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[July 27, 1961] Breaking a Winning Streak (August 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

by Gideon Marcus

Take a look at the back cover of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.  There’s the usual array of highbrows with smug faces letting you know that they wouldn’t settle for a lesser sci-fi mag.  And next to them is the Hugo award that the magazine won last year at Pittsburgh’s WorldCon.  That’s the third Hugo in a row. 

It may well be their last.

I used to love this little yellow magazine.  Sure, it’s the shortest of the Big Three (including Analog and Galaxy), but in the past, it boasted the highest quality stories.  I voted it best magazine for 1959 and 1960

F&SF has seen a steady decline over the past year, however, and the last three issues have been particularly bad.  Take a look at what the August 1961 issue offers us:

Avaram Davidson and Morton Klass’s The Kappa Nu Nexus, about a milquetoast Freshman who joins a fraternity that hosts a kooky set of time travelers.  Davidson’s writing, formerly some of the most sublime, has gotten unreadably self-indulgent, and William Tenn’s brother (Klass) doesn’t make it any better.  One star.

Survival Planet, by Harry Harrison, features the remnant colony of the vanquished Great Slavocracy.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s mostly told rather than shown, the book-ends being highly expositional.  Three stars.

Vance Aandahl, as one of my readers once observed, desperately wants to be Ray Bradbury.  His Cogi Drove His Car Through Hell has the virtue of starring a non-traditional protagonist; that’s the only virtue of this mess.  One star.

Juliette, translated from the French by Damon Knight (it is originally by Claude-François Cheiniss), is a bright spot.  It’s a sort of cross between McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and Young’s Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used Car Lot.  I found it effective, written in that Gallic light fashion.  Four stars.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you the point of E. William Blau’s first printed story, The Dispatch Executive.  Something about a bureaucratic dystopia, or perhaps it’s a special kind of hell for office clerks.  Hell is right, and here’s hoping we don’t see Blau in print again.  One star.

Then we have another comparatively bright spot: Kit Reed’s Piggy.  Per the author, it is “the story of Pegasus, although I don’t remember that his passengers spouted verse, and a mashup of first lines from Emily Dickinson, whom I admired, but never liked.”  There’s no question that it’s beautifully written, but there is not much movement as regards to plot.  Three stars.

A Meeting on a Northern Moor, Leah Bodine Drake’s poem on the decline of Norse mythology is evocative, though brief.  Murray Leinster’s The Case of the Homicidal Robots is a turgid mystery-adventure involving the spacenapping of dozens io interstellar vessels.  Three and two stars, respectively.

Winona McClintic is back with Four Days in the Corner, some kind of ghost story.  It’s worse than her last piece, and that’s nothing to be proud of.  Two stars.

Then we have Asimov’s science fact column, The Evens Have It, on the frequency of nuclear isotopes among the elements.  The Good Doctor’s articles are usually the high point of F&SF for me, but this one is the first I’d ever characterize as “dull.”  Three stars, but you’ll probably give it a two.

Rounding things up is Gordon Dickson’s The Haunted Village, about a traveler who vacations in a village whose inhabitants are hostile to outsiders.  The twist?  There is no outside world – only the delusion that such a thing exists.  Dickson is capable of a lot better.  Two stars.

I often say that I read bad fiction so you don’t have to.  This was especially true this month.  While Galaxy was quite good (3.4 stars), both Analog and F&SF clocked in at 2.2. 
For those of you new to the genre and wondering why they should bother (why I should bother), I promise – it’s not all like this.  Please don’t let it all be like this…

Coming up next: The sci-fi epic, Mysterious Island!

[Nov. 28, 1960] Odds and Ends (the December 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Here’s a math problem for you, kids!  If more than half of your magazine is taken up by a 2-star short novel, how likely is it that you’ll still end up with a good issue?

Answer: not very.

I’m used to Fantasy & Science Fiction having a long table of contents page.  This one (the December 1960 issue) comprises just ten entries, and all save the Asimov article are vignettes.  I wonder if we’ll be seeing a slew of larger stories now that Editor Mills has depleted his stock of tiny ones.

Anyway, it’s quality, not quantity that counts.  So how was the quality?

Winona McClintic is a sporadic contributor to the magazine, and she offers up The Way Out of Town, in which an infestation of snakes blocks all of the vehicular arteries in and out of every city in the (unidentified) state.  They cause havoc, widespread and personal, as one might expect. 

That’s about it; the story is over almost as it starts.  Mills says in the prologue, “Readers who like only those stories with beginnings and middles and ends, in which everything is clearly explained,may not be fully satisfied with the following.”  He’s right!  Two stars.

Up next is Rope’s End, by Miriam Allen deFord.  The premise is excellent: a Terran accidentally kills an alien on the extraterrestrial’s world.  His sentence is to wear a rope around his neck for twenty years–one that is constricted every year.  I like everything about it but the ending; and it’s not even the ending that bothers me so much as the protagonist’s inability to suspect how things would turn out given how much time he devoted to the problem.  Three stars.

Avram Davidson has a two-pager about sexually frustrated teens whose unfulfilled desires channel into a powerful psychokinetic talent.  Called Yo-ho, and Up, it is silly and rather difficult to read.  Two stars.

I don’t usually go for poetry, but Rosser Reeves (who is, apparently, a businessman by day) has a nice piece on alternate worlds called Infinity.  I dug it.  Four stars.

Speaking of digging, The Beatnik Werewolf is (I believe) the first effort by Dan Lindsay.  What’s a shaggy vegetarian hepcat…er…dog to do when he falls in love after two hundred years as a lone wolf?  Cute, if inconsequential.  Three stars.

Dr. Asimov’s article is on dolphins and echo-location this month.  A could-be fascinating topic, particularly the bits about the ability to produce sound being used for navigation long before its purposing for communication.  But the good doctor seems rather scattered this time around.  Three stars.

The last piece is a reprint from a literary mag New World Writing #16 called The Listener by John Berry.  It’s not really science fiction or fantasy, but I enjoyed it a lot, this tale of the meeting between an itinerant fiddler and an old, old lighthouser.  Four stars.

Using my trusty slide rule, this all adds up to about 2.5 stars.  A less than auspicious end of the year for what is normally my favorite science fiction magazine.  It’s a good thing the competition was in excellent form this month.

See you at the end of the month for a review of November, a preview of December, and a space-based peeping tom whose presence we can all be thankful for.