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1961 began on November 10, 1960.

I see some of you are scratching your heads in confusion; others are nodding sagely. It's a long-held tradition in the publishing industry that the date printed on magazines is the date through which they are expected to be on the bookstands, not the date they are first displayed. IF Science Fiction, a bi-monthly, comes out a full two months before it's "expiration date." Thus, I picked up a copy with a January 1961 stamp well before Thanksgiving 1960!

Since IF was acquired by the folks who bring us Galaxy Science Fiction, it has been something of a weak sister to that elder magazine. This month's issue may turn all that around.

(see why at Galactic Journey!)
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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 mentioned last week that Satellite no longer prints full-length novels between its covers anymore. It looks like that role is now going to Galaxy, which, in its new, 196-page format, can accommodate longer works more comfortably. In short order, it looks like Galaxy will specialize in two-part serials, responding to reader requests for same.

I'm a fan of longer stories in my magazines. F&SF scratches my short story itch quite nicely, and there are lots of good science fiction novels coming out, so that intermediate length can only be found in the digests. I find that the novella/short novel length is quite good for adequately developing a concept without overly padding the matter.

Cover by EMSH

That length was certainly used to excellent effect in Fred Pohl's new space exploration/first-contact thriller, Whatever Counts. What a fine story. With the exception of some over-traditional gender roles (in the far future, I'd expect women to be more than secretaries and babysitters), Pohl paints a quite mature and sophisticated vision of tomorrow. Moreover, while the female characters have traditional roles, they also get to be intelligent and vital protagonists. Just skip over the rather exploitative art...

So what's the story actually about? The Explorer II, essentially a generation colony ship, though the journey "only" takes about seven years, is part of humanity's first gasp of interstellar expansion. Unfortunately, during the vessel's journey, our race (as a whole) makes contact with its first alien species, the technologically and biologically more-sophisticated "Gormen." Wherever we encounter the Gormen, we are able to offer but feeble resistance.

The same is true for several of the crew of the Explorer II, who are quickly captured by the Gormen upon touchdown. Their trials at the hands of the Gormen, and the nifty way in which they make escape, are all interesting and well-written. But what really sold me was the attention to detail. The colony ship is plausible, the Gormen truly alien, the characters well-realized, and the style both gritty and artistic. And I really like any story that takes the time to explain where characters are going to take care of their toilet needs...

illustration by WOOD

I'd hate to spoil any more than I already have. Just go read it! (Please note that the author has not given me permission to freely distribute this story. If you can, I'd buy a copy.)

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Sorry for the long delay, folks! It's not for lack of things to talk about, that's for sure.

As you know, I am an avid fan of Galaxy (formerly Galaxy Science Fiction--retitled, perhaps, for those embarrassed to be science fiction buffs). I recently discovered that Galaxy, in addition to publishing a monthly (now bi-monthly) digest, also puts out complete novels in digest format. These are not serials, mind you, but full-length novels.

This month was a little light in the digest department, there only being Astounding and Fantasy & Science Fiction to review, so I went down to a second-hand store and got me a truckload of old Galaxy novels. I, sensibly, began with the earliest one I was able to get my hands on, The Alien, by Raymond F. Jones, published in 1951.

Raymond Jones has been around since the early 40's, and you proably recognize his name from having penned This Island Earth, which was turned into a fairly popular movie. I confess that I don't recall having read anything of his before The Alien, and I don't know if this title has made me hungry for more, though this is not meant to be a disparagement.

This is a surprisingly uninspiring cover for a book that is quite bombastic once you get inside. Written in true Space Opera style, it is a sweeping tale covering millenia and the galaxy, pitting scientist heroes against religious fanatics.

So far so good...

Actually, the set-up is excellent. A few hundred years in the future, automation has given humanity overmuch leisure time. With little to do but argue politics and philosophy, the average lifespan of a government is measured in months, and the people are hungry for a strong leader on whom to latch.

Del Underwood is an archaeologist with no taste for modern Earth. His self-imposed exile takes him to the asteroid belt, where mysterious artifacts of a long-dead race are scattered. Apparently, Jones subscribed to the now outmoded idea that the asteroids are the remains of a planet that once exploded (it turns out that there is not nearly enough mass in the asteroids to make a proper planet, and the orbits don't line up properly to have had a common origin).

The first third of the book is about how Underwood and his team figure out how to gain entry to a seemingly impenetrable vault. I love stories like this--essentially first contact through artifacts.

Once inside the vault, the story gets a bit hackneyed. The team finds the organic remains of a galactic warlord along with instructions on how to revive him. Though Underwood quickly gets cold feet about the affair, the people of Earth, desperate for novelty and a leader, insist on his the overlord's resurrection.

After a short gestation, Demarzule is born and immediately takes up the reins of power. This is Underwood's cue to leave Earth in a scout ship with a small crew (including the one female character, the talented surgeon, Illia) in search of the weapon that had been used to destroy Demarzule's planet (now the asteroid belt).

The most likely spot where the weapon might be found is the home planet of the Dragborans, the race that had defeated Demarzule's people. Unfortunately for Underwood, the mighty Terran fleet, now serving Demarzule with fanatic zeal, gets there first and loots the planet of all valuables before putting a torch to its ancient (abandoned) cities. Underwood's team sneaks to the Dragboran planet's moon, where some Dragborans still live, though in an apparently primitive state (how Demarzule's Terran's missed that, I couldn't say.)

Appearances are deceiving, however, as the remnant Dragborans (who look just like people, as does Demarzule), have secret psionic powers that make them quite formidable indeed.

The third part of the book, detailing Underwood's return to Earth to take on Demarzule, aided by the Dragboran power, is pure, overwritten, scientific romance. Which is not to say it's bad. In fact, it was fast and enjoyable reading. The climax is suitably... climactic.

On a side note, I appreciated the "softness" of the science fiction. There is little to date the novel (other than the style, of course), and so it will age reasonably well, I imagine.

So if you spot a copy at your local book shop, or if the thing gets reprinted, and if you like this sort of story, you will not likely regret picking up The Alien.

Next time, some rather scary non-fiction. If you follow the papers, you know the bombshell (literally) that the Air Force dropped on the press last Friday. But I'll save that for the 26th...

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Good gravy! Two good Andersons in a row?

This month's Astounding opens with Wherever you are, by "Winston P. Sanders." If it wasn't the swashbuckling yet science-adoring prose, it was the heroine protagonist's name and ethnicity (Ulrica Ormstad--couldn't get more Swedish!) that suggested Mr. Sanders might well be the well-known nordic science fiction writer, Poul Anderson. A quick checking of sources confirmed the suspicion.

Well, it's really good. The fierce soldier, Major Ormstad, gets to be the viewpoint character for half the novelette, whereupon her meek and brainy shipmate, Didymus Mudge, becomes the reader's eyes. Both have become marooned on an alien planet, an ocean away from the local Terran base. Ship's instruments have been destroyed, and constant cloud cover and a lack of a magnetic pole preclude navigation. It is up to Mudge to puzzle out a way home, and up to Ormstad to deal with the fierce mini-Tyrannosaurs so as to secure transportation. My favorite line of the story goes to Ormstad, who initially thinks little of Mudge yet deigns to speak to him anyway:

"For one honest human conversation, in any human language, she would trade her soul. Make it Swedish, and she'd throw in her sidearm."

On to the next story. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was John Dough and the Cherub, by L. Frank Baum, sort of a Wizard of Oz side story. In one of the chapters, the story's heroes (John Dough and Chick the Cherub) are captured and threatened with execution. However, this execution is delayed when Chick the Cherub begins to tell the tale of "The Silver Pig." So entranced are the heroes' captors that they delay the execution every night so as to hear more of the pig's adventures. Of course, the story is designed to be endless so as to forestall the execution long enough for John Dough and the Cherub to escape.

I learned much later that this had been the plot to 1,001 Arabian Nights, and the trope has been used a myriad of times since then. Usually, the format is that sentence of death will follow some religiously or legally prescribed ritual, with the sentenced to have some choice as to the format of the ritual. Virtually every story has the same format--the reader is informed that our hero has worked out the puzzle to prolong his/her life, but we don't get to find out the solution until the end. Since classic science fiction favors the "gotcha" ending, I've seen this kind of story a lot in my literary travels.

So it is with Now Inhale, by Eric Frank Russell. I didn't much care for his last story, but this one is fine. A Terran is imprisoned for suspected espionage on an alien world. Condemned to death, he is allowed one final game of his choice before strangulation. The trick is to prolong the game, to neither win nor lose. The record was 17 days. Our hero beats this record a dozen-fold and is prepared to play the game forever, if need be. Can you guess the game?

I'm afraid the rest of the ish meanders into mediocrity (which is perhaps above par for Astounding these days. Chris Anvil's The Sieve is nothing special--on a brand new colony world, half the pioneers take up smoking the local marijuana and become lazy and shiftless. The rest of the colonists decide to let them starve over the winter. Reefer madness, indeed.

Gordy Dickson turns in a disappointing performance with The Catch, in which a galactic federation fairly begs humanity to retake the reins after thousands of years of retirement. It seems those darned aliens just can't stand the burden of leadership. And it turns out they got all of their technology from humanity the last time we were ascendant. Poor little primitive aliens.

Definitely a story after Campbell's heart.

Finally, we have Set a Thief by H. Chandler Elliott, a Canadian brain doctor whose stuff I've never before read. It's an interesting first contact story, though told in a flip off-hand manner I didn't much care for. Is it a set of thieves' tools or a lady's handbag? And interesting case of convergent evolution, to be sure.

The rest of the ish is the final installment of The Pirats of Ersatz so there's nothing more to report for this month. My hands are throbbing, so I may take a break until March 24. I'll have lots to write about by then, though.

Thanks for reading!

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If you are a devout follower of my column, you know that I love First Contact stories. From Arthur C. Clarke to William Tenn, I love a good yarn about the meeting of two races. Lucky for me, Daniel Galouye (a fairly seasoned writer from Louisiana), has delivered a solid, if not outstanding, addition to my library of such stories.

The City of Force kicks off the April issue of Galaxy. Here's the set-up: not too far in the future (it can't be too far--the conversational slang is all straight out of today's movies), incorporeal spherical aliens show up and blow up all of our cities. They set up shop, erecting cities of their own. These cities are just as insubstantial as the aliens. They are towering, radiant, multi-hued things, whose walls of force shift to fulfill every need of the aliens, from shelter to sustenance. Humanity is left to scratch out a primitive existence in the wilderness. Any attempt to use electricity is met with vindictive zapping.

Except some humans have figured out how to live inside the cities. They have discovered that the alien force fields are activated by thought--any sentient thought. And so the humans live within the walls of the alien city like rats. Their life is virtually idyllic. There is plenty of food, and it tastes like whatever one wants. The force fields mold easily into furniture and even conveyances.

Of course, every so often, the aliens try to exterminate the human vermin, just as we might do with rats, but the risk is considered worth it.

Enter Bruno, a young man from one of the wilderness tribes. His destination is one of the cities. His intention: to make contact with the aliens and convince them that we are sentient and deserve to be able to coexist on Earth. Once in the city, he discovers he has a particular affinity for force field manipulation, and a few experiments establish his ability to convert harmless yellow and green constructs into explosive red ones.

At first, the city-dwellers welcome Bruno and try to convert him to their posh style of living. Bruno eats better than ever before, falls in love, and nearly succumbs to temptation. But only nearly. Spurning the trappings of comfort, Bruno redoubles his efforts to make contact despite the danger. When his attempts are at last successful, the story reaches a genuine climax of excitement.

Unfortunately, what ensues is rather rushed and disappointing. Once communication is established, the aliens lose all of their mystery and become rather pedestrian human analogues. I won't spoil the ending, but I wish Galouye had written a longer story and kept the aliens more mysterious. Tenn did a better job in Firewater.

Still, there are a lot of good ideas in this story. The force cities are very well realized and interesting. The aliens are suitably alien throughout most of the story. The characters are reasonably well realized, though their incessant use of modern slang is jarring, particularly when the story is supposed to take place several hundred years in the future.

Next up--the rest of the magazine... unless events overtake me again. Let's hope the news is better next time.

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Are we alone in the universe? That's a question that has been asked with greater frequency and intensity recently, corresponding with Humanity's first faltering steps into outer space. Are we about to enter an interstellar community?

If you ask me, the answer is “no.” The time scales involved are just too immense. Allow me to explain. Let's be optimistic and assume that most stars have solar systems like ours around them. Let's be more optimistic (starry-eyed?) and assume that a good portion of these solar systems possess Earth-like planets that can support life. There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy—perhaps as many as 300 billion. Surely, around some of these stars, intelligent life must have evolved.

I don't dispute any of the above, actually. I think life is a fair inevitability given the right original conditions, and once you have a creature that is multi-cellular, eats other creatures, and is mobile, you have a creature that would benefit from some kind of brain. Once the brain gets started, it seems likely that it would continue to grow in the creature's descendants as intelligence is generally a useful trait.

Here's the problem: Homo Sapiens, if we are being charitable, has been a species for about a million years. We have been a civilized society (again, charitably) for 6,000 years. Industrialization began 200 years ago, and space travel is exactly one year old. At this rate, we'll have a window of a few hundred or maybe even a thousand years during which we will be spacefaring and recognizably human, whereupon we will “graduate” to whatever the next step is. Or we'll blow up the Earth when the Federation of Atomic Scientists' clock strikes Midnight.

That few thousand years compared to the entire history of the universe is a razor thin slice. It's the width of a penny atop the Empire State Building. Sure, there are probably intelligent aliens out there, but odds are extremely high that they are either behind us, and therefore limited to their planet, or beyond us, and therefore uninterested. Humanoid aliens with technological levels similar to ours make decent fiction, but they might as well be fantasy, not science fiction.

If we ever do meet an alien civilization, it is bound to be unrecognizably alien and bewilderingly beyond our comprehension technologically. Not many authors have tackled the subject, but some stories do exist. Clarke's Childhood's End is perhaps the archetypical example. Much of that book is devoted just to the effects this contact would have on humanity: the humbling, the shaming, the frustration, and the technological/sociological benefit.

Another example, and the catalyst for this article, is William Tenn's Firewater. This story actually came out six years ago in Astounding (where I missed it), but it was recently reprinted in a Tenn anthology called Time in Advance. Tenn is a good writer; I have come to look forward to his stuff, and the anthology is worth picking up.

In Childhood's End, the aliens at least had the decency to talk to us. In Tenn's story, they appear simply as jiggling dots in ethereal brown or umber bottles floating above our cities. They hang in the sky, watching us, intentions unknown. If we attack them, with rocks or missiles, it has no effect. Worse, it sometimes invites retaliation—the destruction of the weapon and/or the weapon's user.

Yet, there are some people who can communicate with them. These are the Primes—people who have lost their sanity trying to conform to the aliens' thought patterns. In doing so, they have acquired the ability to do tremendous psionic feats, but they are also quite mad. The Primes live on reservations camped out next to a congregation of aliens in Arizona.

The Primes have figured out a number of technological and sociological advances, though they do not apply them. It is a kind of game to them. Moreover, because dealing with the Primes can be so dangerous, due to their instability and contagious insanity, dealing with them is highly illegal.

One person, Algernon Hebster, is willing to take that risk. A highly successful businessman, he has perfected the art of trading with the Primes, exchanging various artistic gimcracks for new technologies: washless dishes, better televisions, finer clothing, etc. But his situation is becoming increasingly untenable. The United Humanity government is hot on his trail with an investigation into his illegal activities and the atavistic Humanity First movement is plotting a revolution with Hebster as Enemy No. 1.

I particularly liked Hebster's (admittedly over-simple) analogy for the situation. He likens Earth's contact with a vastly more-technologically advanced civilization to the (devastating) meeting of the American Indians and the Europeans. The native Americans generally responded in one of two ways: they either resisted the Europeans, futilely (as Humanity First wishes to do in the story), or they were subjugated, accepting the European firewater and becoming worn-out shadows of themselves.

There was a third kind of Indian, however (in Hebster's analogy). This one didn't fight the Europeans nor had any interest in firewater. What was exciting to this Indian was the bottle in which the firewater came. This artifact represented a product of a technology far beyond what was possible for the natives, and it was something that could be traded for, if one were canny enough to develop goods that the Europeans wanted. Hebster notes that after a wretched period of adjustment, the American Indian cultures adapted to the new situation and managed even to profit from it. Perhaps humanity as a whole could do the same, if a good that the aliens wanted could be found and developed.

How Hebster deals with this crisis and ultimately is the lynchpin to establishing real contact with the aliens, makes for an excellent 50 pages of reading. It is an ambitious story, and one of the few attempts to posit a truly alien species and the likely effects the meeting with such a race would have on humanity.

Find it. Read it. Let me know what you think.

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Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you're so inclined, and I'm generally not) is a cliché. Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I'd read nothing by the fellow.

This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707. My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle. Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover.

And just barely. Jets are fast. It's hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3. And that was only a decade ago!

The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke's best-seller, “Childhood's End.” I can't tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can't chide me anymore for my illiteracy.

Here's what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing a glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order. It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style. This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand.

For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto. For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters. Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous. Still, it is a very fine book.

And I shan't tell you any more than that. Because first and foremost, it is a mystery. Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries. It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it. Suffice it to say that Childhood's End is very original and never dull.

I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day. It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot. Moreover, Clarke's future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day. It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke's vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.

Disturbing stuff... but then Clarke's book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff. Pick it up! You won't regret spending four bits.

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