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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:



(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Statistics are (is?) fun. There is a simple joy to compiling data and finding patterns. Since the beginning of the publishing year, i.e. issues with a January cover date, I have been rating stories and magazine issues in aggregate. This is partly to help me remember the stories in times to come and also to trace patterns of quality. In a couple of months, I plan to have my own mini-Hugo awards; perhaps one of you might help me think of a catchy name.

I use a 1 to 5 star rating system, and until this month, individual issues varied between aggregate ratings of 2.5 and 3.5. But this month, the October 1959 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction broke the curve scoring an incredible, unprecedented 4.5 stars. That’s about as close to perfection as I can imagine, and I strongly urge all of you to get your hands on a copy while they remain at newsstands.

I talked about the first third of the book last week. I’ve since finished the rest, and the quality has not dipped an inch.

To be sure, Charles G. Finney’s The Gilashrikes is only decent. A biologist mates his gila monster to his shrike, and the resulting hybrid, in an attempt to make up for their ignoble provenance, become the town moralists, enforcing virtue to an increasingly annoying degree. I know of Finney from the much raved-about Circus of Dr. Lao, and Gilashrikes has a similar, whimsical quality.



Operation Incubus, by Poul Anderson, on the other hand, is fantastic in both senses of the word. A newlywed magician couple, one a lycanthrope, the other an adept (relearning her trade after losing the maidenhood that was the source of much her power) go on a honeymoon only to run afoul of demonic predators. It’s lyric, tasteful, and impacting. Also very exciting. It also paints a universe much like ours, but with magic more intertwined with our lives. Highly recommended.

Hassoldt Davis’ The Pleasant Woman, Eve is a Garden of Eden story starring God and the Wandering Jew discussing how to get the first humans to make more of themselves independently. It’s very good, but it could have used an extra paragraph. Perhaps space concerns dictated the abrupt ending.

The Pi Man is Alfred Bester’s latest tale of a haunted, pursued psychic. In this case, the protagonist is sensitive to karmic patterns, and he must do good and hateful things, in turn, to maintain balance in the universe. It’s very strangely written, and it took me a few pages to get into it, but I found the journey ultimately rewarding.

Finally, for the short stories at least (and they are all under 16 pages in length to accommodate Heinlein’s serial) is Avram Davidson’s Dagon. I must confess that I did not quite understand this rather ominous tale of an American soldier’s rise to virtual Godhood in post-War China. As the fellow becomes more powerful, he becomes more detached from reality, in the end becoming an intangible viewpoint on the world.--a literal goldfish in a bowl. Perhaps that is the point—with power comes a loss of free will and agency. Or perhaps it was just a comeuppance delivered by a mischievous old Chinaman.

As for the novel, Heinlein’s Starship Soldier, the first half is excellent, particularly in contrast to Dickson’s recent military serial, Dorsai!. Oh, it’s got its share of Heinlein preaching through the mouths of characters, but he has to get it out somewhere. I’ll devote a full article to the story next month.

As a teaser for the next article, I've just learned that the Soviets have launched their second lunar probe. It only takes half a day to get there, so we'll know if it was a success in short order!



---

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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Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month's Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I'd wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I'm glad I did. Damn that Anderson, anyway. How dare he write a good story! Now I can't justify skipping him. But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn't dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved. A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime's accumulated wisdom before final departure. Sad. Good.

Avram Davidson's The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust. A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor. The only "gift" from their new overlords is perfect health. How does one escape?



I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot. It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned. It is also unexpected. The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven't quite received it in the mails yet. I'll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson's The Sky People. As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation. Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don't like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different. There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan. It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying "Meycan" Empire, south of Tekas and north of S'america. Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century. The eponymous "Sky People" are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of "Canyon." Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target--the Meycans. Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania.



Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good. Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources. I don't know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester's Will You Wait?. The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue? 4 stars? 4 and a half? Definitely a good read worth picking up--if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!





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