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I’ve discovered that I really, really like what The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was publishing in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s probably good, since I ended up with several metric tons of back-issues: my first magazine acquisition was a lot of 15 F&SF issues in decent condition for around five dollars. This issue was one of my last (final?) procurements. I’ve also been enjoying Poul Anderson’s novellas and novelettes lately, and could more than stand another; Bradbury on the cover was good incentive, as was the best SF of 1955.

F&SF – March, 1956 – Nicholas Solovioff, “Superstition.”

Anthony Boucher wanted F&SF to be the home of literary science fiction, and his magazine is modeled after literary digests (and Mercury Magazine’s successful lines of mystery magazines). Despite a lengthy career that continues to this day, F&SF never earned the same kind of reputation as Galaxy or Astounding did, possibly because it worked hard to distance itself from the rest of the SF digest field. For one, it didn’t include illustrations, and had few ads, making it feel clean yet sparse. Compared to its peers, it eschewed serials in favor of more stories—this issue has nine pieces of fiction, aiming for both quantity and quality. And not only was it the only SF digest publishing fantasy at the time, it would print some impressive off-trail pieces, genre benders, and even verse. The editors refused to categorize “science fiction” and “fantasy,” and so ended up with a more diverse selection.

Breakdown:

  • Cost: 35 cents
  • Length: 132 pages
  • Editor: Anthony Boucher
  • Art: Cover by Nicholas Solovioff, no interior art
  • Fiction: Two novelettes, seven stories of varying degrees of shortness, one poem.
  • Non-Fiction: Boucher’s book reviews, Beaumont’s report from Hollywood, and one article by L. Sprague de Camp.

Superstition – Poul Anderson – Novelette

Some of the recent novellas by Anderson I’ve read included “Operation Salamander,” which dealt with resurgent magic in a modern-day setting, and “No Truce with Kings,” about a Balkanized post-nuclear holocaust United States. “Superstition” deals with resurgent magic in a Balkanized post-nuclear holocaust United States. Some centuries ago, science (nuclear in nature) wrecked the world, and now magic and ritual has taken its place. The characters are a spaceship crew heading from Colorado to the remains of a Mars colony; their mission is to trade a cargo of tobacco (hah!) for Martian gan-drug, which can cure the “Bleeding Sickness” (radiation poisoning) suffered by the survivors on Earth.

The three main characters embody the different sides of the argument. Of course, Valeria the witch gives voice to magic, to belief and the supernatural; she see science as the root of mankind’s near-destruction. Philip Hall, nephew to the local Bossman, argues for a return to the rational sciences of the ancients instead of this hoodoo-voodoo stuff.  Meanwhile, Captain Martain hybridizes the two views: as he points out, if science didn’t work, they and their spaceship wouldn’t be there; while he also points out that ritual has a pragmatic purpose for a broken, illiterate society (e.g., stay away from the Cursed Craters, because you’ll get the “Bleeding Sickness”), he’s also a steadfast believer in the power of sorcery (as Valeria kindly displays).

Some of their debate is prescient. Valeria condemns the science-lead “Dark Ages,” rife with overpopulation, pollution, and other woes which ran rampant because of a “eh, science will fix it sooner or later” mentality. Hall wishes for a good fungicide so he doesn’t have to keep watch on their cargo so it doesn’t mold over, and Valeria points out those chemicals protected weaker crops rather than breeding stronger ones—a point that resonates with our age of Monsanto and the movements to buy organic/local/GMO-free. For someone on the “wrong” side of the argument (e.g., pro-Magic), Valeria makes some good points; things are more sophisticated and complex than a simple black-and-white argument.

Purists will be put off by the mere mention of magic, but I argue that the paradigm shift the story creates—a world where science has become the superstition, where the laws of nature outweigh the laws of physics—generates enough rumination to make it worth reading. If that doesn’t work, Anderson wrote brilliant hard science fiction, and this is a brilliant example of his hard science fantasy; whether the magic in it works is up to debate—much as Valeria and Hall do. Except for a trite “they fight because they love” ending, “Superstition” is another solid story in Anderson’s bibliography. It’s also a neglected work, having been reprinted only in the collection Fantasy.

The Challenge – John W. Vandercook – Short

Between his time spent as the New York Times‘ mystery reviewer, and apparently having access to the Mercury Magazine backlog, Boucher could pull a some strange stories by mystery writers into F&SF. This story, for instance, was originally published in Mercury’s Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in July of 1952; it won second prize, and Boucher decided to share it with F&SF readers. I’m glad he did. The story is a supernatural mystery about an art critic who invites professor Nadelman, leading scholar on the Renaissance, to visit his New Hampshire residence; it turns out the place is best by a nebulous supernatural presence—an invisible, creeping, crushing weight—which has afflicted owners both past and present.

What also made the story stand out is that professor Nadelman is a bony, frail scarecrow of a man time spent at Buchenwold. I’ve read a bit of post-War fiction, and many times it’s treated delicately and with distance: someone served in “the War,” or mentions Europeans displaced by the crushing clash of Fascism and Bolshevism; the Holocaust is rarely mentioned. Here, the Holocaust and Nadelman’s experiences are a main plot-point.

Vandercook blends the style of the ’40s Golden Age mystery with the Victorian ghost story, and the results are impressive. It has an interesting perspective on the human condition through its spectrum of supernatural occurance, and is more than worthy of that second-place award—the first-prize winner ought to be a knockout.

The Captain’s Mate – Evelyn E. Smith – Short

It’s not easy to be the alien captain of a human crew; it’s even harder when you barely know what you’re doing. The alien protagonists’ husband was meant to be the vessel’s captain, but got roaring drunk beforehand and wasn’t able to take command. Instead, the protagonist soldiers on as best she can—but her dangerous attempts to delay travel causes her to fall under suspicion, and the crew wonders if murder was the reason for the change in captains. The portrayal of a female alien protagonist is interesting, if very ’50s, and while the story jaunts along as good entertainment I can’t help but wonder if it could have been something more. Reprinted in the collection New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow.

The Wolves of Cernogratz – Saki – Short

Legend tells that Cernogratz Castle is home to strange-goings on: when a member of that noble family dies, all the wolves of the countryside howl all night while the dogs in the castle bark and cry, then a tree would come crashing down in the park. The Baron and Baroness Gruebel, new owners of Cernogratz, dismiss it as a gimmick, “a story which lends dignity to the place without costing anything.” Things take a strange turn when their governess reveals she’s the last of the Cernogratz line. And when she takes ill that winter…

Saki was the Edwardian master of the short-story, though his strange and mysterious tales have since faded in public view. I appreciate Boucher’s efforts to reprint his work, since he’s relatively unknown today. The wolves and supernatural element take center stage, though the story’s really a satire of the Gruebels, their social standing and lack of honor. Either way, effective if predictable.

North Wind – Chad Oliver – Short

Norman Mavor is probably the most hated person on earth. As the United Nations bureaucrat whose job is to defend the property rights of humanoid aliens on habitable planets, Mavor is lucky when a species can retain 25% of their own land—the rest is targeted by Earth-borne colonists, or has its resources plundered for the good of mankind. Mavor is hated because of his dislike of the aliens he’s entrusted to protect, creating sympathy for the aliens. But all that may change with one anthropologist’s newly-discovered species—not just a “bunch of savages,” but a migrant hunter-gatherer society with a complex culture of priest-kings and holy rituals…

Chad Oliver wrote SF while chairing the Department of Anthropology at UT Austin, but aside from Anthony Boucher’s glowing praise of his collection Another Kind, I’d never heard of him before. Well, add another name to my to-buy list. I think the idea behind “North Wind” is brilliant, and you can see Oliver’s soft-science background at play. On the other hand, it’s also a bit thin as a story. While well-written, it takes until the bitter end—literally, the last two pages—before we get to the story’s point. To circumvent a bait-and-switch, the story isn’t about the new primitive species and its culture, it’s about post-colonialism and human perception of aliens.

The Science Screen – Charles Beaumont – Article

Charles Beaumont wasn’t just a prolific short-story author; he also leveraged his interest in film (particularly SF and horror) into a career as a screenwriter. His many excellent Twilight Zone episodes still in the future, Beaumont spent the mid-1950s working in Hollywood on SF movies. He wrote ten of these “our man in film-dom” articles from 1955 to 1957, where he comments on SF movies on various stages of production (including a last paragraph that runs through the rumor mill, including some films that were re-named or never made).

This installment spends several paragraphs talking about authors writing screenplays for their own film adaptations, as Richard Matheson was doing just that for The Incredible Shrinking Man. Beaumont also reviews three movies: King Dinosaur, which he recommends by virtue of being the worst movie ever made; Tarantula!, “rousing good fun” for a “juvenile spook show;” and Ulysses, something of a disappointment featuring a miscast Kirk Douglas. Beaumont’s rumor mill includes “another Gill-man epic,” The Deadly Mantis, and a László Görög screenplay titled The Hidden Valley (which I assume was renamed into The Land Unknown); he also notes he was writing a screenplay for The Man Who Would Not Die, which doesn’t seem to have made it.

Lion – P.M. Hubbard – Short-Short

A couple traverses a wilderness in some post-apocalyptic future, commenting on the achievements of some long-lost Ancients and their inability to craft anything to rival the Ancients’ wonders. The sole example of the Ancients’ craft we see is a metal sculpture of a lion, its pedestal overgrown and listing toward the sky. “Lion” is thick with atmosphere, creating a surreal pastoral woodland in what I assume is the center of old New York or London. It’s also subtle with its explanations; at three pages long, blink and you’ll miss the scattered hints and ambiguous last line.

Night Sequence – J.B. Priestly – Novelette

A trip into the country for Luke and Betty Gosforth is turning into a miserable skirmish, much like their marriage; on the way home from Luke shooting footage for a documentary short, their car becomes stuck in a ditch, stranding them in a rainstorm. As their quarrel intensifies, they stumble across an ancient manor whose inhabitants—Sir Edward and his niece Julia—seem stuck in the Regency Era. Philosophical Sir Edward is everything Betty wanted in a man, the beautiful Julia everything Luke wanted in a woman—for the first time in their marriage they’re both happy, their quarrels and sodden car accident like a surreal dream during their luxurious dinner…

Remember the old urban legend about a driver picking up a hitchhiker, only to arrive at the destination to find the hitchhiker’s vanished, and the people at the residence say the hitchhiker died in a car accident decades ago? Same principle, with a more polished and mature execution than that of a campfire tale. Priestly’s constructed an interesting mirror to hold before his characters’ eyes, showing them what they have become and what they could have been, to fix their failings. To do so, he blends some distinctively Victorian traits (the traditional ghost story, and a fairy-tale approach of wonder) with the science fiction tropes of time travel and overlapping dimensions—wonder and the fantastic can fix any dreary mundanity.

Priestly has the subtle hand of an old-school storyteller, and despite the fact I’ve heard variations of the urban legend for decades, “Night Sequence” manages to hold its own. It comes from one of Boucher’s best books of 1955, J.B. Priestly’s collection The Other Place, which I’m keeping an eye out for.

What is a Rosicrucian? – L. Sprague de Camp – Article

In the age of pulps and digests, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a full-page advertisement with Egyptian imagery mixed with space scenes, asking questions such as “What secrets did the ancients posses?” or “Can we recollect past lives?” (F&SF was one of the few magazines immune to this advertising power.) de Camp gives a brief but in-depth history of the Rosicrucians, from the age of alchemy to the wars of religion to the AMORC of today. Interesting stuff if you’re into history, and de Camp’s tone is skeptical but authoritative.

The Finer Breed – Helen M. Urban – Short-Short

This is a very strange story. Imagine a world where superlatives and completed comparisons are signs of psychosis. Our protagonists are a cross between psychologists, policemen, and a television network—when their Northwest Station receives a call from a deranged person, such as one suffering from “self-expression,” they send out an ambulance of officers clad for surgery and armed with a riot gun, with a television truck speeding out to record every minute for the viewing masses. Meanwhile, the station’s chief tries his hardest to out-do competing Center Station’s slogan: “Remember, the next time you go out for a night of less restrained debauchery — feel the need of confinement — call your nearer Center Station officer for a more neat, more precise arrest.”

A brilliant satirical snapshot, though I wish Urban spent more than four pages to develop it. The title and prose are evocative of the world’s changes—we can say “finer” or “more fine” but not “finest”—and comparisons are never to be completed—“Center Station, the Better Station.” Mockingly asking “Better than what?” gets one officer into trouble. But the reason for these linguistic changes is never quite clear. A fascinating if muddled satire.

Recommended Reading – Anthony Boucher – Article

The best books of 1955! I’ve copied the science fiction novels, anthologies, and fantasies below; bold if I’ve read them, italic if I own them.

  • The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
  • Martians, Go Home by Frederic Brown
  • Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Solar Lottery by Philip K Dick
  • Not This August by C.M. Kornbluth
  • The Mouse that Roared by Leonard Wibberly
  • Re-Birth by John Wyndham
  • The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov
  • Another Kind by Chad Oliver
  • The Other Place by J.B. Priestly
  • Nightmares of Eminent Persons by Bertrand Russell
  • Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril
  • Terror in the Modern Vein edited by Donald A. Wollheim
  • The October Country by Ray Bradbury
  • Happy Returns by Manning Coles
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Read two, own five. (I’ve seen the movie version of The Mouse That Roared, does that count?) Not a great percentage, but so many of these works have since been forgotten. Martians, Go Home I’ve seen pop up from time to time as one of the genre’s earliest satires (it deals with a SF writer and SF fandom), Solar Lottery is considered to be one of Dick’s breakthrough early novel (not to discount his impressive short fiction previous to it), and I’m looking forward to reading Not This August (supposedly a “realistic” depiction of an occupied America after a failed war with the Soviets). Boucher also notes that several collections by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, and Theodore Sturgeon, were “of the highest quality” but contained too many stories reprinted earlier and often, so he didn’t consider them “new” for 1955.

The Dragon – Ray Bradbury – Short-Short

Two knights rest on the moor, on the hunt for an invincible dragon which appears every night to slay more brave warriors. They ponder space and time, and Forever, and their place within it; this is the secret of their doom. Bradbury’s a master at this kind of story, bending genre and traveling time, fused with the luminous prose the author was famous for. Brevity works in its favor, though it’s a very minor work by an author who’s written many major ones. You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a collection containing it: A Medicine for Melancholy, The Day it Rained Forever, R is for Rocket, Bradbury Stories, etc.

Flying Chaucer – Anthony Brode – Verse

“A man ther was of Outer Spays allso.” Yep, a short little verse in Chaucerian prose about a spaceman and flying saucers. I’m not sure why someone didn’t think of this before. As a fan of Medieval literature I got a kick out of the author trying to describe aliens; all told it’s a weird little work.

The Bottom Line

This turned out to be a perfect issue to read with Halloween just a few weeks away, given its higher-than-average ghost story count. The British have a well-established tradition of ghost stories, an element of horror that’s fallen to the wayside today in favor of vampiric seduction and wizard detectives.

The stories Boucher chose to reprint tells a lot about his preferences, and this issue is rich in fiction that originally appeared elsewhere. By this point, Bradbury had jumped over genre magazines entirely and was printing original works in the slicks; “The Dragon” appeared in the August 1955 issue of Esquire. J. B. Priestly was a literary critic who wrote plays and dramas; “Night Sequence” was one of the few original stories in The Other Place, a 1953 collection of Priestly’s sci-fi and supernatural works. As mentioned, award-winning “The Challenge” came from a 1954 issue of F&SF‘s sibling Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. And Saki’s “Wolves of Cernogratz” dates back to a 1913 London newspaper, The Morning Post. Boucher had taste, and a wide reach, and his selections really wouldn’t work in any other SF magazine but his own.

Of course, Boucher also had a predilection for older (Victorian/Edwardian) ghost stories and supernatural literature, which is reflective of the fact that “fantasy” had yet to become the post-Tolkien dwarves-and-dragons genre, instead meandering around in Weird Tales territory. And most of Boucher’s selections are distanced or cerebral. I have to imagine that if I were a kid growing up in the ’50s, F&SF would be rather boring since many of its stories, specifically in this issue, are subtle. (Then again, I’d probably be the kind of kid who bought things like Imagination and Science Fiction Adventures.) Creative stories, brilliant ones, but subtle, the kind that worms ideas into your head and makes you ponder their implications over a few days.

Almost all the stories are very good, and I feel richer having read them, but I’m not sure any of them are worth running out to find. Anderson’s “Superstition” I enjoyed for its inverted vision of belief and superstition, though it’s the least of all the Anderson stories I’ve recently read. (Which is more a comment on the other stories’ strengths, as “Superstition” is very good… just not as good as “Outpost on Empire” or “No Truce With Kings.”)

“The Challenge,” “Night Sequence,” and “The Wolves of Cernogratz” were excellent supernatural tales, but I think Boucher and I may be alone in enjoying them. “The Challenge” was, to me, the strongest of the three, though “Night Sequence” was a close second. “Wolves” is good but shows its age in comparison.

Bradbury’s “Dragon,” Hubbard’s “Lion,” and Urban’s “Finer Breed” are shorter, so they rely more on style and emotion than content. “The Dragon” uses its brevity to its advantage; the other two are flawed brilliance. “North Wind” is a great idea in an above-average story that lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. “Captain’s Mate” I’d have to vote the weakest link; it’s not awful, but its a one-joke story that’s not quite funny.

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