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If – March 1960 – Jack Gaughan, “Cracked Saucer in Deep Freeze.” I’ve always liked If because of its colorful covers; I like the crisp layout at the top (nice use of orange and aqua). Gaughan’s cover is decent as well.

Nuts and Bolts

Horace Gold is still listed on the masthead as editor, though between lingering injuries from an auto accident and acute agoraphobia, “features editor” Frederik Pohl had by now taken over most of the duties of running the magazine. Still, it’s roughly a foreshadow of what it would become—a Hugo-winning magazine three years in a row—and at first glance, looks like Galaxy‘s smaller, lower-paying brother. I meant that in terms of content; it’s of decent length (130 pages), only thirty-five cents. It’s oddly taller than most other SF digests I own, so its physical proportions are fine.

Gold and Pohl had a policy of publishing newer authors in If, giving the magazine room to experiment and grow, and that’s evident from the fact several of the authors in this issue were never published again, or were Galaxy regulars (albeit second-stringers) who have since fallen into obscurity. Of the more famous authors, we have a short novel by Clifford Simak, who would have been somewhat famous at the time; Ron Goulart, Jim Harmon, and Daniel F. Galouye were prolific magazine authors (specifically for Galaxy/If) who wrote more comedic works. Raymond E. Banks wrote a dozen or so stories for various SF magazines in the ’50s, and Ray Russell was more prolific, but both are pretty obscure writers. Not the biggest stars in here. Still, I chose this one because it didn’t have a serial, and most of the top-shelf authors were writing serials by now, so that obscurity is partly my fault. And the art department is stellar: cover art by Jack Gaughan, interior art by Wally Wood (of EC Comics fame), Gray Morrow (of Marvel Comics fame), Dick Francis, and Harrison.

Pohl must have had an easy task as “feature editor; save for its book review section, “Worlds of If,” the issue is barren of features. That’s something Gold established early on in running Galaxy, after a fan poll revealed interest in book reviews, no interest in a letters column, and limited “science fact” articles. Gold disliked writing editorials, despite fan support in that Galaxy poll, so little surprise that If lacks one.

The advertisements reinforce the idea that If is more of a juvenile; instead of the ubiquitous Rosicrucians, Kinsey Report, and Hollow Earth spreads of the adult magazines, we have: Willy Ley’s Space Models (plastic model-building kits of futuristic space ships); period staple Vis-A-Lens paint-by-overlay kits; Galaxy bookplates, discount copies of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man; and, my favorite, germanium radios for sale, just $3 a pop! Compared to other magazines in the field, not a whole lot other than fiction, which is fine by me.

Gleaners – Clifford Simak – Short Novel

Simak might not be a Big Name SF author like Heinlein or Asimov, but he was no slouch, penning the stories that formed the excellent fixup novel City. Other than that, his output was decent and varied; expect to see him pop up a lot more when I dive into more Galaxy and F&SF issues. His stories are known for having a pastoral feel, but this one lacks that. This one is billed as a “short novel,” but it feels more like a short novella, clocking in at a brief 34 pages.

The story deals with Time, Inc, the kind of company running a time-travel enterprise like you’ve seen before in “A Sound of Thunder,” “A Gun for Dinosaur,” etc. This time, the company isn’t running big game hunts (Simak’s protagonist mocks the idea of hunting T-Rexes), instead “gleaning” the lost secrets of the past: finding out when the Library of Alexandria would be lost, stealing the books moments before the disaster, and pawning them off on history museums for a tidy fee. Obviously, the company doesn’t want to disrupt the historical balance, nor does it want to create any paradoxes, walking a fine line in its historical subterfuge.

Unlike other time travel stories with similar time companies, this one takes place entirely in the home office. Its protagonist, Hallock Spencer, is overworked, tired of dealing with the day to day catastrophes of the job, and neck-deep in trouble. One sponsor is pushing him to research the history of the world’s religions, which Hallock refuses to do. The constant loss of time-travel agents has caused Recruitment to drop another interview candidate in his lap. Things are overall hectic and going wrong for Hallock. Maybe that’s as it was intended?

Simak is a workmanlike author, his rigid prose clunky at time. The terminology he chooses is a bit too blunt in my opinion. Take, for example, assignments that include Family Tree (literally, tracking one wealthy customer’s lineage as far back as possible) and Project God (the aforementioned “tracking worldwide religions” idea); one of Time, Inc’s departments is Dirty Tricks. Going back to my “short” comment, it reads like a three-act play missing Act II: there’s an introduction, then a climax I didn’t know we needed. My big complaint is that I found Hallock arrogant and driven by conniving self-interest, and I disliked him too much for his Mary Sue happy ending to work. Still, I enjoyed the story overall. I think the selling point was seeing the day-to-day operations of a time-travel business, seeing a behind-the-scenes look at the familiar trope. Not a great read, but a decent enough one.

To Be Continued – Raymond E. Banks – Short

The New Harvard graduating class of 2248 (!) takes an excursion to the moon on their atom-drive spaceship, which has been fitted with an experimental space-warp; unanimously, they vote to test this method of propulsion and take a quick jaunt to Alpha Centauri and back. Halfway there, their ship crashes into a planet covered in water and have a breathable oxygen atmosphere, taking minimum casualties in the process. Ignoring the ludicrousness of everything so far, the story really begins: four hundred years later, we meet the graduating class of 2648 and the horrifically twisted rituals, based on what’s been retained and passed down from their shipwrecked progenitors.

The setup is pretty pulpy—2248? nobody thought this was a bad idea? “crashes” into a planet while travelling at faster-than-light speed? said planet just so happens to be Earth-like?—but the meat of the story takes place with the descendants and their graduation rituals, an underdeveloped concept but one worth the price of admission. Well, more or less. See, the 2248 protagonist and his 2648 descendant both have an extra thumb. Knowing that our intrepid starwreck survivor left a wife and child back on Earth, can you tell whether this oddly specific thumb detail foreshadows an obvious ending? Predictable, and the future-descendants’ culture is a gold mine of neglected potential, but I’ve read worse. I’ve also read better.

Old Shag – Bob Farnham – Short

More of a micro-story, flash fiction, short short, whatever you want to call it; the tale takes up all of three columns on two pages. Cutesy Galaxy-style surprise ending story involving a narrow escape via time paradox; a train brakeman narrowly avoids simultaneous catastrophes thanks to a time-travelling descendant. Farnham was very active in SF fandom, but as far as I (and ISFDB) can tell, this was his only submission to a prozine.

The Upside-Down Captain – Jim Harmon – Novelette

Grad student Ben Starbuck is assigned a berth and rank of Swabber on an exploration starship in order to gather the materials for his Master’s Thesis in ethnology. Said starship is powered by a cybernetic brain instilled with monumental curiosity, which has been tasked with teleporting at random throughout the stars seeking the unknown. Swabber Starbuck expects some gruesome hazing period at the hands of the space-hardened crew—the whole thing is treated much like a Napoleonic Wars ship-o’-the-line—but what Swabber Starbuck finds is beyond his imagination.

Beyond his comprehension as well; the whole thing is very lighthearted tongue-in-cheek. The behavior of both captain and crew is ludicrous; Ben and the cybernetic brain start off on the wrong foot, and then Ben realizes its idea of “exploring the unknown” is pretty specific, as it bypasses several planets Swabber Starbuck considered interesting. It’s pure comedic SF; in this day and age, that’s a lost art. This one did earn a chuckle or two, but it’s fluff fare that talks a lot but has nothing to say. Average, maybe a little above, though forgettable, and at least better than…

Monument – R.W. Major – Short

After a not-unpromising start, the story descends into a lecture on a Series of Implausible Events that earned Dr. Charles “Side-Effect Charlie” King his nickname. The story itself is about as weak as that nickname; very passive and dry writing, the story relies on a “hilarious” surprise ending that’s not just implausible but saccharine. This is Major’s only known publication, and there’s probably a reason for that; it’s a banal story. Bleagh I say.

End of a Vendetta – Article

Not a story, but a little filler blurb that I found interesting enough to comment on: the “vendetta” is between the meteorists and the vulcanists, referring to their discussion on how the moon got its pockmarked surface. Said vendetta’s “end” was the foreseen moon bases the Space Race would provide humanity, which would settle the argument. Well, we don’t have taxi-rockets from the moon to Jupiter yet, but within a decade not both sides of the “vendetta” were proven right, when NASA would bring hunks of that debris—both meteorite bits and basaltic lava—home.

His Father’s House – Ray Russell – Short

Ralph Ganner’s old man was the driving force that took Mars from lawless frontier days to its current heights, leaving him the scion to the Mars-Ganner business empire. But Ralph, an aspiring writer, has writer’s block and a shaky relationship with his college sweetheart, all because he’s living at his father’s house, under the critical derision of his father; if he can keep living there for another four years, he’ll make off with a third of the Ganner fortune. Kind of a take on the “spend a night in the cursed haunted house” theme, in this case haunted by three-dimensional images and recordings of the deceased elder Ganner. Or Brewster’s Millions, whatever. Good execution, obvious ending.

Ignatz – Ron Goulart – Short

Goulart is best known for writing comedic SF, and I knew that going into this one. It wasn’t a laugh-out-loud gutbuster, but it’s lighthearted absurdness that centers around a whimsical development: a man named Balderstone has invented a technique for “applied lycanthropy,” turning willing subjects into cats for a certain amount of time. The procedure is billed as theraputic and has the backing of the local authorities, but Glenn Wheelan, returning home for the summer after teaching in a nearby city, takes umbrage at this situation—cats make him “all crawly,” and so he starts a protest campaign that turns into plain old harassment after he fails to find support. Balderstone is treated like a roaming old-time-revival preacher, and our protagonist alleges he’s running a cult; still, if this is social satire about religion or beliefs, it’s a weak one. A cut above the earlier “silly” stories in this issue, in terms of writing and plot, but the humor just isn’t there.

Worlds of If – Frederik Pohl – Article

Book reviews! A number are jammed into this issue. Anthony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction gets positive marks, though Pohl makes it clear that while the selections are “good-to-excellent” and “have their merits,” they’re not “great.” Yes, this is pointless nitpicking over semantics (good versus great), but to be honest I have to agree with Pohl: Boucher has included great authors, but not works representative of their greatest strengths or abilities. (Contents are here and here; it includes four novels, which are the strongest works, along with a number of novelettes and short stories written between 1938 and 1957.)

On Ace’s reprints of Wells and Verne: “Wells reminds us that when a man of great literary talent tackles a science-fiction theme the result is very fine indeed. Verne does no such thing.” Nothing else about Wells but some more Verne-bashing, before pointing out that Verne was writing SF before anyone else had the wit to do so. Murray Leinster’s Ace double, The Pirates of Zan/The Mutant Weapon, gets a passing grade, and Curt Siodmak’s Skyport gets slammed as making a better movie than it does a book (Siodmak was a screenwriter who wrote novelizations to B-movies, such as Riders to the Stars; his Donovan’s Brain was filmed three times). More Ace fare in the form of Alan E. Nourse’s Rocket to Limbo doubled with John Brunner’s Echo in the Skull makes for “an entertaining volume, if not a very memorable one…” Next up, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Other Side of the Sky, which is “a solid evening’s reading, and perhaps the last all-Clarke for a while.”

Beyond that, an assortment (eight titles) of non-fiction ranging from Dinosaurs to Looking at the Moon to Soap Bubbles; a good chunk are meant for younger readers, and are actually leftovers from 1959 Christmas suggestions. Reduce, reuse, and recycle your old unused book reviews.

Gravy Train – Daniel F. Galouye – Novelette

Another satiric comedy, one that could only come from the Cold War era. An older retiree and his wife seek relaxation on their own planetoid, hidden safely away from people—no noise or prying eyes here. The only thing missing is an automatic bathing unit made to assist the elderly, which would be helpful on the low-gravity planetoid. Meanwhile, in the next star system over is a non-committed planet that’s finally decided to join the Western Cluster and ask for relief aid. Thanks to a communications mixup, the signatures on their messages are reversed; hilarity ensues. Not to be outdone, the Eastern Cluster jumps on the bandwagon to drop aid on the poor retiree, until the artificial stability of his planetoid is altered beyond repair.

Of all the satires/comedies in this issue, this one’s the most tightly-plotted and the one I’d argue is the best. It’s a good satire for Cold War competitiveness; both sides bombard their target with foreign aid and cultural missions, thinking they’re scoring some geo-political coup against the other, when all the retiree wants is to be left alone. The neighboring system that was looking for aid to begin with is pseudo-Middle Eastern, and echoes the Non-Aligned Movement until it picks a side. And, to note, the auto-bather in purchased from the Rears-Soebucks catalog, a reference that hasn’t withstood the test of time. Not a story that’ll win many awards, but I enjoyed it.

The Bottom Line

Everything I’ve read has been that, for the last years of H.L. Gold’s tenure as editor, If was more or less an inferior version of Galaxy. That’s being kind; based on this issue, it was a dumping ground for stories not quite ready for prime time, but written in passable enough English to be printed. Gold had a predilection for stories with trick endings, stories with whimsical or humorous elements, and social satires; when done well, you end up with things like The Space Merchants (serialized as “Gravy Planet”), “The Fireman,” and “To Serve Man.” When done poorly, you get… this issue of If.

The Simak is a decent story, and despite my complaints it’s an enjoyable piece of work that’s good (but not great, to borrow from Pohl). The other two novelettes, by Harmon (which was really just a long short story) and Galouye, I’d wager are too zany for modern tastes. Harmon’s story is wacky absurdism that doesn’t go anywhere; the Galouye is a well-written satire of modest proportion. The Goulart was decent, if just plain weird. Most of the smaller pieces, though, don’t amount to much; they have a saccharine whimsy and they’re all rather forgettable. Simak’s was reprinted a few times; Russell’s in his Sardonicus and Other Stories; and Goulart’s in the aptly titled The Chameleon Corps & Other Shape Changers. None of the others are available outside this issue or its foreign equivalents. 

I get the idea that most of these stories were purchased for their humor content or silliness level instead of quality. Granted, they’re all readable, but also weak and forgettable, very average fluff fare angling for a younger audience. Honestly if I’d picked this issue up as a sample, it wouldn’t sell me on a subscription. Simak plus second-tier Galaxy authors, not writing at their best, does not make for a memorable issue; it’s a far cry from what Pohl would be publishing in If five to seven years later, when it would dominate the Hugo awards.