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Galaxy is considered by many to be the Cadillac of science fiction digests—at least during its peak years, from its inception in 1950 to when editor Frederik Pohl was edged out and left in 1969. It didn’t win many awards during the period though its companion Worlds of If took home three Hugo awards between 1967 and 1969. Despite that recognition, Galaxy’s stories won their share of Hugos and Nebulas, and it could attract some of the best names in the field.

Galaxy – Dec 1967 – Gray Morrow.

Which is evident by the cover to this issue: Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, and Larry Niven are the headliners, with Fritz Leiber, Harry Harrison, John Brunner, Richard Wilson, and Philip Latham hiding between the covers. If Galaxy was the Cadillac of SF, and since 1967 was one of the peak years for Pohl’s editorship, this issue should be a blast.

The cover by Gray Morrow illustrates “Outpost of Empire;” Morrow also did the interior illustrations for the story, though to me it feels like they’re printed out of order. Jack Gaughan did the illustrations for the other illustrated stories, which would be all of Larry Niven’s “Handicap.”

Editorial: On Hugos – Frederik Pohl

Maybe it’s from reading The Way The Future Was (and The Way The Future Blogs), but Frederik Pohl has always seemed like one of SF’s patron grandparents, genially granting anecdotes and wisdom from the good-old-days to us youngsters from the rocking chair on the front patio. (And I mean that in the best of ways, if he or any of his acquaintances should read that.) Here, he’s recounting the history of Hugo Gernsback, who’d passed in August of 1967, which includes: Pohl buying his first issue of Amazing Stories; the spread of the Science Fiction league and start of SF fandom; and probably the best synopsis of Gernsback’s novel Ralph 124C41+ that I’ve ever read:

…it had to do with a super-hero (that’s the “plus” in his number) who watched girls in peril through a super-TV and flew to their rescue in a super-airplane.

Thank you, Mr. Pohl. (For the name of the novel to make sense, read it aloud: “Ralph, One To Foresee For One Plus.”)

Of course, he also explains that Hugo’s name had been adopted for a prestigious SF award, and points out that one of Galaxy’s stories, Jack Vance’s “The Last Castle,” had just won a Hugo, as had Pohl’s other magazine If, and so had the man who illustrated the cover to “The Last Castle,” Jack Gaughan. (Oddly, he doesn’t mention that Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star,” the other short-fiction winner, came from If.)

Outpost of Empire – Poul Anderson – Novella

One of the stories in the Technic History future history, set in the same period as Anderson’s famous diplomat Dominic Flandry. It deals with the frontier planet of Freehold, on the fringes of the Terran Empire’s reach. There’s some friction between the Terran Empire, and that of the lizard-like Mersians, and Freehold is one of the hotspots flaring up during their Cold War: the Mersians are sponsoring a native alien race, the Arulians, to revolt against Freehold’s Nine Cities. The isolated Freeholders and their semi-incompetent government are in need of assistance, so the Terran Navy has blockaded the planet and is starting to choke off the Arulians’ supply lines—though another faction has been creating trouble. Bands of savage outbackers, secluded humans who’ve developed their own centuries-old primitive society, are also attacking the Nine Cities. And they’re more effective than the Arulians.

John Ridenour, xenobiologist, is sent in as diplomat and troubleshooter to formulate a report for the Imperials two-hundred light years away on Terra. Landing at the central  city of Domkirk, he investigates looks into what he can do while worrying what one man can do this far away from home, and surrounded by enemies on the galactic fringes. Meanwhile, Karlsarm of the outbackers is planning to sack Domkirk en force, to take out its small contingent of Imperial soldiers and to wreck the planet’s major spaceport facilities. Ridenour ends up captured by Karlsarm, and comes with the outbackers under the guise of staring diplomatic relations (though he’s really planning on calling down an orbital strike). The farther he gets into the Freehold fringes, the more he learns about these complex savages, who aren’t really so simple or savage after all.

Kind of a SF spin on Heart of Darkness/Dances With Wolves, the story is damn well written. Anderson’s always been a favorite of mine, and this story is a showcase of his talents: lively pacing, character-driven focus, packed with great action sequences and  fine world-building, as well as some fine culture-building for the outbackers, set against an epic space opera backdrop of empires nearing war. There’s a bit too much expository telling, especially from Ridenour (who tends to lecture), but I honestly think those flaws are there to make the story’s great qualities shine all the brighter. I was enthralled by it; Anderson’s writing is never dull, and this is the kind of thinking-man’s space opera he can really shine at.

One scene in particular stands out to me. Ridenour stands looking over the bustling Freehold city of Domkirk, a scattering of Imperial marines milling about amid a sea of refugees driven from their homes by a stealthy, primitive guerrilla enemy; Ridenour then shifts his gaze up to see miles and miles of robotically-tended verdant farmland pockmarked with nuclear craters… Combined with the Cold War-esque manipulations and skirmishing between Terra and Mersia, if the story wasn’t influenced by the Vietnam War at all I’d be surprised.

The South Waterford Rumple Club – Richard Wilson – Short

Richard Wilson was a Nebula-winner, Futurian, and writer of dozens of stories, but I haven’t read anything of his before; I only know of him because I confused him with Wilson Tucker when buying books once. Anyways, the story. Aliens arrive over South Waterford and bombard it with U.S. currency, to which the government responds by demanding that no banks or businesses take currency that isn’t soiled and worn. In response, the South Waterford citizens form Rumple Clubs to beat, crumple, and dirty their ill-gotten cash, in order for them to show up with duffel-bags full of money to pay off their bills and mortgages, which businesses must accept since the currency isn’t crisp and clean and therefore not dropped by aliens.

Why this great influx of dollars didn’t have a more realistic effect—causing prices to skyrocket accordingly to match peoples’ buying power, or devalue money to the point of creating a barter economy or cause widespread looting ala Katrina—is beyond me. An interesting idea that could have made for good satire, but the moronic final development emerges from left field and torpedoes the whole shebang. I’m not a fan.

King of the Golden World – Robert Silverberg – Short

Earthwoman Elena has come to this distant planet to live with the simple humanoid natives, unexpectedly becoming the wife of their chief, the King of the Golden World, in the process. As one of the two volcanic peaks looming over the chief’s cities begins to erupt, Elena learns just how alien this culture (and its values) are. This is around the point in his career where Silverberg was writing in a more pensive style, and the imagery of the volcano is lustrous; otherwise, it’s okay, but not world-shaking. Reminds me a bit of Downward to the Earth in tone and subject, a paradigm shift within the human protagonists through contact with “primitive” aliens. It was later reprinted as “King of the Golden River,” a more fitting title, in a collection entitled The Songs of Summer.

Astronautics International – Willy Ley – Article

This month’s installment of “For Your Information” covers international collaborations during the Space Race. It includes international states using U.S. rocket sites to launch satellites; the independent space exploration programs run by the Japanese and French; and the birth of a German-French-British collaboration, ELDO (European Launch Development Organization), which is a root of the modern ESA. Additionally, Ley responds to frequently-asked questions by detailing Soviet satellite launches post-Sputnik. I’m fascinated by a glimpse of the Space Race back when it was in full bloom, just under two years before humans would step foot on the moon.

Willy Ley was a popular science writer at the time,  an expert on everything from rocketry to zoology, and being a SF reader and writer himself he had columns and articles in most of the major SF magazines. Some of his paragraphs were just lists of dry facts: dates, weights, apogee, altitude, the acronym-soup sub-divisions of ELDO, etc., but for the most part he’s capable of breaking down complex scientific concepts into layman’s terms. Readable and entertaining, but then again I am predisposed towards now-forgotten Space Race info.

Black Corridor – Fritz Leiber – Short

One of the later short stories in Leiber’s “Change War” series that includes The Big Time; human protagonist is trapped in a one-way corridor, with a moving wall driving him onward to choose between two doors, both of which have labels like “Air” and “Water.” The protagonist has to choose quickly before the wall crushes him, but must choose smartly, so he doesn’t pick the wrong door and die. The story has a beautiful, gripping tension that mirrors its protagonist’s plight and constrained environment, but in the end I’m not sure how it’s connected to the Change War, much less what the point of it was. Maybe it’s just a little vignette where Leiber’s only goal was to create a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere; in that case, mission deftly accomplished.

The Red Euphoric Bands – Philip Latham – Short

Philip Latham was the psuedonym used by real-world astronomer Robert S. Richardson, who used it for four novels and around twenty shorter works, mostly from the 1950s. This one was from near the end of his career, a short told in journal entries by a college professor who learns of a doomsday comet heading straight for Earth. It’s one of the few things to take the public’s minds off the constant threats of war—at least until the warmongering was brought back to take people’s minds off the comet. Another sign of its era is referring to the college students as “reverse zombies,” not from drug use (“all that psycadelic stuff went out years ago”) but due to the expectation that they’ll be mown down in one of those potential wars. An interesting if unexceptional tale. I’ve never been fond of short works told in epistolary form, since the framing device takes up too much precious space and time, something short fiction does not have in abundance.

Galactic Consumer Report No. 3: A Survey of the Membership – John Brunner – Non-Fact Article

Isaac Asimov invented the “non-fact” article in 1948 when, preparing for his doctoral dissertation, he wrote a fake “science” article about a fake scientific element called thiotimoline, accidentally published using his own byline rather than a pseudonym. Eventually the in-joke turned into a theme, with famous authors writing various semi-scientific or research-style fictional articles. Here, John Brunner deals with the survey results from the GOOD BUY company, a kind of Sears-Roebucks gone space opera. Worthy of a few chuckles, especially some of the trials the company’s subscribers went through in their attempts for their responses to pass customs, but it’s not the strongest satirical work, a curio of a bygone age. I would rather have had an actual Brunner story, but I’ll take what I can get.

Handicap – Larry Niven – Novelette

By this point, Larry Niven was already a rising star in the field; he won a Nebula in 1967 for “Neutron Star,” and three years later would sweep the awards for Ringworld. “Handicap” is another early entry in his Known Space universe. Its protagonist, Mr Garvey, is the scion to a commercial enterprise which creates prosthetics for “handicapped” species in the galaxy, such as dolphins—in other words, he gives armless, sentient creatures hands. His financial target were the shaggy, cone-shaped Grogs, a sessile race found on the barren desert world of Down. Only, this deal may require some work; the Grogs grow from dog-like creatures to huge, immobile cones, and there’s no apparent easy way to communicate with them.

Niven’s a talented writer, and the story’s actually pretty enjoyable if you can get over the whole “handicapped” thing, which is a bit un-politically correct these days. Still, it’s an engaging idea, and Niven throws in enough of the Known Space history to really pique my interest—this is the first of Niven’s short works I’ve read, and the snippets of its complex history (the Slaver empire of long-ago) fascinates me. Plus, Niven evokes the desert frontier planet of Down in a way that evokes wild west imagery without being an overt space western. Comparatively short but I enjoyed reading it.

The Fairly Civil Service – Harry Harrison – Short

Stolid by-the-book post office attendant deals with the teeming public masses who assault the local post office for stamps, postage, and the various forms necessary in this apparently bureaucratic world. (When I said by-the-book, I wasn’t kidding; the protagonist has his own rulebook to judge and enforce every decision by.) Harrison populates this post office with all manner of rough and obnoxious customers—wholly authentic horrors, as anyone who’s worked in the customer service field will tell you—and their unending assault on our protagonist actually builds some decent tension and drama. Something of a bureaucracy horror show, though at least its twist ending works (in a way).

Given the dire straights the USPS is in, the story has a kind of quaint naivete to it, lacking the foresight (as did the USPS) that a form of computerized, virtual mail would render letters obsolete. And it’s only the second story I can think of off the top of my head dealing with postal officials, Silverberg’s “Postmark Ganymede” being the other.

I also have to say, there’s really little in the story indicating it as science fiction; Harrison just as easily could have sold it as social satire to a mainstream fiction outlet with a few small changes.

Galaxy Bookshelf – Algis Budrys – Article

Budrys was an SF author himself, and tried channel the genre criticism style of Damon Knight (ala In Search of Wonder) in the Galaxy Bookshelf; what a coincidence, this issue starts off with the revised In Search of Wonder in the flesh. Budrys supports Knight’s slash-and-burn criticism of the field’s (weaker) talent, and Knight’s support of such authors as Sturgeon and Kuttner, advising the reader to “mail their six dollars tonight” to buy a copy of In Search of Wonder. Budrys’ review of The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy is also positive, saying “it contains some of the best stories of our immediate time,” but he’s less than thrilled with the introductions and story blurbs “which miss no opportunity to amplify Playboy’s accomplishment by actively belittling the magazines from which these writers came.” Since that included Galaxy, his ire is understandable.

Doubleday’s Best of Amazing is savaged in due course for failing to include any selections of note from the magazine’s thirty-plus backlog to date. (I’d argue that the April, 1961 anniversary issue included a better selection of Amazing‘s most famous stories from a historical standpoint, including the first Adam Link story, a John Carter tale, and the original Buck Rogers novella… though none of these aged well.) The most famous of The Best of Amazing includes Murray Leinster’s  “The Runaway Skyscraper,” Jack Williamson’s “The Metal Man,” and very minor work by Ed Hamilton, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and John Wyndham. Budrys doesn’t think highly of any of it, and says so, attacking each story in turn. To be fair, most of it is pap from the pulp era, and the best of Amazing‘s run from 1926 to 1967, 41 years through eight editors, is not represented—otherwise, there’d be more representation from the Cele Goldsmith years.

Lastly, we have Orbit II, a collection of never-before-published short fiction edited by Damon Knight. Quoth Budrys, “it is more of a sign that Damon’s heart is in the right place than it is a really satisfactory collection,” implying Knight’s razor edge had dulled since the original In Search of Wonder. Orbit II‘s contents page is compared to the lineup page of an issue of F&SF, and most of the stories are roughed up save for two stories by Joanna Russ featuring “a female Grey Mouser named Alyx” that sound up my alley, R.A. Lafferty’s “The Hole in the Corner” (“though Lafferty’s natural home is right here in Galaxy“), Theodore L. Thomas’s “The Doctor,” and Kate Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great,” the last two being Nebula award nominees.

The Bottom Line

A mixed issue in my opinion. The Anderson novella is worth the price of admission, taking up around 2/5ths of the magazine; it’s far and away my favorite, if you couldn’t tell, and I’d argue it’s the best in the issue. Larry Niven’s “Handicap” was also really good, reprinted in the collection Neutron Star; and Harrison’s entry is a solid story, later reprinted in his collection Prime Number. The Silverberg and Leiber were good, but leaned more towards style than overt substance; beautiful reads but not ones I think I’ll remember in three months. Latham’s was forgettable but readable. The lowest point was the Richard Wilson story, which had several excellent ideas squandered by a moronic ending; it tries to say something but stumbles over itself, then has a random plot inserted out of nowhere to fulfill the obligatory twist ending.

If Galaxy was the Cadillac of SF digests, this one’s got some rust on the sides and is missing a hubcap. There’s technically seven stories in here—eight if you count the “non-fact” article—of which one is a standout, four are worth reading, one is rather average, and one is a stinker. Not a bad balance, but I was expecting a bit more, in part because of Galaxy‘s great reputation in the ’50s—almost every issue for the first several years was packed with classics of the genre. Sadly I don’t have many other Galaxy issues from this the late Pohl era to compare against, so it’ll be a while before getting back to Galaxy.