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2017-07-31 03:49 pm

[July 31, 1962] The Brass Mean (August 1962 Analog Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

"I don't like science fiction."

How often have you heard this? Loved ones, co-workers, indignant acquaintances with noses reared up to the sky will happily give you their opinion of our degenerate genre. And it's a dumb opinion.

Why? Because science fiction isn't a magazine or a story or an author. It's a wide genre. Saying "I don't like science fiction" is like saying "I don't like red books" or "I don't like movies that have dogs in them." Sure, there's plenty of bad science fiction, in print and (especially) in film, but there's also, per Ted Sturgeon, about 10% gold – as in any genre.

Science fiction runs in quality from the humdrum, technical gotcha stories of the last two decades to the absolute peaks of sublimity (q.v. Cordwainer Smith, Zenna Henderson, etc.) Moreover, such ranges can generally be found even in individual sources; i.e. you can find both excellent and lousy stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, or any other digest.

Of course, if anyone is going to be turned off of sf as a genre, it probably will be the humdrum, workmanlike stories that do it. Not bad enough to be noteworthy, not good enough to be recommended -- just dull, mediocre stuff.

And that's what we have a lot of in the August 1962 Analog, a magazine that will only contribute to the notion that science fiction just ain't that good.



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2017-07-02 08:06 am

[July 2, 1962] Getting to the Point (July 1962 Analog Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

There are many ways to measure the strength of a story. Is the plot innovative? Does it resonate emotionally? Are the featured characters unusual? Does it employ clever literary devices?

As a writer, I am always particularly impressed by efficiency: the ability of an author to develop his tale with a minimum of exposition, unfolding a plot teasingly so as to keep the reader turning those pages with increased anticipation, and then delivering a solid conclusion at the end – where it belongs.

The July 1962 Analog Science Fiction delivers a series of object lessons in how (and how not) to write efficiently. In some cases, the execution can be admired even if the story isn't great shakes. And vice versa. Read on!:



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2017-03-22 02:59 pm

[March 22, 1962] Provoking Thought (April 1962 Analog)


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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2016-12-21 04:55 pm

[December 21, 1961] Reviewer's Burden (January 1962 Analog)


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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2016-11-19 10:02 am

[November 19, 1961] See Change (December 1961 Analog)


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:



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2016-07-15 10:00 pm

[July 15, 1961] Saving Grace (The August 1961 Analog)



Recently, I told you about Campbell's lousy editorial in the August 1961 Analog that masqueraded as a "science-fact" column. That should have been the low point of the issue. Sadly, with one stunning exception, the magazine didn't get much better.

And yet...

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2016-04-30 02:42 pm

[April 30, 1961] Travel stories (June 1961 Galaxy)

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My nephew, David, has been on an Israeli Kibbutz for a month now. We get letters from him every few days, mostly about the hard work, the monotony of the diet, and the isolation from the world. The other day, he sent a letter to my brother, Lou, who read it to me over the phone. Apparently, David went into the big port-town of Haifa and bought copies of Life, Time, and Newsweek. He was not impressed with the literary quality of any of them, but he did find Time particularly useful.

You see, Israeli bathrooms generally don't stock toilet paper...



Which segues nicely into the first fiction review of the month. I'm happy to report I have absolutely nothing against the June 1961 Galaxy – including my backside. In fact, this magazine is quite good, at least so far. As usual, since this is a double-sized magazine, I'll review it in two parts.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2016-02-10 06:57 pm

[February 10, 1961] Two for two! (March 1961 Analog)



Analog (my errant fingers keep wanting to type "Astounding") was even better than last time. This particular copy is a seasoned traveler, having ridden with me to the lovely shores of Kaua'i and back. At long last, I've finished reading, and I can tell you about it. A sneak preview: there's not a bad piece in the book!

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2016-01-25 07:44 am

[Jan. 25, 1961] Oscillating circuit (the February 1961 Analog)



John Campbell's science fiction magazine continues to defy my efforts to chart a trend. Following on the heels of last month's rather dismal issue, the February 1961 Analog is an enjoyable read.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2015-11-19 06:20 pm

[November 19, 1960] Saving the Best for Last (December 1960 Analog)

As the year draws to a close, all of the science fiction magazines (that is to say, the six remaining--down from a 1953 peak of 45) scramble to publish their best fiction. Their aim is two-fold: firstly, to end the year with a bang, and secondly, to maximize the chances that one of their stories will earn a prestigious award.

By which, of course, I refer to my Galactic Stars, bestowed in December. There's also this thing called a Hugo, which some consider a Big Deal.



And that's probably why the December 1960 Astounding was actually a pretty good ish (for a change). I'll gloss over Part 2 of Occasion for Disaster, co-written by Garrett and Janifer, and head straight into the stand-alone stuff.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2015-10-28 05:19 pm

[Oct. 28, 1960] Point of Inflexion (The Future of Plenty)



Science fiction is not prediction. It is extrapolation. No one can see the future, but a gifted writer can show you, dramatically, what will happen "if this goes on."

It's no surprise that science fiction writing has enjoyed a boom since 1950. Never has our world been on the brink of so many exciting and dangerous potentialities. On the positive side: space travel, automation by computers and robots, atomic energy. On the negative side: pollution, global warming, and atomic annihilation.

As a species, we stand on the edge of superabundance created by fewer and fewer people. It used to be that the vast majority of us made our living through subsistence farming. By the end of World War 2, the percentage of Americans employed in farming of all kinds was down to 14%, and since then, it has declined to about 8%. Over the next few decades, thanks to mechanization, the profession of farmer as we know it may cease to exist. We can expect the same trend to happen globally as the poorer parts of the world catch up.

What have we been doing now that we don't have to farm? Building things. By the end of the War, Blue-collar workers made up 40.7% of the labor force. As of 1959, they were down to 37%. This seems like a small dip, but the decline is consistent. Automation is getting cheaper every day, and it is pretty certain that the industrial sector will experience the same downturn as the agricultural sector.

Well, then, what is everyone else doing? White-collar workers, the professionals, the managers, the clerks, and those in sales, have grown in percentage of the work force from 35% in 1947 to around 42% last year. Moreover, service workers, both domestic and for-hire, have gone up from 10.4% to 12.2%. In other words, fewer people are using their hands and their backs to produce things. More are using their brains to produce...or entertain.

That's a snapshot at this place and time. What happens "if this goes on?"--when everyone has all the food and goods they need, what will people want? At what profession will people work? Will we all take turns serving each other at restaurants (until robo-waiters come into vogue)? Will we all write sonnets and paint pictures for each other in a sort of round-robin gift economy (until machines write songs and craft art better than we can)? Will we all become citizen-scientists, pioneering the limits of knowledge (before computers figure out ways to do it better and faster)? Or will we all ultimately end up loose-mouthed in a torpor watching endless robot-created television programs?



(read the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2015-09-10 04:35 pm

[September 10, 1960] Analog, Part 2 (The October 1960 Analog)



The October 1960 Analog is a surprisingly decent read. While none of it is literature for the ages (some might argue that the Ashwell-written lead novella is an exception), neither is any of it rough hoeing. Interestingly, it is an issue devoted almost entirely to sequels--and also to enriching writer Mack Reynolds. Don't worry. He earned his checks.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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2015-03-31 09:02 am

[March 31, 1960] What goes up... (May 1960 Astounding)



Every science fiction digest has a flavor. Part of it is due to the whimsy of the editor, part of it is the niche the magazine is trying to fill, and part of it is luck of the draw.

Astounding can be summed up in just a few words: psionic, smug, workmanlike, crackpot, inbred.

Not necessarily in that order.

You see, every editor has an agenda. For F&SF's Tony Boucher, and his successor, Paul Mills, it's to have as literary a magazine as possible. For Galaxy and IF's H. L. Gold, it's to present solid science fiction without resorting to hackneyed tropes of the pulp era.

For Astounding's John Campbell, the motivation might once have been to mentor young writers so that they could create the best science fiction of the day. Certainly, Campbell's magazine pioneered the field in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. But these days, Campbell seems determined to be the strongest champion of psychic phenomena and other silliness.

For instance: perpetual motion. Campbell promises to fully educate us on the "Dean Drive" next month, a flop of a device (so I understand) that supposedly turns rotational energy into linear energy for propulsion purposes.

For instance: psychic paper. The "Heironymous Machine," a meaningless circuit that is just as effective (so its creator and defenders claim) whether it be made out of electronic components or simply drawn on a sheet.

For instance: virtually every story that appears in Astounding must feature psychic powers and/or some reference to one of Campbell's pet projects.

It reminds me of how Fantastic Universe catered to the UFO crowd during its sunset years, much good it did them.

The result of this editorial policy, and the over-reliance on just a few of the field's less exceptional authors, is a magazine that usually ranks lowest of the Big Three (combining Galaxy and IF). Last month was a striking exception to this rule. This month, we may not be so lucky.



The May 1960 Astounding only has five pieces apart from the second part of the "Mark Phillips" serial, Out like a Light. I won't review the serial until its completion next month.

Astounding perennial Randall Garrett contributes the lead novella, the promising but ultimately flawed Damned if you Don't. In 1981, an enterprising scientist develops a perfect, tiny energy source that threatens to throw the entire planet's economy into chaos. Everyone is out to stop him, from the power company to the government. The first half is pleasant reading, with some reasonably good characterization and suspense as to who's actually after the powerful "Converter" machines. There's another nod to Murray Leinster by name. At one point, there is a description of a computer small enough to have been knocked over by a single person, which is an interesting extrapolation of miniaturization trends.

But then the story gets talky. There is a meaningless aside describing a lukewarm Middle Eastern and European war in the late '60s that leads to a clamp down on private scientific investigations. It is meaningless not only for its implausibility but also for the fact that it doesn't really have any bearing on the story. Then there are pages of discussion on how release of the device will destroy the world as we know it. These are capped off with the realization that the device has been stolen, and it's all a moot point. So much for that story.

Then we have John Cory's three-pager Egocentric Orbit. Twice before, astronauts have been launched into space and refused to come down. In this story, following the third orbital astronaut, we find out why.

Laurence Janifer, one half of the pair that is Mark Phillips (the other being Randall Garrett) has a decent story under the pseudonym "Larry M. Harris." It's a period piece set in 1605 called Wizard, and it involves a brotherhood of telepaths attempting to thwart the inquisition, which threatens to wipe their breed from the Earth.

The final fiction entry is Mack Reynold's pedestrian Revolution, which entertains a number of ridiculous propositions. Item: the Soviet Union will surpass the United States in production in just seven years. Item: a revolution is easy to incite so long as you throw lots of money at the problem. Item: if you think the USSR is productive now, wait until bright-eyed Syndicalist Technocrats take over!

Much like Garrett's opening story, the latter half is composed mostly of speeches justifying the plot line, and the ending features the revolution's catalyst, a western agent, suggesting that the revolution be aborted lest the USSR someday truly trounce the West. Pretty bad stuff.

On the other hand, Dr. Asimov is back with a nice long piece (The March of the Phyla) on the various animal groups and the successive adaptations that allowed them to increasingly become masters of their environment rather passive creatures vulnerable to the caprice of Mother Nature. It's a bit teleological in its presentation, but quite informative.

I just have to wonder when Asimov will supplant Ley at Galaxy and monopolize all of the digests. Nice racket if you can get it...

So, there you have it. A magazine largely written by just two authors (Garrett and Janifer), suffused with smugness, even the non-fiction, featuring psionics and super-inventions, none of it terribly well-written. Campbell's got to find some new blood, or Astounding is going to founder, I fear. Perhaps Harry Harrison offers some hope—his Deathworld was the overwhelming favorite of the fans, per the Analytical Laboratory (the magazine's reader survey) for January and February. More like that would help.

There's an exciting launch coming tomorrow. If it's successful, I'll see you on the 2nd with an update on... TIROS.

---










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2015-01-28 03:01 pm

[Jan. 28, 1960] But how do you really feel? (February 1960 Astounding)



I've devoted much ink to lambasting Astounding/Analog editor John Campbell for his attempts to revitalize his magazine, but I've not yet actually talked about the latest (February 1960) issue. Does it continue the digest's trend towards general lousiness?

For the most part, yes. Harry Harrison's serial, Deathworld, continues to be excellent (and it will be the subject of its own article next month). But the rest is uninspired stuff. Take the lead story, What the Left Hand was Doing by "Darrell T. Langart" (an anagram of the author's real name—three guess as to who it really is, and the first two don't count). It's an inoffensive but completely forgettable story about psionic secret agent, who is sent to China to rescue an American physicist from the clutches of the Communists.

Then there's Mack Reynold's Summit, in which it is revealed that the two Superpowers cynically wage a Cold War primarily to maintain their domestic economies. A decent-enough message, but there is not enough development to leave much of an impact, and the "kicker" ending isn't much of one.

Algis Budrys has a sequel to his last post-Apocalyptic Atlantis-set story called Due Process. I like Budrys, but this series, which was not great to begin with, has gone downhill. It is another "one savvy man can pull political strings to make the world dance to his bidding" stories, and it's as smug as one might imagine.

The Calibrated Alligator, by Calvin Knox (Robert Silverberg) is another sequel featuring the zany antics of the scientist crew of Lunar Base #3. In the first installment in this series, they built an artificial cow to make milk and liver. Now, they are force-growing a pet alligator to prodigious size. The ostensible purpose is to feed a hungry world with quickly maturing iguanas, but the actual motivation is to allow one of the young scientists to keep a beloved, smuggled pet. The first story was fun, and and this one is similarly fluffy and pleasant.

I'll skip over Campbell's treatise on color photography since it is dull as dirt. The editor would have been better served publishing any of his homemade nudes that I've heard so much about. That brings us to Murray Leinster's The Leader<. It is difficult for me to malign the fellow with perhaps the strongest claim to the title "Dean of American Science Fiction," particularly when he has so many inarguable classics to his name, but this story does not approach the bar that Leinster himself has set. It's another story with psionic underpinnings (in Astounding! Shock!) about a dictator who uses his powers to entrance his populace. It is told in a series of written correspondence, and only force of will enabled me to complete the tale. There was a nice set of paragraphs, however, on the notion that telepathy and precognition are really a form of psychokinesis.

I tend to skip P. Schuyler Miller's book column, but I found his analysis of the likely choices for this (last) year's Hugo awards to be rewarding. They've apparently expanded the scope of the film Hugo from including just movies to also encompassing television shows and stage productions, 1958's crop being so unimpressive as to yield no winners.

My money's on The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

---

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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2015-01-08 04:30 pm

[Jan. 08, 1960] Between Peaks (January 1960 If)



I've finally finished the January 1960 IF and can report fully on its contents. January has been a decidedly uninspiring month for digests. They're all in the 3-star range (though for Astounding, that's actually a good month!) with no knockouts in the bunch. Perhaps this is the calm before the storm.

The reliable if stolid Mack Reynolds (writing as Mark Mallory) kicks off this issue with The Good Seed. Can a man trapped on a tiny island by a swelling tide escape before he is drowned? Perhaps with the help of a sentient, telepathic plant. It's actually quite a touching story.

James Stamers seems to be a newcomer, and it shows in his unpolished writing. Despite this, his The Divers, about psionic neutrals (essentially anti-telepaths) with the ability to astrally project, has some fascinating ideas and some genuinely evocative scenes. Had Stamers given the tale to Sturgeon to work over for a final edit, I think it could have been an epic. As it is, the story suggests that its author is a diamond in the rough waiting to be polished.

Two Ulsterians, Bob Shaw and Walt Willis, wrote the short Dissolute Diplomat, about an unsavory space traveler who crashes on an alien world, bullies the jelly-ish inhabitants into fixing his ship, and then gets what he deserves in a groan-worthy fashion that is truly pun-ishing.

The Little Red Bag, by Jerry Sohl, is a good piece of thrilling writing, at least until the somewhat callous and abrupt end. A fellow on a plane has the power of tactile clairvoyance—and he discovers a ticking time bomb in the luggage compartment. Can he save the passengers before it goes off? Having flown the route that the plane takes many times (Southerly down California into Los Angeles), the setting is quite familiar, which is always fun.

Daniel Galouye (how do you pronounce his name?) is up next with the interesting teleportation yarn, The Last Leap. Three military subjects have gone AWOL after artificially gaining the ability to materialize anywhere. Surely they were not killed--after all, even the vacuum of space poses no danger, for the 'porters reflexively snap back to a safe spot; moreover, they instinctively avoid teleporting into solid objects. What could have happened? You find out in the end...

To Each His Own, by Jack Sharkey, stars a team of Venusians who explore the Earth after a recent holocaust. The nature of said disaster is never made explicit until the very end, though it is alluded to subtly. I confess that I should have figured out the gimmick ending, but I didn't. I suppose that constitutes a point in the author's favor.

Margaret St. Clair has a fun story (The Autumn after Next) about a magical missionary whose job is to convert magic-less cultures into adepts at the Arts. He meets his match, and his end, attempting to introduce the most reluctant of tribes to the supernatural. Better than The Scarlet Hexapod, not as good as Discipline, both IF stories.

Finally, we have Cultural Exchange by J.F. Bone wherein a crew of space explorers meets a sophisticated alien race with both superior and inferior technologies. It is a first contact story of Cat and Mouse with both sides attempting to be the predator. Not stellar, but satisfying.

That's that! It's an unremarkable issue, slightly under the standards of its older sibling, Galaxy, I'd say. Worth a read, but you won't remember it next month (unless, of course, you review my column).

Note: If you like this column, consider sharing it by whatever media you frequent most. I love the company, and I imagine your friends share your excellent taste!

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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2014-05-28 05:40 pm

Something new (June 1959 Astounding; 5-28-1959)

One of the main reasons I read science fiction is to see something truly new. I don't just want to see a view of the future--I want to see a brand new culture, or a completely alien creature, or an innovative take on psionics. Only science fiction (and fantasy) really can do this, and even then, writers are often locked into tropes informed by the current world they live in.

The June 1959 issue of Astounding is pretty good. More significantly, it has got a lot of neat ideas that I had not seen before. Let's take a look, shall we?


by Van Dongen

The opening story is Cat and Mouse, by Ralph Williams. Williams has been writing since the late 30s, and his craft is finely honed with this excellent tale of an grizzled Alaskan outdoorsman, his cat, and the alien pest he is (unwittingly) recruited to eradicate.

Many factors make this story so good: Ed Brown, aged 60, is well developed. Williams captures the stiffened limbs but heightened wisdom of an older protagonist. The portrayal of both the Alaskan and off-planet wildernesses is vivid, as one might expect, Williams being a resident of Homer, Alaska. But it's the alien race, the Harn, that is the stand-out element. The not-quite-sentient creature is actually a symbiotic tribe of species, or perhaps the same species with differing pre-natal modifications to produce a variety of offspring classes: to wit, there is a central, immobile "brain," stinging units designed to bring down prey, carrier units that are mostly leg and sack designed to bring food to the brain mass, and fighting units whose role is to defeat larger adversaries.

Brown is just barely up to the task of vanquishing the alien menace, and it is a nail-biting battle of cunning to the end. Sadly, this story may turn out to be Williams' swan song. It is my understanding that the fellow passed away very recently on a fishing trip in the 49th state. I will have to seek out more offspring of his pen; if they are all of this quality, the world has lost a treasure.


by Van Dongen

I enjoyed All Day September by Roger Kuykendall. It's an almost slice-of-life (and I love slice-of-life) account of several weeks on the Moon after a meteor shower savages a moon base and leaves a prospector stranded out in the airless lunar desert. The prospector's salvation, and indeed that of the lunar population as a whole, is his discovery of frozen water in caves hidden from the sun. This is an exciting concept that I've never seen in science fiction or science. The general assumption is that the moon is bone-dry, but it is certainly plausible that there could be stores of water, either primordial or from ice comet impact. The only strain to my credulity came when it was learned that the prospector carried no radio because local transmitters had too short a range (acceptable--there is no ionosphere on the moon to bounce AM waves), but transmitters that used Earth relays were too bulky. It would seem to me that, if we establish a population on the moon, we'd precede it with satellites in orbit that could be used for communication.

Transfusion, by Chad Oliver, is a strange story. The premise is that a galaxy-spanning race of humans found itself bested by a savage, implacable foe, and its only hope was to seed a small colony of brain-wiped people on an out-of-the-way planet (Earth) and hope that this new society might come up with a completely innovative way to fight humanity's enemy. As a test, the starfaring humans salt the planet with fossils of Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, Australopithecines, etc.--basically every member of our evolutionary tree, along with colonies of great apes. The idea is that once we discover that we've been hoaxed, we are ready to do battle with the aliens.

It's a silly idea, but reasonably well executed. Humanity invents time travel in the early 1980s, goes back in time to do some physical anthropology, and catches the starfaring aliens in the act. Traveling back to the present, the story's protagonist determines that his old anthropology professor is, in fact, an emissary of the old humans (the last). The professor tells his student the whole story and gives him the keys to his spaceship with its advanced technology. I would guess that between the ability to time travel and fly faster than light, humans will be well-nigh unstoppable.

Perhaps we'll become the implacable scourge.


by Freas

Finally, we have the silly Unborn Tomorrow, by Mack Reynolds. A private eye is sent to Oktoberfest to find time traveling tourists. Not only does he find them, but they keep slipping the detective mickeys and sending him back in a time loop to ensure that their cover is never blown. All the dick has to show for his efforts is a massive hangover and memories of three trips to Bavaria. He wisely refuses a fourth time around. The slightest of the bunch, but still decent.

Of course, there are virtually no female characters to be seen. On the other hand, as I've said before, if you can't do it right, it's best not to try. Despite the absence of the half of the human race from this issue, it's still a good book--let's call it 3.5 stars.

My bi-monthly Galaxy came in. Expect that to be the topic day-after-tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

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2013-11-08 10:23 am

December 1958: Astounding (1st half) 11-08-1958



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...

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