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by Gideon Marcus

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

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

CAPCOM: "T MINUS 30 seconds and counting..."

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

30 minutes later...

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

Glenn: "Al, Supercar's on now. Just a little more."

30 minutes later...

CAPCOM: "The recovery fleet is standing by and will have to refuel if we don't launch soon...John, what's with the whistling?"

Glenn: "But Al, Andy Griffith just came on!"

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



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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by Victoria Silverwolf

Since the demise nearly a decade ago of the fondly remembered magazine Weird Tales, there has been a dearth of markets for horror stories. Occasionally a tale of terror will appear in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but otherwise there are few places where fiction dealing with the deepest, most irrational fears of humanity can be found. Perhaps this is due to the burgeoning popularity of science fiction as an expression of modern anxieties in this age of space exploration and atomic energy.

Even at the local movie theater one is more likely to find radioactive mutants and creatures from outer space than vampires, werewolves, and mummies, though the recent revival of these Gothic monsters by the British film production company Hammer hints that the tide may be changing, as does the popularity of classic horror movies on television programs such as Shock Theater. The new publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by well-known science fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman, also proves that there are many readers still interested in the dark side of fantasy.

A striking exception to above trend is Fantastic, which often features supernatural horror stories along with the kind of science fiction found in its sister publication Amazing. In particular, the February issue of the magazine contains at least as much of the former as the latter.



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction is a broad genre. It includes hard scientific, nuts-and-bolts projections that read like modern tales with just a touch of the future in them; this is the kind of stuff the magazine Analog is made up of. Then you've got far out stuff, not just fantasy but surrealism. The kind of work Cordwainer Smith pulls off with such facility that it approaches its own kind of realism. In this realm lie the lampoons, the parables, the just plain kooky. They get labeled as "science fiction," but they don't predict futures that could actually happen, nor do they incorporate much real science. Rather, they end up in the sf mags because where else would they go? The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction showcases this type as a good portion of their monthly offerings (appropriately enough -- "Fantasy" is in the name).

Galaxy magazine has always trod a middle road, delivering pure scientific tales, fantastic stories, and pieces of psychological or "soft" science fiction that fall somewhere in between. It's that balance that is part of what makes Galaxy my favorite magazine (that and stubborn loyalty – it was my first subscription).

The first Galaxy of 1962, on the other hand, veers heavily into the fantastic. Virtually every story presented has a distinct lack of grounding in reality. Does it work? Well...see for yourself.



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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by Victoria Silverwolf

The power of music to portray emotions and to evoke images in the listener’s mind seems to be universal to all cultures. It seems inevitable that it will be used in the future to convey feelings and experiences as yet unknown. As human beings explore the unimaginably vast silence of outer space, they will take music with them to fill the void.

Such is the theme of the novella which forms the anchor of this month’s issue of Fantastic. Before we indulge in this sonic feast, however, let’s whet our appetites with an offering from the creative genius of Fritz Leiber.


(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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It doesn't take much to make me happy: a balmy sunset on the beach, a walk along Highway 101 with my family, Kathy Young on the radio, the latest issue of Galaxy. Why Galaxy? Because it was my first science fiction digest; because it is the most consistent in quality; because it's 50% bigger than other leading brands!

And the latest issue (October 1961) has been an absolute delight with a couple of the best stories I've seen in a long while. Come take a look with me – I promise it'll be worth your while.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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As we speak, my nephew, David, is on the S.S. Israel bound for Haifa, Israel. It's the last leg of a long trip that began with a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York, continued with a six-day sea cruise across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and which currently sees the youth making a brief landing in the Greek port of Piraeus. He's about to begin a year (or two) in Israel on a kibbutz. An exciting adventure, to be sure, though I will miss our discussions on current science fiction, even if his tastes were, understandably, a little less refined than mine.

So I hope, dear readers, that you will make up for his absence by sending me even more of your lovely comments!



Of course, you can hardly prepare your posts until I've reviewed this month's set of magazines. First on the pile, as usual, is the double-large issue of Galaxy, the biggest of the science fiction magazines with 196 pages packed with some of the biggest names in the field.

But is bigger always better? Not necessarily. In fact, Galaxy seems to be where editor H.L. Gold stuffs his "safe" stories, the ones by famous folks that tend not to offend, but also won't knock your socks off.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Every month, there is the perennial hope that this will be the month a truly great story will be published. Every month, a stack of science fiction digests arrives at my door. There are few moments as exciting as that day (my postman holds them all so they arrive at once; I like big events). With great enthusiasm, I tear into my magazines. Sometimes the promise is fulfilled. Sometimes it isn't.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction most consistently delivers the stand-out stories, so I usually save it for last. Other months, I am a greedy child and eat dessert first. This time around, I split the difference.



First up is Fritz Leiber's short story, The Oldest Soldier. It's a good piece, very atmospheric. I originally thought it was another story about an immortal, a la Long Live Walter Jameson, the Twilight Zone episode, but upon further reflection, I think it's about one of the many time traveling soldiers in Leiber's The Big Time universe.

Fred McMorrow follows Leiber with the thematically similar, The Man from Tomorrow. It takes place in a New York steak and booze joint. A reporter and a crustily jovial bartender are debating the appeal of gambling when they are accosted by a fellow from the future. As a time traveler, the man has a perfect knowledge of events, and as a marooned prisoner of the 20th Century knowing everything that will happen (down to the most minute detail, it seems, and with no ability to alter events), he is miserable with boredom.

The reader is left with the question: Is it better to know the future and capitalize upon it, or to revel in the uncertainty of what's to come?

I did not like Rex Lardner's American Plan, about a fellow who goes to Mars as a tourist and ends up a prisoner in his hotel. As Damon Knight says in his book review column, it is not sufficient to slap a few science fiction trappings (in this case, a Martian setting) onto an otherwise conventional story and call it "genre."

John Collier's That Tender Age (a New Yorker reprint) is even worse. A would-be lodger interviews with potential landlords. He has a nomadic history, and he's had experience sojourning with cannibals. Early on, he makes it clear, inadvertently, that he has predatory designs upon the landlord's daughter, and at the end, cannibal and landlord's daughter head off to the woods, hand-in-hand, presumably never to return.

What makes this story unbearable is its run-on construction, with no quotation marks or attributions of expression. While Collier does indicate who is speaking through tone and use of proper nouns, it's tedious going. Moreover, the end is telegraphed from the beginning, which makes the conclusion all the more ridiculous. At least it's short.

A Specimen for the Queen is the conclusion (?) to Arthur Porges' "Ruum" series, in which a taxidermist alien robot is deposited in the backwoods of Canada to assemble a preserved zoological collection. In the millions of years that the robot has been on Earth, it has amassed quite an exhibit, including one sentient biped. In this story, the robot encounters a detachment of Galaxy-conquering human-sized bees, who have mounted a scouting expedition to the Canadian wilds.

Has the robot finally met its match? Or are the bees grasping a tiger by its tail? Entertaining, if somewhat disturbing.



Dr. Asimov has a fascinating (if you are mathematically inclined) article on the fundamental constant, Pi. Of particular interest, to me anyway, was his presentation of Liebniz's series, which can be used to calculate Pi, provided one has a lot of spare time. It's quite simple: 4/1-4/3+4/5-4/7+4/9... and so on. You can do it with a pen and paper, but it will take you hundreds of thousands of iterations to get close to the answer, since you'll keep bouncing high and low around it.

Or, you can do what I did and rent some time on a local computer; I borrowed the university's lightning-fast IBM for a few hours. I cleverly reduced the computation time by having my program calculate the average of the last two numbers in the sequence (since one is an upper bound, and the other is a lower bound, to the value of Pi, the actual value must be somewhere about halfway). After 20,000 iterations, I narrowed Pi down to 3.1415926. Good enough for government work!

Finally, we come to Philip Jose Farmer's Open to me, my sister. Lane, the lone surviving astronaut of a five-man expedition to Mars discovers a wildly alien symbiotic biology. This beautifully described, but somewhat simplistic, set of species is responsible for the life-giving canals of Mars, which are actually biologically constructed water transport tubes.

Stranger still is Martia, also a lone survivor, but from a different solar system, who shelters Lane after he nearly drowns in one of Mars' natural hydroponic pools. Tantalizingly humanoid but repulsively alien, she and Lane enjoy a budding friendship and attraction over 25 fascinating, well-written pages. Near the end, Lane discovers how Martia's race breeds—an exchange of an internally carried worm-like parasite.

Whereupon, revolted by his attraction to a female with such a shocking sex life, Lane goes beserk, binds Martia, and kills her parasite. Lane is, soon after, captured by some of Martia's people, who plan to rehabilitate him (to Lane's horror).

It was such an unnecessarily violent end to such a beautiful story. Moreover, it was implausible. Early on, Farmer took great pains to describe Lane as a fellow in touch with his "feminine" side, able to bend ideologically without breaking. And yet, by the end, Lane cannot suffer this threat to his machismo. He cannot love/lust after an alien whose reproduction is, to him, so distasteful.

I get what Farmer is trying to do here, but I don't like it.

Which raises another question: What's worse? Consistent mediocrity, or the promise of greatness capped by a disappointing ending? Both the story and the issue fall into the latter category.

Ah well. There's still one more magazine to go.


Cover by Mel Hunter

P.S. I have exciting news! Very soon, the format of this column will change, and all of you lovely readers can get automatic notification (via instant telegraphic message) whenever a new piece is published.

P.P.S. I have found a kindred spirit, though his focus is both more scattershot chronologically and focused topically: Science Fiction Ruminations

--










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by Ray Pioch

And now for something a bit different.

Back in '56, famed pulp editor, Leo Margulies, launched Satellite, a bi-monthly science fiction digest with the gimmick that it contained a full-length short novel as well as a few short stories. I always had a soft spot for that mag. One of my favorite novels was Planet for Plunder by Hal Clement and Sam Merwin; it came out in the February '57 ish, and I read it on the beach during one of trips to Kaua'i. It's an excellent tale of first contact mostly from a truly alien viewpoint. Highly recommended.

Late last year, Satellite went out on hiatus. Then, at the beginning of this year, Satellite returned with Cylvia Kleiman at the editorial helm. The magazine sported a full-sized format, presumably to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the slicks. No longer featuring novels, it dubbed itself "The Best in Science Fiction."

Who could resist a pitch like that? So the other day, I picked up this month's (May) and last month's (April) issues. What did I find inside?

I suppose one could argue that some of the writers are among science fiction's best, but these are definitely their second-rate stories. This is not the Satellite I used to know and love. Let's have a look, shall we?

The lead story is by the reliable J.T. McIntosh; The Solomon Plan is easily the best fictional piece in the magazine. In Plan, a terran spy tries to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed before: solving the mystery of the backward planet of Bynald. Where the other planets of the 26th century terran federation enjoy a correspondingly advanced quality of life, the hyper-patriotic Bynald seems to be stuck in the 20th century. Moreover, their population is unaccountably low given the length of time it has been settled.


by Leo Morey

McIntosh creates a nice group of characters, including a couple of reasonably developed females. The solution to the mystery is rather implausible, and the ending rather pat, but the story does not fail to entertain. I would have been more impressed had Plan not been a reprint--originally appearing in the February 1956 New Worlds Science Fiction.

A regular feature of Satellite is a biographical piece on one of the antediluvian forefathers of science fiction. In this case, it is a somewhat hagiographic piece by Sam Moskowitz on the justifiably famous A. Merritt. I'm a sucker for history, so it was worth picking up this ish for the piece.

The rest of the magazine is mediocre at best. Fritz Leiber's Psychosis from Space was, reportedly, an old story that he thought so little of that he forgot of its existence until Satellite asked him for a contribution. An astronaut goes out on humanity's first faster than light mission and returns able only to stumble about aimlessly and babble meaninglessly. Turns out his brain is running backwards. There is also some intrigue surrounding the astronaut's doctor and his attempts to coerce information about the trip from his patient. At least the (female) nurse character is competent and resourceful.


by Leo Morey

The duel of the insecure man, by newcomer Tom Purdom, is rather strange. In the far future (1988), it has become popular to engage in duels of cutting questions, the goal being to lay bare the soul of one's opponent and leave them a humiliated wreck. I am given to understand that this story was heavily hacked in editorial, so I won't dignify the resulting kluge with further verbiage.

I did enjoy Ellery Lanier's rather star-eyed account of the American Rocket Society meeting. In particular, I was excited to see his report on the Mouse in Able project. For those who don't know, prior to the Air Force's Pioneer missions, the Thor-Able rocket was used in suborbital shots to test re-entry nose cones. Since scientists abhor unused space as much as nature does, a mouse was included as part of the payload.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that the project was the brainchild of one of the very few woman scientists working in the space program: Laurel 'Frankie' Van der Wal, an amazon of a lady both in stature and fiery spirit. At some point, I'll give you all the inside story on that project; it is both enlightening and humorous.

Algis Budrys' The Last Legend is fair but not up to his usual standard. It's a traditional gotcha story of an older generation of science fiction: an astronaut makes humanity's first trip to another star, the journey having been previously unsurvivable by living things. After returning as a hero, it turns out that he's just a robot.

Robert Wicks' Patient 926, in which all children are inoculated against imagination, and Henry Slesar's Job Offer ("Dig this! The post-nuclear mutant is a normal human!") are both unremarkable in the extreme.

In sum, Satellite is definitely bargain-bin science fiction, though it is not without its charms. I have trouble seeing it surviving much longer, especially out on the newstands next to Life and Time.

Next up, the other half of double-feature that included The Blob!

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Wrapping up my tour of Kaua'i, here are some pictures I took on the south shore estate of Robert Allerton, whose hospitality is as tremendous as his philanthropy (science fiction-related stuff to follow).









For this installment, I've got something a little different. It's also the good news half of a good/bad news combination.



If is a science fiction magazine that has been around since 1952. Amongst the several dozen that have existed throughout the decade, it is perhaps (outside of The Big Three) the best. I haven't followed it very closely, and that's why I missed the big news.

Two issues ago, Damon Knight (acerbic critic and often brilliant writer) was tapped for the job of editor. I didn't find out until a couple of weeks ago, by which time, I'd missed the opportunity to buy the October and December 1958 issues. February 1959 was still on the stands, however, and I took it with me to Kaua'i.

Perhaps it's just the rosy glow imparted from having read mostly on the lovely Kalapaki beach, but it's really good. I've gotten through the first five stories, and they shall be the topic of today's discussion.

It is, of course, with trepidation that I read the opening piece, Pipe Dream by Fritz Leiber. As I've explained before, I used to like Fritz a lot (who can forget the brilliant A Pail of Air, which appeared in Galaxy many years ago). His stuff of late, however, has been pretty lousy. To be fair, it all appeared in F&SF, so that may have something to do with it. Anyway, Pipe Dream, about the creation of artificial life, is slickly written and atmospheric, but it's also disturbing and unpleasant, and perhaps not in the way Fritz intended. I didn't like it, though I imagine many would.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Wind People is almost a winner. It is a haunting tale of a ship's medical officer who elects to remain on a presumably uninhabited planet rather than expose her newborn child to the risks of hyperdrive travel. Bradley writes powerfully, and the mystery presented as the protagonist and her son make tentative and increasing contact with the furtive natives of the planet is exciting and engaging. The ending, however, is a let-down. One had to wonder if Bradley intended for the story to go in a different direction, one in which the editor was afraid to go. You'll have to read it and see. At least it's by a woman, stars a woman, and takes place in a universe where women make up half of a starship crew. Progress!

I'll skip story #3 until the end, as I've got a lot to say about that one. Number four is The Man who tasted Ashes by Algis Budrys. This is only the third story of his that I've read, and the second really good one; I'm going to look forward to more from him (and perhaps pick up earlier ones I've missed). If ever there was an anti-hero, it is the viewpoint character for this story: a petty political intriguer-for-hire who is contracted by an extraterrestrial concern to facilitate World War III. Good stuff.



Next up: Love and Moondogs by Richard McKenna (a career Navy man who got a writing degree on the G.I.Bill—now there's the American Way!) This is a silly story about the lengths some might go in the pursuit of their cause, however frivolous, and the hypocrisy often inherent therein. In this case, the object of outrage is a Soviet moon-muttnik. Gentle, pleasant satire.

Now back to story #3: The Good Work by relative newcomer Theodore L. Thomas. Remember when I talked about overpopulation in stories and the laughably small numbers most authors bandy about as too much for our planet? Well, Thomas doesn't play around—there are 350 billion souls inhabiting his Earth, and their life is accordingly regimented and drab. It's a satirical anti-utopia (a dystopia?) with a barbed punchline. The core of the story is the search for meaningful work in an age when everyone has just enough, and everything is automated.

I think this story is particularly relevant given that we are, I believe, on the cusp of a dramatic change in our economy. Before the industrial revolution, virtually everyone in the United States was employed in the agricultural sector. By the early 1800s, the industrial and service sectors began to rise as machines created jobs and allowed for the distribution of wealth; this was balanced by a drop of employment on the farm. Around 1900, employment in the agricultural sector had dropped to 35%, tied with the service sector and only slightly above the industrial sector. Industrial sector employment rose to a peak of 37% around 1950, and it has begun a gradual but steady decline since. Agricultural employment was at just over 10% in 1950, and it is plummeting fast. Service sector employment makes up the rest.

Projecting out another 50 years, agricultural employment will decline logarithmically, with a limit of zero as time goes to infinity. Industrial employment may take longer, but with mechanization and (ultimately) roboticization, that sector will also see declining employment. That leaves the service sector, which means that in the end, our economy will consist of nobody making anything, and everyone doing something for each other. Except, in the future, I imagine machines will also be my servants. So what will anyone purchase in 50 years to drive the economy? How will anyone work? Perhaps we'll all be scientists and artists in 2009. More likely, we'll develop artificial needs for useless products. Radio advertising has already been honed to a fine art, and the ad execs are figuring out the television advertising game pretty quickly.

Maybe we'll all be employed making advertisements. That sounds fulfilling.



Anyway, I promised good news, so in summation, If with Damon Knight at the helm promises to be a fine magazine.

The other shoe will drop on the last day of this month...





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I tried. I really tried.

When last we left off, I had saved Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads for last. It comprises a good third of the January F&SF, and I thought it would be worth an article all to itself. I suppose it does, at that, but not the way I had thought.

For some reason, when I started this project, I'd had the impression that I liked Fritz Leiber. I think it was from reading The Big Time, which was pretty good. Thus my puzzlement when I reviewed "Number of the Beast", and again when I reviewed "Poor Little Miss MacBeth.".

I am now coming to realize that I don't like Fritz Leiber. The Silver Eggheads was yet another of his over written yet frivolous stories. I know Fritz has won the Hugo, and I haven't published any fiction since I was 14 (so what do I know?), but his latest novella was execrable.



Here's the plot. I think. In the future, fiction is turned out by sentient computers. The fiction-bots are destroyed by disgruntled writers (in the future, human writers don't actually compose; they just tend the machines), but then are unable to come up with their own stories. The glib explanation is that people are insufficiently educated in the future to write. This makes no sense--if the primary form of entertainment in the future is reading, how can it be impossible to know how to write, even if a mediocre fashion?

And there are these silver eggs that are apparently the brains of dead writers. And there is a whole species of robots with their own culture and even genders (but who act just like people--a typical sin of contemporary writers). And the whole thing is written in this baroque mess that is as much fun to read as stabbing forks into my eyes, with that same casual Playboy Magazine glib chauvinism that I've come to expect from Mssrs. Anderson and Garrett.

So, I tried. I really tried. But I could not get past the 16th page without skimming. I have failed you. I present myself prostrate and ask forgiveness. Or vindication, whichever may be appropriate.

The rest of the issue fares little better. John Collier's Meeting of Relations is a slight, biblically-inspired piece. It is also 16 years old; its reprinting suggests it was picked based on length rather than quality.

Invasion of the Planet of Love, by George P. Elliott, is another one of those strange pieces that leaves me wondering if it supposed to be satire or not. I suspect it is, because the subject (rapacious Victorian-types looting and torturing Venus and its inhabitants only to be thwarted by the most peaceful of peoples) is implemented in so heavy-handed a fashion that it must have been meant as some kind of allegory. It's certainly not science fiction, at least no more than Burroughs' work at the turn of the century.

From <i>Exploring the Planets</i> Copyright 1958
From Exploring the Planets Copyright 1958

Incidentally, it is looking as though the "hot but tolerable" Venus is about to go by the wayside (along with all the science fiction stories that take place on it). A presentation at the Paris Symposium on Radio Astronomy last summer revealed that radar studies done a few years ago show that Venus may be extremely hot--well above the boiling point of water. I have a suspicion that most of our treasured science-fiction tropes may well be rendered obsolete in the next few years of space exploration.

Wrapping up the magazine is The R of A by Gordon Dickson. It's another in a long line of wish-granting genie stories and an interesting commentary on predestination. Not great, but not bad.

That leaves the score for this magazine at one third 4-star, one third 2-star, and one third 1-star. This leads to an average of 2.33. And things started out so well. On the other hand, the nice thing about digests is you can pick and choose.

Next article: 43,000 Years Later by Horace Coon. Stay tuned!

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I'm afraid this month's Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) thus far has been a bit of a let-down. I recognize that this sister magazine to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine has a reputation to uphold as the most “literary” of the Big Three science fiction digests (a lofty standing it shares with Galaxy and Astounding), but I think it has gone a bit too far.

Perhaps it's the doing of the new editor, Robert P. Mills, who took the reins when Anthony Boucher stepped down to pursue a more active writing career. Maybe this is what the audience wants. Maybe it's a phase. In any event, the stories are all long on imagery and short on plot and/or comprehensibility. I know I'm prone to writing purplish prose, and I've certainly got a strong snobbish streak, but this month's stories go too far even for me.

“The Eye and the Lightning” is an Algis Budrys-penned tale about a future in which (I think) scanning devices have given people almost unlimited ability to surveil, to destroy, and to teleport. People live in constant fear of being murdered at any moment by an unknown assailant who tired of his peepshow subject. They go to town swaddled in concealing clothes as some version of the Law of Contagion makes it easier to be a target of surveillance and attack if some of your clothes, skin or blood falls into someone else's possession. This tale chronicles what happens when one of the inhabitants of this dystopia invents a detector that allows a scanned person to identify and retaliate against his or her scanner.

Very atmospheric, but it didn't make much sense to me.

Asimov's science article goes too far in the other direction, perhaps. It is a primer on escape velocity, the minimum speed necessary to escape a body's gravity. There is not much to it. We would have been just as well served had he just submitted the charts showing escape velocity by planet without bothering with the explanation.

“Pink Caterpillar” is Tony Boucher's recent foray into writing: a mildly cute, but somewhat fluffy story about the paradox caused by the impossibility of being in two places (or times) at once.

At least I understood it. The same cannot be said for Fritz Leiber's “Poor Little Miss MacBeth,” which (I think?) is about an old witch in a post-apocalyptic setting. It's a short mood piece, and it doesn't make any sense. Perhaps one of my three fans can read it and tell me what a dunce I am.

The final tale of the first half of magazine is “Timequake,” by Miriam Allen Deford. Per the editorial forward, she's written a lot, but I've never heard of her. This story is about the consequences of the clock resetting 12 hours into the past, eliminating all actions done in that period, but leaving the memories of everyone intact. An interesting, if silly, premise. It's turned into a trivial, short tale.

Oh well. Here's hoping Part 2 comprises more substantial stuff.

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The December 1958 Galaxy came in the mail on the 26th, and I've read about half of it. Willy Ley's column, on the amazing alien world beneath the surface of the sea, is fascinating stuff. The third part (of four) of Sheckley's Time Killer is engaging, though not in the same class as most of his short stories. The short murder mystery, "Number of the Beast," by Fritz Leiber, might have made an interesting novella; as it is, it is too underdeveloped to be interesting. Too bad. Fritz is good.

But what inspired this blog was veteran Jack Vance's latest: "Ullward's Retreat." It is a tale about how a little bit of privacy and living space is a status symbol in an overcrowded world; but, in a society used to being crowded together, too much privacy and living space is undesirable.

Recent figures show that our population is about to hit the 3 billion mark. Given that we reached 1 billion in 1800 and 2 billion in 1927, it is understandable that a good deal of science fiction depicts an overpopulated future.

I find it laughable when an author describes shoulder-to-shoulder crowding with a population of (gasp) 7-10 billion! I recognize that some of our cities are pretty crowded these days, but even tripling the population is not going to squish people together--it will just spread the cities out. Most of the world is still uninhabited, and I can only guess that science will make more of the world inhabitable.

Vance's Earth, however, has a whopping 50 billion souls on it, and that seems a reasonable strain on space limitations. The story starts in the spacious apartment of the eponymous Ullward, a wealthy man. His home comes with a real garden and an honest-to-goodness oak tree. His guests are suitably impressed: their homes are tiny cubicles with doors that exit right onto the commuter slidewalks. To overcome claustrophobia, walls are replaced with image panes that display scenery to convey a convincing illusion of greater space.

Interestingly enough, in Ullward's Retreat, whole planets are available to colonize with relative ease. Ullward leases a continent and invites his friends to visit. They quickly tire of the vast vistas and the pervasive loneliness. They pine to investigate the "good parts" of the world, which are rendered off-limits by the planet's owner. Ultimately, Ullward forgoes his enormous estate and returns to his comparatively (to his peers, not to us) extravagant abode, which has proven, despite its smaller scope, much more impressive to Ullward's friends.

Vance's story is a trivial one and not to be taken especially seriously. I did like some points, however. For one, it depicts an overcrowded future as not dystopian, simply different. Anyone who has been to Japan (before or after the war) has seen a society far more used to crowding than ours. They don't seem to mind it. They just make do with smaller gardens and narrower houses; they adapt with greater politeness and cultural rigidity. The people in Ullward's Retreat like their little privileges, but those privileges become meaningless without a social context. I guess it's the difference between having a 1 karat diamond ring and a 50 karat hunk of diamond in your closet.

I also like that the ability to colonize does not reduce the population pressure on mother Earth. Columbus and Cabot finding America did not make Europe any less populated. It just led to the Americas being more populated (after the colonists did some depopulation of the natives, of course). Moreover, in a world where people are happier in close quarters with their neighbors, it makes sense that the colonizing spirit would be correspondingly lower.

Was it a good story? Is it worth 35 cents? Sort of, and, probably not. Nevertheless, it did provoke thought, and can you put a price on that?

Stay tuned. I'll have more on this month's Galaxy in a day or two!

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