as his contemporary laymen…perhaps less.  An interesting blend of education and critique.  Three stars.

The issue is wraps up with a bang: The Little Man who wasn’t Quite, by William W. Stuart, is a hard-hitting piece about the horror that lies at the bottom of Skid Row.  A sensitive piece by a fellow who seems to know, it’s the kind of gripping thing Daniel Keyes might have turned in for F&SF.  Five stars.

And so Galaxy ends the year on a strong note.  Fred Pohl, now firmly in the editor’s seat, has done a fine job helming one of s-f’s finest digests into the 1960s.  This is the kind of magazine that could win the Hugo – it may well secure the Galactic Star this year.  It all depends on how F&SF is this month, the two are that close.

Next up… an article from our British correspondent, Ashley Pollard!

[September 8, 1961] What makes a Happy?  (October 1961 Galaxy)


by Gideon Marcus

It doesn’t take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy.  Why Galaxy?  Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it’s 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I’ve seen in a long while.  Come take a look with me – I promise it’ll be worth your while.

First up is A Planet Named Shayol, by Cordwainer Smith.  Smith’s is a rare talent.  There are few writers who not only excel at their craft, but they somehow transcend it, creating something otherworldly in its beauty.  Ted Sturgeon can do it.  I’m having trouble thinking of others in this class.  Almost every Smith story has this slightly lilting, 10% off-plane sense to it. 

Shayol is set in the far future universe of the “Instrumentality,” a weird interstellar human domain with people on top, beast creatures as servants, and robots at the bottom of the social totem pole.  This particular novelette introduces us to the most peculiar and forbidding of Devil’s Islands, the planet Shayol.  Just maintaining one’s humanity in such a place of horrors is a triumph.  The story promises to be a hard read, yet Smith manages to skirt the line of discomfort to create a tale of hope with an upbeat ending.  Plus, Smith doesn’t shy from noble woman characters.  Five stars.

Robert Bloch comes and goes with little stories that are either cute, horrific, or both.  Crime Machine, about a 21st Century boy who takes a trip back to the exciting days of gangster Chicago, is one of the former variety.  Three stars.

Another short one is Amateur in Chancery by George O. Smith.  A sentimental vignette about a scientist’s frantic efforts to retrieve an explorer trapped on Venus by a freak teleportation mishap.  Slight but sweet.  Three stars.

I’m not quite sure I understood The Abominable Earthman, by Galaxy’s editor, Fred Pohl.  In it, Earth is conquered by seemingly invincible aliens, but one incorrigible human is the key to their defeat.  The setup is good, but the end seemed a bit rushed.  Maybe you’ll like it better than me.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science article is about the reclaimed lowlands of Holland.  It’s a fascinating topic, almost science fiction, but somehow Ley’s treatment is unusually dull.  I feel as if he’s phoning in his articles these days.  Two stars.


Art by Dick Francis

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, is another swing and miss.  An interesting premise, involving a race that reproduces parthenogenetically via musical stimulation, is ruined by a silly ending.  Two stars.

Jack Sharkey usually fails to impress, but his psychic first contact story, Arcturus times Three, is a decent read.  You’ll definitely thrill as the Contact Agent possesses the bodies of several alien animals in a kind of psionic planetary survey.  What keeps Arcturus out of exceptional territory is the somehow unimaginative way the exotic environs and species are portrayed.  Three stars.

If you are a devotee of the coffee house scene, or if you just dig Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, then you’re well acquainted with the Beat scene.  Those crazy kooks with their instruments and their poetry, living a life decidedly rounder than square.  It’s definitely a groove I fall in, and I look forward to throwing away my suit and tie when I can afford to live the artistic life.  Fritz Leiber’s new story, The Beat Cluster is about a little slice of Beatnik heaven in orbit, a bunch of self-sufficient bubbles with a gaggle of space-bound misfits — if you can get past the smell, it sure sounds inviting.  I love the premise; the story doesn’t do much, though.  Three stars.

Last up is Donald Westlake, a fellow I normally associate with action thrillers.  His The Spy in the Elevator is kind of a minor masterpiece.  Not so much in concept (set in an overcrowded Earth where everyone lives in self-contained city buildings) but in execution.  It takes skill to weave exposition with brevity yet comprehensiveness into a story’s hook – and it does hook.  Westlake also keeps a consistent, believable viewpoint throughout the story, completely in keeping with the setting.  I find myself giving it five stars, for execution, if nothing else.

Add it all up and what do you get?  3.3 stars out of 5, and at least one story that could end up a contender for the 1961 Hugos (I really enjoyed the Westlake, but I feel it may not be avante garde enough for the gold rocket).  Now that’s something to smile about!

[July 6, 1961] Trends (August 1961 Galaxy, second half)

Human beings look for patterns.  We espy the moon, and we see a face.  We study history and see it repeat (or at least rhyme, said Mark Twain).  We look at the glory of the universe and infer a Creator. 

We look at the science fiction genre and we (some of us) conclude that it is dying.

Just look at the number of science fiction magazines in print in the early 1950s.  At one point, there were some forty such publications, just in the United States.  These days, there are six.  Surely this is an unmistakable trend.

Or is it?  There is something to be said for quality over quantity, and patterns can be found there, too.  The last decade has seen the genre flower into maturity.  Science fiction has mostly broken from its pulpy tradition, and many of the genre’s luminaries (for instance, Ted Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson) have blazed stunning new terrain.

I’ve been keeping statistics on the Big Three science fiction digests, Galaxy, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1959.  Although my scores are purely subjective, if my readers’ comments be any indication, I am not too far out of step in my assessments.  Applying some math, I find that F&SF has stayed roughly the same, and both Analog and Galaxy have improved somewhat.

Supporting this trend is the latest issue of Galaxy (August 1961), which was quite good for its first half and does not decline in its second.

For instance, Keith Laumer’s King of the City is an exciting tale of a cabbie who cruises the streets of an anarchic future.  The cities are run by mobs, and the roads are owned by automobile gangs.  It’s a setting I haven’t really seen before (outside, perhaps, of Kit Reed’s Judas Bomb), and I dug it.  In many ways, it’s just another crime potboiler, but the setting sells it.  Three stars.

Amid all of the ugly headlines, the blaring rock n’ roll, the urban sprawl, do you ever feel that the romance has gone out of the race?  That indefinable spark that raises us to the sublime?  Lester del Rey’s does, and in Return Engagement, his protagonist discovers what we’ve been missing all these years.  A somber piece, perhaps a bit overwrought, but effective.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column, For your Information, is amusing and educational, as usual, though its heyday has long past.  This time, the subject is the preeminent biologist, Dr. Theodore Zell, whom Dr. Ley never got to meet, though he tried.  Three stars.

Deep Down Dragon, by Judith Merril, depicts a lovers’ jaunt on Mars that ends in a brush with danger.  Told in Merril’s deft, artistic style, the rather typical boy-rescues-girl story isn’t all it appears to be.  Three stars.

I can’t lay enough praise upon the final novella, Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth.  Science fiction offers a large number of tropes and techniques that provide building blocks for stories.  Every once in a while, a writer creates something truly new.  Vance gives us Sirenis, a planet whose denizens communicate with musical accompaniment that conveys mood beyond that inherent in words.  Moth is a murder mystery, and that story is interesting in and of itself, but what really makes this piece is the struggle of the Terran investigator to master the native modes of communication and to overcome the pitifully low status that being a foreigner affords.  Really a beautiful piece.  Five stars.

That puts the total for this issue at a respectable 3.4 stars.  So far as I can tell, science fiction has got some life left in it…

[April 30, 1961] Travel stories (June 1961 Galaxy, first half)

My nephew, David, has been on an Israeli Kibbutz for a month now.  We get letters from him every few days, mostly about the hard work, the monotony of the diet, and the isolation from the world.  The other day, he sent a letter to my brother, Lou, who read it to me over the phone.  Apparently, David went into the big port-town of Haifa and bought copies of Life, Time, and Newsweek.  He was not impressed with the literary quality of any of them, but he did find Time particularly useful.

You see, Israeli bathrooms generally don’t stock toilet paper…

Which segues nicely into the first fiction review of the month.  I’m happy to report I have absolutely nothing against the June 1961 Galaxy – including my backside.  In fact, this magazine is quite good, at least so far.  As usual, since this is a double-sized magazine, I’ll review it in two parts.

First up is Mack Reynolds’ unique novelette, Farmer.  Set thirty years from now in the replanted forests of the Western Sahara, it’s an interesting tale of intrigue and politics the likes of which I’ve not seen before.  Reynolds has got a good grasp of the international scene, as evidenced by his spate of recent stories of the future Cold War.  If this story has a failing, it is its somewhat smug and one-sided tone.  Geopolitics should be a bit more ambiguous.  It’s also too good a setting for such a short story.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s science column immediately follows.  There’s some good stuff in this one, particularly the opening piece on plans to melt the Arctic ice cap to improve the climate of the USSR (and, presumably, Scandinavia and Canada).  Of course, if global warming happens on schedule, we won’t need any outlandish engineering marvels to make this happen; we can just continue business as usual.  Hail progress!

I also appreciated Ley’s reply to one of his fans, who asked why he rarely covers space launches anymore.  His answer?  They come too quickly!  Any reporting would have a 4-5 month delay – an eternity these days.  It’s hard enough for me to keep up.  Four stars.

The Graybes of Raath is Neal Barret, Jr.’s third story in Galaxy.  It should be a throw-away, what with the punny title, the non-shocker ending, and the hideous Don Martin art.  But this tale of a well-meaning immigration agency attempting to find the home of a family of itinerant alien farmers is actually a lot of fun.  Barrett is nothing if not consistent.  Three stars.

Now here’s a weird one.  Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth have a new duet out called A Gentle Dying.  Now, the two have worked together for many years; that’s not the surprising part.  Nor is the fact that the story, about an incredibly elderly and beloved children’s author’s last moments, is good.  No, it’s strange because Kornbluth has been dead for five years!  I can only imagine that Pohl (now de-facto editor of Galaxy, per last month’s F&SF) dusted this one off after having waited for the right venue/slot-size.  Three stars.

Last up is R.A. Lafferty’s absolutely lovely The Weirdest World.  Can a marooned alien blob find sanctuary, even happiness, among aliens so strange as those that live on Earth?  I’ve always kind of liked Lafferty, but this one is his best to date, with its gentle writing, and its spot-on portrayal of cross-species telepathy.  Five stars.

This column began with travel, and it ends with travel.  My wife and I are in Las Vegas for a weekend, enjoying the food and the sights.  Sinatra doesn’t seem to be at the Sands right now, but that’s all right.  We’ll catch Ol’ Blue Eyes another time.

While we were here, we ran into Emily Jablon, a famous columnist and Jet Setter who spends much of her time flitting across the world.  She gave us some tips on travel that were new even to us!  Of course, we introduced her to Galactic Journeying, and what better way than with this month’s Galaxy?

[March 8, 1961] Bland for Adventure (April 1961 Galaxy, 1st half)

As we speak, my nephew, David, is on the S.S. Israel bound for Haifa, Israel.  It’s the last leg of a long trip that began with a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York, continued with a six-day sea cruise across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and which currently sees the youth making a brief landing in the Greek port of Piraeus.  He’s about to begin a year (or two) in Israel on a kibbutz.  An exciting adventure, to be sure, though I will miss our discussions on current science fiction, even if his tastes were, understandably, a little less refined than mine. 

So I hope, dear readers, that you will make up for his absence by sending me even more of your lovely comments!

Of course, you can hardly prepare your posts until I’ve reviewed this month’s set of magazines.  First on the pile, as usual, is the double-large issue of Galaxy, the biggest of the science fiction magazines with 196 pages packed with some of the biggest names in the field. 

But is bigger always better?  Not necessarily.  In fact, Galaxy seems to be where editor H.L. Gold stuffs his “safe” stories, the ones by famous folks that tend not to offend, but also won’t knock your socks off.

So it is with the April 1961 Galaxy, starting with the novella, Planeteer, the latest from newcomer Fred Saberhagen.  It starts brilliantly, featuring an interstellar contact team from Earth attempting to establish relations with an aboriginal alien race.  Two points impressed me within the first few pages: the belt-pouch sized computer (how handy would that be?) and the breakfast described as, “synthetic ham, and a scrambled substance not preceded or followed by chickens.”

The race, however, is disappointingly human; the tale is a fairly typical conundrum/solution story.  On the other hand, the alien king does show some refreshing intelligence—no easy White God tactics for the Planeteers!  Three stars.

Fritz Leiber offers up Kreativity for Kats, an adorable tale of a feline with the blood of an artiste.  Now, any story that features cats is sure to be a cute one (with the notable, creepy exception of The Mind Thing…) It’s not science fiction at all, not even fantasy, but I read it with a grin on my face.  Four stars.

Galaxy’s science fact column, For Your Information, by German rocket scientist Willy Ley, continues to be entertaining.  This bi-month’s article is on the Gegenschein, that mysterious counterpoint to the Zodiacal Light.  There’s also a fun aside about the annexation of Patagonia by a bewildered German professor as well as silly bit on Seven League Boots.  Three stars.

Last up for the first half of the book is James Stamer’s Scent Makes a Difference, which answers the question on everyone’s mind: What if you could meet all the alternate yous—the ones who took different paths in life?  Would you learn from all of your possible mistakes?  Or would you merely commit the biggest blunder of all?  I didn’t quite understand the ending (or perhaps I overthought it).  Three stars.

That’s that for now.  Read up, drop me a line, and I’ll have the second half in a few days!

[January 6, 1960] Watch your tongue?  (February 1961 Galaxy, Part 1)

The old saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  As you know, I am rarely reserved when I don’t like a piece of work.  Every once in a while, I get a gentle chiding.  One reader said he didn’t want to hear about stories I don’t like–just the ones I do.  Another opined that my fans might tire of my consistently negative reviews of a certain author. 

I don’t want to discount these criticisms as I think they are valid.  On the other hand, if I am unreserved in my scorn, I am similarly effusive about what I like.  My columns are rarely completely negative.  Moreover, I recognize that even the works I don’t like often appeal to others, and I love receiving letters from folks who disagree with my judgments. 

Besides, you good folk likely come here to see me as much as to get reading recommendations.  Alfred Bester said in F&SF last month that he prefers English non-fiction to American as English authors will intrude into the text.  There are only so many ways to package facts; the only distinguishing character is the personality of the packager.  Certainly, I read Asimov as much for the science lesson as for the fun anecdotes.

So, enjoy all of me, even the kvetching.  And if you don’t, feel free to tell me just how much you dislike me.  I may even agree with you…

On to the task at hand–reviewing the first half of the February 1961 Galaxy!

Evelyn Smith (formerly Gold, same name as the editor, natch) takes up most of it with Sentry in the Sky, a story about a malcontent in a futuristic caste system who is enlisted to become a long-term spy mole on a more primitive world.  It’s not bad, but it is awfully simplistic, and the point meanders.  Moreover, it relies on awfully human aliens.  Of course, it’s satire as much as anything else–the primitive world has a culture that is immediately familiar to 20th Century people.  Let me know what you think.  Three stars.

Doorstep is a cute short by Keith Laumer about an overachieving general and the UFO he tries to crack open.  Sort of a poor man’s Sheckley; something I’d expect from 1952.  Three stars.

Willy Ley’s article is pretty interesting this month.  He covers the new science of “seeding” clouds to create rain in Let’s do Something about the Weather.  Three stars.

Finally, we have what may be the very first piece from a new writer, Volume Paa-Pyx by Fred Saberhagen.  It’s a fun twist on the future where those with specific aptitudes get placed in appropriate professions.  When is a police state not a police state?  Three stars.

It doesn’t take a slide rule to calculate this issue: Three stars across the board!  Nothing exceptional, nothing horrid.  Satisfying, but ummemorable.  Let me ask you–is it better to be delivered a dose of strong ups and downs or a steady, bland mean?