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by Gideon Marcus

I read a lot of stuff every month. I consider it my duty, as your curator, to cover as broad a range of fiction as possible so that you can pick the stories most likely to appeal to you. What that means is I wade through a lot of stones to find the gems.

Analog is the magazine with the highest stone/gem ratio, I'm afraid. Nevertheless, it's rare that an issue goes by without something to recommend it, and the January 1962 edition has at least one genuine amethyst amongst the quartz.



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by Gideon Marcus

Every successful endeavor goes through the cycle of growth, stability, decline, and renewal (or death, in which case, there's no cycle). Science fiction magazines are no exception. A particularly far-sighted editor can plan for decline by setting up a successor. For instance Galaxy's H.L. Gold has turned over the reigns to Fred Pohl with no apparent drop in the digest's quality. Anthony Bourchier transitioned to Robert Mills at F&SF, and I understand that Renaissance Man Avram Davidson is waiting in the wings to take over. That event can't happen too soon, as F&SF has been lackluster of late.

Analog has had the same master since the early 30s: John W. Campbell. And while Campbell has effected several changes in an attempt to revive his flagging mag (including a name change, from Astounding; the addition of a 20-page "slick" section in the middle of issues; and a genuinely effective cover design change (see below)), we've still had the same guy at the stick for three decades. Analog has gotten decidedly stale, consistently the worst of The Big Three (in my estimation).

You can judge for yourself. Just take a gander at the December 1961 issue. It does not do much, if anything, to pull the once-great magazine from its shallow dive:



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War is still a ripe subject for fiction. It has been a constant part of the human existence since there were nations. For six thousand years, we've glorified it, hated it, resolved ourselves to it. There's no reason to expect it will go away any time soon, and it's no wonder that war is a common theme in science fiction.

A couple of years back, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers made a big splash with its interesting take on interstellar combat and the character of patriotism. It was a jingoistic piece that I'm sure resulted in a small spike in enlistments. Gordy Dickson's war novel Dorsai also came out in in 1959. Dorsai was a fairly straightforward war story of a genius mercenary with the temperament and training to become a renowned general. Like Troopers, it was a runner up for the 1960 Hugo (Troopers won).



Both are what I'd call "typical" of the genre. I find it interesting how often war is positively portrayed: exciting, filled with tales of cunning, guts, and derring-do. I suppose it's because World War Two was a "good" war. Democracy vs. Tyranny with clear villains to fight. Sure, we lost some of our boys, but we made the world safe again. And so we have a stream of war movies which are by turns dramatic, gripping, even comedic, but rarely overtly anti-war. A Walk in the Sun, a candid film that even included a portrayal of battle fatigue in the midst of action, is one of the few exceptions.

Pacifist sci-fi novels have been similarly rare. Given the nature of Dickson's Dorsai, I was thus surprised (and delighted) to see that his recent Naked to the Stars, serialized over the last to months in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a thoughtful and engaging anti-war book.



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Have you ever ordered your favorite dessert only to find it just doesn't satisfy like it used to? I'm a big fan of crème brûlée, and I used to get it every chance I could. That crispy carmelized top and that warm custard bottom, paired with a steaming cup of coffee...mmm.

These days, however, crème brûlée just hasn't done it for me. The portions are too small, or they serve the custard cold. The flavor doesn't seem as bold, the crust as crispy. I've started giving dessert menus a serious peruse. Maybe I want pie this time, or perhaps a slice of cake.

Among my subscription of monthly sf digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be my dessert -- saved for last and savored. These days, its quality has declined some, and though tradition will keep it at the end of my review line-up, I don't look forward to reading the mag as much as once I did. This month's, the November 1961 issue, is a typical example of the new normal for F&SF:



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Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines. Over the decade that I've been subscribing, I've fallen into a habit. I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies). I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding. I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last. This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests-- my dessert for the month, as it were.

These days, the stories aren't as good. Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won't review until it finishes next month. As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication). Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

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Science fiction digests are a balancing act. An editor has to fill a set number of pages every month relying solely on the stories s/he's got at her/his disposal. Not to mention the restrictions imposed if one wants to publish an "all-star" or otherwise themed issue.

Analog has got the problem worst of all of the Big Three mags. Galaxy is a larger digest, so it has more room to play with. F&SF tends to publish shorter stories, which are more modular. But Analog usually includes a serialized novel and several standard columns leaving only 100 pages or so in which to fit a few bigger stories. If the motto of The New York Times is "All the news that's fit to print," then Analog's could well be, "All the stories that fit, we print."



How else to explain the unevenness of the October 1961 Analog?

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by Gideon Marcus


Take a look at the back cover of this month's Fantasy and Science Fiction. There's the usual array of highbrows with smug faces letting you know that they wouldn't settle for a lesser sci-fi mag. And next to them is the Hugo award that the magazine won last year at Pittsburgh's WorldCon. That's the third Hugo in a row.



It may well be their last.

I used to love this little yellow magazine. Sure, it's the shortest of the Big Three (including Analog and Galaxy), but in the past, it boasted the highest quality stories. I voted it best magazine for 1959 and 1960.

F&SF has seen a steady decline over the past year, however, and the last three issues have been particularly bad. Take a look at what the August 1961 issue offers us:

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Science fiction digests, those monthly magazines filled with s-f short stories, are often like little anthologies. Editors will let their "slush pile" stack up, and when they have enough of a kind of piece, they publish them in a themed issue.

I don't know whether the theme of the July 1961 IF science fiction was intentional or not, but it definitely focuses on the issues of over-population and over-mechanization. That is, in the future, there will be too many of us, and we won't have a whole lot to do.

I'm not particularly concerned about the former. We live on a big planet, and although our presence on it definitely has an impact, I don't think living space is going to be an issue for a long time, if ever. On the other hand, the latter topic holds a strong fascination for me.

We've already seen a precipitous drop in the percentage of people employed in agriculture. Industry looks like it will shed workers soon, too, as the use of robots increases. That leaves the nebulous "service" sector, whose added value to our lives seems rather arbitrary. Eventually, I foresee a world where no one has to grow or build anything...and then what will work mean to us?

It's a worthy topic for discussion. Sadly, the writing in the July 1961 IF fails to impress and often downright disappoints. Here's what we've got:

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At a local gathering of science fiction fans, my wife and I discussed the state of the genre, particularly how our digests are doing. Their boom began in 1949 and peaked in 1953, when there were nearly 40 in publication. That number is down to less than 10, and many are (as usual) predicting the end of the fun.

While it is true that the volume of production is down, I argued that the quality is up...or at least evolving. I used Galaxy's sister magazine IF as an example. IF pays it writers less than Galaxy, and it is a sort of training ground for new blood. Fred Pohl, the magazine's shadow editor, also prints more unusual stories there. As a result, the magazine's quality is highly variable, but the peaks tend to be interesting.



Sadly, this month's IF is chock full of valleys. You win some, you lose some. Still, for the sake of completeness, here's my review; as always, your mileage may vary!

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How do rate a story which is objectively well done, but which you just don't like?

We taught our daughter manners at a very early age. When she encountered a food she didn't enjoy, she was to say, "This is not to my taste," rather than something more forceful and potentially bruising of feelings. I recognize that my readers are turned on by different things than I am. One person's trash is another's treasure, and so on. But at the end of every review, I have to come up with a numerical score, and that score necessarily reflects my views on a piece.

This conundrum is particularly acute with the current issue of Galaxy, dated February 1961. None of the stories are bad. Many are well crafted, but I found the subject matter unpleasant. They may be the bees knees for you. Take my reviews with that disclaimer in mind, and you should be all right.

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If you are in the accounting profession, you are familiar with the concept of "closing the books," wherein you complete all your reconciliations and regard a month as finished. Here at the Journey, Month's End does not occur until the last science fiction digest is reviewed. Thus, though the bells have already rung for the new year of 1961, December 1960 will not officially end until I get a chance to tell you about the latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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I'm sure you've all been waiting like caught fish (with baited breath), so I shan't keep you in the dark any longer regarding the October 1960 Galaxy. The second half of the magazine is better than the first, but it is not without its troubles.

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I've said before that I like my reading to be light and pleasant. Not exclusively, mind you, but I find the current trend toward the depressing to be... well... depressing. This month's F&SF is the bleakest I've yet encountered, and under normal circumstances, it would not have been to my taste. On the other hand, being near Hiroshima on August 6 and then near Nagasaki on August 9, fifteen years after they became testing grounds for a terrible new weapon, is enough to put even the cheeriest of persons into a somber mood, and my choice of reading material proved to be quite complementary.

As usual, I lack the rights to distribute F&SF stories, so you'll just have to buy the mag if you want the full scoop, but I'll do my best to describe the stories in detail.

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

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

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The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction regularly beats out the other regular digests in terms of consistent quality. This month's, April 1960, is no exception.

There's a lot to cover, so let's dive right in:

Daniel Keyes, who wrote the superb Flowers for Algernon, has returned with the issue's lead novelette, Crazy Maro. Our viewpoint character is an attorney who has been contracted by unseen agents from the future to secure psychically adept (and invariably disadvantaged) children for work in a later time. The fellow meets his match, however, when he is asked to recruit the titular Maro, a young black man with an uncanny talent for reading the emotions of others. Much of the novelette is a mystery story, with the lawyer trying to puzzle out the root of Maro's power. It's a powerful piece, assuredly, though the very end is unnecessarily melodramatic.

Another serious piece is The Hairy Thunderer by "Levi Crow" (Manly Wade Wellman in disguise). The writing is deceptively simplistic, describing the arrival of a hairy pale foreigner to the lands of an American Indian tribe. The European commences to ensnare the tribe with his boom stick and, more effectively and terribly, his firewater. A young man of the tribe, Lone Arrow, is able to resist him with the magical assistance of a certain eight-legged class of arthropods.

The moral of the story, that one should be kind to spiders for they are misunderstood but fundamentally good creatures, is one that resonates strongly. I'm always hoping that, when I die, the Spider Gods will look favorably upon me for the compassion and mercy I have shown Their Kind.

The incomparable Edgar Pangborn brings us The Wrens in Grampa's Bears, in which "Grampa," the narrator's Great Grandfather, hosts a brood of beneficient angels within his long beard. Their existence is only hinted at, and the story is mostly a mood piece capturing the sunset of an old man's life in the Summer of '58, a man whose memories encompass both Gettysburg and satellites. Yet, the theme of the tale is not how much things have changed, but how they stay essentially the same.

A Certain Room, a short by Ken Kusenberg, translated from German by Therese Pol, is a silly, archaic piece. What happens when you fiddle with the objects in a room that have a causal connection to bigger, worldwide events? Not much good.

George Elliott has the issue's second novelette, the fantasy-less, science-fiction-less, but nevertheless compelling Among the Dangs. It is a mock account of an anthropologist's sojourn amongst the fictional Dang tribe of Ecuador. Enlisted for his talent for mimicry and his dark skin, the protagonist spends years living with the Dang, learning their customs and even taking a wife, so that he can become one of their high prophets. His initial motivation is to compose a thesis for an advanced degree. But so complete is his indoctrination that it is only through a titanic force of will that he breaks free, and the experience forever marks him.

The piece originally appeared a couple of years back in Esquire, and it is a strange story to find within the covers of F&SF. On the other hand, while the content is neither science fictional nor fantastic, there is a certain flavor to it that allows it to fit nicely in the middle of this issue. I'm not complaining for its inclusion.



I'm not sure what to do with Rosel George Brown. I really want to like her, but she has this tendency toward first-person pieces featuring scatterbrained housewives. Their situations are tediously conventional and exhaustingly frenetic. I have to wonder if the stories aren't semi-autobiographical. A Little Human Contact continues in this vein, and while it's not horrible, it is still not the masterpiece I know Brown is capable of. Of course, I may be looking in the wrong place--Amazing and Fantastic are still around, and I understand she's due to be published there soon.

Isaac Asimov has an excellent non-fiction piece this month, It's About Time, describing the evolution and fundamental incompatibility of our various calendar systems. The conclusion: trust the astronomers and go with Julian dating.

I won't spoil Joseph Whitehill's In the House, Another since it's a one-trick pony. Cute, though.

Rounding out the issue is Gordy Dickson's latest novelette, The Game of Five. It is strangely reminiscent of his earlier The Man in the Mailbag, but it's not as good. Both stories involve a man infiltrating an alien culture to rescue a captured woman. In both stories, it quickly turns out that the situations are more complex than they seem at first blush. In both stories, the "captured" woman turns out to be an agent of some kind.

But though Five is competently written, the Hercule Poirot moment, that bit at the end where the hero explains the mystery, is not supported strongly enough by clues in the narrative. The world is also not as interesting as the one depicted in Mailbag. Unlike the former title, I don't this one will get nominated for any Hugos. Not that it's bad, mind you—just not up to the bar Dickson has set for himself.

That's it for April 1960. I have a whole new crop of magazines and books to review for next month. I also have far more time to devote to the column now that I am between day jobs. Cry not for me—it was a decision long coming and well worth it.

In the meantime, before we get onto things fictional, I have some scientific news with exciting science fiction ramifications...

...but you'll just have to wait two days for it!

---










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We left off on a cliff-hanger of sorts, half-way through my review of the second issue of IF under Gold and Pohl’s management. In brief, it ends as it began: with a strong start and a fairly middlin’ finish.

Gordy Dickson is back to form with Homecoming, a quite nice novelette about a fellow running afoul of Earth customs agents when he tries to declare his pet. If you had a beloved companion, would you sacrifice your chances at immigration by refusing to part with it? The deck is extra stacked in this case—said “animal,” an enhanced kangaroo, is near-sentient. It’s a page-turner, and over too fast.

I’ve never heard of Kirby Kerr, but his An Honest Credit, about a down-on-his-luck fellow with nothing to his name but a priceless, ancient coin (with which he refuses to part) is pretty good. A bit maudlin and short on much that would identify it as science fiction, but I enjoyed it.

I normally don’t include book-review columns in these reviews, but Fred Pohl takes his column a step further, making it a sort of essay. Worlds of If discusses the appearance and non-appearance of gadgetry in science fiction stories, and whether or not it adversely affects the story (or makes it less “science-fictiony.” What do you think? Do you require whiz-bang inventions, or do you prefer a more subtle kind of s-f?

The penultimate tale is Escape into Silence by Australian Wynne N. Whiteford. I enjoyed most of it, this tale of a colony world that has slowly but inexorably ended up under the strict and paternalistic dominion of another colony, one that has risen to supremacy. The protagonist tries to escape, is given the opportunity to emigrate lawfully, but ultimately embraces the confined, noisy enclosures of his home town. I suppose people are loathe to give up what they know, even if they have a chance at something better. Something about the end rang false, however.

Finally, we have Hornets’ Nest by a Mr. Lloyd Biggle Jr. (which suggests there is a Lloyd Biggle Sr. roaming about; that makes me smile). Nest could have been written in the 1930s. A human starship returns to the solar system and finds all of humanity dead for having DARED TO PROBE THE HEART OF JUPITER, THE PLANET WITH THE BALEFUL EYE OF DEATH! It’s not quite so hackneyed; it’s actually a decent read, but I take my amusements where I can.

IF continues to be a solid, if uninspiring, magazine. Lacking the utter dreck of Astounding, it is, nevertheless, not as consistently good as its sister, Galaxy. It feels like what it is—a repository for the second-rate Galaxy stories (though, to be fair, they are not bad so much as often mediocre, and some are quite good). Three stars, and that makes it one of the better mags this month, sad to say.

---

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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by Von Dongen

Gordy Dickson's newest novel, serialized in the last three Astoundings, has already created a stir in the community. Dorsai! is the tale of Donal Graeme, youngest member of a mercenary family from a planet of mercenaries, who starts at the bottom and works his way into the most senior military post in the Earth sphere. It's definitely designed to appeal to those who like combat, military structures, and politicial intrigue.

Sadly, while I actually enjoy all of those things (after all, I've read the magnificant Caine Mutiny at least four times), I was unable to really get into this book at all. Definitely disappointing Dickson for me.

The universe is promising enough. I like stories set in a small set of worlds clustered around Earth, and Dorsai! does a good job of depicting the sixteen colony worlds within about 25 light years of Earth. There are three main camps, each reflecting the sentiment of their parent worlds: liberal Earth, restrictive Venus, middle-ground Mars. Largely autonomous, the primary export of the colony worlds is specialized humans. Some planets export technicians, others sociologists. The world of the Dorsai breeds the galaxy's best soldiers.

These worlds are in constant warfare, and they rent out the Dorsai to lead their troops. The situation is unstable--political forces are gathering to push a truly free market of people peddling, essentially contract slavery. The ambitious Prince William of Ceta plans to be the informal head of all the human worlds, pulling the strings.

The real problem with Dorsai! is its utter lack of characterization. In this big universe Dickson has painted, there are but a handful of recurring characters. It reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo, where there are about nine people in all of Paris. None of the characters have any depth, and the story is narrated in a distant, aloof manner. We never really get inside anyone's head, and Graeme is the only viewpoint. Moreover, Graeme's military genius is never really explained. He just goes from victory to victory, continuously rising in rank. The plot is a bare skeleton; the story would probably benefit from being a series of books, if each one could hold a reader's interest, of course.

It's also a very male-heavy universe, which I find implausible for a story set four centuries in the future. All in all, if feels very shallow and brawny. I'm sure it will go down in history as a defining tale in the genre, but it's a bandwagon I'm afraid I can't be bothered to buy a ticket for.

Stay tuned next time for the rest of this month's Astounding! I hope it will be better than the Dorsai!, but I shan't hold my breath.


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It's another one of those bittersweet months, much like when I discovered IF only to see it die.
This month's Satellite (the best in science fiction) is a fair bit better than last month's issue, which makes the magazine's fate all the more tragic. But we'll talk about that at the end.

The lead tale, Sister Planet, by Poul Anderson, is excellent--except for the last two pages. I strongly recommend simply stopping before reading the end. It takes place on Venus, specifically an ocean-planet version. There is too little oxygen to breathe, and the air is eternally muggy and over-warm. Yet men (not women, at least not yet) populate a floating base to conduct science and to trade with the natives. As one would expect, the Venusians are not at all humanoid; their closest terrestrial analog is the bottlenose dolphin, cute, playful creatures. They have worked out a trade deal with the humans--art and tools for Venusian fire gems.



The characters are well-realized, the descriptions lush and poetic, and the scene in which a Venusian takes the protagonist for a ride down to the underwater city of the cetoids is absolutely spellbinding. Following which, there is a fine discussion of the pros and cons, moral and economic, of opening Venus up for colonization at the expense of its sentient denizens. There is also a lot of interesting geophysics, the kind I've come to associate with Anderson, who is a trained scientist.

But then the end... it's a complete pill, and it makes no sense. Such a shame. Thankfully, one can skip the last portion with little ill effect.

E Gubling Dow, by Gordon Dickson, is something of a second-rater. An egg-like being crashes to Earth in a spaceship, is rescued by a couple of rural types, and dies slowly, agonizingly, from its wounds. Sad and unpleasant.

On the other hand, the non-fiction column continues to be excellent. This month's feature (by Sam Moscowitz) spotlights the short but prolific life of Stanley G. Weinbaum. It's nearly unbelievable that this fellow wrote so much in just one year's time before his untimely death. A short-short of Weinbaum's is included at the back of issue--it's called Graph.



The other non-fiction piece, on French fantasist Albert Robida (by Don Glassman), is a bit florid but educational. I never would have known about this 19th century poor-man's Verne otherwise.

Oh, and there's a silly short non-fiction piece by Ellery Lanier speculating that the reason "real" scientists haven't ventured a design for a hyperspace drive is because they are too terrified of the great unknown. Right.

If you've ever been in a relationship with an over-needy person (what my friends and I knowingly call a "black hole of need") then the plot of Robert Silverberg's Appropriation will ring true. Clingy aliens come within an ace of consumating a psychologically unhealthy relationship with a set of human colonists, but the terrestrials are saved by a bit of bureaucratic chicanery. The best part of the story is the empathic aliens.



Last, but definitely not least, is a beautifully atmospheric story about a Great War veteran and the French wood he falls in love with. The Woman of the Wood, by A. Merritt, naturally has a twist: the trees are really dryads engaged in a centuries-long slow war with the French peasants who occupy the same land. Really good stuff.

With an issue that started and ended so well, not to mention the advertisements for a new Frank Herbert story and a biography of Hugo Gernsback, I was really looking forward to picking up the June edition. But shortly after picking up this issue and last month's, I learned that publisher Leo Margulies has tossed up the sponge. Satellite joins the long list of science fiction publications that has recently disappeared. I'm even told that the June issue was printed, but that it's not going to be distributed. What a treasure that would be to find.

As sad as that is, at least I still have that stack of Galaxy novels to get through. And next up, provided there are no new space spectaculars, I'll be previewing the movie I saw last week with my little girl. I know, I know. I'm an irresponsible dad, not for taking her to see sci-fi horror films, but for taking her to see bad ones.

So stay tuned. I'm sorry about the widely varying spaces between articles--between work and my hands, it can be tough to stick to a regular schedule. Rest assured, I will keep up the fight.

P.S. And if that pair of teens I met at the record store is reading, thanks for joining the (small) club!

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The penultimate magazine offering this month, at least that has made it into my house for review, is Astounding. As always, my bar is pretty low with that mag, though last month's issue made me dare to hope.

In fact, I'm not quite sure how I feel about the May issue. This may come out rather stream of consciousness, so bear with me!

Gordy Dickson, who has written much I like, starts a new serial this month uninspiringly called Dorsai! I am both enjoying it and somewhat off-put by it. It's the story of a young mercenary from a planet whose primary export is mercenaries. It is written in this sober, manly style, and there is lots of posturing and fighting. At the center of it all is the sole female character, who is bound by contract to a rather odious fellow, and whom it appears the protagonist is trying to save, somehow.

Story-wise, it's not really my cup of tea. Yet it is well written, and I've seen enough of Dickson's work to know that he is facile in a number of styles (i.e. he must be writing this way for a reason) so I'm going to go with it and see where it takes me. I will send you postcards along the way.

We didn't do anything wrong, hardly, by Roger Kuykendall (of whom I know nothing) might well be called I didn't write anything, hardly. Children build a space ship out of spare parts and snag a Russian satellite. I guess Campbell is reduced to buying Danny Dunn rejects these days.

(Please note that Mr. Kuykendall has given me permission to distribute his story, but Mr. Campbell has not. If he expresses his displeasure, I shall let you know.)


by EMSH

Cum Grano Salis isn't bad. Of course, I had to get past the distaste that just comes naturally from seeing "Randall Garrett" on the byline (or, in this case, his nom de plume, David Brown). In this tale, a colonizing team (all men, natch) are stuck on a planet with too few provisions to survive until relief. All of the food on the planet tests poisonous. Yet one crewmember, a hypochondriac with a supply of nostrums, manages to eat the local fruit and thrive. The solution is interesting.

(Again, I have distribution permission from the author, not the editor.)

So that takes me exactly half-way through the magazine, so I will leave the other half (including a rather good tale by George O. Smith) for day-after-tomorrow. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!

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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!

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


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