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Retro-Review: Universe, September 1953

Retro-Review: Universe, September 1953


Universe, September 1953. Cover by Robert Gibson Jones

Universe was one of the many new science fiction magazines that appeared in the early 1950s. It was founded by Ray Palmer, the notorious editor of Amazing Stories during the 1940s, reviled for his promotion of the “Shaver Mystery” (about a race of people living underground.) He left Amazing when the publisher, Ziff-Davis, moved to New York. Palmer stayed in Chicago and started a magazine called Other Worlds Science Stories (published by Clark Publications.) Financial troubles led to the demise (temporarily, it turned out) of Other Worlds, and a new company, Bell Publications, was founded, and published two magazines: Science Stories, and Universe. The company was soon renamed Palmer Publications. Science Stories lasted four issues, and Universe ten, after which Palmer returned to the name Other Worlds Science Stories.

The editor at the beginning was “George Bell,” which meant Ray Palmer and Bea Mahaffey. After two issues of Universe, the editors were credited under their real names. Mahaffey was Palmer’s co-editor at Other Worlds, Science Stories, Universe, and another publication, Mystic Magazine, from late 1952 into 1955, at which time Palmer’s continuing financial issues caused him to lay her off. She is often credited with being the primary fiction editor of those magazines, and there is little disputing that the quality of the fiction was higher during her tenure than in Amazing before that, or in Palmer’s magazines after she was let go.

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Alexei Panshin, August 14, 1940 — August 21, 2022

Alexei Panshin, August 14, 1940 — August 21, 2022


The Anthony Villiers by Alexei Panshin: Star Well, The Thurb Revolution,
and Masque World (Ace Books, 1968-1969). Covers by Kelly Freas

Alexei Panshin has died. He was one of the first SF critics I read — I read both Heinlein in Dimension and SF in Dimension as a teen. At the time I took his words as Gospel — in times since I have learned to question a lot of what he said, but what he said was well considered and an advance in understanding science fiction.

He was also a novelist of considerable ability. I don’t like his Nebula winner Rite of Passage as much as many, in part for the petty reason that I felt its Nebula undeserved in the presence of novels like the Hugo winner Stand on Zanzibar, Joanna Russ’ Picnic on Paradise, and above all one of my favorite novels ever, Samuel R. Delany’s Nova. But as I said that’s petty — Rite of Passage is an accomplished and enjoyable novel, a triumph as a first novel; and if I would argue with it that’s OK — I think it was arguing with itself (something I failed to perceive when reading it as a young teen.)

But for me his prime achievement is the three novels about Anthony Villiers: Star Well, The Thurb Revolution, and Masque World. These are not perhaps deathless fictional masterpieces, but they are supremely entertaining.

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An Extravagant and Wonderful Fantasy with Assassins, Ghosts, and Necromancers: Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney

An Extravagant and Wonderful Fantasy with Assassins, Ghosts, and Necromancers: Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney

Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E. Cooney (Solaris, April 12, 2022)

Here’s a novel I’ve been anticipating for some time — years even. C. S. E. Cooney has been working on it for even longer, to be sure. It is in a sense her first novel, except that an earlier planned novella, started I believe long after this novel was first drafted, got away from her a bit and ended up novel length, even though it has only been published in an original anthology. (This is The Twice-Drowned Saint, from the Mythic Delirium anthology A Sinister Quartet, which is well worth your time for all its stories.)

Time for full disclosure — I’ve known Claire Cooney for a long time now, and I consider her a good friend. I’ve been reading her fiction since 2007, when her first stories appeared, and I’ve reprinted several of her pieces. We are both long-time contributors to this eminent publication (and indeed it was John O’Neill, the overlord of Black Gate, who introduced us.) Claire gave me an advance copy of Saint Death’s Daughter. So calibrate this review as you will — I was praising her work before I knew her, mind you (and I thought the author of “Stone Shoes” might be male at first.) Still, I clearly am predisposed to like her fiction.

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Still Not Telling Us: “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr.

Still Not Telling Us: “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr.

Galaxy, March 1969, containing “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” by James Tiptree, Jr. Cover by Chaffee

“. . . Take ‘The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.’ That whole damn story is told backward. . .. It’s a perfect example of Tiptree’s basic narrative instinct. Start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then DON’T TELL THEM.”

This is James Tiptree, Jr., on his story “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.” Or, this is Alice Sheldon, referring to “Tiptree” in the third person — and, still, NOT TELLING US.

“Tiptree”/Sheldon was a little dismissive of “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” at times. I disagree. It was certainly the first of her stories to gain wide notice (and a Nebula nomination.) And it’s the earliest of her publications to really light me up. Thus I’d like to take a very close look at it here, in my latest piece trying to figure out how stories, particularly good stories, really work. (I note with some amusement that this essay is roughly the same length as the original story. I also add that of necessity I have “spoiled” the story, but I add that this story in particular is unspoilable, partly because it demands and rewards rereading. That said, if you haven’t read the story and you can find a copy, do go ahead and read it first!)

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Pushing Us Away from Gender-Based Assumptions: “Winter’s King” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Pushing Us Away from Gender-Based Assumptions: “Winter’s King” by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (Harper & Row, 1975). Cover by Patricia Voehl

After a bit of a hiatus, I’m returning to my series of essays about stories I find particularly interesting – often because of how good they are, but sometimes for other reasons. My goal is to examine them closely, and to try to understand – at least a bit – why they work, or why they don’t, or at least why they are interesting.

Ursula Le Guin is a favorite writer of mine. That’s hardly a challenging stance to take! I love many of her novels: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed of course, and the Earthsea books, but also her last novel, Lavinia, and the YA novels that preceded it, collectively called Annals of the Western Shore; and her first completed novel (published much later): Malafrena. And too I love her short fiction, above all I’d say “Nine Lives” and “The Stars Below”. Another short story – or novelette – that has long been a particular favorite of mine is “Winter’s King.”

I first read “Winter’s King” in her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (a collection I chose long ago as the best single author collection of SF of all time (not counting “Best of” collections, or “Collected Stories”).) (Since that time I’d allow Stories of Your Life, and Others, by Ted Chiang, as another contender.) But, intriguingly, Le Guin’s introduction to that story in her collection mentions that it is revised from its original version in one important way: the gender of the characters from the primary planet of that story, Winter, is represented as female in the new version, but in the original version they were depicted as both male and female.

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Retro-Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Summer 1950

Retro-Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Summer 1950

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950. Cover by George Salter

This was the third issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, though only the second under that name. (The first issue, Autumn 1949, was titled The Magazine of Fantasy.) Here we see it in the classic form of its early years… Whimsical fantasies… reprints from the 19th and early 20th Century, often by prominent writers … modest essays into not very hard SF… a real attempt to find good SF and Fantasy from writers in other genres.

And, I might add, covers by George Salter. Salter (born Georg Salter in Bremen, Germany, October 5, 1897 (so I share a birthday with him!) contributed 9 covers in the first two years of F&SF, then 2 more (in 1955 and 1966) — his illustrations were very much in the spirit of the early F&SF, somewhat whimsical, semi-abstract, clever. I like them a lot, though I know that taste isn’t shared by everyone.

Early F&SF was light on features. This issue featured only one… “Recommended Reading,” by the editors (Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas.) This was published just as genre SF was beginning to be widely published in book form. The recommendations include two Heinlein books (Sixth Column from Gnome, and Waldo and Magic, Inc. from Doubleday), as well as an anthology from Judith Merril, a couple of books from outside the genre, and more… if I am to be honest, none of the books mentioned are really all that memorable, save perhaps the Heinleins — and those more because they are Heinlein books, rather than because they are particularly outstanding.

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Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020,
edited by Rich Horton (Prime Books, June 2021). Cover by Argus

The print version of Rich Horton’s 12th Year’s Best volume was delayed roughly six months by the pandemic, and it finally arrives next week. The delay was a little frustrating for those of us who look forward to this book every year, but considering how deeply the pandemic impacted the publishing world overall, I figure it could have been a lot worse. (The digital version has been available since December, but I remain stubbornly a print guy.)

Rich’s introductions to the early volumes belonged to the get-out-of-the-way-and let-the-fiction-do-the-talking school, but over the years they’ve loosened up a bit, and this year’s is one of his best, a lively and thoughtful look at the impact of this very eventful year on science fiction, and some thoughts on famous genre pandemic fiction. Here’s part of his comments on the tales within.

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Deadly Archeology on Alien Planets: “It Opens the Sky” by Theodore Sturgeon

Deadly Archeology on Alien Planets: “It Opens the Sky” by Theodore Sturgeon

Venture Science Fiction, November 1957. Cover by Emsh

In this series of essays I have been taking a close look at stories I find interesting, trying to figure out how they work. So far the stories (and one poem) I have discussed are pieces I find particularly good – and this is hardly surprising, as surely it’s better to know how and what good stories do than weak stories. But this time I’m taking a look at a story I enjoy, but that I also think deeply flawed. Why? Partly because it’s by Theodore Sturgeon, one of my very favorite writers. But also this story seems very Sturgeonesque – so I hope that I can understand better what Sturgeon tries to do in his most characteristic stories, and why sometimes even while he does what he wants to do the story qua story doesn’t wholly work.

My favorite Sturgeon stories are “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” “A Saucer of Loneliness,” and “And Now the News …”. There are other very good and very well-known stories by him: “Baby is Three,” “Mr. Costello, Hero,” “Bulkhead,” “Affair with a Green Monkey,” “And My Fear is Great …”. And there are early stories that seem less truly characteristic of the mature writer, though they are still well-regarded: the SF Hall of Fame story “Microcosmic God,” horror stories like “It” and “Bianca’s Hands,” the possessed bulldozer piece “Killdozer.” I love a late ‘40s sense of wonder thing, “The Sky Was Full of Ships,” but that too is not core Sturgeon. But there are a few stories from his peak period, the 1950s, that have the emotional punch, and the moments of utter beauty, of the best of his work, but that for one reason or another don’t stick the landing. “The Golden Helix” is one. “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” is another – a novella that for half its length bids fair to be as good as anything he ever wrote, but which can’t quite find its way to a satisfactory resolution. And there is “It Opens the Sky,” the story I mean to treat here, which has pages of sheer loveliness, passages of great power, and a message that is Sturgeon at his most tender and optimistic. It is a story that brings me to tears, and yet frustrates me.

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A Delightful Discovery Inside an Old Book

A Delightful Discovery Inside an Old Book

You never know what you might find inside an old used book. I just made a wonderful discovery inside my copy of Witches Three. This is a “Twayne Triplet,” featuring three long stories (two novels and a novella) on the same subject — witchcraft. The novels are Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber; and The Blue Star, by Fletcher Pratt. The novella is “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish. It’s a strong book – Conjure Wife, Leiber’s first novel, is an established classic of horror-tinged contemporary fantasy, and The Blue Star, which became the first entry in the classic Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, is widely regarded as Pratt’s best novel.

I have an ongoing interest in Twayne Triplets*, even though only two were ever published, so I grabbed my used copy of Witches Three eagerly many years ago. But while I’ve leafed through it before, I haven’t read it, partly because I already had copies of the other stories. (That said, I haven’t read my separate copy of The Blue Star, nor, I suspect, this version of “There Shall Be No Darkness.” (It was collected in The Best of James Blish but I believe that’s an earlier, shorter, version of the story.)

So yesterday the subject of Witches Three came up. I grabbed my copy, and opened it, and to my surprise I found, on the page facing the inside front cover, a pasted in label signed by Fritz Leiber! The label reads: “Conjure Wife came out of my year at Occidental College — Fritz Leiber.” It’s always a delight to come across something so unexpected!

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Underneath the Oversea by Marc Laidlaw

Underneath the Oversea by Marc Laidlaw

Cover art by Sylvia Ritter

Underneath the Oversea
by Marc Laidlaw
Freestyle Press (197 pages, $6.99 in digital formats, October 30, 2020)
Cover art by Sylvia Ritter

Marc Laidlaw has been publishing SF and Fantasy for over 40 years (his first story appeared when he was only 17!) His first novel appeared in 1985 (Dad’s Nuke), and by 1996 he had published a half-dozen. Then he turned to game design, especially with Half-Life, but his short fiction has continued to appear since then. Most notable, perhaps, have been two series of stories: a rather mathematically gonzo set of novelettes about two surfers named Delbert and Zeb (co-written with Rudy Rucker), and a set of fantasies concerning the bard Gorlen and a living gargoyle named Spar, who are linked in a quest to find the magician who switched their hands, so that Gorlen has a stone hand and Spar a living hand.

These last stories, all published in F&SF, were great fun, template stories of a sort but with a through plot. By the end both characters were married … or perhaps its better to say that they made a conjoined family: Gorlen wedded to another bard, Plenth; and Spar to Sprit, a singing tree, or Songwood, but all composing one family.

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