Tag Archives: zenna henderson

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


by Gideon Marcus

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

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

Darfgarth, by Vance Aandahl

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

Two’s a Crowd, by Sasha Gilien

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

Master Misery, by Truman Capote

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

Stanley Toothbrush, by Carl Brandon

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

Subcommittee, by Zenna Henderson

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

Brown Robert, by Terry Carr

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

Six Haiku, by Karen Anderson

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

My Dear Emily, by Joanna Russ

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

Hot Stuff, by Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

The Man Without a Planet, by Kate Wilhelm

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

Uncle Arly, by Ron Goulart

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

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

[February 23, 1962] Material Reading (March 1962 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

The coverage for John Glenn’s orbital flight was virtually non-stop on the 20th.  My daughter and I (as many likely did) played hooky to watch it.  During the long countdown, the Young Traveler worried that the astronaut might get bored during his wait and commented that NASA might have been kind enough to install a small television on the Mercury control panel.

But, from our previous experience, we were pretty sure what the result of that would have been:

CAPCOM: “T MINUS 30 seconds and counting…”

Glenn: “Al, Mr. Ed just came on.  Can we delay the count a little bit?”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “You are on internal power and the Atlas is Go.  Do you copy, Friendship 7

Glenn: “Al, Supercar‘s on now.  Just a little more.”

30 minutes later…

CAPCOM: “The recovery fleet is standing by and will have to refuel if we don’t launch soon…John, what’s with the whistling?”

Glenn: “But Al, Andy Griffith just came on!”

So, TV is probably out.  But a good book, well…that couldn’t hurt anything, right?  And this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction was a quite good book, indeed.  Witness:

Jonathan and the Space Whale, by Robert F. Young

Two years ago, Mr. Young began an issue of F&SF with a bang.  He does it again with Whale.  Young is a master of writing compelling relationships between two utterly alien beings – in this case, that between a restless, aimless young man of many talents, and the space whale that swallows him whole.  Great stuff.  Five stars.

Wonder as I Wander: Some Footprints on John’s Trail Through Magic Mountains, Manly Wade Wellman

It is hard to pack a lot of wallop into a half-page vignette, but I must say that Wellman has pulled it off here – repeatedly.  Footprints is a set of short-short shorts designed to be interstitials for a collection (due to be published later this year) of stories about John the balladeer, a Korea veteran with a silver-stringed guitar and a facility with white magic.  Some are truly effective, and all are worthy.  Five stars.

The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity, by Fritz Leiber

Friends is a readable story with a stingless tail.  I suspect Leiber is past his prime, riding on his name rather than putting much effort into things.  Three stars.

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIX, by “Grendel Briarton”

One of the more contrived and less funny of Reginald Bretnor’s punnish efforts. 

A War of No Consequence, by Edgar Pangborn

This, then, is the jewel of the issue.  Pangborn’s last tale of a young redheaded runaway from the Eastern seaboard of a bombed-out America, was sublime.  This one is just about as good, only being inferior for its shorter length.  A great story of the futility of war, and the bonds it can forge among ostensible enemies.  Five stars.

The 63rd St. Station, by Avram Davidson

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, about a staid, devoted brother who contemplates leaving his shut-in sister for a new love at the age of 45.  The ending is rendered extremely obliquely, and I suspect it makes more sense to a New Yorker familiar with subway trains and such.  Not bad, but a little too opaque.  Three stars.

(Per the editor’s blurb at the front of the issue, Bob Mills is stepping down as editor and turning over the reins to Mr. Davidson.  Given the latter’s penchant for the weird and the abstruse, recently to the detriment of his stories (in my humble opinion), I have to wonder if this will take the magazine in a direction less to my taste.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see.)

Communication by Walter H. Kerr

There is not much to say about this rather purple, but still pleasant, poem about a certain race’s limitations and strengths in the realm of communication.  Three stars.

That’s Life!, by Isaac Asimov

The Good Doctor (will the friendly banter between Asimov and his “Kindly Editor” continue under the new regime?) has turned out an entertaining and informative piece this month, in which he attempts to present an accurate definition of life.  It’s a fine lesson in biology with some neat bits on viruses.  Four stars.

The Stone Woman by Doris Pitkin Buck

I really want to like Mrs. Buck, an esteemed English professor from Ohio, who has seen several science fiction luminaries in her class.  This latest piece, a poem, reinforces my opinion that her stuff, while articulate, is not for me.  Two stars.

Shadow on the Moon by Zenna Henderson

Henderson’s The People stories have always been personal favorites, and the last one, Jordan, was sublime.  Shadow, on the other hand, falls unexpectedly flat.  It follows the tale of two siblings who enlist themselves in an endeavor to take themselves and kin back into space – to the Moon, particularly.  All the elements of a People piece are there: the esper-empowered, alien-born humans; a well-drawn female protagonist; the sere beauty of Arizona; the light, almost ethereal language.  Somehow, the bolts show on this one, however, and there isn’t the emotional connection I’ve enjoyed in previous Henderson stories.  Three stars.

Doing my monthly mathematics, I determine that the March F&SF garnered an impressive 3.8 stars.  Astronaut Glenn certainly could have whiled away the long pre-launch hours (not to mention all the previous scrubbed launches) with a lot worse reading material.

Next up…what’s likely to be worse reading material (but who knows?): the March 1962 Analog!

[May 11, 1961] Spotlighting Women (The Second Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Part 3)

Here’s a question I’ve gotten more than once: what is the point in spotlighting woman writers?  Shouldn’t I simply point out the good stories as I find them, and if they happen to be written by women, bully for them?  Why should I create an artificial distinction?

Those are actually fine questions, about which I’ve given much thought.  I make no claims to being an expert, or even someone whose opinion should matter much to you.  All I have is my taste, my gut and (lucky for me) my own column in which to voice my opinions.  So take my words as strictly my viewpoint.

We live in a particular kind of world.  Men are the default: the default heroes, the default writers, even the default pronoun.  Open a history book, and it will be filled with the names of great men.  Women are a seeming afterthought.  You may not even have thought twice about it.  It seems “natural” that movies should star men, that books should star men, that men should be the generals, the presidents.

But, there is a change a brewing.  Black men universally won the right to vote in 1865.  Women secure duniversal suffrage in 1920, fully three generations after the least privileged men.  The gap is narrowing.  This year, a Black man became skipper of a U.S. Naval vessel.  1961 also marks the year a woman became a shipboard U.S. Naval officer for the first time.  Women are now just one generation behind the least advantaged of the men.  Someday, we may be on a level playing field, all races of men and women.

Science fiction is supposed to be forward-looking, yet socially it seems stuck in the present, or even the past.  One almost never reads about woman starship captains or woman presidents or woman…well… anything.  I don’t think this is the result of deliberate collusion by the science fiction writing community.  It’s just that society is the air we breathe.  We are unconsciously bound by its rules and traditions.  Unless something shakes up our viewpoints, we’ll stick in our ruts and continue to accept this male-dominated paradigm as the natural order of things.

So when I spot something unusual that I think should be universal, I note it.  I encourage it.  I enjoy it.

Without further ado, part #3 of my encyclopedic catalog of the woman writers active as of this year of 1961:

Zenna Henderson: It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of my column that I love Zenna Henderson.  While her The People stories do not comprise all of her work, they are representative — unabashedly personal tales, bittersweet and feminine, utterly unlike anything else.  Henderson’s science fiction career began early last decade and is one of the most vivid hallmarks of the divide between the digest and pulp eras.  I strongly recommend Rosemary Benton’s recent article as a introduction to his brilliant author and her work.

Katherine MacLean: One rarely forgets first impressions, and MacLean made a significant one on me with Unhuman Sacrifice, single-handedly saving the November 1958 Astounding, the first magazine I ever reviewed for this column.

This was actually a sort of a rediscovery — she has been publishing stories since the late ’40s, many of which I read in Galaxy.  I wonder if she’s now near the end of her career.  Once a prolific writer, her pace slackened after 1953, and I’ve only seen one of her stories since Sacrifice, the good Interbalance.  Perhaps she’s just busy with other things, or maybe she publishes in the few remaining magazines I don’t cover on a regular basis.  In any-wise, Ms. MacLean is highly regarded, both by me and the general community.  Check her out, and don’t miss her early work published under the name of her former husband, Charles Dye.

Anne McCaffrey: Speaking of first impressions, one of the fun aspects of my job as surveyor of our genre is spotting new authors as they arrive.  Ms. McCaffrey hit the ground running with her 1959 story, The Woman in the Tower.  She topped herself with the recent The Ship who Sang.  Two points make a line; if we continue the trend, it is clear that Ms. McCaffrey is destined to produce some pretty spectacular stuff.  I can’t wait!

Judith Merril: There once was a SF club in New York City.  It was called the Futurians, it only lasted 8 years (ending around the same time as WW2), and it had an outsized impact on the genre.  The 1st WorldCon was a Futurian event, for instance, and its members included future famous personages such as Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl. 

And Judith Merril (who was Mrs. Pohl for a little while).  She has been a pillar of the community ever since, both as a writer and a prolific anthologizer; she has produced a series of “Best of” books since 1956, and her taste is sharp.  My experience with her own writing has been mixed.  They comprise just two stories and a novel.  The stories were good, the novel was terrible (though Fred Pohl and P. Schuyler Miller liked it; what do I know>).  I suspect Judy will be around for a long time, so I imagine I’ll have more on which to evaluate her by the next time I do one of these.

C.L. Moore: I may be stretching a point in calling Ms. Moore a current writer.  A veteran of the pulp era, Ms. Moore wrote most prolifically in partnership with her late husband, Henry Kuttner (who I knew best as Lewis Padgett).  He died in 1958, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.  For this reason, the Journey has covered none of her works, and while I’m sure I must have read some of Moore (psuedonymously, collaboratively, or solitarily), I couldn’t tell you about any of those stories off the top of my head (though I do own the Galaxy Novel, Shambleau; perhaps I shall try it out.)

Andre Norton: Despite the name, Andre Norton is a woman, and she has enjoyed a burgeoning career since her debut a little over a decade ago.  She is given to florid, adventury prose, filled with strapping folks and derring-do.  In a recent review of one of Ms. Norton’s latest books, Alfred Bester opined dismissively that perhaps women just can’t write action.  Well, he’s wrong.  Now, mind you, I haven’t yet read much Norton.  I started Stargate, which failed to grab my interest, and I finished Crossroads of Time, which I quite enjoyed.  She’s got a new one coming out this Summer, which I’ll call the tie-breaker. 

Meanwhile, Bester hasn’t published a story since 1959.  Maybe men just can’t write science fiction anymore…

I’ll have the fourth (and final) installment in this series sometime next month.  Cheer-i-o!

(Part one is here!)

(Part two is here!)

[April 20, 1961] People are not the same all over (Pilgrimage, by Zenna Henderson)

[Here is Rosemary Benton’s article for April 1961.  She asked if she could do Zenna Henderson’s compilation of The People stories, none of which she had previously read; I hadn’t picked up the book since I have the stories in magazine form.  I thought it a smashing idea since it would give us all a fresh insight on Henderson’s works.  I’ve been vindicated…(the Editor)]

In my quest to break my bookshelf under the weight of my science fiction, horror and fantasy collections, this month I picked up noted author Zenna Henderson’s latest publication. To anyone who frequents Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, Zenna Henderson and her alien race, the People, should not be unknown to you. Pilgrimage: the Book of the People contains Ararat (1952), Gilead (1954), Pottage (1955), Wilderness (1956), Captivity (1958) and Jordan (1959), all tied together through an overarching narrative that tells the story of a human observing the People. As each one of the People takes their turn recounting their time on Earth, the book progresses along such themes as self-discovery, selflessness for the betterment of community, and the definition of home and belonging.

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People is, by authorial intent, the application of the accumulation of her personal experiences. Zenna Henderson clearly puts everything of herself into her stories, making her writing highly personal yet relatable. Her years in Arizona, first as a student at Arizona State and then as a teacher, crystalized the American West as the perfect setting for her stories of the People. In each of the chapters of Pilgrimage, the reader can detect hints of Henderson’s spirituality, her compassion for humanity, and her willingness to believe in positive change effected by mindset and actions.

Born to Mormon parents but non-practicing beyond her marriage to Richard Harry Henderson in 1944, Zenna Henderson retains a deep sense of spirituality which she expresses in Methodism and in her writing. The People are a universalist group who believe that distance is without consequence when it comes to their relationship with the all knowing all being creator they call “the Presence.” They are unafraid to acknowledge their religion and meet all other religions with respect. As Valancy, one of the People, says to the human Dita, “Two worlds and yet you’re so like us” (162). Through words and non-violence the People manage to solve all of their dilemmas. It can read as a little saccharine, but Henderson’s cleverness in creating solutions through diplomacy adds a refreshing taste to her stories. 

Either out of moral obligation or because they are simply decent people, Zenna Henderson’s main cast holds a special understanding for the mentally ill. I found this to be highly interesting to observe as you don’t see much science fiction that treats the mentally ill as multifaceted characters. In fact, the majority of the overarching narrative in Pilgrimage is told from the perspective of a suicidal woman, Lea, who is receiving counseling from Karen, one of the People. Her journey of stepping away from the edge is just one of the many reasons to pay attention to Henderson’s approach to mental health. Of particular note is the minor character, Lucine, in “Wilderness”. Henderson takes the time to build her as a disabled little girl who is prone to fits of rage but still remorseful for her violence. This makes her eventual mental break and the manhunt that follows particularly painful. We can see that her death would not be befitting of her crimes, and the reader can’t help but sympathize with such a debilitating illness as severe mental retardation. 

But mental anguish and flawed characters are not all that Zenna Henderson brings to tangible life within the genre of science fiction. Henderson is in a unique place to write on immigration, and she delves into the complications of it with full gusto. I understand that she taught at the Japanese interment camps in Sacaton, AZ; Henderson was able to see first hand the forced displacement of people from their homes. Her experience at a US Air Force dependents’ school in France likewise taught her more about people exiled from their places of origin. Science fiction is replete with adventurers flung far away from their homes, but in few cases do we see frontier life complete with details of longing for a home that can never be returned to; one that the characters are tragically adrift from forever. In describing the People’s collective memory of the voyage from their world, the human Melodye succinctly observes that, “Racial memory was truly a double-sided coin” (99). Henderson likewise writes about the loss of culture and recorded memory (33). The fear in the flight from one’s home is made very clear on page 182 when Henderson writes, “From terror and from panic places. From hunger and from hiding – to live midway through madness and the dream”. 

In addition to her use of the world as she saw it, nowhere else in Henderson’s writing do you see her own personal experience shine more brightly than in her portrayal of teaching and teachers. There is a fascinating realism and maturity that Henderson infuses her younger characters with. These are three dimensional children who are a product of their environments and whose stories reflect that. They express rage, harbor ambitions, and are powerful but still young. Most importantly they want to heard and be listened to. The story of the Francher Kid, a foster child in an unfortunate household, is a prime example of Henderson’s ability to write a compelling child character who is a conflicted, lonely and trapped. I believe Henderson’s description of Francher as a “My Child” best speaks to the author’s authority on the topic of merging experience with fiction, “We teacher-types sometimes find [a My Child]. They aren’t our pets; often they aren’t even in our classes. But they are the children who move unasked into our hearts and make claims upon them over and above the call of duty” (178). Her explanation of how teachers relate to their charges rings true on page 17 as well, “They pour out the most personal things quite unsolicited to almost any adult who will listen – and who’s more apt to listen than a teacher?”. Teachers in Henderson’s writing seem to represent the closest equivalent Humans can get to the glowing moral fiber of the People. They are portrayed as saviors, love interests, authority figures, and even heroes.

Perhaps the most noticeable fault in Henderson’s writing is the air of assurance that everything will turn out alright due to the moral uprightness of the People; their steadfast adherence to doing what is right erases any deep senses of urgency in the plot. The effect is that Henderson’s writing is a slow, contemplative walk rather than a sprinting, adrenaline race to the finish.

On the other side, a slow burning plot gives the author time for investment in the characters. And even with their moral fortitude, the main characters are not boring guides. They experience a full range of situations that test her message of acceptance and tolerance, and although the reader can rest assured that things will work out, how they work out is entertaining to read, and often a touch bittersweet.

In sum, I highly recommend Pilgrimage: The Book of the People — of all the speculative fiction books you could read this year (1961), it may turn out to be the best.

Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue. 

[June 9, 1960] To Pluto and the Future (July 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

I was recently told that my reviews are too negative, and that I should focus on telling the world about the good stuff; for that hopeful fan, I present my assessment of the July 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  There’s not a clunker in the bunch, and if none of the stories is a perfect gem, several are fine stones nevertheless.

My receipt of this month’s issue was accompanied by no small measure of eagerness.  The cover promised me two stories by female authors (Zenna Henderson and Miriam Allen deFord) as well as a novella by Wilson Tucker, who wrote the excellent The City in the Sea.  Here’s what I found inside:

Stephen Barr is no stranger to Fantasy and Science Fiction, having appeared in the book twice before.  His lead short story, Oh I’ll take the High Road is softer stuff than his usual science fictiony fare, but I enjoyed it.  It features a poet scientist, who invents a thought-propelled space drive, and the eternal love he shares with a professor’s daughter.  Where he ends up, and how that love endures, makes for a pleasant (if not particularly remarkable) story.

I’d never head of Hollis Alpert before.  His newness may explain the unusual nature of his premiere science fiction piece, a mock academic presentation called The Simian Problem, in which a professor discusses the relatively recent (fictional) phenomenon that involves women giving birth to degenerate ape children.  The occurrence of such “monsters” is on the exponential increase, it seems, and an effective treatment remains elusive.  The format meanders jarringly from first person expository to dialogue, but the sting in the story’s tail is worth waiting for.

Moving on, we have the delightful Theodore Cogswell with The Burning, a portrayal of a dystopic future from the point of view of a most unusual teen gangster.  Those involved in a certain ubiquitous youth organization may get more out of it than I did.

Zenna Henderson is always good, of course.  Her Things is the story of a first encounter between an alien aboriginal race, told from the point of view of its female spiritual leader, and humanity.  The Terrans bring all manner of technological gifts, but are they worth the physical and philosophical price?  Should one sacrifice one’s very cultural identity for the chance to “progress” scientifically?  Tough questions, and Henderson pulls no punches.

I wasn’t quite sure how to react to A.H.Z.Carr’s It is not my fault, though upon reflection (and the measure of a good story is how much it makes you reflect), I think it’s quite good.  In brief: when a down-on-his-luck fellow collapses and dies in broad daylight near a busy thoroughfare, a momentarily attentive God dispatches an angel to determine who was at fault for the miserable death and dispense punishment.  Sometimes justice isn’t so easy as all that.

Then we have Miriam Allen deFord’s All in Good Time, another first person exposition story.  In this case, the setting is a first year law classroom a century from now, but this is largely incidental to the plot, which involves a cross-time bigamist.  It’s cute, and the presentation is more expertly handled than in the above-described Alpert story.  I particularly appreciated that, in the future, female lawyers seem to be as common as male ones.

Ever wonder what to give the fellow who’s had everything?  What is Heaven to someone who enjoyed life to its fullest?  Gordy Dickson asks those questions in his excellent The Last Dream.  Of course, for many, just being close to the Almighty is reward enough, but most like to think of Heaven (if it exist) providing physical benefits, too.  I bet the doughnuts are fantastic, for instance.  And non-fattening.

Dr. Asimov has a good, timely article on Pluto and what lies beyond this month.  It was one of my motivations for writing my own piece on the subject.  He spends a good bit of space on the interesting Titius-Bode Law that seems to govern orbital spacing in our system, at least out to Uranus.  I’m still not convinced that the “Law” isn’t a statistical fluke–I look forward to being able to resolve systems outside ours so we can have a data set larger than one.

Fair Trade, by Avram Davidson, reads like a Clifford Simak piece.  A pair of aliens make a forced landing in a backwoods town and party the natives before being rescued by another alien-crewed ship.  Before departing, they swap their super-knives for a local manufactured good.  Its identity is not disclosed until the end.  One of the few non-somber pieces from the author.

Finally, we have Wilson Tucker’s To the Tombaugh Station, a very good, novella-sized mystery involving a man, an asteroid miner by trade, suspected of murder, a tough woman bounty hunter sent to investigate him, and the long long trip across the solar system they spend together.  Wilson Tucker has a penchant for writing strong female characters, and he does an excellent job here.  The whodunnit aspect is nicely done, too. 

I note that there is a Planet X beyond Pluto in this story, Tombaugh Station having been established solely for the purpose of investigating it.  Tucker, at least in the instant tale, subscribes to the popular theory that Pluto was once a moon of Neptune. 

Tallying up the numbers, we have a strong 3.5-star issue, well worth your time and 40 cents.  See you soon with something Amazing!

[Jan. 21, 1960] Siamese, if you please (February 1960 Galaxy, part 2)

I made fun of Galaxy editor Horace Gold for the slightly panicked tone in this month’s editorial.  It’s clear that he has concerns that the quality of his magazine might dip unless he can tap a reservoir of new talent.

That said, the February 1960 Galaxy finishes as it started (and as did its sister, the January 1960 IF)–on the good side of three stars, but not too far from the middle.  Let us see how Part 2 turned out.

I am sad to report that Willy Ley’s articles just aren’t as engaging as once they were.  They were what originally sold me on getting subscription, Galaxy being the first magazine I followed regularly.  The lovable ex-German just seems unfocused and a little cranky these days.

Zenna Henderson’s Something Bright, on the other hand, is that engaging mix of magic, grit, unease, and wonder that I have come to expect from her.  This one is told from the point of view of a Depression-era teen who has a close encounter with a peculiar, and rather frightening, neighbor.  It’s nice to see work by two woman authors in Galaxy, a sign that the genre as a whole is becoming more balanced.


Dillon

Simak’s Crying Jag takes place in a similar setting—he does enjoy those rustic tales, evocative of his home in rural Minnesota.  In this one, the rather soused protagonist becomes the friend and keeper of an alien for whom sad stories are an intoxicant.  Everybody wins in this one, as the storytellers thus find themselves free of their psychological pain.  Not stellar, but enjoyable.


Wallace Wood

For some reason, I really enjoyed David Fisher’s East in the Morning, about a intellectual prodigy who must wait until his very old age for his genius to bear fruit.  It is told in this detached yet gripping manner that I found engaging.  Perhaps there is a bit of identification, too—after all, I too blazed through my early life displaying signs of promise and even, perhaps, genius… but I’m still waiting to make my mark.  Someday.


Dick Francis

Sadly, the magazine has stumbles to an unimpressive finish.  Jim Wannamaker is a new face to the science fiction world, and his Death’s Wisher, about a psychokinetic who threatens to blow up the world by setting off its hydrogen bombs, is not an impressive first outing.  Truth to tell, I almost fell asleep. 


Dick Francis

Space news is up next.  All about a midget Mercury and its furry astronaut.  Stay tuned!

(all Galaxy magazines can be found here)

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!



(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

[Sep. 5, 1959] The Best (October 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction; 1st part)

Not too long ago, I lambasted the September 1959 issue of Astounding as the worst science fiction magazine I’d read in a long while.  This is not to say that it’s the worst of the bunch—I’m sure there are plenty of issues of B and C-level mags that constitute the nadir of written science fiction, although I don’t imagine there are too many of those publications still around. 

I’m happy to report that this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction may well be the best single issue I’ve ever read.

I asked last time whether folks prefer whiz-bangery in their science fiction or not.  The overwhelming response was that gadgets aren’t important; characters, story, and writing are.  F&SF typically holds to a higher standard of writing, and this month, they’ve hit a zenith.

The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon has the first story, The Man who lost the Sea.  It’s told in a weird and effective 1st/2nd/3rd person style, about an explorer who has come to grief beside what appears to be a vast ocean.  As his thoughts become more lucid, it becomes clearer and clearer what has happened to him until we get the powerful reveal.  I understand Sturgeon has been making a concerted effort to get into the slicks (non-science fiction commercial magazines), and it’s a travesty that he hasn’t been more successful.  Oh well; the mainstream public’s loss is our gain.

Asimov has a great column this month entitled, The Height of Up, in which he discusses the coldest and hottest possible temperatures.  Ever wonder why our temperature scales (Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin) have such weird and arbitrary end-points?  Dr. Asimov spells it out most entertainingly.The good doctor is definitely finding his feet with this column.  It was so good that I read a good half of it aloud to my wife as she put together a complicated piece of electronic equipment (a hobby of hers, bless her). 

I was delighted to find that Zenna Henderson has published another story, And a little child… It’s not exactly a story of the People, but it has the same sort of magical feel.  The viewpoint character is a grandmother on a two-week camping trip with family, particularly a young girl who can see things that others can’t.  Such things are monstrous, living creatures—the hills are alive, quite literally.  It’s really quite a lovely piece.

Finally, for today, we have Damon Knight’s compelling and cute To be Continued, about a sword-and-sandals fantasy writer (whose name’s first two thirds are “Robert E.”) who is compelled to write a tale of Kor the Barbarian after reading a work that the author had never written, but which only could have been authored by himself!

Peeking ahead, I see that Heinlein’s newest novel, Starship Soldier, is going to be among his best yet.  To accommodate the work, F&SF is a whopping 32 pages longer this month!

With the star-o-meter steadily quivering at 4-and-a-half stars, I’m eagerly anticipating the book’s second half.

However, the next time we chat, so to speak, it will not be about magazines, but about the 17th annual Worldcon going on right now in Detroit.  “Detention,” as it’s called this year, will last until the 7th, and I expect to have a full, breathless telephonic report in time for the 8th.

Last year, Worldcon was in my backyard (Los Angeles).  This year, Los Angeles is going to Detroit: an intrepid group of Angelinos, organized by the dynamo, Betty Jo Wells, embarked earlier this week on a road-trip across the country, Detroit-or-Bust.  I’ve reprinted “BJo’s” ad in its entirety for your entertainment. 

“TRAVELCON to the DETENTION — a different city every day. TravelCon plans are starting to shape up. Latest report from Bjo is that about 20 L.A. fans are already making plans to attend the Detention. Fans in the Berkeley area are organizing a group to join up with the Travel Con In L.A. For information and details, contact Betty Jo Wells, 2548 West 12th, Los Angeles 6, California.”

Sadly, I was unable to spare time off from work for this event; it looks like fun.

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!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)


This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Predicting the Future (hand-waves, Astounding, smoking, and women; 11-25-1958)

Writing good science fiction is hard.  Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity.  Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society.  Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities.  I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s. 

Take smoking, for example.  Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco.  They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer.  Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction.  You would think someone would portray a smokeless future. 


Another example is the portrayal of women.  For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men.  The trend has historically been in their favor.  They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact.  In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes.  There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard.  Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip.  You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common.  Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own.  It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer.  Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors.  This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm.  We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light.  Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that.  That’s a hand-wave.  Psionic powers are another hand-wave.  People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe.  I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street.  Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds.  The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves. 

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else.  And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world.  Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece.  I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.