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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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From the depths of mediocrity to the peaks of quality, it looks like our long literary winter may finally be over. Perhaps the groundhog didn't see a shadow this year.

First, we had an uncharacteristically solid Astounding. This month's Fantasy and Science Fiction is similarly exceptional without a clunker in the bunch, and some standouts besides.

I used to see Poul Anderson's name and cringe. The author who had impressed me so much with 1953's Brainwave turned out consistent dreck for the next several years, though to be fair, he generally did so within the pages of Campbell's magazine, not Boucher's. A couple of years ago he got back into his groove, and his stuff has been generally quite good again.

He has the lead novella in the March F&SF, The Martyr, set in a far future in which humanity has met a race of clearly superior psionicists. We are so jealous of these powers, and the possessors so unwilling to give up their secrets, that a small human contingent takes several aliens prisoner to coerce the secrets of psi out of them. But what if it's a secret better left unrevealed?

It's a beautiful story, but there is nastiness here, and it can be a rough read in places. It is no less recommended for that, however. Just giving fair warning.

Ray Bradbury is an author I've never held in much regard, but his Death and the Maiden, about a withered rural crone who shuts herself in an ancient house in defense against mortality, isn't bad.

It doesn't even suffer too badly when compared to Ted Sturgeon's subsequent Like Young, perhaps because the subject matter is so different (Ray was less successful when both he and Ted wrote mermaid stories in quick succession, Ted's being, by far, the superior.) In Sturgeon's tale, the last surviving 504 humans, rendered sterile by radiation, decide to give their race a kind of immortality by planting cultural and scientific relics so as to bootstrap humanity's evolutionary successor. The joke is on us in the end, however.

John Collier's Man Overboard is an atmospheric piece about a dilettante sea captain pursuing an elusive sea-going Loch Ness Monster. It feels old, like something written decades ago. I suspect that is a deliberate stylistic choice, and it's effective.

Then we have a cute little Sheckley: The Girls and Nugent Miller, another story set in a post-atomic, irradiated world. Is a pacifist professor any match against a straw man's Feminist and her charge of beautiful co-eds? The story should offend me, but I recognize a tongue permanently affixed to the inside of the cheek when I see one.

Miriam Allen DeFord has a quite creepy monster story aptly called, The Monster, with an almost Lovecraftian subject (the horror in the cemetery that feeds on children) but done with a more subdued style and with quite the kicker of an ending.

The Good Doctor (Isaac Asimov) is back to form with his non-fiction article on the measuring of interstellar distances, The Flickering Yardstick. I must confess with some chagrin that, despite my astronomical education, I was always a bit vague on how we learned to use Cepheid variable stars to compute galactic distances (their pulsation frequency is linked to their brightness, which allows us to determine how far away they are). Asimov explains it all quite succinctly, and I was gratified to see a woman astronomer was at the center of the story (a Henrietta Leavitt).


"Pickering's harem," the computers of astronomer Edward Pickering (Leavitt is standing)

Avram Davidson has a fun one-pager called Apres Nous wherein a dove is sent to the future only to return wet and exhausted with an olive leaf in its mouth. I didn't get the punchline until I looked up the quote in a book of quotations.

The remainder of the issue is filled with a most excellent Clifford Simak novella, All the Traps of Earth, in which a centuries-old robot, no longer having a human family to serve, escapes inevitable memory-wiping and repurposing by fleeing to the stars. We've seen the "robot as slave" allegory before in Galaxy's Installment Plan. In fact, it was Cliff, himself, who wrote it, and I remember being uncomfortable with his handling of the metaphor in that story.

I had no such problems this time—it's really a beautiful story of emancipation and self-realization, by the end of which, the indentured servant has become a benevolent elder. A fine way to end a great issue.

So pick up a copy if you can. At 40 cents (the second-cheapest of the Big Four), it's a bargain.


"Spacecraft landing on the Moon" - cover artwork without overprinting - Mel Hunter

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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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It's going to be a dreary month, if October's selection of digests is any indication.

Of course, my mood isn't buoyed by the fact that I must compose this article in long-hand. I hate writing (as opposed to typing; and typing on an electric is sheer bliss). On the other hand, I'm the one who chose to occupy much of the next few days in travel, and fellow airplane passengers don't appreciate the bang bang of fingers hitting keys.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning, shall we? As I write, I am enjoying my annual plane trip to Seattle for the purpose of visiting my wife's sister, myriad local friends, and to attend a small but lively science fiction convention. This one is singular in that its attendees are primarily female, and its focus is woman creators. People like Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Pauline Ashwell, Anne McCaffrey, etc.

Once again, I get to ride in the speedy marvel that is the jet-powered Boeing 707. San Diego to Seattle in just a few hours is a luxury to which I hope I never become jaded. Although I will concede that the roar of jets is less pleasant a sound than the thrum of propellers.

I made several attempts to read this month's Astounding, but I could find nothing in it I enjoyed. I'll summarize that effort later. In the meantime, I have just finished the November 1959 F&SF, and if you can read my chicken-scratch (I hope my editor cleans it up before publication), I'll tell you all about it.



F&SF often features brilliant stories. Last month, the magazine had an unheard-of quality of 4.5 stars, just under the theoretical maximum of five. This month, we're at the nadir end of quality. It's readable but fluffy, forgettable stuff.

Story #1, The Martian Store by Howard Fast, recounts the opening of three international stores, ostensibly offering a limited set of Martian goods. They are only open for a week, but during that time, they attract thousands of would-be customers as well as the attention of terrestrial authorities. After the Martian language is cracked, it is determined that the Martians intend to conquer the Earth. The result is world unity and a sharp advance in technological development. Shortly thereafter, an American company begins production and sale of one of the Martian products, having successfully reverse engineered the design.

Except, of course, in a move that was well-telegraphed, it turns out the whole thing was a super-secret hoax by that company in order to create a demand for those putatively Martian products. World peace was a by-product. Thoroughly 3-star material.

G.C. Edmondson's From Caribou to Carry Nation is a gaudily overwritten short piece about transubstantiation featuring an old man who is reborn as his favorite vegetable... and is promptly eaten by his grandson. Two stars, and good riddance.

Plenitude, by newcomer Will Worthington, is almost good. It has that surviving-after-the-apocalypse motif I enjoy. In this story, the End of the World is an apparent plague of pleasure-addiction, with most of the human population retreating into self-contained sacks with their brains hooked into direct-stimulation machines. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but the quality is such that I anticipate we'll see ultimately see some good stuff from Worthington. The editor says there are three more of his stories in the bag, so stay tuned.

There is a rather pointless Jules Verne translation, Frritt-Flacc, in which a miserly, mercenary old doctor is given a lordly sum to treat a patient only to discover that the dying man he came to see is himself. Two stars.

Then there is I know a Good Hand Trick, by Wade Miller, about the magical seduction of an amorous housewife. It's the kind of thing that might make it into Hugh Heffner's magazine. Not bad. Not stellar. Three stars.

I'll skip over the second half of Starship Soldier, which I discussed last time. That takes us to Damon Knight's column, in which he laments the death of the technical science fiction story. I think Starship Soldier makes an argument to the contrary.

Then we've got Asimov's quite good non-fiction article, C for Celerity, explaining the famous equation, E=MC^2. I particularly enjoyed the etymology lesson given by the good doctor regarding all of the various scientific terms in common physical parlance. I've been around for four decades, and my first college major was astrophysics, yet I never knew that the abbreviation for the speed of light is derived from the Latin word for speed (viz. accelerate).

James Blish has a rather good short-short, The Masks, about the futuristic use for easily applied nail polish sheets. It's a dark story, but worthy. Four stars.

Ending the book is John Collier's After the Ball, in which a particularly low-level demon spends the tale attempting to corrupt a seemingly incorruptible fellow in order to steal his body for use as a football. Another over-embroidered tale that lands in the 2-3 star range.

That puts us at three stars for this issue, which is pretty awful for F&SF. Given that Astounding looks like it might hit an all-time low of two stars, here's hoping this month's IF is worthwhile reading. Thankfully, I've also picked up the novelization of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, and it's excellent so far.

Back in a few days with a convention report and a book review!

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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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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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