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by Gideon Marcus

Ask the average citizen their opinion of science fiction and they'll likely mention monsters, flying saucers, and ray guns. SF has gotten a bad rap lately, largely due to the execrable movies nominally representing it, but there's no question that the pulps of the 30s and 40s, and the lesser magazines of the 50s didn't help much. And yet, only Science fiction offers endless worlds in which to explore fundamental human issues. Religion. Philosophy. Politics. It is only in our fantastic genre that the concept "if this goes on" can be pushed to extremes, whether a story be set in the far future or on a remote planet. SF isn't just kiddie stuff – it can be the most adult of genres.



Case in point: Analog, formerly Astounding Science Fiction, set a standard in the pulp era as the grown-up magazine in the field. And while I've had something of a love-hate relationship with the digest that Campbell built, this particular issue – the April 1962 edition – offers up some intriguing political predictions that, if not probable, are at least noteworthy.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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by Rosemary Benton

Science fiction is a wonderful genre in that it allows an author the opportunity to pick a discipline – religion, economics, etc. - and create scenarios that are free to play out completely beyond any current restrictions or known facts of nature. Consider James Blish's The Star Dwellers with its sentient energy creatures or Andre Norton's Catseye with its telepathic animals.

But then there are the science fiction authors who try to ground their scenarios as close as possible to the discipline they are examining. For H. Beam Piper, it seems as if he wrote his most recent novel with a mission to accurately play out the issues and triumphs of an anthropologist. The results is the well written (if slightly dry) young adult novel, Little Fuzzy, the story of one interstellar prospector's journey to protect the small, furry family he has adopted, cared for, and believes to be as intelligent as any group of humans.



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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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.



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Writing good science fiction is hard. Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity. Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society. Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities. I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s.



Take smoking, for example. Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco. They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer. Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction. You would think someone would portray a smokeless future.




Another example is the portrayal of women. For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men. The trend has historically been in their favor. They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact. In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes. There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard. Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip. You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common. Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own. It is a man's future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man's future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer. Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors. This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm. We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light. Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that. That's a hand-wave. Psionic powers are another hand-wave. People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe. I'd like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street. Also, Heinlein certainly doesn't have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker's dozen and incorporating them into his worlds. The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov's Susan Calvin, Piper's Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson's The People series) have not driven fans away in droves.

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else. And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can't imagine a different world. Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you're wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece. I promise I'll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
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With December's Galaxy and F&SF done and reviewed, I now turn to the last of the Big Three: Astounding. The elephant in this magazine is, of course, the second half of Poul Anderson's dreary short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew.” It lurks at the end of the magazine like an oncoming train at the end of a tunnel. Thus, I abandoned my usual haphazard reading habits and began at the beginning, like normal people.

Good thing, too. The first three stories, comprising 65 pages, are good and somewhat of a theme. I have to congratulate myself for making it through a full three quarters of Campbell's blatherous editorial before skipping to story #1.

“Ministry of Disturbance” is a fun story of a week in the life of the august ruler of a 1300-planet galactic imperium, one that has persisted virtually unchanged for centuries. At first it seems that it will be a sort of light farce, but the story takes several turns before arriving at an unexpected conclusion. It's a little bewildering: there are a lot of moving parts including a large cast of characters and several concurrent event threads. Ultimately, there is something of a happy ending. My favorite line from the story is, “If you have a few problems, you have trouble, but if you have a whole lot of problems, they start solving each other.”

Did I mention it's by H. Beam Piper? That should be enough to recommend it. He did that lovely tale, Omnilingual (from which story the lady in my masthead derives), which you can find in the February 1957 Astounding.

Next up is “Triggerman” by a fellow I'd never heard of before, an “R.T. Bone.” Rather than a tale of the far future, it is highly contemporary. We've all heard of the metaphorical “button” on which the collective finger of the President and his generals rests, the pressing of which initiates atomic armageddon. In Bone's story, the button is real, and one man has his finger on it. It's a silly concept, but it is thankfully just the set up for a interesting short tale of an overwhelmingly destructive attack on the United States. As with the last story, there is a surprise, and the subject matter is not apolitical.

The third in the initial trio is “Pieces of the Game” by Mack Reynolds. Mack has been around for a while, bouncing from digest to digest, but I believe this is his first appearance in Astounding. Like “Triggerman,” it is set in the Cold War, but a few years in the future, in a recently Communist Austria. There is mention of a war, but it is clear that both sides are still active, as this story is a tale of espionage by an unlikely-looking agent. It's a pretty standard thriller; I hesitate to even call it science fiction. But it is entertaining, and it fits in well with the theme of the first two stories.

That makes a solid 4 out of 5 stars for the first half of December's Astounding! Lord knows where that score will finish, however...

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

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