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What makes a story worth reading?

As a writer, and as a reader who has plowed through thousands of stories over the past decade, I've developed a fair idea of what works and what doesn't. Some writers cast a spell on you from the first words and maintain that trance until the very end. Others have good ideas but break momentum with clunky prose. Some turn a phrase skillfully, but their plots don't hold interest.

I find that science fiction authors are more likely to hang their tales on plot to the exclusion of other factors. This is part of the reason our genre is much maligned by the literary crowd. On the other hand, the literary crowd tends to commit the opposite sin: glazing our eyes over with experimental, turgid passages.

A few authors have managed to bridge the gap: Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, Daniel Keyes. And, in general, I think the roster of science fiction authors, as they mature, are turning out better and better stuff.

Sadly, Astounding is rarely the place you'll find them.



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by Freas

I poke a lot of fun at John Campbell's magazine, Astounding for its overfeaturing of psionics and Randall Garrett, two things of which I've gotten very tired--so imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying a serial that intimately involves both!

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I believe I may have discovered a new physical law: The Conservation of Quality.

Last year, Galaxy editor Horace Gold decided to slash writer pay in half. The effect was not immediately apparent, which makes sense since there was likely a backlog of quality stuff in the larder. But the last issue of Galaxy was decidedly sub-par, and I fear Gold's policy may be bearing bitter fruit.

On the other hand, Astounding (soon to be Analog) editor John Campbell has been trying to reinvent his magazine, and this latest issue, dated April 1960, is better than I've seen in a long time. To be sure, none of the stories are classics for the ages, but they are all readable and enjoyable.


by Kelly Freas

Randall Garrett still pens a good quarter of the magazine, and you know how I feel about him, but he's not bad this month. For the lead serial, Out Like a Light, Garrett teams up again with Laurence Janifer under the pseuonym "Mark Phillips" in a sequel to That Sweet Little Old Lady. FBI Agent Malone and Garrett look-a-like Agent Boyd investigate a series of Cadillac heists only to discover a ring of teleporting juvenile delinquents. I had expected the story to drag, and it is occasionally too cute for its own good, but I found myself enjoying it. We'll see if they can keep up the interest through two more installments.

Next up is the enjoyable short story, The Ambulance Made Two Trips by ultra-veteran Murray Leinster. Mob shake-down artist meets his match when he tangles with a psionically gifted laundromat owner who can alter probability to make violence impossible—with highly destructive results! It's a fun bit of wish fulfillment even if it (again) stars the Heironymous device, that silly psychic contraption made out of construction paper and elementary electronics. I'm not sure whether Campbell inserts references to them after editing or if authors incorporate them to ensure publication.

Harry Harrison is back with another "Stainless Steel Rat" story featuring Slippery Jim diGriz (the first having appeared in the August 1957 Astounding). My nephew, David, had rave reviews for The Misplaced Battleship, in which con man turned secret agent tracks down the construction and theft of the galaxy's biggest capital ship. I liked it, too: stories with lots of interstellar travel get extra points from me, and Harrison is a good writer. Not as compelling as Deathworld, but then, that was a tour de force.


by John SchoenHerr

Wedged in the middle of Harrison's tale, on the slick-paged portion of the magazine, rocketteer G. Harry Stine has an entertaining plug for model rocketry. It is a hobby that has grown from a dangerous homebrew affair to a full-fledged pastime. Safe miniature engines are now commonplace, and launches can be conducted in perfect safety—provided one observes all the rules. Stine prophetically notes that the first person to walk the sands of Mars is already alive and in high school, and he (of course, he) probably cut his engineering teeth on model rockets. Maybe so.

The story published under Randall Garrett's name is The Measure of a Man, and it's surprisingly decent. The lone survivor in a wrecked Terran battleship must find a way to get the hulk back to Earth in time to warn humanity of an alien superweapon before it is used. Again, I like stories with lots of planets and spaceships. I also liked the direct reference to Leinster's The Aliens, a really great story.

Finally, we have Rick Raphael's sophomore effort, Make Mine Homogenized, a surprisingly good story about a tough old rancher, a cow that starts producing high octane milk, and hens that lay bomb-fuse eggs. The first half is the superior one, in which the rancher discovers that her (yes her!) "milk" is highly combustible and that, when mixed with the fuse eggs, creates an explosion that puts Oppenheimer's work to shame. The second half, when the AEC gets involved, is still good, but it digresses and becomes more detached. I really enjoyed the intimacy of the beginning. I'm a sucker for accurately detailed farm stories, having grown up on a farm.


by Kelly Freas

So, there you have it. A perfectly solid Astounding from cover to cover. Who'da thunkit?

Happy Spring everyone!

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It had to happen some day--Astounding has pulled itself out of a nose dive, for now.

Last time, I discussed the most excellent serial, Deathworld. Still, a single good serial does not a good issue make. Thankfully, Campbell has at long last, and after a merciless rough patch, delivered a quite readable book.

J.T. McIntosh can always be relied upon to provide entertainment; his lead novella, Immortality for Some is no exception. In the future, society's most worthy, the 10% with sufficient talents and/or accomplishments to make the cut, are allowed to undergo "Rebirth." This process erases all memories and restores the body to an adolescent stage of physical development. The special person gets to live again in a sort of cloned reincarnation.

But what happens when one of the world's intellectual elite doesn't want to cheat death? This is a world that doesn't want to lose a cultural treasure, and it takes an exceptional person, indeed, to evade Rebirth.

Strongly written, with the first half written from the point of view of an aged woman pianist of superlative talent giving her last concert before Rebirth; the second stars the aforementioned fellow—a seemingly unremarkable caretaker whom the musician befriends. It's worth your time.

And now, I shall surprise my audience by saying with a straight face that I actually enjoyed Randall Garrett's contribution to this issue: In Case of Fire.... In this far future, the sprawling Terran Empire cannot afford to send its best and brightest as ambassadors to less-esteemed stations. The story opens on a remote, unimportant world whose embassy is staffed with barely functional neurotics. Yet in that insanity lies the key to ending an interstellar war. Garrett manages to be somewhat clever and to not offend. Quite an accomplishment for him.

Chris Anvil's Shotgun Wedding is another of his unremarkable space-fillers about an alien race whose plan to disrupt humanity by flooding the market with clairvoyant television backfires. One bit I liked, however, was the depiction of pen pals from different countries using their television screens to correspond across thousands of miles. When the world is finally wired into OMNIVAC, decades from now, I imagine we'll see such a phenomenon.

Editor Campbell has been trying to make a go of the slick non-fiction section of his magazine for several months. This issue is the first with readable articles, the first of which is Mars: A Summing Up by R.S. Richardson (perhaps better known by his nom d'plume, Philip Latham). Mr. Richardson does an admirable, if slightly dry, job of comprehensively summarizing the current state of knowledge regarding the mysterious Red Planet.



We've enjoyed three relatively close approaches to Mars over the past six years, the likes of which will not recur until 1971, by which time we will probably have sent at least one probe to investigate close-up. As a result, scientists have amassed a bonanza of information. Yet it is still unknown whether or not Mars has life, though if it does, it must be of a very low order. The most exciting work has been done by the astronomer A. Dolfuss, who has determined the nature of Martian soil to examination of its polarization (the non-randomness of the angle of vibration of light that reflects from it). That we've learned so much about Mars is, of course, a marvel in and of itself. To quote the author, "To tell anything about a body that never comes closer than thirty-five million miles taxes your ingenuity to the utmost."

Dr. Asimov was also tapped to provide an article after a long hiatus from Astounding's pages. Microdesign for Living, about the biochemical synthesis of proteins, is not one of his better pieces, which is to say that is readable but not memorable.

Poul Anderson (as his Astounding alter-ego Winston P. Sanders) wraps things up with a short piece called The Barrier Moment. Scientists may not know why one can't go back in time more than three years, but a philospher believes he has the horrifying answer. Perhaps there isn't any time to go back to...

All told, the March 1960 Astounding clocks in at a respectable three-and-a-half stars. That is the best this magazine has been since I started rating the issues in January 1959. I sincerely hope Campbell can keep this up!

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I've devoted much ink to lambasting Astounding/Analog editor John Campbell for his attempts to revitalize his magazine, but I've not yet actually talked about the latest (February 1960) issue. Does it continue the digest's trend towards general lousiness?

For the most part, yes. Harry Harrison's serial, Deathworld, continues to be excellent (and it will be the subject of its own article next month). But the rest is uninspired stuff. Take the lead story, What the Left Hand was Doing by "Darrell T. Langart" (an anagram of the author's real name—three guess as to who it really is, and the first two don't count). It's an inoffensive but completely forgettable story about psionic secret agent, who is sent to China to rescue an American physicist from the clutches of the Communists.

Then there's Mack Reynold's Summit, in which it is revealed that the two Superpowers cynically wage a Cold War primarily to maintain their domestic economies. A decent-enough message, but there is not enough development to leave much of an impact, and the "kicker" ending isn't much of one.

Algis Budrys has a sequel to his last post-Apocalyptic Atlantis-set story called Due Process. I like Budrys, but this series, which was not great to begin with, has gone downhill. It is another "one savvy man can pull political strings to make the world dance to his bidding" stories, and it's as smug as one might imagine.

The Calibrated Alligator, by Calvin Knox (Robert Silverberg) is another sequel featuring the zany antics of the scientist crew of Lunar Base #3. In the first installment in this series, they built an artificial cow to make milk and liver. Now, they are force-growing a pet alligator to prodigious size. The ostensible purpose is to feed a hungry world with quickly maturing iguanas, but the actual motivation is to allow one of the young scientists to keep a beloved, smuggled pet. The first story was fun, and and this one is similarly fluffy and pleasant.

I'll skip over Campbell's treatise on color photography since it is dull as dirt. The editor would have been better served publishing any of his homemade nudes that I've heard so much about. That brings us to Murray Leinster's The Leader<. It is difficult for me to malign the fellow with perhaps the strongest claim to the title "Dean of American Science Fiction," particularly when he has so many inarguable classics to his name, but this story does not approach the bar that Leinster himself has set. It's another story with psionic underpinnings (in Astounding! Shock!) about a dictator who uses his powers to entrance his populace. It is told in a series of written correspondence, and only force of will enabled me to complete the tale. There was a nice set of paragraphs, however, on the notion that telepathy and precognition are really a form of psychokinesis.

I tend to skip P. Schuyler Miller's book column, but I found his analysis of the likely choices for this (last) year's Hugo awards to be rewarding. They've apparently expanded the scope of the film Hugo from including just movies to also encompassing television shows and stage productions, 1958's crop being so unimpressive as to yield no winners.

My money's on The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

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Maturity is both a blessing and a curse. With age comes wisdom, knowledge, and respect. But advanced years also bring narrowmindedness and physical decay.

Astounding, the eldest of the Big Three (or Four, depending on how you count them) science fiction digests, is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. It is no longer on the cutting edge of the field, and editor John Campbell knows this. At the same time, his conservative editorial policies makes turning the literary ship around a slow and possibly fruitless task.

His recent innovations include changing the name to Astounding Science Fact and Fiction and including a several-page slick non-fiction section. It's terrible. He needs an Asimov or at least a Boyd to write these articles.

With this issue, Campbell has begun the process of changing the name of the magazine to Analog, a singularly uninspiring appellation.

What Campbell has not done is broaden his stable of writers. They are not universally terrible, but they are almost always write conservatively (at least, when they write for Astounding/Analog) and there are very few woman writers or characters. The stories are usually of that dry, gimmicky variety, often suffused with a smugness I can't stand. Moreover, there is the general portrayal of aliens in a negative light, which strikes me as a sort of coded racism with which I am not comfortable.

Why do I keep reading? Well, the serial Deathworld is actually very good, and if I cancel my subscription, I won't have much else to read. I also, like many, take pleasure in watching trainwrecks. Either this caterpillar will turn into a beautiful butterfly, or it will end up a dead pupae.

Only time will tell.

I'll have a full review of this month's issue tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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There are times that I feel I could trot out the same Astounding review every month. It would go something like this:

"Editor John Campbell continues to showcase Human-First, psionic stories with young male protagonists and virtually no female characters. The table of contents features Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, and Murray Leinster. Yet again, the magazine is a disappointment."

For the most part, the above summary would serve this month, but there is a kicker at the end of this review.

Skipping the first part of a serial by a fellow of whom I've never heard (a Harry Harrison), the issue opens up with one of Murray Leinster's weaker outings, Attention Saint Patrick. Leinster is often excellent, but in this one, he's just boringly droll, telling the story of an Irish space colony that relies on giant serpents to control its vermin problem—in this case, little dinosaurs with diamond teeth.


by Bernklau

Then we have the truly ridiculous A Rose by Other Name, a Chris Anvil story about how the removal of military and jingoistic jargon from our vocabulary makes it impossible to go to war. Not good.

Campbell has tried to make his magazine more respectable by including a slick paper non-fiction segment starting this month. Frank Foote and Arthur Shuck penned Solid Plutonium Headache about the technical and physical difficulties associated with working this dangerous radioactive material. A more boring article I have never read, which is a shame because there's nothing wrong with the subject matter. Until Campbell finds himself an Asimov or a Ley, I think his non-fiction section won't be worth much—particularly as the slick paper is not at all absorbent.

Poul Anderson's The Burning Bridge, about a fleet of interstellar colony ships on a 40-year trip to settle a new world, is decent. Recalled by Earth nearly a few years into their flight, the fleet's Admiral must determine whether or not they will return or press on. The cast is nicely international, and women play an important (though oddly segregated) part.


by Bernklau

Then we have The Garrett, in this case Viewpoint. A fellow dreams himself into the future and discovers a strange new world before snapping back to his original time. The now-typical Randallian gimmick is that the person is a famous figure from the past, and the destination is now-ish. It's not as bad as it could have been, but Garrett loses a star just for being Garrett.

Finally, we have The Silverberg: Stress Pattern. This story is hard to rate because there are really two things going on here. On one hand, we have the story of a sociologist and his assistant wife (no doubt inspired by Bob Silverberg's wife and partner, Barbara) and the slow unraveling and subsequent recovery of their lives. The characterization and writing are quite good, and I was carried along for the entirety of the tale's 30 pages.

On the other hand, in the end, the story is a rather ham-fisted argument against the leveling qualities of increased socialism (small "s") and social welfare. The message of the story is that while we might keep the lower classes fat and happy, the secure smart people are just going to get bored and restless. While such an argument could be made against a uniform public school curriculum, and while in true Socialism, the only way to get ahead is to cheat, I don't think things can progress in America as Silverberg contests. Moreover, that part just feels tacked on to tickle Campbell's fancy. It has that "secret society knows all the answers and can manipulate humanity like a machine" conceit I generally find tiresome.

Still, Bob is coming along. I think if he tried writing for another magazine, he could put his talent for prolific writing and good portrayals toward making something truly good. He's not Randy Garrett, even though he works with him regularly.

All told, it's a 2.5 star issue. But I promised a kicker: the serial, Deathworld, is excellent so far, and I'm keenly anticipating next month's installment. You'll have to wait until next February to get the review, but I think it will be a good one!

Stay tuned!

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Good morning, dear readers. Based on the incidence of fan mail, it appears you now number nearly half a dozen (unless, of course, it's just you, Laurose, writing in under a number of pseudonyms; if that be the case, I'm still grateful).

And now comes the moment you have all been waiting for: my review of the December Astounding. Did this issue top the last in terms of sheer awfulness? I'm afraid not. The magazine is, in fact, back to its old low but passable standards.



I mentioned
last time that Randall Garrett has the lead novella in this issue. The Destroyers starts off well enough. Slowly, even compellingly, Garrett describes a group of farmers in a barony on one of the more backward planets in the galaxy. The placid cycle of years is disturbed by the news of impending interstellar war. When it does break out, the conflict seems far away and does not immediately disturb the peaceful farmers. But over time, the fight comes closer and closer to home until the barony is taken by the conquerors, and the planet surrenders.

So what's wrong with this story? Garrett, as you know, is fond of the historical parable. In Despoiler of the Golden Empire, he writes rather praisingly of Pizarro's murderous conquest of Peru with the "twist" being that the readers were meant to think the story was one of science fiction rather than historical fiction.

About half-way through The Destroyers, I started to worry that he was doing it again. When he spoke of the invaders' blockade and the plucky captains who dared run it, I began to look for other Civil War parallels. Sure enough, the conquerors come from the north, they represent an industrialized society preaching equality and freedom, they are superior technologically. The "South" wins at first but inexorably starts to lose. Their country is split in two. The war ends with the taking of the capital.

Even this would be fine except for the story's punchline. The Union colonel who comes to accept the baroness' surrender (yes—by this time, Randy has named the invaders "The Union") announces to the farmers that they are all free, and that now they can earn money and get an education. And what is the reaction of the farmers (read: Negro slaves)?

Horror! All of their needs had been tended to under the old regime. They had been happy, had had purpose and direction. What, oh what, would they do with money and education and freedom?

That smell assailing your nostrils is last night's dinner. My apologies. I don't think I need comment further other than to observe that it may be impossible for Randy to write without offending. But I guess he keeps Astounding's target demographic happy...

On to happier, or at least less saddening, entries. Chris Anvil's Mating Problems, about how a colony deals with the aftermath of two crises by combining their ill effects, is not bad. I note that Anvil likes stories about pioneering colonials, and I do too. At some point, he'll write an outstanding one, perhaps.

Les Collins has a non-fiction article entitled How to write Science faction, a rather glibly written description of the technical writing field. Perhaps the best part of the column is a list of ten technical paragraphs in need of editing. Collins invites those who are able to properly fix a majority of them to contact him for a possible job opening. I'm tempted.

George O. Smith's The Big Fix is kind of fun. In a world where everyone is psionic, how does one keep the gambling "honest?" And once that puzzle is solved, how does one rig the game? The story even features, though doesn't star, a cigar-chomping tough gal, though she ends up a romantic interest, sadly. The dialogue consciously imitates the over-verbose New York gangster dialect featured in the recent hit, Guys and Dolls. The conceit is either cute or annoying. I suppose it depends on your mood.



I skipped Part Two of Everett Cole's The Best Made Plans since I could not finish Part One. I think it's a futuristic ignominy to imperial throne story, but I can't be certain.

Last, and fairly least, is Tell the Truth, by E.C. Tubb. In this story, humans are confronted with a stronger, aggressive alien foe (that looks just like us). As a prelude to conflict, both races agree to exchange a single representative who will serve as the exemplar of the species. Based on the examination of said ambassador, the choice between peace and war will be made.

Of course, the humans are able to select the exact right person to hoodwink the aliens. It turns out that the aliens are wholly logical and, thus, deduce from the ambassador, who sells military toys to children, that Earth is a highly armed camp whose youth are trained from birth to be soldiers.

It's a typical Campbellian piece, and it makes no sense. For one thing, the aliens are trained from birth to be soldiers. Moreover, much is made of the fact that the ambassador cannot lie (for the aliens are experts in preventing deception); therefore, the conclusion that the aliens make is inescapable. One would think that these aliens, who clearly have a profound knowledge of deceit, would recognize the cheap ploy for what it was. After all, the ambassador may be telling the truth, but that doesn't mean his masters are obligated to.

At least I've saved dessert for last—the December F&SF is next up, and with its reading, I will have an entire year's worth of magazines from which to choose this annum's Galactic Stars.

See you soon!

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Here's a short update before I fully review this month's Astounding. Remember my piece on Despoiler of the Golden Empire? Well, good old Randy Garrett is at it again with his historical parables. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop in his lead novella of this ish, The Destroyers, and it did in a big way.

It's disappointing since the writing was actually good and compelling for the first two thirds of the story--and then I saw where good old Randy was going. Boy did he get there.

Try it, but don't spoil the ending for the other readers until my article on the issue as a whole, which should come tomorrow or the next day.

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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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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!


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I had planned on breaking up the rest of this month’s (October 1959) Astounding into two parts, but seeing how there are only four pieces of fiction, albeit long ones, I’ve decided to give it all to you in one blow.

Chris Anvil continues to put out the most mediocre stuff imaginable. These are the stories I’d expect to see in Imagination, if “Madge” were still around. The Law-Breakers is the cover story for this issue, and it really is barely worth the space it takes. Two invaders from a race of extremely humanoid aliens attempt to infiltrate the Earth using sophisticated invisibility technology. All of their predecessors have failed on these missions, so the stakes are high. As it turns out, the Terrans are ready for the invaders, trailing them wearing cloaking fields of their own.

Once captured, the invaders are offered a deal—become citizens and their sentence will be reduced from felony sabotage to a host of petty misdemeanors. Along the way, we get some fatuous smugness about how Earth is better than the aliens because it is a planet of multiple competing civilizations rather than a single, united race. It took me three sittings to finish the story, which is saying something for a 30-page story.

Story #2 is even worse: The Unspecialist, by unknown Murray F. Yaco, features a pilot and co-pilot of a small scout ship accompanied on their mission of reconnaissance by a “Bean Brain,” a seemingly useless fellow who, nevertheless, contributes valuable expertise in a particular pinch. The gotcha of the story (a disappointing trope of science fiction that I thought had died out) is learning the former profession of the unspecialist. Dull, dull, dull.

I was thus rather pleasantly surprised by the third story, Dodkin’s Job, by the old hand, Jack Vance. Somehow, I have a soft spot for dystopian stories with highly regimented societies. Not so much the predestined occupation stories, like Asimov’s Profession, but more the totalitarian tales where people are pigeonholed into horizontal layers of privilege and are constantly trying to climb out.

In this one, Luke is a 40-year old born with ample opportunities, but due to his nonconformist nature, he finds his career a sordid succession of demotions until he finds himself a Level D Flunky assigned to clean sewers. When a new labor directive is passed down to return his shovel to the central office every day, thus wasting three hours of his own time, Luke decides to petition the authorities. Up the ladder he goes, to the very top, and then back down to the prestige-less clerk levels whence the impetus for the decision came. There, he finds the true secret of bureaucracy—that data is power, and it is the presenter of data who really has the power, not the decision-makers who can only make decisions based on the data presented.

It’s a story that kept me up past my bed-time, and, as a person who presents data for a living, a very instructive piece, to be sure!

That leaves us with Part 2 of That Sweet Little Old Lady, by Mark Phillips aka Randall Garrett. As you know, I’m rather predisposed against Mr. Garrett, but I did stick it out through both installments, this tale of telepaths, espionage, FBI agents, and renaissance costumery.

In short, there is an information leak somewhere in America, and it’s up to Agent Malone to find it. Along the way, he teams up with a host of insane telepaths, all of whom are non-functioning with the exception of one who believes herself to be an immortal Queen Elizabeth I. She insists that her entourage dress appropriately, and I now understand why Randy dressed up as Henry VIII for Wondercon—he was really dressing up as Agent Malone (or Malone was designed to look like Randy playing Henry VIII).



Anyway, it’s a flippantly written who-dunnit. It’s not offensive, and I was able to finish it in a reasonable amount of time, but it was the literary equivalent of Saltines—bland and not particularly satisfying. Also, I’m getting rather tired of Kelly Freas—how many wrinkles does an illustrated person need, anyway?

Thus ends another 2.5 star Astounding. This makes the biggest spread between magazines I've seen in a month--compare to 3.5 for Galaxy, 4.5 for F&SF.

That’s that for magazines this month, though I'll do an Astounding Analytical Laboratory stop press in a couple of days. Next month, we’ve got another Astounding, F&SF, and IF. Also, a host of anticipated space shots, probably a movie or two, and a new science fiction/fantasy/horror anthology debuting in about a week: The Twilight Zone.
See you soon!

---

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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When last we left off with the September 1959 Astounding, things were looking awfully bleak. The star-o-meter stood at a limp 2 stars, and I had poor hopes of raising the needle.

I am happy to report that things got better. Well, "happy" is too strong a word. I can honestly say that the quality improved, but I wouldn't have bought the magazine on the strength of its latter half.

Algis Budrys has the best story of the issue, no surprise there. His The Sound of Breaking Glass is the post-apocalyptic tale of a woman who has been holed up in a well-defended service station for twenty years as the world has slid into anarchy due to the widespread use and abuse of the drug, Lobotimol. Said medication makes the imbiber wholly vulnerable to suggestion--not the prescription for a healthy society. Originally a therapeutic pharmaceutical, it became a weapon that was cheap and ubiquitous.

Well-written and chilling, like most of Budrys' work.

The short-short article by Lt. James W. Owen, Fiction? Reality! is about the realization of arctic exploration gear that was posited as science fiction in a previous Chris Anvil story (Sellers' Market). Brief, but decent.

Amazingly, Randall Garrett's other story (under the pen-name of David Gordon), ...or your money back! is not terrible. It's actually pretty good, even though it is yet another story with the Heironymous Machine as its gimmick. In this tale, though, it is used to enhance psychokinetic powers to cheat at gambling. The sheer implausibility of the device is used as a legal defense by the perpetrator. A cute twist.



Finally, On handling the data, by newcomer M.I. Mayfield, is a depiction of one side of a correspondence exchange in which a graduate student makes an exciting discovery and then subverts it to gain his doctorate. I'm not quite sure I got the point, so I'm hoping my smarter readers can enlighten me.

All told, the latter half raised this issue into 2.5 star territory, which is as low as Astounding has gone this past year (it's never broken the 3 star mark, sadly). Read it at your peril.

In two days--the September 1959 IF! And then on to the new stuff... October!

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People seem to enjoy extremes. The first to do this. The best at doing that. The most exciting. The brightest. The darkest.

If you're wondering why I failed to write on schedule, day-before-yesterday, it's because I was wrestling with the worst. Specifically, the worst magazine I've had to trudge through since I began this project in 1954. Let me tell you: there was nothing to enjoy about it.

I speak of the September 1959 issue of Astounding. Not only are the stories (at least those I've thus far read) thoroughly dull, but they have that sharp stamp of Campbellian editing, or pandering, which causes them to have the same tedious, nonsensical elements.



Take That Sweet Little Old Lady, by "Mark Phillips," a pseudonym so phoney, I knew Randall Garrett had to be involved. Sure enough, Mark Phillips is Randy and a fellow named Laurence F. Janifer. It's a drab, unamusingly droll stream-of-consciousness story about a detective and his quest to find a psionic spy. In the course of his investigations, he meets a dotty esper convinced that she is an immortal Queen Elizabeth. Joy of joys, this is only the first of a two-part serial.

As for the Campbellian twist, much reference is made to psionic devices that are part electronic and part symbolic. This is a nod to Campbell's obsession with "Heironymous Machines," devices that measure "non-electromagnetic radiation," using electric circuits that appear to have no function and could, it is boasted, be replaced by pen-and-ink diagrams of those same circuits without affecting the ability of the machine.

Well, I can't disagree with that.

Chris Anvil continues to make solid 2-star stories that fill blank spots in the pages of Astounding. Captive Leaven is about the effect an interstellar traveler had on a primitive civilization, uplifting it to a very specialized sophistication so that it could produce parts to repair the traveler's spaceship. Not a bad idea, I suppose, but executed in so dull a fashion that I fairly had to reread the whole tale to remember the plot.

Finally, even Murray Leinster disappoints with his A Matter of Importance, in which Leinster's characteristic employment of short sentences annoys to distraction. Ostensibly a story about an interstellar police rescue mission, it's really an opportunity to point out that the human form is the most natural of forms for intelligent creatures, that the Solar System is the most typical of planetary systems, and the predictions of a canny protagonist always come out to be correct.

Fatuous determinism. You can have it.

I'm dreading the rest of this issue, and the next one, to be honest. I'll read them, because I feel I've a contract with you, my good readers, but I can't promise not to skim.

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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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All right, all right. There is no putting off at least an initial review of this month’s Astounding. Actually, I’m more than half done, but I covered The Aliens earlier, so there was much reading to do to have anything of substance to report.

Randall Garrett’s Dead Giveaway literally put me to sleep several times before I was able to finish it. The premise isn’t so bad, though it is quite hoary: humanity finds a long lost alien civilization whose technologies seem to dovetail perfectly with our own. A bunch of eggheads (male, white, of course) determine that the abandoned city is actually a gift designed to give us a leg up. It is also a test—do we have the ability, as a species, to accept the help?

This is discussed in one of the more ludicrous paragraphs ever written by Randy (and there is much competition):

Scholar Duckworth said: "It takes a great deal of humility—a real feeling of honest humility—to admit that one is actually inferior to someone—or something—else. Most people don't have it—they rebel because they can't admit their inferiority."

"Like the examples of the North American Amerindian tribes." Turnbull said. "They hadn't reached the state of civilization that the Aztecs or Incas had. They were incapable of allowing themselves to be beaten and enslaved—they refused to allow themselves to learn. They fought the white man to the last ditch—and look where they ended up."

"Precisely," said Duckworth. "While the Mexicans and Peruvians today are a functioning part of civilization—because they could and did learn."

"I'd just as soon the human race didn't go the way of the Amerindians," Turnbull said.


I’m reasonably certain that this is not how history went in the Americas. If I’m not mistaken, the native Mexicans and Peruvians were devastated and supplanted by an imported European aristocracy. Sure, they didn’t end up on reservations, but it is also disingenuous to suggest that they gratefully accepted European wisdom and, as a result, are better off than their impoverished North American counterparts (who had the temerity to, you know, fight for their lives).



I was going to give this story two stars, but upon reflection, I think it belongs at the bottom of the ash heap. Which is too bad, because it is sandwiched between two quite good tales.

Which brings us to The Outsiders, the second of the Rim stories by A. Bertram Chandler. It is a direct sequel to To Run The Rim, about the adventures of a pack of oddball space traders on the edge of the galaxy. And it’s well worth reading. In the last tale, Calvert and his band of misfits saved an interstellar liner and secured a tidy reward. In The Outsiders, the crew buys its own ship and attempts operation as an independent concern. I was happy to see that the ship’s complement is half-female by the end, all of them competent, hardened spacers.

Of course, for Calvert the dreamer, a hardscrabble life of tramp spacing isn’t enough. Instead, he wants to chase legends of alien ghost ships floating Outside in the vast emptiness of intergalactic space. Following a hot lead, he and his crew ultimately find what they’re looking for…

But we won’t know the resolution of this tale until the next story. Or perhaps the one after that. I strongly suspect there will be a book compilation of these stories when all is said and done, and it will be worth buying. A strong, four-star story. It only misses five stars for being so clearly a bridging piece.

Next time: the rest of the magazine and a review of the Analytical Laboratory!





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I’m a bit of an etymology nut, so when I recently heard the hit song, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend me your Comb),” I became intrigued by the provenance of the final lyric, “Baby, you’re the ginchiest.”

Turning to my Dictionary of American Slang, I found that ginch was 30s slang for a woman, a rather unflattering depersonalizing word.  It is akin to, and possibly related to “wench.”  Some people have taken “ginchiest” to mean “tops” or “the best,” but seeing how the male singer is a self-absorbed, beat-spouting jerk, and the girl (from his viewpoint) keeps pestering him, I think he really means, “Man… you’re such an annoying chick!”

Maybe I think too hard on trivial matters.

I’m happy to announce that this month’s Astounding starts with a bang, but first, I want to detour to the issue’s non-fiction article.  It’s the second of its kind that I’ve seen recently, an overdramatic, underrational speculation into the effects of weightlessness and space on the human psyche.  The author opines that, in the absence of normal sensory input or gravity, a person trapped in a tin can for any length of time will go nuts.

Well, people have survived on submarines for 50 years just fine (save for the occasional unfortunate build-up of carbon dioxide).  I suspect our future astronauts will remain sane.  It’s not as if we’re sending them into space inside of sensory deprivation tanks.



Now the fiction.  Murray Leinster has a really excellent story in this ish that I hate to spoil with too much description.  It’s a story of first contact, of an encounter between spaceships, of the interplay between crews, alien and familiar.  And it features a female bridge officer!  Leinster’s penchant for repetitive sentences, like he’s orally reciting an Homeric ode, is a little off-putting, but not cripplingly so.

I give it 5 stars.  How about you?

P.S. I’d planned to write more, but the next story in the book is a Randall Garrett, and I fell asleep five pages in.  I shall try again tonight.  Until next time, dear readers…





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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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One of the main reasons I read science fiction is to see something truly new. I don't just want to see a view of the future--I want to see a brand new culture, or a completely alien creature, or an innovative take on psionics. Only science fiction (and fantasy) really can do this, and even then, writers are often locked into tropes informed by the current world they live in.

The June 1959 issue of Astounding is pretty good. More significantly, it has got a lot of neat ideas that I had not seen before. Let's take a look, shall we?


by Van Dongen

The opening story is Cat and Mouse, by Ralph Williams. Williams has been writing since the late 30s, and his craft is finely honed with this excellent tale of an grizzled Alaskan outdoorsman, his cat, and the alien pest he is (unwittingly) recruited to eradicate.

Many factors make this story so good: Ed Brown, aged 60, is well developed. Williams captures the stiffened limbs but heightened wisdom of an older protagonist. The portrayal of both the Alaskan and off-planet wildernesses is vivid, as one might expect, Williams being a resident of Homer, Alaska. But it's the alien race, the Harn, that is the stand-out element. The not-quite-sentient creature is actually a symbiotic tribe of species, or perhaps the same species with differing pre-natal modifications to produce a variety of offspring classes: to wit, there is a central, immobile "brain," stinging units designed to bring down prey, carrier units that are mostly leg and sack designed to bring food to the brain mass, and fighting units whose role is to defeat larger adversaries.

Brown is just barely up to the task of vanquishing the alien menace, and it is a nail-biting battle of cunning to the end. Sadly, this story may turn out to be Williams' swan song. It is my understanding that the fellow passed away very recently on a fishing trip in the 49th state. I will have to seek out more offspring of his pen; if they are all of this quality, the world has lost a treasure.


by Van Dongen

I enjoyed All Day September by Roger Kuykendall. It's an almost slice-of-life (and I love slice-of-life) account of several weeks on the Moon after a meteor shower savages a moon base and leaves a prospector stranded out in the airless lunar desert. The prospector's salvation, and indeed that of the lunar population as a whole, is his discovery of frozen water in caves hidden from the sun. This is an exciting concept that I've never seen in science fiction or science. The general assumption is that the moon is bone-dry, but it is certainly plausible that there could be stores of water, either primordial or from ice comet impact. The only strain to my credulity came when it was learned that the prospector carried no radio because local transmitters had too short a range (acceptable--there is no ionosphere on the moon to bounce AM waves), but transmitters that used Earth relays were too bulky. It would seem to me that, if we establish a population on the moon, we'd precede it with satellites in orbit that could be used for communication.

Transfusion, by Chad Oliver, is a strange story. The premise is that a galaxy-spanning race of humans found itself bested by a savage, implacable foe, and its only hope was to seed a small colony of brain-wiped people on an out-of-the-way planet (Earth) and hope that this new society might come up with a completely innovative way to fight humanity's enemy. As a test, the starfaring humans salt the planet with fossils of Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, Australopithecines, etc.--basically every member of our evolutionary tree, along with colonies of great apes. The idea is that once we discover that we've been hoaxed, we are ready to do battle with the aliens.

It's a silly idea, but reasonably well executed. Humanity invents time travel in the early 1980s, goes back in time to do some physical anthropology, and catches the starfaring aliens in the act. Traveling back to the present, the story's protagonist determines that his old anthropology professor is, in fact, an emissary of the old humans (the last). The professor tells his student the whole story and gives him the keys to his spaceship with its advanced technology. I would guess that between the ability to time travel and fly faster than light, humans will be well-nigh unstoppable.

Perhaps we'll become the implacable scourge.


by Freas

Finally, we have the silly Unborn Tomorrow, by Mack Reynolds. A private eye is sent to Oktoberfest to find time traveling tourists. Not only does he find them, but they keep slipping the detective mickeys and sending him back in a time loop to ensure that their cover is never blown. All the dick has to show for his efforts is a massive hangover and memories of three trips to Bavaria. He wisely refuses a fourth time around. The slightest of the bunch, but still decent.

Of course, there are virtually no female characters to be seen. On the other hand, as I've said before, if you can't do it right, it's best not to try. Despite the absence of the half of the human race from this issue, it's still a good book--let's call it 3.5 stars.

My bi-monthly Galaxy came in. Expect that to be the topic day-after-tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

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