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I've found the bottom, and it isn't the Mariana Trench.

They say fifty cents won't buy you what it used to, and that's certainly true of Astounding, a science fiction digest. The November issue, which has a hastily pasted price of four bits on its cover (replacing the original 35 cents) is, without a doubt, the worst pile of garbage I've read in a very long time.

I'll spare you the gory details and give you a quick thumbnail sketch of its contents. Opening the ish is the first part of a two-part story, The Best Made Plans. I didn't even make it through the first half of this first part. So dull was the tale, so linearly and prosaicly was it told, that I can't even remember what it's about. I'll read the summary next month and, perhaps, try again.

Eric Frank Russell's Panic Button features two exploring aliens who happen across a lone Terran on an otherwise uninhabited planet. Upon finding him, the human pushes a blue button, which frightens off the aliens. This is all part of a brilliant human scheme to seed the planets of the universe with convicts equipped with panic buttons. The assumption (proven correct, of course; aliens are so dumb, says editor Campbell) is that the button must do something and the lone humans must be there for a reason, and the overactive imaginations of the would-be conquering aliens do the rest.

And this is one of the book's better stories!

Then you've got A Filbert is a Nut, by newcomer Rick Raphael. In this one, a crazy person makes atom bombs out of clay that work. Or does he? Passable--for 1953 Imagination, perhaps.

Randall Garrett's The Unnecessary Man should have been titled "The Unnecessary Story." Young man learns that democracy is a sham and the galaxy is run by a dictatorship. But it's a benevolent one, so that's okay. Bleah.

I've never heard of Richard Sabia before, and if his I was a Teen-age Secret Weapon is any indication, I hope I don't see him again. Yokel causes harm to anyone around him. He is eventually inducted into the army, dropped off to be captured by the enemy, and Communism's collapse ensues. Lousy.

Finally, we have Robert Silverberg's Certainty, which is almost decent. Alien ship lands on a human outpost planet, and the crew of the garrison ship is helpless against the intruders' mind-control powers. Again, it's the sort of thing I'd expect from a decade-old lesser mag.

As for the Analytical Laboratory for the far-superior August issue, the readers' results are well in line with mine, with Leinster's The Alien's a clear winner.

I'm sorry I don't have anything cheery to report. It took me most of the month to get through this awful, 1.5 star book. I'm about ready to cancel my subscription...

---

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







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Ah, the beginning of a new month. A stack of magazines fresh off the newstand and in the mail. An average of 30.4166 days of reading pleasure (mostly) to look forward to.

But I haven't read them yet. Does that mean I've nothing to discuss? Of course not. We've still got to do the numbers!



Every month, Astounding issues a reader poll to determine their favorite stories. The most-loved authors get a bonus, and this keeps quality coming back to the magazine... or ensures that the fine Campbellian tradition of Earth First, Cro Magnon-era science fiction is maintained. You decide.

In any event, here is what readers had to say about the July issue:

Randal Garrett's But I don't think...: 2.33
Gordon Dickson's Dorsai! Part 3: 2.40
Chris Anvil's Leverage: 3.33
Algis Budrys' Straw: 3.41
Theodore L. Thomas' Broken Tool: 3.95

What a lousy issue that was. The lack of a clear #1 suggests it wasn't so popular with the readers either, but that may just be projection. Dorsai certainly did not finish as strongly as it had started. As for the rest of the stories, looking back over my notes, they all blended together in undistinguished mediocrity, but the order in which the reader poll placed them is perhaps how I would have done so, too. When your job is to rate the best gruel, you're just as well-served pulling numbers out of a hat.

One of these days, Astounding is going to surprise me. I keep telling myself that.

See you in a few!


---

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



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Addendum:

I almost forgot to report the Analytical Laboratory numbers for this month (reader reviews covering the June 1959 issue)! Per the lab, the breakdown was as follows:

Dorsai Part II by Gordy Dickson: 1.81
Transfusion by Chad Oliver: 2.14
Cat and Mouse by Ralph Williams: 2.35
All Day September by Roger Kuykendall: 4.10
Unborn Tomorrow by Mack Reynolds: 4.46

I would have put the Williams up above the Oliver, and while the Dickson passed the time, it was definitely #4 material for me. I guess Astounding readers love their military science fiction. In any event, seeing this Analytical Laboratory made me nostalgic for the halcyon days when Astounding was not awful. Given that this Golden Age was only a couple of months ago, I'm hoping the coming months show that September was just a quick slump.

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Before I finish my review of the August 1959 Astounding, let’s look at the issue’s “Analytical Laboratory” and what the readers thought of the May 1959 ish (and compare it to my findings).

Interestingly enough, no story got higher than a 3.00, which means the readers had trouble picking a favorite. That indicates a good issue or a bad one. Garrett’s mediocre Cum Grano Salis got top ratings followed by the first installment of Dorsai!, then the charming Hex and Project Haystack. I suppose that’s as good an order as any. One might as well throw a dart at the wall.

The August issue, on the other hand, has clear strong and weak points. Newcomer Anne Walker’s A Matter of Proportion is one of the strong points. Her tale about a super-competent commando, who was once a paraplegic is gripping. Anyone who can write about the ascent of a flight of stairs with the same tension and excitement of a daring assault on an enemy base has done an excellent job. An interesting, sensitive story.



The following tale, Familiar Pattern, is so obviously a Chandler piece under a pseudonym (George Whitely), that one wonders why the ruse was even attempted. To wit, it involves an Australian coast guard ship (Chandler is a former Australian naval officer), and one of the characters shares a name with a character in The Outsiders, which came out in the same issue!

Now, I like Chandler, but this story is only decent. Aliens come to Earth to set up a trading mission, manufacture a diplomatic incident, and use said event as a pretext to invade. It’s a metaphor for what the Europeans did to the Polynesians; I appreciate the sentiment, and I am amazed it could appear in the xenophobic pages of Astounding, but the allegory is a bit too precise and heavy-handed to be effective.

Lastly, there is Theodore L. Thomas, whose Day of Succession is, as Orwell might say, rather un-good. Aliens land on Earth, and their ships are dispatched with cold-blooded efficiency by an American general. The officer is recalled to Washington and chastised for his bloodthirstiness, but is soon proven right when more aliens appear and wreak havoc (I wonder why they would be hostile after such a warm welcome!) The general advises a nuclear strike on the entire Eastern seaboard to defeat the incursion. When the President and Vice President disagree, the general shoots them and requests that the Speaker of the House adopt the officer’s plan.
I didn’t really understand it either.

The book finishes off with P. Schuyler Miller (a self-professed Conservative from North-Eastern United States) lamenting the death of science fiction, again. We’ll see. This seems to happen every five years.

So where does this issue end up in the ratings? Well, I’d had high hopes. Aliens was a five-star story, and Outsiders and Proportion were both quite good. But Pattern was average fare, Succession was sub-par, and the Garrett was soporific. The non-fiction “article” was also pretty bad.

All told, the issue clocks in at a “3,” which is actually admirable for Astounding. Read it for the good stories, eschew the rest, and you won’t be disappointed!

In two days, the Explorer that wasn’t.

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I suppose it was too much to hope for two good issues of Astounding in a row. The magazine that Campbell built is back to its standard level of quality, which is to say the bar is not very high. Still, I read the stories so you don't have to (if you don't want), so here's all the news that fits to print.

Randal Garrett's But I don't think isn't horrible. It's actually genuine satire, about a ordnance evasion officer (a "Guesser") who ends up inadvertently jumping ship during shoreleave. He is the denizen of a lawfully evil and hierarchical society, and the story is all about the miserable things he does and that are done to him in large part due to this evil culture. It'll leave a dirty taste in your mouth, like old cigarette butts, but I think it was actually intentional this time.

It's not exactly downhill from here, but there aren't exactly heights, either. The next story, Broken Tool, by Theodore L. Thomas, is a short piece about a candidate for the Space Corps, who ends up washing out because he, ironically, doesn't have enough attachment to his home planet of Earth. A "gotcha" story, the kind I might expect to find in one of the lesser magazines... not that they exist anymore.

I generally like Algis Budrys, and his Straw, about an entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became the Big Man of the underwater community of Atlantis, isn't bad. It's just not terribly great.

Isaac Asimov has an interesting article entitled, Unartificial elements, explaining how all of the elements humans have managed to synthesize actually do exist in nature, albeit in rather small amounts. This was the best part of the magazine.

There are two stories after the last installment of Dorsai, which I reviewed last time. Chris Anvil's Leverage is a mildly entertaining story about colonists dealing with a planet's ecosphere that has a single-minded, but fatally flawed, vendetta against the settlers. Another low-grade story I'd expect in Imagination or somewhere similar.



Finally, we have Vanishing Point, by C.C. Beck, the illustrator for D.C.'s Captain Marvel. It's all about what happens when an artist learns the true nature of perspective. Cute, but, again, not much to it.

Campbell published the user reviews for March and April 1959. I won't go into great detail, but suffice it to say, Leinster's Pirates of Ersatz topped both months. But in March, Despoiler of the Golden Empire got #2, whereas my favorite, The Man Who Did Not Fit was bottommost. The April results were less disappointing--Now Inhale got #2, and Wherever You Are got #3. I probably would have swapped the places, but I suppose a female protagonist is too much for Analog readers to swallow comfortably.

Lots of space launches coming up--a Vanguard and a Discoverer, so expect some launch reports this week!

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I'm about half-done with this month's Astounding, but since that half largely comprises the second third of Dorsai!, and because I don't want to give anything away before it's complete, there's not much fiction on which to report today.

But that doesn't mean I'm out of material...

Four months ago, I wrote about Astoundings unique habit of publishing the results of reader surveys of fiction appearing in the magazine. I then compared what the readers thought of the November and December issues of Astounding and what I thought.

The numbers are out again, this time for the January and February issues, and the results are similar. Let's take a look, shall we?

When I reviewed the January issue, I noted that, with the exception of To Run the Rim, and Seedling, the magazine had been awfully unimpressive. The problem with Editor Campbell's scoring system is that it only compares the stories to each other rather than on an absolute scale. That said, on my card, I put Rim first and Seedling second.

Well, the rest of the readers agreed that Seedling was #2, but they put the tedious Study in Still Life on top. I just can't wait for Campbell to put more turgid "funny" tales in his mag. To Run the Rim finished fourth, behind the fatuous Deadlock; Robin Hood's Barn and By New Hearth Fires came in a distant fifth and sixth. The fact that the highest scoring story only got a 2.84 suggests that, as with the December issue, readers were unimpressed with the crop and were voting ranking based on the story they liked least (rather than which one they liked most).

The February issue was a better one, and the readers' opinions were more in line with my own. Murray Leinster's Pirates of Ersatz (Part 1) was the favorite at 2.03 followed closely by Silverberg's Hi Diddle Diddle!. As you'll recall from my review, I actually liked that story quite a bit despite it being Silverberg, and despite it being one of the "funny" stories. Within two paragraphs, I am found out as a hypocrite. Ah the shame.

The jingoistic but good Stoker and the Stars came in a solid #3, while the medicore Missing Link and Accidental Death round out the list at a distant 4th and 5th. Sadly, Leonard Lockhard's satirical look at patent law, The Professional Touch, did not even make the list.

I'll be very interested to see the numbers for the April issue, which demonstrated a marked increase in quality. Then we'll really see how the ratings compare.

In the meantime, I'll have more on this month's Astounding in a few days, and by then, all of July's issues should have arrived in my mailbox. Here's hoping I'll have more space shots to discuss, too.

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It's Astounding time again!



One thing I like about Astounding is that editor John Campbell publishes the results of his reader surveys in the magazine's "Analytical Laboratory." Thus, he (and we) can all see what the reading faithful think of the prior issue's stories. Of course, while the technique can be good at better-pleasing your audience, it also runs the risk of specializing oneself into oblivion. After all, the percentage of your readership who will respond to a reader survey is generally a minority, and often a quirky one at that. Appealing to your die-hard fans may please them (if they can be pleased at all), but may also narrow the potential audience.

In other words, one picks up Astounding because one knows what to expect. One avoids it because one knows what's in it and doesn't want it. The feedback loop between conservative fan and conservative editor potentially leads to ossified content. Perhaps it's no surprise that Astounding is the most conservative of "the Big Three," particularly in its outlook on other cultures and on the portrayal of women.

That said, let's see how the opinions of the readers of Astounding compare to those I've published earlier in this column. The results, and the lessons Campbell learns from them, are interesting.

For the November 1958 issue:

Stimulus, by Andrew Salmond, came far away in first place.
Unhuman Sacrifice by Katherine MacLean, was number two, followed closely by
Part One of A Bicycle Built for Brew by Poul Anderson.
Goliath and the Beanstalk, by Chris Anvil, came in fourth.
Gifts, by Gordy Dickson, was number five.

This is interesting. I thought the MacLean was a clear number 1, Salmond's piece being just all-right. On the other hand, the latter three were so minor (not exactly bad, just utterly mediocre), that I'm not surprised they competed for last place.

So far, so good.

For the December 1958 issue:

It was clear the fans had trouble picking a favorite given the scores. Either they were disappointed with the magazine or they loved them all equally. Campbell's commentary (more on that below) suggests the former.

Part Two of A Bicycle Built for Brew straggled to the top of the charts.
The Queen Bee, by Randall Garrett, possibly the most offensive story I have read in Astounding, came in second.
Ministry of Disturbance, by H. Beam Piper, was number three.
Triggerman, by R.T. Bone was a solid fourth.
Seller's Market by Chris Anvil was a clear fifth.

Mack Reynold's Pieces of the Game didn't even make the chart, even though I thought it was decent. I quite enjoyed Ministry of Disturbance and Triggerman. Seller's Market wasn't great, but it was surely better than the drek voted #1 and #2.

Campbell describes Queen Bee as "humor" along with Ministry of Disturbance, Triggerman and A Bicycle Built for Brew. He wonders aloud if the comedic content of these stories resulted in their lower rating (with the exception of Queen Bee, which did well). Of course, Bicycle finished strongly in the ratings. Campbell wonders if comedy serials just take time to win over their audience.

Campbell also calls Queen Bee a "strong story." I suppose editors must love their children universally, so I wouldn't expect him to publicly denounce Garrett's atrocity. That said, it certainly seems like Queen Bee is the kind of story Campbell wants in his magazine and, moreover, it's the kind of story his readers (at least the ones who fill out the cards) want in his magazine.

Which means, I suppose, we all have much more of the same to look forward to. Unless Campbell decides that "humor" doesn't sell.




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