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F&SF – Aug 1954 – Mel Hunter, “Exploring a Green Star System.” That’s not a scanning error or a lens flare, it’s a green glow. And yeah, this copy is totally demolished even before I read it.

Nuts and Bolts

Anthony Boucher had shared editorial duties with J. Francis McComas since the first issue, but this one is their last together; McComas would step down from the “editor” title but remain an “advisory editor” until 1962, and Boucher would become the sole editor until November 1958. Both Boucher and McComas were reviewers for the New York Times, and knew a good story when they saw one; they shared the duty of the book review section, and wrote in-depth introductory paragraphs for each story that put all the other magazines to shame.

You can see F&SF’s attempts to be like a literary journal; standard features of SF digests—letter columns, editorials, advertisements—are all eschewed. Of editorials and letters there are none, and the only ads surround the inside covers, for other Mercury Publishing products (mostly mystery fiction; makes sense given Boucher’s background). The text is in block format, rather than the two-column layout you see in other magazines of the era. Oddly, this was in one of the short spurts where the magazine experimented with interior art, and the longer fiction pieces have a drawing or two by Nick Solovioff and Ed Emsh. Nothing extensive there, and even with the occasional footer illustration, the magazine still feels void of art. I guess that means there’s more room for fiction, at least.

The wraparound art by Mel Hunter, “Exploring a Green Star System,” is typical of F&SF’s covers in the early years: a big focus on space scenery and rocketry porn. The cover’s list of authors promises good things: Alfred Bester, Zenna Henderson, Manly Wade Wellman, and Miriam Allan DeFord. The latter’s work is actually a nonfiction article, but the other three are all fiction, so let’s get to it then.

General contents list: Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit;” Zenna Henderson’s “Gilead;” Charles Beaumont’s “Quadriopoticon;” Manly Wade Wellman’s “Little Black Train;” stories by Arthur Porges, Richard Brookbank, Kay Rogers, and Doris P. Buck, plus the article by Miriam Allan DeFord.

Fondly Fahrenheit – Alfred Bester – Short Novelette

Playboy James Vandaleur and his android are on the run; despite the fact that androids cannot kill or harm humans (very similar to Asimov’s three laws), Vandaleur’s android has performed multiple murders, including a girl—who, it’s implied, the android may have raped. It’s a Multiple Aptitude model, not some common laborer android, so Vandaleur’s loath to give it up to the police since he can earn a hefty sum from selling it out to perform various acts of labor. But each time he does so, the robot goes crazy and kills its employer, forcing Vandaleur to flee to another planet even more destitute than before.

This is a surprisingly grim and mature story for the mid-’50s, its implications dark and horrific. Bester had a habit of using mystery and horror elements to craft his works, and they are evident in this novelet. All around very well written, save for two big flaws. The first paragraph is one of those beautiful but cutesy overviews that has nothing to do with the story at hand, and is there simply because the author thinks it sounded good. Second, the story refers to the characters as “we,” and uses first-person terminology (“I,” “me”) for both Vandaleur and his robot, jumping around in an annoying fashion. I thought it was a grammatical error, then made me think it was from consciousness-swapping, before I realized it was a stylistic choice that reflects the story’s theme of identity and the blending thereof.

I’m more familiar with Bester’s longer classics The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, but this story shows that he was a master writer all-around who could excel at short fiction as well as novels. I highly recommend this one; so did the Science Fiction Writers of America, who put it in their Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection in 1970. (Bester talks about his inspiration and writing process for “Fondly Fahrenheit” here; caution, spoilers.) We’re off to a great start so far.

The Devil and Simon Flagg – Arthur Porges – Short

Modern-day mathemagician—he’s a mathematics professor who is apparently a wizard—summons forth the devil and challenges him over one question: wealth, long life, and happiness for himself and his wife if the devil can’t offer an answer, Flagg’s eternal soul if the devil can provide proof. Needless to say, the question is a complex math theorem; hilarity ensues. A bit cutesy, especially at the end, but a nice bit of lighthearted fluff to follow up Bester’s gruesome tale.

Gilead – Zenna Henderson – Novelette

This is the second in Henderson’s The People series, a history of galactic refugees, some of whom are scattered across the Southwestern United States and attempt to preserve their heritage while integrating with their new home world. I haven’t read the first story, “Ararat,” but expect to see more in the series as I go through more issues of F&SF.

This one deals with a mixed family, a human father and People mother and their two half-breed children. Peter can fly, has telekinetic powers, and can even generate fire if he thinks hard enough, while his younger sister Bethie is a “sensitive,” who can sense the pain of others around her. As their father has made abundantly clear, “different is dead,” and so they must keep their innate gifts a secret, while their mother hands down snippets of their otherworldly history. Eventually the two children have to search down other members of the People to learn how to control their strange powers.

A fascinating and human tale, Henderson has a great hand for writing authentic dialogue and provides a story rich in ideas. Great atmosphere, too; the Tucson-born author brought the story to life in its Southwest setting. The People evoke images of the European Jews and their postwar plight—one human character even compares them to European “displaced persons,” assuming they’re from one “overrun country” or another destroyed by the Nazis or swallowed up by the Soviets. My only complaint is that it doesn’t really have an ending; it’s more a snapshot or vignette than a finished story, since the most interesting point is the same one at which it ends. Ah well; it makes me want to read the other People stories to see how the narrative develops.

Frustrated Frankenstein: Alfonso Herrera and His Colpoids – Miriam Allen deFord – Article

Apparently John Campbell didn’t have a monopoly on showcasing pseudoscience in SF digest magazines; deFord had a passionate interest in Fortean Science, and this article details some self-admitted fringe science. Alfonso Herrera was a Mexican doctor who, using nothing more than household ingredients, created protocell-like objects which behaved much like living matter (moving, chasing, hunting, extending pseudopods, etc.) before they disintegrated into soapsuds.

The poor good doctor died hoping he’d discovered a vital step towards creating life, calling his field Plasmogeny; while I wasn’t able to track down much concrete info about him, I did find a number of recent scientific journals (e.g. 1995, 2000, 2004) that dealt with his studies. All blocked by a paywall of course, as scholarly articles tend to be, but they seemed to praise Hererra as a pioneer in their abstracts and free samples. One of those “weirder than fiction” discoveries, to say the least.

The Invisible Wall – Richard Brookbank – Short

George is an imaginative boy, always dreaming up castles and dragons in his solitary play, but after an altercation in the sandpile gets him beaten up by another boy’s friends, he wants some kind of protection. He gets it in the form of an invisible wall, generated by a magical silver curtain ring. Flash forward to George as an adult, still isolated from the world via his invisible wall; he wishes he could take it down to get closer to the attractive Olive, but the ring hasn’t been removed in decades and is stuck on his finger. And even if he got it off, wouldn’t that leave him unprotected against the world’s many hazards?

Two things, first. Brookbank can’t hold a candle to Zenna Henderson in terms of writing children’s dialogue; George always sounds like an adult. Next, while I started off rooting for poor little lonely George and his fantastic imagination, he turned into such an arrogant little shit once he had his invisible wall that I couldn’t stand him. Otherwise, it’s a decent metaphor regarding the dangers of isolating oneself from the real world, and the crazed claustrophobia that comes when you realize how close your invisible walls have come. (Though Pink Floyd’s take on this theme was vastly superior.)

Command Performance – Kay Rogers – Short

Social commentary depicting a future world where rockets to Mars blast off from the moon, and technology (future TVs) is provided free to all. It’s paid for by a “Prejudice Tax,” heavy fines forced on anyone who says or does something insensitive, recorded by wristwatch-like audio/video units minorities are given. But, as our protagonist (a boy named Bix) discovers, just because people are forced to be nice to others, it doesn’t mean they really will be. Interesting, ahead of its time, and quite damning of humanity, but overall not memorable. Kay Rogers wrote a handful of stories for F&SF in the ’50s, and only one (“Experiment”) was anthologized at all. Again, she writes more believable children’s dialogue than Roger Brookbank, and we see the return of displaced/relocated protagonists.

F&SF - Aug '54 - Mel Hunter; full wraparound cover.

F&SF – Aug ’54 – Mel Hunter; full wraparound cover.

Required Reading – The Editors – Article

I’m always fascinated by these old magazines to see their editors’ views on books, considering we have some 40+ years of hindsight to see if their opinions held up. In this case, the review section is several pages long and reviews some twenty books, though most only get a few sentences.

The editors have a fine crop of anthologies to cover; Judith Merril’s Human? is their obvious winner, and while the Second Galaxy Reader is recommended, the authors suggest that your $3.50 (!) would be better invested in a subscription to the magazine itself. The only one I own, August Derleth’s Time to Come, is said to “lack nothing but excitement,” so talk about damned by faint praise; the only story they recommend isn’t in my paperback version. For story collections, Sheckley’s Untouched by Human Hands, Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, and Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You all get praise, though the Matheson “does contain a clinker or two.” (The editors start with an exasperated look at “the anthology situation”—the year with the most anthologies to date was 1953 with 17, and already five months in 1954 there’d been 16—odd, considering that F&SF soon had its own series of anthologies.)

Robert Crane’s Hero’s Walk is “consistently well-written, often intelligent, yet largely trite and lifeless;” Murray Leinster’s Black Galaxy is “a wild and crude space opera” which shockingly came “from the same hand as so many first-rate science-fantasies,” such as his Gateway to Elsewhere, a “fine foolish romantic adventure in a world where The 1001 Nights is a history textbook.” Louis de Wohl’s forgotten The Second Conquest, a theological novel in the vein of C.S. Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, is condemned for both its banality and lack of science. A reprint of A.E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher is referred to as one of the author’s “best three novels.” Of the rest, there’s a few other novels and anthologies, all are either long-since forgotten except by hardcore SF fans, deal with the flying saucer craze, or are indexes to pulp/digest magazines in the speculative fiction realm most useful to the period’s fandom.

Two-Bit Oracle – Doris P. Buck – Short

Assistant in an ancient Thracian temple retells a tale of one of the orphan girls he brought in and trained in the theatrical arts of oracle, manipulating the various kings and peasants who come to hear the words of God. The girl is hesitant about the whole charade, since she was raised devout and is worried about going mad by channeling visions, fake or otherwise. She’s talked into staying, and gives another “practice” vision of a Second World War and other anachronisms.

One of those “twist/shock/surprise ending” stories whose ending is actually shocking; the focus meanders a bit and the story could be tighter, and the use of ’50s Bohemian lingo was surreal, but otherwise I thought this was one of the stronger short works in the issue. Doris Buck was a jack-of-all-trades who wrote twenty or so SF shorts, almost all for F&SF, her final one meant for Harlan Ellison’s unpublished Last Dangerous Visions anthology.

Report on the Sexual Behavior of the Extra-Sensory Perceptor – Herman W. Mudgett – Verse

Anthony Boucher, under a pseudonym, writing a little ditty: conversation between Dr. Kinsey and Dr. Rhine, which slams both of their quote-unquote discoveries (“Untrained men are awfully easy to convince/Our ideas could never move them/If we took the time to prove them”). In the realm of ’50s sleaze novels, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a reference to the Kinsey Report on sexuality, and Rhine did research as far back as the ’30s looking for extra-sensory perception in humans.

The Quadriopticon – Charles Beaumont – Novelette

The premiere of the world’s first 4-D film and the unveiling of the Quadriopticon is set to be an astounding event; the only thing getting in its way is leading man Rock Jason, an obnoxious drunk who shows up late to the premiere and makes an ass of himself, treating everyone (including his gorgeous co-star, Robin Summers) like trash. When the Quadriopticon experiences technical difficulties, Rock pushes everyone else out of the way to “assist” in repairing it; moments later, he finds himself shunted back into his role of Commander Carlyle of the Starfire in the b-grade space opera Conquest of Jupiter.

Beaumont was one of the writers who shaped the fantastic/macabre genre in the ’50s; like Matheson he penned his share of Twilight Zone episodes, but unlike Matheson he’s not remembered at all. Maybe it’s because he died so young, only 38. Anyways, Beaumont’s work in Hollywood gives this story a bit of behind-the-scenes authenticity, with some sidelong satirical looks at actors and the way Hollywood treated science fiction. (At one point Rock thinks to himself about the film’s writer, “Mancini, from a Pulitzer Prize to this!”)

The movie itself is pure schlock; the extras emit epithets like “Sizzling jets!” and the showdown involves a gorilla that was painted pink to emulate some alien monster. Rock spends a good portion of the “film” mentally criticizing its lunacies, to hammer home the points Beaumont is making, mocking films like Project Moonbase and the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger serials. Of course, Rock’s time within the 4-D film changes his outlook and makes him a less horrible person. The novelette is really three stories in one: a cutting satire of the ’50s SF film industry, a rollicking space opera adventure, and a Twilight Zone-style drama where magical realism causes the protagonist to rethink their poor choices and better themselves. The editors called it “delightful,” and I’m inclined to agree; another solid story in this issue.

The Little Black Train – Manly Wade Wellman – Short

This is one of the tales of Silver John the Balladeer, also in the Who Fears the Devil? collection I recently reviewed. I’m glad I get the chance to focus on this one in particular, since it’s one of my favorites. When wandering through the Appalachian woods, John is brought in as musical entertainment for a dour celebration of the end of a curse. Donie Carawan married the wealthy owner of a railroad company, then had one of her lovers kill her husband—and take the fall—so she could inherit his earnings. Her dead lover’s mother cursed Donie, but now she’s made a deal with a rival railroad company not to run trains on her tracks any more. And so, she’s celebrating the end of the curse of the little black train… but as John well knows, it takes more than that to evade a curse.

I spent a lot of time gushing about Wellman’s Silver John stories already, so I’ll try to be brief here: the man had a wealth of knowledge of Appalachian folklore, an ear for authentic dialect, and a keen eye for writing a solid story. This one’s no exception, a sharp little fantasy from America’s backwoods. Thick and heady atmosphere oozes forth from the page. And, as the editors note, John uses a very scientific principle as his solution to the “train curse” problem.

The Bottom Line

I note a couple of things about this issue. A sizable chunk of its authors were women (Kay Rogers, Doris Buck, Miriam Allan deFord, and Zenna Henderson); considering that the genre was often seen as a man’s game in this era, it was a surprise.  There’s also a chunk of stories that dealt with relocation or displacement (“Gilead,” “Command Performance”), or that featured a child protagonist and his Mother (those last two plus “Invisible Wall”). Not sure what that means in the grand scheme of things, but some interesting trends nonetheless.

The Bester and Wellman works are top-notch, and were well anthologized, and Beaumont’s solid story wound up in his 1958 collection Yonder. All are worth tracking down. Zenna Henderson’s “Gilead” was solid, and would probably be more effective if I read more of the People stories. The other four are interesting, but standard fare for the ’50s, social satire in a Galaxy vein… only with too strong a “fantastic” element to be published there. Apart from dating itself with its beatnik argot, I thought “Two-Bit Oracle” was the best of shorter works. Still, there’s a reason they’re forgotten and were never reprinted: they’re not real standouts, and despite making a few great points, they’re either weak or unpolished. Overall, though, I’d recommend the issue on “Fondly Fahrenheit” alone.

The feel of F&SF if hard to pin down; it’s got a similar playful feel and social commentary bent like Galaxy, but without some if its excesses and lacking some of its flair. The “fantasy” came through in several of the stories, which quite simply couldn’t have been published anywhere else, particularly the Beaumont and Wellman works. It’s a unique magazine, and while it’s already met its reputation for quality works, I’m curious to see if its reputation for literary ones will hold.