If – June, 1957

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Under editor James Quinn, If didn’t create its own identity like its rivals did (such as Galaxy with its social satires and Analog with its hard science), though it did reliably print quality fiction. Quinn knew a good story when he saw one, and scooped up a number of classics during his run. This issue has Asimov headlining a solid group of second-stringers, with the main billing a science article that postulated the face of Mars. Let’s see how that holds up, shall we?

1957 is an interesting year; Sputnik’s launch that October would initiate the space race and alter the SF field. June 1957 was the month the American News Company folded, killing off the pulps and gutting the booming crop of SF magazines. If would survive, but within three years it was bought out to become Galaxy‘s sibling publication. And by 1969, editor Frederik Pohl had transformed it from a secondary publication to a Hugo-winning juggernaut.

If 1957.6

If – June, 1956 – illo by If’s art director Mel Hunter, “Kodachrome from Files of First Mars Expedition.”

I love that the cover art is a Kodachrome shot of the proposed rotor-rocketships, streamlined behemoths straight out of the late-’50s aerospace design. It looks a bit better in person, where the contrast between the white and the grimy spots is nonexistant; the scan looks like it was left in a petri dish.

Breakdown:

  • Cost: $0.35 USD
  • Length: 120 pages
  • Editor: James L. Quinn
  • Interior Art?: Some great pieces by Virgil Finlay, Paul Orban, and Ed Emsh
  • Fiction: The headlining science fact article, 3 novelettes, 4 short stories
  • Columns: A science IQ test, science column, editor’s column, and letters column Hue and Cry.

Editor’s Report – James Quinn

Quinn promotes the science fact article with vigor—after all, it earned not just the cover art, but an interior-cover diagram of the rotor-rocketship as well—and introduces both its author, Dr. Robert Richardson, of Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He also introduces author Walter Tevis, more famous for his novels (such as The Man Who Fell To Earth) and more often published in the slick magazines (Collier’s, Playboy, Redbook, Esquire, et al).

There’s a brief note about the new IBM 709 computer, its impressive calculations (42,000 additions or subtractions a second! multiplications and divisions at a mere 5,000 per second!) and its even more impressive cost ($3,000,000 USD); that bumps shoulders with a nod to John Christopher’s No Blade Of Grass appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, and that Evan Hunter hit “advance jackpot” from the film rights to his Strangers When We Meet. Then there’s a brief overview of “an inventor” who went on to make millions with his method of condensing milk; his first company failed, the second is known as Borden Dairy.

An eclectic selection of odds and ends. Not a real editorial, and while all of the info is interesting, only some of the bits transcend the status of detritus.

Pretty Quadroon – Charles Fortenay – Novelette

After federal troops mobilize to enforce integration in Mississippi schools, the South rises again against Yankees overstepping states’ rights. As the Soviets gleefully look on, the North and South avoid use of nuclear weapons, instead duking it out with tanks and jet fighters. Beauregard Courtney is one of the generals leading a Confederate army into Tennessee, preparing to entrap amassed Federal troops in a pocket. Instead, he ends up called home by Piquette, his quadroon mistress.

Piquette has found a man named Adajha who claims he’ll be able to end the war in favor of both races, something Piquette is very interested in. Beauregard thinks it is all voodoo hogwash, having already revealed his racism on page one. Instead, Adajha’s magic starts to work, and he attempts to retro-actively prevent Beauregard from falling in love with Piquette—they’re fated to fall in love, despite Adajha’s best efforts, but it’s Beauregard’s racism will always, inevitably, cause the war when he acts out due to having a mixed-race mistress. As they cycle through possible futures, it looks like things will only turn out worse…

They don’t—no, they can’t—make ‘em like that any more. I felt slightly uncomfortable reading it; that’s rare, and should say something. The “good” ending is a utopian one of a fully integrated society, and it’s pretty clear the author doesn’t condone Beauregard’s opinions. But damn is it an out-there and edgy story. An interesting take on the butterfly effect, attempts to create a perfect world shattered by fated love, though it has not aged well.

Operation Gold Brick – Walter Tevis – Short

While tunneling a new monorail-train track through a mountain, two Army engineers find progress stalled by a strange item: a small, rectangular, solid gold brick, stopping their matter-converter and resisting physical movement. Well, the plans for this monorail go right over where this brick is, gosh dangit, so that’s where the Army Corps of Engineers is going to put it, even if they have to whip out not just the H-bomb but the R-bomb A tale of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. I thought 1957 was early for satirizing the military-industrial complex, but I guess not. Tevis writes well, though this is a one-joke story and a fluff piece compared to some of his mainstream fare.

The Face of Mars – R.S. Richardson – Article

Despite what the cover may lead us to believe, the article contains Dr. Richardson’s observations of Mars in late 1956, when it passed “close” to the Earth (some 35,100,000 miles). The good doctor observed a number of fascinating details about Mars, most of which were based on concepts like Lowell’s canals since (sadly) disproven by Mariner 4. Richardson seems very enthusiastic about his observations of changing color in the Martian “maria” and strange blue veins corresponding with the canal theory, though he does point out there wasn’t enough information to correlate observations of Mars with Earth, or assume Mars had life.

Compared to today’s high-definition digital photos and footage sent back by Mars rovers, Richardson’s data from sixty years ago comes across as downright primitive. Not much was known about Mars beyond observations via 100-inch telescopes and hypotheses, and there’s a feeling of awe and wonder at the possibility for life on Mars. There still is today, but our expectations have dropped from hoping to meet sapient life to hopes of finding microbes.

Jingle in the Jungle – Aldo Giunta – Novelette

In a future where human boxers have been replaced by robot ones, trainer Charlie Jingle knows the fix is in, and even the Fight Commission is in on it. His robot is going up against one of the newest, most powerful death machines ever to roll out of Pugilists Inc. With his career on the line, Jingle bets the farm on one of the two contests—and bets his reputation that he can blow this rigged fight wide open. I’m having a hard time working up enthusiasm for this, Giunta’s only published SF story (per ISFDB); the writing isn’t bad, and the pacing is good (if a bit rushed due to length), but the “robot boxing” trope I’ve already seen in action (e.g. “Steel”/Real Steel, Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em Robots, etc.). Giunta plays it straight all the way to the foregone conclusion. Good effort, but I’ve read better.

Does a Bee Care? – Isaac Asimov – Short

Humanity is building its first spaceship, designed to circle the moon and back; still under construction, the lead engineer and a visiting company representative remark about a simple laborer named Kane. Kane is the lead engineer’s good luck charm: he doesn’t do any work, but just being around him gives you good ideas. Such as the one only Kane knows about, the secret compartment on the ship that can hold a single person… The first Asimov story I’ve reviewed, and it’s one of his minor works. That said, it’s a brilliant and thought-provoking idea, taking a look at human accomplishment from outside our worldview. Reprinted several times, in Other Worlds Other Times, Buy Jupiter and Other Stories, and Robot Dreams.

…On The Dotted Line – Lloyd Biggle – Novelette

Mark Jackson was one of the best automobile salesmen in 1957 Detroit, before a freak accident flung him into the New Detroit of 2337. Unfortunately for Mark, he’s deemed obsolete by the future sales agencies who have no need for him… Until the dark secret behind these future salesmen is revealed, giving Mark one last shot to prove his worth and to pursue his career.

The summary makes it sound like a social satire; it’s not as over-the-top as some of Pohl’s or Sheckley’s, but it makes some comfortable jabs at advertising and consumerism. Biggle was a reliable author and could craft a good story, and this one is no exception: it’s no a heavyweight, but it works miracles with what it is. I’m somewhat surprised this one was overlooked and only reprinted in The Silent Sky and The Rule of the Door and Other Fanciful Regulations.

What makes the story interesting to me is its structure: the novelette consists of 6 “chapters,” each one told from the perspective of another character who Mark’s actions influenced—the first person he met in the future, a professor brought in to verify Mark’s time-travel story, and the ad-man manager who turns Mark down for the job only to hire him later. Mark’s perspective isn’t included, though we see plenty of how his actions and their repurcussions.

Shuffle Board – Dan Galouye – Short

The world of the near future is dominated by Coordinators of the Radioactive Control Commission, thanks to an over-abundance of radioactive material—its presence is never explained; it’s ostensibly from all those nuclear-powered cars since there’s no mention of any wars. It’s up to these Coordinators to track radiation leaks, then either cap the stockpile of radioactive waste so it won’t impact the populace, or shove it into another crater somewhere else and cap it there. That gives the Commission its “shuffle board” nickname; our protagonist is one such Coordinator, struggling to oversee operations in his sector.

A decent satire from the staple Galouye, though the story is a lot of hubbub to distract you from the one element it mentioned in passing that becomes its big reveal. I wondered why these people didn’t just put that radioactive waste on a rocket and point it at, oh, Pluto or something. That said, the story is well-written, entertaining, and prophesizes the issue of what to do with radioactive waste.

The Human Element – Leo Kelley – Short

Kevin is a throwback to the days of old, pining for things lost in this new technological age; his children worry that he’s mentally unfit, stuck in the past and unable to accept modern conveniences. Today he’s visiting the circus, a sterile environment full of robot strongmen and a sideshow made up of freaks mutated by atomic war. But there’s something missing in the circus, something Kevin wants to bring back… the human element. The story’s more pastoral/nostalgic themes reminds me of Clifford Simak and Ray Bradbury, though Kelley’s story doesn’t have their chops—it makes its point, though not with vigor or brilliance.

Odds and Ends

The last few pages of the magazine are filled with columns and other bits:

  • There’s a 20-question science IQ test that made me feel kinda dumb since I could only get around five of them. (Math is not my strong suit.)
  • There’s a long list of science briefs, though of these news stories there’s about as many misses (atomic-powered military aircraft within three years; consumption of whale steaks thanks to mold-resisting antibiotics) than hits (lab-created human organs and glands; laminated safety glass; spray-on skin grafts). I’m tempted to do a post that investigates how many of them came true.
  • Last but not least, there’s Hue and Cry, the letters column. I didn’t see any letters from famous fans or authors, and ISFDB didn’t flag any either. No comments on If’s fiction; instead, there’s some very smart dialogue about humanist SF authors, how SF may impact humanity’s view of aliens if we found any, and SF authors moralizing in their fiction. Then there’s the guy commenting that the Biblical story of creation, or the SF view of “humanity created by the seed of aliens,” made more sense to him than evolution.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time, If was filling if unexceptional, but this issue felt like it fell short of that. None of the stories jump out as memorable or brilliant, though none of them were truly awful either, just a grab-bag of Grade-A Average. Maybe it should have been an indicator when so few of its stories were ever reprinted in a book collection or anthology. And that cover with its cool rotorship did set the lead article up for failure, since it’s just long-obsolete scientific speculation about a planet we’ve now got drones on.

Lloyd Biggle’s “…On The Dotted Line” was, I feel, the strongest story in the collection; then again, I am prone to quality ’50s satires, and this one was a great poke at sales without trying to be overly satirical. I also found it memorable from having multiple point-of-view characters, none of whom was the protagonist. Asimov’s “Does A Bee Care” is short and minor fare, though the idea it holds is solid gold, enough so to make it a standout. “Shuffle Board” is also well written and enjoyable, an unexceptional if solid B. I liked it, but the story was a bit too over-the-top for me to love it.

The rest of the issue is a mixed bag. Fortenay’s “Pretty Quadroon” hasn’t withstood the progress of time; it’s the story I wanted to like most but should probably like least. “Operation Gold Brick” is humorous satire by a talented author, though it’s been done a million times before; same with “Human Element” and “Jingle in the Jungle,” they’re good, solid ideas that you can wrap a story around. Sadly, they’re also unexceptional in their presentation, and fade in the presence of better stories using very similar ideas.

Not the greatest issue of If, though the good stories were good and the bad stories were at least average. You can see why If managed to survive the death of the SF magazine boom—it could pull in the big-name authors when their stories weren’t good enough for Galaxy or Astounding to bite, and was able to follow what the SF market wanted to read (no throwbacks from the ’40s in here). You can also see why it ended up fading out and becoming Galaxy’s younger sibling—the quality and focus just isn’t consistent, the stories are content to play it safe and shy away from the spark of uniqueness, and I feel like the authors are scrabbling over the crumbs of previous years’ ideas.

Still, it could be worse; I think I’ve touched enough stinkers reading those old mags that I’d rather read some average stories than awful ones, and this issue was a decent crop of average.

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