The Golden Age of Science Fiction: On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch

Friday, June 7th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Malcolm Ashman

Cover by Malcolm Ashman

Cover by Michael Mariano

Cover by Michael Mariano

Cover by Lou Feck

Cover by Lou Feck

The Campbell Memorial Award, not to be confused with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author, was founded in 1973.  The award is a juried award and presented to the best SF novel published in the US. The award was founded by Harry Harrison in memory of the long-time editor of Astounding and Analog magazine. The first Campbell Memorial Award was presented to Barry N. Malzberg’s novel Beyond Apollo. The award is presented at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and over the years a weekend conference has grown up around the presentation of this award and the Sturgeon Award, which was founded in 1987 to honor short stories. In 1980, the award was presented on July 31.

Originally published from February through April in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Disch’s 1979 novel On Wings of Song takes place in a Balkanized United States, where Daniel Weinreb lives in an Iowa ruled by a conservative Christian movement which bans a variety of activities, including singing. After an ill-advised jaunt to Minneapolis to see a movie with a friend who disappears, Daniel finds himself harassed by his friend’s powerful father and eventually sent to a penal camp for a minor infraction.  While there, Daniel learns the secret of flying and its connection to singing. Freed from the prison camp, Daniel flees to New York to pursue a career as a singer and learn the art of flying, although his success leaves his idealism and hope in tatters.

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Vintage Treasures: On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

On Wings of Song-small On Wings of Song-back-small

Bantam Books, 1985. Cover by Kid Kane

Last time I wrote about Thomas M. Disch I got a cranky note from Michael Moorcock, taking me to task for calling him a “tragic figure.” Fair enough. He’s not quite as forgotten as I made him out to be, either. There are still people whispering about Thomas Disch in dusty corners of the internet, if you know where to look.

Me, for one. Disch is a fairly recent discovery for me, I admit, and I probably would never have tried him if it hadn’t been for a few lone voices out there still championing his quirky brand of SF, including Rich HortonTed Gioia, and Jo Walton. It was Jo who helped pique my interest in his 1979 novel On Wings of Song, with her 2011 review at

It’s a fascinating complex world. There are machines which you hook up to and sing sincerely, and if you do it right you have an out of body experience. They call this flying, and it’s banned in the same way that drugs are banned — illegal but available… There are famines when rations get cut to starvation levels, and prisons where you have to get McDonalds takeout to survive…

We don’t seem to have a word to describe the kind of story this is. It’s the whole life story, from age five to death, of Daniel Weinreb… He wants to fly, he wants it more than anything. His life is complicated and largely unheroic, the kind of life people actually have in reality and seldom have in fiction. But it’s a life he could only have in that time and place, in the world he lives in. It’s a book about how he grows up and what happens to him and what he wants and what he has to do to get by.

The book is depressing and hilarious in a way that’s very hard to describe. Most of Disch is brilliant and depressing, this is brilliant and depressing and moving and funny… You really want to read On Wings of Song. You might not like it, but it’s one of the books that marks the boundaries of what it’s possible to do with SF.

On Wings of Song was a Hugo nominee, and won the Campbell Award. But I’m certain I would have bounced off it when it was first published. In 1980 I was discovering Roger Zelazny, Robert A. Heinlein, and Stephen R. Donaldson, and busy falling in love with the sweeping adventure epics SF had to offer. I was just one of the many science fiction readers who ignored Disch completely. Definitely my loss.

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A Cherished Contributor, and Hard to be Friends With: Michael Moorcock on Thomas M. Disch

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

New Worlds August 1967 Camp Concentration-small New Worlds October 1967 Camp Concentration-small

Last month I wrote a brief feature on Thomas M. Disch and his 1968 dystopian SF novel Camp Concentration. Michael Moorcock, who serialized the novel in four issues of his magazine New Worlds (July -October, 1967), contacted me to share his own memories, and challenge my portrayal of Tom as “a tragic figure.”

Tom was a close friend. Sometimes hard to be friends with. He was given to depression and to taking offence over imagined insults. In spite of this, I and his other close friends loved him and I still wonder if I could have done more for him, as does Linda. She says that she loved being with us and never laughed so much as when we were together, so I don’t see him as a tragic figure. After Charlie died he became lonely and bitter on occasions but several substantial friends did all they could for him.

I serialised Camp Concentration in New Worlds and was flattered when he said he would not have aspired to make it as good as it was if he hadn’t known it was appearing there. He brought each episode in every month and I was increasingly grateful to have such a fine novel to run in the first of our large size issues. With Ballard, he was my most valued contributor. Camp Concentration was illustrated by our mutual friend, the fine artist Pamela Zoline. He brought John Clute and John Sladek into our circle and the 60s and 70s were wonderful thanks in considerable part to our mutual friendships. Politically, we rarely agreed, but we had so much fun together. I miss him terribly.

“Charlie” was Disch’s partner of three decades, poet Charles Naylor, who died in 2005. I asked Michael for permission to reprint his comments here, and he graciously granted it, and shared some additional memories of Disch.

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When Philip K. Dick Reports You to the FBI: Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Camp Concentration-small Camp Concentration-back-small

Thomas M. Disch is a tragic figure. An enormously talented writer who won the enduring respect of his peers — with nine Nebula nominations and two Hugo nominations to his credit, plus a John W. Campbell Award and Rhysling Award, among many other accolades — his work was long ignored by the public. Success eluded him for virtually his entire career, and he gave up writing almost entirely near the end of his life. After the death of his partner in 2005 he lost his house, fought eviction from his apartment, and eventually killed himself in 2008. In the Science Fiction Encyclopedia John Clute wrote of Disch:

Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, Disch was perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern sf writers of the first rank.

Certainly his most commercially successful work was the novella “The Brave Little Toaster,” which appeared first in the August 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula. Famed animation director John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life) recalls how he was fired from Disney ten minutes after making a pitch for a film version; Hyperion Pictures eventually produced animated versions of The Brave Little Toaster (1987) and Disch’s sequel, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998).

Perhaps his most successful adult novel was Camp Concentration, which has seen nearly a dozen editions in English since it first appeared in 1968. Alongside On Wings of Song (1979) it’s one of his most acclaimed novels, anyway, and I figure it makes a solid starting point to start reading Disch. It’s interesting for another reason as well — the novel figures prominently in one of the most infamous incidents involving Philip K. Dick, who was so alarmed by Camp Concentration that he wrote a letter to the FBI about it.

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Thomas M. Disch on the Best Science Fiction of 1979

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

The Best Science Fiction of the Year 9 Terry Carr-small Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year Ninth Annual Collection Gardner Dozois-small The 1980 Annual World's Best SF Donald A. Wollheim-small

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction February 1981-smallThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has put some delightful old content on their website for those who care to look, and earlier this month I came across their reprint of Thomas M. Disch’s Book column from the February 1981 issue, in which he compares the three Best of the Year volumes published the previous year.

1979 was a marvelous year for short SF, with many stories destined to become classics — including George R.R. Martin’s brilliant “Sandkings,” and his Hugo Award-winning “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” Barry B. Longyear’s novella “Enemy Mine,” Donald Kingsbury’s “The Moon Goddess and the Son,” Vonda N. McIntyre’s “Fireflood,” Orson Scott Card’s “Unaccompanied Sonata,” Richard Cowper’s “Out There Where the Big Ships Go,” and many others. Of course, Disch was as curmudgeonly as always.

The annuals are out, and here, if we can trust the amalgamated wisdom of our four editors, are the thirty best stories of 1979. It is in the nature of annual reports to pose the question, Was it a good year? and it pains me, as both a shareholder and a consumer, to answer that for science fiction, as for so many other sectors of the economy, 1979 was not a good year.

Against such a sweeping judgment it may be countered that sf is not a unitary phenomenon nor one easily comparable to a tomato harvest. Sf is a congeries of individual writers, each producing stories of distinct and varying merit. A year of stories is as arbitrary a measure as mileage in painting. Nevertheless, that is how the matter is arranged, not only by anthologists but by those who organize the two prize-giving systems, SFWA, which awards the Nebulas, and Fandom, which gathers once a year to hand out Hugos. The overlap between the contents of the annuals and the short-lists for the prizes is so great that one may fairly surmise that something like cause-and-effect is at work. As the nominating procedures are conducted in plain view, it seems certain that the editors will keep their eyes open for the likeliest contenders, since the annual that most successfully second-guesses the awards nominees has a clear advantage over its rivals.

Tomato harvest! At least he makes me laugh.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Ron Walotsky

Cover by Ron Walotsky

Cover by Barclay Shaw

Cover by Barclay Shaw

Cover by David A. Hardy

Cover by David A. Hardy

The Locus Awards were established in 1972 and presented by Locus Magazine based on a poll of its readers. In more recent years, the poll has been opened up to on-line readers, although subscribers’ votes have been given extra weight. At various times the award has been presented at Westercon and, more recently, at a weekend sponsored by Locus at the Science Fiction Museum (now MoPop) in Seattle. The Best Book Publisher Award dates back to 1972, although in 1975 and 1976 the Publisher Award was split into paperback and hardcover categories. Ballantine Books won the award each year from its inception through 1977 (winning the paperback for the two experimental years with the Science Fiction Book Club winning the hardcover award). In 1978, when Del Rey was established as an imprint of Ballantine, Ballantine/Del Rey began winning the award. The award was not presented in 1979 for works published in 1978, but when it was reinstituted in 1980, Ballantine/Del Rey picked up its winning streak. In 1980. The Locus Poll received 854 responses.

Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas pitched the idea of a fantasy magazine to Lawrence Spivak at Mercury Press in the mid-1940s and a companion to Spivak’s publication Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The Magazine of Fantasy was founded in Fall, 1949 with editors Boucher and McComas. With the second issue, the title was changed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Boucher and McComas set the magazine apart from other science fiction magazines not only with their choice of material, which tended to being more literary in nature, but also in the magazine’s design. McComas left the magazine following the August 1954 issue for health reasons, but Boucher continued to edit the magazine until the August 1958 issue. Following Boucher’s departure, Robert P. Mills edited the magazine until March 1962 and then Avram Davidson took over until November 1964. Joseph Ferman, who had bought the magazine in 1954 edited it for a year before turning the editorial tasks over to his son, Edward K. Ferman, who edited the magazine until June 1991, after which Kristine Kathryn Rusch became the magazine’s editor until May 1997. Gordon van Gelder took over editorial duties and purchased the magazine from Ferman in 2001, turning over the editorship to Charles Coleman Finlay in 2015.

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Galileo Magazine of Science & Fiction, November 1979: A Retro-Review

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons


Cover art by Larry Blamire – “Louis Wu Making Good His Escape”

I’m going to start my review of the November 1979 issue of Galileo magazine by talking about Omni. I’ve heard people, people of a certain age — people who were there, man — talk about Omni like it was the second coming of Christ. I bring that up because Galileo magazine was like Christ rolled the stone out of the way and was serving up fancy drinks in the tomb.

I’m also going to start my review of Galileo Magazine by kicking F&SF while it’s down. F&SF can’t scrape together a single piece of internal artwork? Galileo has artwork, multiple pieces at times, for each story, each article. Yes, yes, we know how it ends; slow and steady F&SF eventually wins this race, but you get my point.

In short, Galileo, while not perfect, certainly swings for the fences. It was a science fiction magazine that had one foot well in the world of sf/f writers, one foot well in the world of the serious sf/f fan, one hand guiding the casual sf/f fan, and one hand embracing the growing spheres of TV, movies, and games. It had artwork (although it was all black and white, which is one of the only things about it that seems a bit dated), and yes, it had fiction. Pretty good fiction, all around.

It is a crying shame that Galileo magazine folded in January, 1980 — literally the very next issue! It burned a bright trail in sf/f for a little less than four years.

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The Big Little SF Magazines of the 1970s

Sunday, August 5th, 2018 | Posted by Rich Horton

analog-aug-74-smallAn earlier version of this article was published in Black Gate 10.

These columns are focused on the history of SF – and so far that has turned out to mean mostly discussion of 50s oriented subjects, with some leakage into nearer years. But now I’d like to take a look at a rather more recent, and rather less celebrated, period. The 1970s. The time of wide ties, leisure suits, and disco. And also the time I discovered SF, and the SF magazines.

My first look at real SF magazines is a moment I remember with a continued thrill. Sometime in late July 1974, in Alton Drugs in Naperville, IL, I wandered by the newsstand and my eyes lit on three magical covers: the August 1974 issues of Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. That day I bought Analog. The cover story was “Enter a Pilgrim” by Gordon R. Dickson, with a striking, odd, John Schoenherr painting, featuring an alien with a lance and ceramic-appearing armor (a sort of Schoenherr trademark, that ceramic-like surface).

I read that issue quickly and the next day I bought Galaxy, which featured “The Day Before the Revolution,” an Ursula K. Le Guin story that would win a Hugo, as well as parts of two different serials – The Company of Glory by Edgar Pangborn and Orbitsville by Bob Shaw. Of course that issue was also read before the day was out, and the next day I bought F&SF – a very important issue in its own way: it featured John Varley’s first published story (or perhaps his co-first story, as we will see later.) It wasn’t long before I had added Amazing and Fantastic to the roster. Soon I was subscribing to several magazines, and buying the others each month at the newsstand.

Those five were all the major, well-distributed, magazines there were by 1975. Alas, I just missed seeing If, Galaxy’s long time companion: it was discontinued at the end of 1974, and for some reason my local newsstand didn’t carry it, at least not those last few months.

I had formed an opinion, based on received conventional wisdom, that the “Big Three” of SF magazines had been Astounding/Analog, F&SF, and Galaxy since 1950: certainly that was the case in 1975. (You will get an argument for many years prior to that, however: there are partisans for Startling Stories in the early 50s, for If at various times, especially during Frederik Pohl’s peak editorial period in the mid-60s, and for Amazing and Fantastic under Cele Goldsmith’s editorial hand in the early 60s.)

Galaxy, however, was in some financial trouble. Under Jim Baen’s editorship it enjoyed a couple of years as a truly wonderfully enjoyable magazine, but when he left the decline was swift. However, Galaxy’s place in the “Big Three” was quickly taken by Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. And throughout the 70s, the sister magazines Amazing and Fantastic, edited by Ted White, were the other major prozines.

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Fantastic Stories of Imagination, January and February 1964: A Retro-Review

Thursday, October 12th, 2017 | Posted by Rich Horton

Fantastic Stories of Imagination January 1964-small Fantastic Stories of Imagination February 1964-small

These issues are significant in that they include the serialization of a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novella — but not just any novella: this includes the first and nearly only contribution to the series from Leiber’s original collaborator, and supposed model for the Mouser, Harry Fischer.

Each cover is by Ed Emshwiller, and they both illustrate the serial. The interiors in January are by Emsh, Lutjens (first name perhaps Peter?), Dan Adkins, Lee Brown Coye, and Virgil Finlay. In February they are from the same folks except for Coye.

The editorials concern, in January, Harry Fischer’s role in the creation of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and in February, serious research in both the US and the Soviet Union into telepathy. There is a brief book review column in January, by S. E. Cotts, in which she praises Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial very highly, and is somewhat more reserved on R. DeWitt Miller’s Stranger Than Life, one of those books about “unexplainable events.” The February issue includes a lettercol, According to You, with letters from Bill Wolfenbarger (praise for Schomburg, and for the more horrific side of fantasy), E. E. Evers (much disdain for the November 1961 issue, even for the Le Guin story), and Norman Masters (hated Sharkey’s “The Aftertime,” likes Le Guin).

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Galaxy, October 1968: A Retro-Review

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 | Posted by Rich Horton

Galaxy October 1968-small Galaxy October 1968-back-small

An issue of Galaxy from fairly late in Fred Pohl’s tenure. There’s one fairly notable story here, and a couple more good ones, but to me the most interesting feature was Algis Budrys’ book review column.

But let’s begin at the beginning. The cover is by Douglas Chaffee. Interiors are by Jack Gaughan, Joe Wehrle, Jr., Dan Adkins, Virgil Finlay, Larry S. Todd illustrating his own piece (not surprising, as Todd, then just 20, became fairly well-known later for his comics work), and two artists whose full names I didn’t know: Brand and Safrani. Buddy Lortie identified them for me: Brand was Roger Brand, a fan artist who became a pro, and did comics work as well; and Safrani was Shehbaz Safrani, who seems to still do fine art. I should note that the magazine was very thick in this era — 196 pages (including covers). My copy has staples: I don’t know offhand if that was normal.

The features include Willy Ley’s long-running science column, “For Your Information,” discussing Explorer-1. Fred Pohl contributes an editorial, discussing the upcoming Presidential election (the one in which Nixon beat Humphrey and Wallace), and speculating about computerized voting from one’s home (even on laws, declaration of war, etc. — i.e. direct democracy). There is a Bio feature, Galaxy’s Stars, giving tidbits about a few of the authors. One piece, “The Warbots,” by Larry S. Todd, is designated a “Non-Fact Article,” and it discusses the history of tanks, basically, far into the future.

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