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Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, April 1960: A Retro-Review

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 | Posted by Rich Horton

Fantastic Science Fiction Stories April 1960-smallI’d rank this as a determinedly minor issue of this magazine, from fairly early in Cele Goldsmith’s tenure. It has a bland cover by an artist I’ve never heard of, Jack Faragasso. The feature list is slim. Norman Lobsenz’s editorial, very brief, is about an idea to put a ring of dust around the Earth so that it is always light. (What a dreadful idea!)

There is also the lettercol, with no contributors I recognized – the names are Miles McAlpin, James W. Ayers, Wesley Sharp, Billy Joe Plott, Frank P. Pretto (perhaps a typo for Prieto), and Michael W. Elm – and their usual small “Coming Next Month.” Interior illustrations are by [Leo] Summers, Varga, and Grayam.

So, what about the stories?

The cover story is “Doomsday Army,” by Jack Sharkey, an entirely too long story about a National Guard captain who ends up being the main intermediary to a bunch of (as it turns out) very small alien invaders. He’s portrayed as a fairly ordinary suburban husband, prone to taking shortcuts in solving problems his wife brings to his attention: so of course his solution to the alien problem will be a dangerous shortcut. And so it is, with an implausible solution.

There’s joke enough here for maybe 3,000 words at the outside, and this drags terribly at some 13,000 words. (I wonder if it was written to the cover, which does portray a scene from the story but in a very generic fashion.)

The other novelette is “Eve Times Four,” by Poul Anderson (12,500 words), which is better, certainly, than the Sharkey, but it’s pretty minor Anderson. A passenger spaceship suffers an emergency, and one lifeboat ends up containing three very pretty young women and one less enticing one, along with a couple of aliens and a randy ship’s officer as the pilot. And, voila, the lifeboat is missing the necessary navigation information to lead them to an inhabited planet.

The People No Different Flesh Zenna Henderson-smallThe story’s title shows where this is going – the lifeboat lands on an uninhabited planet. The women, refreshingly, exhibit good sense in rejecting the officer’s insistence that they help him repopulate the planet (he even claims it’s the law). There is a twist, of course, an easily guessed one. It’s fitfully amusing, at times a bit embarrassing, at times moderately funny, but it’s nothing special.

There are three short stories. Best is “The Summer Visitors,” by Gordon R. Dickson (5,000 words), which concerns a young boy who is bullied by his classmates. Escaping them, he climbs a hill to the remote estate of some mysterious people who visit in the summer, and who are apparently rather reclusive. But he is welcomed, somewhat reluctantly, and in the process is taught a life lesson or two. The kicker to the story is who the visitors really are, and it was refreshing that Dickson never tells us, in so many words, though it’s fairly clear. Too many writers would have arranged a last minute, utterly unnecessary, reveal of the mystery.

Sometimes it seems the only subject Zenna Henderson had was alien children. That’s not entirely true, of course, but it was the main subject of her most famous (by very far) stories, the People stories, and she used it in unrelated stories as well, as with this one, “The Closest School” (3400 words). A remote school gets a late enrollee, who is of course the child of aliens who are trying to fix their crashed spaceship. It’s nicely enough written, fairly sweet – to the point of cloying a bit – and it never surprises for the briefest moment. Competent filler.

Finally, “Ella Speed” (6,500 words) is a fairly early Ron Goulart story. Goulart’s first story appeared in 1950, when he was only 17, but he didn’t really get going until 1958. This is about a writer of superhero comics, featuring Ella Speed as the main character, who, feeling burned out, visits a repressive area where all fiction reading (especially comics) is forbidden.

Eventually, while trying to camp in the woods, he is rescued from bandits by a girl who claims to be Ella Speed. Soon it’s clear she’s a leader of the resistance against the oppressive rulers, but when she tries to recruit the writer to the cause (once she knows who he is), he protests …

It’s easy to see where this is going. Again, this is best described as competent filler – it’s not bad, but it’s not memorable. I was also bothered by the unexplained political situation – is this a Balkanized future US? Also, it’s not funny, which is fine – it’s just that Goulart’s rep is as a comic writer. (Though one I’ve often found, well, let’s just say decidedly sub-Sheckley.)


Rich Horton’s last retro-review for us was the September 1972 issue of Galaxy. See all of Rich’s retro-reviews here.

7 Comments »

  1. Rich, your assessment has prompted several thoughts, but my comments will also take in Keith’s recent review of Laurence Manning’s “The Man Who Awoke.” You are both commenting on older fiction (in Keith’s case, much older), and there’s always a danger involved in reading older material, because most of us tend to put a contemporary spin on what we read. I’ve just borrowed a library book titled “Dreamers of Dreams,” a 1978 Arno Press anthology of fantasy stories dating from as far back as the 1870s. The dialogues are stiff, the explications lengthy, the endings predictable; the authors include Bram Stoker, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, and several others probably familiar to any true fantasy enthusiast. The stories certainly have historic value, and fantasy scholars are likely to be familiar with some of them, but this anthology is, I would guess, not likely to appeal to even the average fantasy reader of today because the subject matter has since been done over and over and over again by many writers who have (probably) felt they could go the old chestnuts one better. I’ve read the Manning novel, and a good deal of other pulp era SF, and the vast majority of it is indeed dated, and of questionable literary merit. But if I’d been 13 years old when Manning’s various sections of his “novel” were initially published, I’d like to think I’d have had that “Gosh! Wow!” reaction so many of us know and love and cherish, if only in memory. I was only 9 1/2 when the issue of “Fantastic” you review was printed, the same year that the Rod Taylor version of “The Time Machine” was released, and I’d be willing to bet that if I’d read the stories back then, I’d have been as enthralled as I am today when reading Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, Jack McDevitt, Neal Stephenson, Joe Haldeman, Stephen King, or any present-day writer you care to name. I’ve read stories by every one of those writers represented in that issue, and from one perspective, I’d guess most of us in 2014 would be thrilled to see new material from each and every one of them (even Sharkey), if they were all still alive and actively writing. When I go back and look at stuff written 50 or more years ago, I find myself trying very hard to evaluate what I read from an understanding of what life may have been like when that story or novel was written. I’m currently halfway through “Paycheck and Other Classic Stories” by Philip K. Dick, and I find I have to look at them through the eyes of my younger self as much as I can, because my 21st century perspective finds some of these stories awkward, poorly plotted, over- or underwritten, even crude. But the early stuff tends to give me a deeper appreciation of the later, much better stuff, and, as David Hartwell said, even the barest hint of that “touch of wonder” can be enough to leave me feeling rewarded for having taken the time to stick with even the poorest stories. Oh, I’d much prefer that ALL my reading choices were classics or near gems, but, to cite Theodore Sturgeon, “90% of all SF is crap.” I have that issue of “Fantastic” somewhere in my basement; I’ll dig it out someday and see how my evaluation compares to yours. Here’s the thing: 50 years from now, I wonder how a Rich Horton of 2064 would react to a 2014 issue of “Asimov’s,” or “Analog,” or “Black Gate.”

    Comment by smitty59 - August 10, 2014 11:56 pm

  2. Nothing to say at the moment other than that I relish these reports on the kind of magazine I used to pick up, when they were a few years old, at second hand stores.

    Comment by Major Wootton - August 12, 2014 9:02 pm

  3. Yes, of course our contemporary perspectives inform our reactions to older stuff we read. In particular, some old SF benefited on first publication from a novelty and freshness that we perhaps can’t detect a half-century later.

    That said, I think I can say confidently that I’ve read enough old SF, including obscure SF from forgotten magazines of the ’40s through ’70s, to at least make a try at considering these magazine issues in context.

    I have done numerous reviews of old SF magazines for Black Gate. Moreover, many of those have been for Cele Goldsmith (Lalli)-edited issues of Amazing and Fantastic — these are a particular interest of mine. And I have praised some of the work I’ve found. In that context, I certainly stand by my relative dismissal of this particular issue of this magazine. It just isn’t as good as many other issues Goldsmith
    has edited.

    Comment by Rich Horton - August 13, 2014 7:05 am

  4. Rich, how about giving the world your account of what things make the Lalli issues interesting — perhaps a series on this topic?

    Comment by Major Wootton - August 13, 2014 8:11 pm

  5. I’d second Major Wootton’s suggestion. And by the way, I didn’t mean to indicate I necessarily disagreed with your assessment, Rich. Not having (yet) read the issue myself, I’ve encountered, as a college English professor, a number of students who all too readily dismissed something I assigned as a reading exercise because it was written earlier than the year they were born. They simply don’t want to make the effort to learn a little more about the past, and fail to see how such stuff could have any relevance. The authors you mentioned — Anderson, Dickson, Goulart, Zenna Henderson, and Sharkey — have been writers I’ve encountered frequently over the past 45-50 years, and I’ve rarely been disappointed by any of them. Certainly I’d concede that not everything they’ve penned has been a gem; as I said, even Phil Dick, whose work I admire greatly, churned out some stinkers early on. What ended up in the issue you reviewed may simply have been due to a poor selection available at the time. But wouldn’t the average 40+ reader who found that issue in a used book store someplace today, seeing those names on the contents page, think he/she had happened upon a lost treasure? “Fantastic” did last a few more years — into the 1980s, I think, so even the occasional clunker issue didn’t sink the magazine. I’m going to make an effort to locate my copy of that issue, now that you’ve got my interest further piqued.

    Comment by smitty59 - August 14, 2014 12:15 am

  6. I’m trying to work my way through the entire Goldsmith/Lalli tenure … that’ll take a while, of course. So, sure, I could write something about why she was so good with a slim budget. In the mean time, if you click on my name in the left column here it should link to a list of my previous entries, which include several other reviews of Amazing/Fantastic.

    You’re right, smitty, that the TOC for that issue is full of pretty good names and at least one all time great. Even Jove nods, eh? Or maybe I was just in a bad mood … that does happen.

    Also, almost every issue of every magazine, to this day certainly, is a mix of pretty good stuff (when we’re lucky, great stuff) with mediocre stuff and bad stuff. In that context this issue is only a couple ticks below average — replace the Sharkey story with, say, Leiber’s “When the Sea-King’s Away” from the very next issue and my verdict might be significantly changed.

    And, as I hope I’ve made clear, I’m certainly not one to fail to see the relevance of the good stuff in the past.

    Yes, Fantastic lasted until 1980. I read it regularly from late 1974 until probably shortly before then — I thought the last couple of years pretty sad.

    All along — or, let’s say, from the mid-50s on — Amazing and Fantastic had smaller budgets than Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF, which makes what Lalli did the more impressive. And Ted White also did some pretty interesting work.


    Rich

    Comment by Rich Horton - August 14, 2014 10:09 am

  7. [...] called the last magazine I covered (Fantastic for April 1960) “determinedly minor.” This issue of F&SF seems much more significant to [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1966: A Retro Review - September 24, 2014 9:54 am


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