It’s been a dog’s age since I posted a magazine review, and sorry to say we’re dealing with minor fare here.
By the late 1960s, Amazing Stories and its sibling Fantastic were shadows of their former selves, stuck in an endless cycle of reprints. Ziff-Davis had sold off the magazines in mid-1965 to Sol Cohen’s United Publishing; smaller budgets saw the quality bottom out. The magazine editors could only afford to have one or two new stories per issue, filling the rest with content pulled from the vaults—primarily the Ray Palmer and Howard Browne years, the late ’40s and early ’50s, which focused more on schlock sensationalism and simplistic entertainment. It was a dark time for the two stalwart magazines; Amazing Stories had not been near the top of the heap since the ’30s, and Fantastic never really established its own identity until Ted White reinvigorated it as a sword-and-sorcery magazine in the ’70s.
Don’t let the big names on the crude cover fool you; the stories are all reprints but one—these magazines were the only ones in the field that needed to clarify which story was the new one. Even the cover art is reprinted, from a German Perry Rhodan magazine. (I kinda like it.) Still, the new content was of high quality, in this case a lead novelette by the late Jack Vance. Of the reprints, we have Fritz Leiber, an early (pre-Galaxy) William Tenn, Robert Bloch, Rog Philips, and Kris Neville. All of them are at least decent authors, though the stories are coming from ’50s-era Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures pulps. There’s also the conclusion of a serialized 1930s Amazing Stories Quarterly novella by Bob Olsen.
Most of the Amazing/Fantastic run under Sol Cohen’s leadership had a hobbled-together image. Often the introductory blurb paragraphs are listing badly, tilted and slanting up and down the page. Much of the interior art is a bit grainy since it’s reproduced from the original pulps. The covers tend to be reprinted art—often from older Amazing/Fantastic issues, but also, such as this case, from foreign covers—overlaid by the Cele Goldsmith-era Fantastic logo, and cheap-looking text boxes advertising the included authors. The paper used is oddly thick, making the magazine a bit heftier than its 160-page length would expect. (My issues from the era tend to be grimy and water-damaged, which just adds to their milieu.)
And there’s not much in here but fiction: no columns, editorial, no nothin’. There’s a scattering of ads: one for the Rosicrucians, who must have bought ad space in SF digests by the decade; one for the Life-Study Fellowship who promises a free “gold” cross with each brochure; some amateurish inside-cover ads for back issues of Fantastic and Amazing; and a back-cover ad for the LaSalle Extension University, a distance-learning correspondence institute, which I swear shows up on the back cover of every Fantastic I own. There’s also a few cartoons, most of which are childish visual gags more worthy of groans than laughs. The one that stands out to me is done in an Edward Gorey/Charles Adams style with a couple trekking through a mountain pass, their Gothic castle in the background, menaced by boulder-rolling monsters, as the husband says “See, it’s only a stone’s throw from the station.” (The art is superior to the joke.)
The Narrow Land – Jack Vance – Novelette
Ern is born of the reptilian water-children; they live in the shallows between the dark, chilling sea-storms and the titular Narrow Land. The water children are divided between the impulsive single-crested Ones and the genderless dual-crested Twos. Ern grows and reaches adulthood, preparing himself for migration from sea to shore, wary of the men who live on the Narrow Land. They capture him during one of his expeditions, and after his head is scarred, Ern is sold by the Ones to the Twos, where he makes some distinctive realizations about himself and his special nature.
In typical fashion Vance has created an alien race that while similar to humanity, lacks some of its core traits; here, the “men” are reptilian, born from eggs with their own physiology. The trick to types of crested water-child and their society is based around the number of crests an individual has, and egg-laying technique. Fascinating stuff; I can see where Vance drew inspiration from real-life alligator/crocodile reproduction and applied it to his humanoids, but most of it is awash in his own unique creativity. There’s also a few lines whose dry, understated wit echoes Vance’s iconic Cugel the Clever.
The story is slow moving until around 3/4ths of the way through, but I loved the richly constructed setting and humanoid reptilian societies and let these constructions lead me onward. The end of the story introduces some wonderful ideas, though again it takes a while to get there. Peculiar and brilliant, as is much of Vance’s fiction; an imaginative story by one of the greatest SF writers.
The Ship Sails at Midnight – Fritz Leiber – Novelette (Fantastic Adventures, Sept 1950)
The story deals with a group of four pseudo-intellectual friends, “bohemian” big fish in a rural Midwestern pond, each too afraid to grow or share their own ideas or creativity—instead, they parrot has come before, the art and philosophy of others. After meeting the beautiful Helen, their creative outlets thrive—their original art, philosophy, or writing blooms, as if Helen is enhancing the inherent genius in others. Of course, she did a arrive in town after strange rumors began to trickle in, of flying disks and creeping monsters lurking outside of town…
I have never seen a Leiber story like this one. It drips with a Bradbury-esque small-town nostalgia, though I guess it wouldn’t count as “nostalgia” at the time. The focus is unique for its time—the peak of the “flying saucer” craze saw Amazing publishing a slew of bug-eyed-monster sensationalism, whereas this story takes a very subdued and humane look at alien “others” hiding in human society. Meanwhile, its take on humanity looks at its failings. A bit rough around the edges, and not Leiber’s most well-written story, though its use of aliens stands out in sharp contrast to its contemporaries. Reprinted in The Best of Fritz Leiber and Ships to the Stars.
The Remarkable Flirgleflip – William Tenn – Novelette (Fantastic Adventures, May 1950)
William Tenn is best known for his work in Galaxy in the mid-’50s, but he got his start writing for the pulps; most of his early satirical works, like this one, saw print in Fantastic Adventures. The plot deals with a far-future society ruled over by a Temporal Embassy, which dictates who discovers what and when, to maintain humanity’s growth throughout history. One scientist rebels at this and sends one of his colleagues back to the “medieval New York City” of 1950; after being pursued by police, this outcast is discovered by a newspaperman for a New York gossip rag. Thinking media publicity would be a good way to be discovered—and then returned to his proper time—the scientist reveals all he knows, which isn’t much.
There’s a couple of nice jabs at contemporary ’50s society thrown by the future man, but this is a rough entry by a writer who penned much better works within five years’ time. Like Jack Vance, Tenn constructs his own nouns and jargon and thrusts them into this story; unlike Vance, they’re not evocative enough to stand on their own, instead coming across as forced SF nonsense words, or unused cast-offs from “Jabberwocky” (something Tenn probably realized, since one of the characters points this out). There are several excellent lines, and the story is entertaining, but the story’s first half drags on and on with the narrator pining for a return to flipping of flirgles observed by his doliks. A decent satire which early on is a slog; too much gobbledegook in my opinion. Found in the collection Of All Possible Worlds.
From This Dark Mind – Rog Phillips – Short Story (Fantastic, Nov-Dec 1953)
Rog Phillips was one of Amazing‘s stable of authors, and a prolific one at that; his early death at age 56, and the weaker reputation of his markets (Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, Imagination, and early If), lead to his obscurity today. From This Dark Mind follows a psychiatrist of the future, whose analytic machinery can unearth thoughts of upcoming suicide—and murder. Psychiatry has advanced to the point where doctors require a psychiatrist’s agreement before treatment, since most maladies are subconscious afflictions, not physical ones. (There’s no such thing as the flu, it’s all in your head—thinking otherwise is sooooo twentieth century.)
An interesting thought experiment, one less a complete story and more a-day-in-the-hectic-life-of a future psychiatrist. It reflects the ’50s growth of psychiatry and psycho-analysis more than it predicts any future developments. But it’s great entertainment, and Phillips does a good job writing it.
The Man with the Fine Mind – Kris Neville – Short (Fantastic, Jan-Feb 1953)
Kris Neville was a prolific magazine writer from 1949 until around 1953-54, whereupon he crashed into the imposed barriers of the genre, shrugged, and became a leading lay authority on epoxy resins. (No joke, that was from an introduction by Barry Malzberg in the collection Neglected Visions.) His background was in technical writing, a fact that explains his prose style: concision and clarity of prose.
“Man with the Fine Mind” is another one of those off-trail pieces that was ideal for Fantastic. It has clarity of prose, but due to the tipsy, confused protagonist, it doesn’t have clarity of plot. The protagonist is at a cocktail party lusting after the hostess—or is it his fiancee?—while his drunken hallucinations may be psychic powers impacting the physical world. It’s a subtle tale with an ending shrouded in vagueness, not necessarily a good thing. I’m also coming from a batch of similar Richard Matheson stories, which explains why I’m a bit bored with this one: Matheson is a master craftsman at building suspenseful atmosphere, while Neville built muddled drunken memories.
The Ant with the Human Soul – Bob Olsen – Serial (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Spr-Sum 1932)
Normally I’d hold off on reviewing parts of a serialized story, but I’m not interested enough in Fantastic‘s reprint era to go track a copy down. Besides, this story was originally a novella in a single issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly. Its protagonist, Kenneth Williams, attempts suicide, but instead of drowning in the San Francisco Bay, he wakes up under the watchful care of Dr. De Villa. Despite De Villa being an incredibly shady individual fascinated by insects, Ken decides to take the
mad scientist doctor up on his offer to implant part of Ken’s mind in the body of an ant, for purposes of primary source documentation of ant culture and society. Thus, Ken sets off on amazing ant adventures, returning to have his mind switched back in order to explain to De Villa what he’s seen, at which point De Villa tells him about another species of ant and Ken goes off to live with them. Rinse wash repeat.
A leap back to pre-Campbell SF, for better and for worse. The story’s basic premise—man-brain integrates with ant society—intrigues me, though it’s very much a product of the Gernsback years. The story follows a rough formula: Ken spends a few chapters with one of the ant colonies, then jumps back to being human for a chapter of clunky expository dialogue with the
mad scientist good doctor. The science behind Ken’s transformation is implausible and powered by injections of Handwavium—or should I say Chemical X; meanwhile, the anthropomorphization of the ants—they have holidays, and play rudimentary games, being the only animals besides humans that use tools (sigh, such primitive science)—those anthropomorphisms make the story feel antiquated. According to SFE, Olsen had a fascination with ants, so this could be an example of accurate 1930s scientific knowledge and the limits thereof.
Mr. Steinway – Robert Bloch – Short Story (Fantastic, Apr 1954)
Robert Bloch is a master of many genres, and with the pedigree of being a member of the Lovecraft Circle, it’s no surprise that weird fiction was one. This is one such weird story that defies the traditional fantasy/science fiction demarcation. The protagonist is a girl who’s fallen for Leo Winston, concert pianist. The more she’s around him, the more she sees of Mr. Steinway, Leo’s piano gifted to him by his now-deceased mother. Leo treats it as more than a thing but a person, which only gets stranger when his girlfriend finds out about his interest in the pseudo-science of Solar Science, attuning oneself to the vibrations existing within the universe. Leo considers the bond it creates between himself and Mr. Steinway the reason behind his talents, while the protagonist thinks he’s a bit nuts. A decent Bloch tale of demonic furniture with a stereotypical but well-played conclusion.
Reprinted in The Best of Robert Bloch and Pleasant Dreams—Nightmares.
The Bottom Line
This issue was better than I expected it to be, but I wouldn’t say it’s a winner. Fantastic spent most of its life playing second fiddle to Amazing Stories, a kind of dumping ground for non-science fiction and off-trail stories. Its predecessor, Fantastic Adventures, was more the realm of juvenile fantasy; ironic that the stories I preferred came from it.
The lead Vance novella is impressive and, like all his works, worth reading; it’s clearly the best in the issue. That should go without saying. “The Ship Sails at Midnight” is a very subdued tale of alien observers among us, set in the bohemian ’50s; I liked it for running contrary to the bug-eye-monster fad of the era and its Bradbury-esque vibe, a decent story. “Mr. Steinway” is a lesser horror/urban fantasy tale by Bloch, but again, a decent one. “The Remarkable Flirgleflip” foreshadows Tenn’s future strengths; it’s a good satire weighed down by its abuse of nonsense words. “From This Dark Mind” I enjoyed; an imperfect but interesting take on ’50s psychiatry dominating the future.
This leaves us with “The Man with the Fine Mind” and “Ant with the Human Soul.” I’ve enjoyed the Kris Neville stories I read before, but “Fine Mind” tries to be a horror story about a drunken psychic whose thoughts can alter the world, but lacks the atmosphere and clarity to pull it off. I love the idea behind “Ant/Human Soul” since it’s so authentically ’30s SF. However, its science is not—not scientific, that is. Olsen’s writing has aged poorly with its ham-fisted expository “As you know, Bob” dialogue. There’s a reason Gernsbackian scientifiction was replaced by Campbellian science fiction.
Besides “The Narrow Land,” and possibly “The Ship Sails at Midnight,” none of the stories are really worth tracking down save for the completist. They are, at best, good, enjoyable stories but unexceptional ones, middling fare by good authors published in a minor magazine market. It’s a good collection looking back at the kind of fiction published in the Amazing Stories/Fantastic Adventures pulps, and the hard-to-find early issues of the Fantastic digest, so the reprint issues are helpful for providing easier access to older issues. Just be aware it’s an entirely different section of the SF market than what the late-’60s paperbacks and magazines were selling to.