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So, taking F&SF to the 1970s. This issue was printed ten years after the last F&SF I reviewed, so I’m interested to see how science fiction’s New Wave affected its content. Some of it is obvious—Joanna Russ, feminist SF writer, is in charge of the book reviews column—while some things just haven’t changed, like Asimov’s science article, or the cover art which recalls F&SF staple Chesley Bonestell’s astronomical art.

I’m familiar with Michael Bishop thanks to the work SF Ruminations has done to popularize him; in fact, the main reason I read this issue was due to my participation in his Michael Bishop fan post series. (You should check it out.) I’ve read some things by Robert F. Young before; Michael Coney I know only from the smutty cover to The Jaws That Bite, Claws That Catch.  The rest of the authors I’ve never heard of before. There’s a reason for that; according to ISFDB, this issue contains the entirety of Barbara Stearns’ writing career, and half of the published works by Gregg Williams. On the other hand, Charles L. Grant was prolific enough to have a Wikipedia page; meanwhile Edward Wellen wrote some 70 science fiction stories and one novel, and was also very active in the mystery field.

I’ve read a lot of F&SF from the 1950s and 1960s, in part because I enjoy the tastes of past editors Anthony Boucher and Avram Davidson. After Davidson left as editor in 1964, the magazine was edited by publisher Joseph W. Ferman, who would pass the editorial reins to his son Edward when he retired. Edward Ferman would run the magazine until the early 1980s, and earned continued critical praise for the magazine’s content. More to the point, he kept F&SF going on an uninterrupted regular schedule when most of magazine competitors (save for Analog) were dead or dying.

F&SF - 1973.07

F&SF – July, 1973 – David Hardy, “Astronauts exploring a crater at the polar region of Mars.” Note the lack of atmosphere and skein of Martian ice.

Breakdown:

  • Cost: $0.75 USD/30p UK
  • Length: 160 pages
  • Editor: Edward L. Ferman
  • Interior Art?: None, save for a single cartoon
  • Fiction: One novella, six short stories
  • Columns: Book reviews by Joanna Russ, film commentary by Baird Searles, a science fact article by Asimov, and a surreal puzzle feature

The White Otters of Childhood – Michael Bishop – Novella

It is the future. The year is 5309, or so it is believed. The last remaining two million humans—most of them mutated in some way—have been relegated to the islands of the Caribbean, exiled by the post-human Parfects, perfect beings in mind and body, who now are masters of the earth. Markcrier Rains has been the diplomatic envoy to the Parfects twice now, and after returning from his services, retires from that unpleasant task to marry his love, Marina. She had spurned the affections of Fearing Serenos, the local ruler and Markcrier’s lord, and Markcrier fears the despot will act out in vengeance. When Serenos does, it cripples Markcrier; a broken man, he entreats Mariana’s father—Serenos’ doctor—for aid in retaliation for Serenos’ evil.

Bishop’s prose has a neo-antiquated flourish to it, reminding me of an 19th-century adventure story or gothic. Halfway through the tale, when Markcrier’s plan of revenge is revealed, I had a flash of insight: this tale of mystery and the macabre, of revenge and weird science, this the kind of story Poe would write had he lived in the 1970s. It’s a brooding horror that transcends genius and surpasses madness, while drawing together many of the thematic elements and quotes Bishop had used at the start of each chapter (luminaries including Walter M. Miller and H.G. Wells). I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say it involves genetic manipulation.

The story’s richness comes not just from its prose, but also from the depth of its metaphors—which happens to be reinforced by that more archaic language and setting, now that I think of it. Having tried to destroy itself in two holocausts, humanity now returns to the sea—almost literally. Homo sapiens has come full circle in its de-evolution, the mutated and broken husks that used to be a proud ruling species regressed in shape and in morals. There’s a melancholic undertone that decries the bestial elements of humanity. The savagery of Fearing Serenos and his ironclad rule is something Markcrier decries time and time again, yet when he is lofted to a position of power, his noble intent also leads to death and ruin—was Serenos just pure evil, or orrupted by power?

“White Otters” was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, but for some bizarre reason won neither. (I want to say it was competing with the likes of Gene Wolfe and James Tiptree, Jr., so the work that bested it was no slouch.) In any case, it was enthralling, a tale made of pure wonder and horror and deep, thought-provoking concepts. The other Bishop stories I’ve read were good; “White Otters” was mind-blowing.

Books – Joanna Russ – Article

For this column, Russ reviews not one but two science fiction anthologies whose theme is sex: Eros in Orbit and Strange Bedfellows. To Russ, both collections “range from fine to awful,” and she condemns (or praises) each included story in a sentence or two. Russ acknowledges that anthologies built around themes are going to be uneven before digging into the fact that sex is a theme that hasn’t really been explored in the genre. She even points out that the one SF story everyone uses in reference of SF exploring sex, Philip Jose Farmer’s “The Lovers,” is actual a tale about alien mimicry.

I get the feeling Russ didn’t feel the genre was mature enough to have really explored the theme to fill not one but two anthologies on the subject, as too many of the stories “don’t get beyond mechanical substitutes for sex—gadgets or android partners or recordings” rather than exploring the subject in a deep and insightful way. “What matters,” says Russ, “is not the organ grinding but the explosions sex produces in the head; some writers in the anthologies know this. Most are learning. Some are hopeless.” All in all, it’s fascinating to see Russ’ opinions on the subject.

  • Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, an alternate history putting Adolf Hitler in the role of a pulp writer, is “a lovely book, and a deserved crack on the knuckles of more than just sword-and-sorcery addicts.”
  • James Gunn’s The Listeners is presented as a mixed bag: “the good parts are so good that the bad become insupportable,” ending that “the book is good enough to be worth reading. But it hurts.”
  • Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside earns some deserved praise, “having the density and length of a realistic novel (which essentially it is).” I have to say I’m a fan of it myself, making me happy when Russ says such things as “the solidity of it is beyond question, as is the quality.”

Come Dance With Me On My Pony’s Grave – Charles L. Grant – Short

Grant’s narrative jump between two timeline: Lieutenant Aaron Jackoson in a Montagnard villiage at the height of the Vietnam war, and the life he’s trying to establish back in the Dakotas with the Montagnard war orphan he adopted, the son of the village shaman who has a strange affinity with animals… including, as a neighboring rancher will find, with the dead. It’s a solid story with a fringe supernatural element, a quiet and subtle horror that’s revealed over the course of the story.

Most interesting to me, Grant wrote it as part of America’s detoxification of the Vietnam war; “If nothing else, it helped get that war out of my system.” A well-written piece with a great title, though I think it’s aged less well as genre fiction and better as a reflection of the post-Vietnamization zeitgeist. It’s been reprinted several times: Tales from the Nightside, Asimov’s Magical Worlds of Fantasy #10: Ghosts, and A Century of Horror 1970-1979.

Films – Baird Searles – Article

This must have been an off-month, because the films mentioned are either TV specials or older re-runs that I’m not familiar with. (The only theatrical release mentioned, Charlotte’s Web, is avoided because Searles disliked the book and found the stills uninspiring.) The Devil’s Daughter is referred to as “Whatever Happened To Rosemary’s Baby,” a film Searles presents as flawed but not half bad. Frankenstein is “visually pedestrian” but is praised for presenting the monster “more as a defective human being than a defective android.” A Cold Night’s Death, about two researchers at a remote installation, is “a minidrama of some power. I enjoyed it.”

In the Late, Late show dept., we have Moon Zero Two that billed itself a “space western” complete with miners and a chorus line in the saloon, but due to its realistic portrayal of Lunar life Searles calls it “very much like a 40s Heinlein story and you could do worse.” Last is The Blood On Satan’s Claw, a British period horror piece; Searles felt the plot didn’t make any sense, for which “I’d want to see it again, but even now I suspect it could be a minor classic.” As for Things-to-Come, Searles contemplates Dune being made into a motion picture, wondering “Whatever will they make of it?” As that would have been Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed adaptation, the answer would be “nothing.”

Film Buff – Edward Wellen – Short

Dillard Traylar becomes a film buff at a young age, realizing he can project moving pictures with his mind when he displays the image of his naked schoolteacher on the wall when she’s trying to teach class. But as the movie of Dillard’s life plays out—a series of flash-cuts, montages, and brief sequences—the line between what is film and what is fact becomes blurred. It starts when Dillard “improves” real motion pictures, but by the end he’s less a film buff and more the director of his own life.

A previous reader has inscribed my copy with the comment: “So-So.” I’m inclined to agree; the story is nothing special. It does some experimentation with prose and pacing as Dillard manipulates life and film, but as the story muddles reality with Dillard’s constructs it loses coherency. If it had something to say about life imitating art, or the impact of film on its viewers, the story lost it when it became a tangled mess.

Invitation to a Cruise (puzzle) – Al B. Perlman – Puzzle

The editor experiments with a logic puzzle, courtesy of Al Perlman of Intellectual Digest. When it involves staying at hotels like “The Pornoparlor” on a space cruise to planets such as “Uppyoorz,” I have to question how intellectual the digest was. It’s one of those logic puzzles where you need to figure out which hotel was on which planet circling which star, using a hodge-podge of hints to build the travel itinerary. I’m really not sure what to do with this one.

Thoughts from our previous reader: “Nothing.” I agree.

The Computer and the Oriental – Gregg Williams – Short

A group of élite army hackers—at least they’re supposed to be, though we never see them working—decides to haze their new psychologist to see if he’s man enough to join their secret backdoor club. First they get him addicted to the I Ching as a solution to answer all questions, then they manipulate the computerized version of the I Ching he coded. I found it hard to read this one as SF and not a period piece, which is a testament to the author’s knowledge as an early computer aficionado; when it was written, it was prophecy, while today it’s ancient technology. The big thing that dated it that the computer had to connect to the telephone line. Also, the title is pretty un-PC. Williams was a theater major with an interest in computer electronics when he wrote the story; it’s well written, though lacking in zest.

The Bridge on the Scraw – Michael G. Coney – Short

The second of Coney’s Tales of Finistelle, featuring the hapless Donald “God” Lacklund attempting to bring civilization to the primitive natives. This time, he’s trying to bring peace to two warring village tribes, but they drag their heels over the idea of mutual cooperation. Meanwhile, a bunch of bandits plunder a tax barge only to find, instead of valuables, they’d stolen a batch of carnivorous worm-parasites the overtaxed natives had passed on to the hated tax collectors. The ravenous worms are bearing down on the two villages. Will mutual cooperation save the day, or will they all be eaten alive?

Kind of a send-up to colonialism; some of the scenery consists of more Vietnam flashbacks, and the natives refer to their self-proclaimed “God” as sitwana (bwana? close enough for government work). The story is one of those “hapless human troubleshooter” tales, though signs indicate Coney was tired of the bad puns and cheery endings, instead opting for a bitter vision. I was surprised at how good it was, aside from the overabundance of nonsense words I’m assuming the first Tale of Finistelle may have explained. Not extraordinary, not great, but the plot was well-crafted—so, good.

Having It – Barbara Stearns – Short

Eleanor Rigby (groan) is a crabby old woman in a wheelchair, waiting impatiently in the doctor’s office week after week for “it.” She needs it, but they won’t give it to her, part of why she’s crabby. Or she may be crabby due to a bug in the system. At last she finds “it,” and gives birth to a conglomerate. A weird melange of computer programming and social metaphor. This is Stearns’ first and only story, and it shows; the prose is facile, the story’s over the top, and the ending collapses under the weight of forced metaphor. The story was better at reminding me of other, better things… such as, well, “Eleanor Rigby.” I kept wondering if Ms. Beatles’ Song wanted the “it” from It (though, really, who would want that?) or wanted to have It (#deepcuts), and was sadly disappointed in both cases.

The Cruise and I – Isaac Asimov – Article

The good doctor wrote 399 science articles for F&SF; unfortunately this one is autobiographic and not scientific, detailing a cruise Asimov took with some other literary guests—Robert Heinlein, Fred Pohl, Ted Sturgeon, Ben Bova, Carl Sagan, Katherine Ann Porter (too complete this ship of fools) and Norman Mailer to represent the non-SF literary community, “if anything that is non-science fiction can be considered literary”—to watch the Apollo 17 launch. Fred Pohl blogged about the cruise as well. Asimov writes well enough, but the subject was not the most interesting to me.

The Giantess – Robert F. Young – Short

Hill is a big game hunter for hire, but his quarry are some of the most dangerous things in the universe—he brings down monsters, be they Grendel or giant, sprung from the collection unconscious of a planet’s populace. This hunt has him squaring off against a giantess, a large but simple creature who manages to capture Hill and make him her plaything. As the story develops, we learn that Hill’s torn between self-preservation and his sadomasochistic kinks: as he’s kicked and trodden upon, he lives out the same fetish he sought out in a million stellar whorehouses…

The way Young jumps back and forth in the narrative is interesting, divided into strophe (the real-time narrative of Hill, the giantess, and her sadistic games) and antistrophe (a more omniscient narrator who’s willing to peel back Hill’s past, his current train of thought, and analyze them). The story has a surreal quality; it implies the giantess was created through the legends of giantesses the natives made, and then the behavior of the giantess—her careless games, treating the tiny humans as dolls and playthings—morphs to adapt Hill’s foot-fetish. An interesting, experimental story, if a bit racy once you realize what you’re looking at.

The Bottom Line

In its early days, F&SF was full of eclectic selections: foreign translations, reprints of overlooked old gems, a smattering of horror, and had a woman SF writer in just about every issue. Here, we have a horror story—more of a Poe-style tale of the macabre—in “Come Dance With Me,” an effective one at that. The one female writer (Barbara Stearns) in this issue is still more than most magazines at the time, plus there’s Joanna Russ writing a column. I give Stearns credit for trying—I see why the editor included her story, but it did nothing for me, nothing at all.

Which leads to earlier when I wondered how the New Wave had impacted F&SF. The answer is, quite a lot; all the stories felt like products of their time (and I mean that in both good and bad ways). “Film Buff” and “Having It” explore alternates to conventional narrative style and are more experimental, though I’m not sure they were successful; they begin straightforward enough but near the end merge montage, stream-of-consciousness, metaphor and critique, and suffer because of it—it’s a triumph of style over substance as they break down under their own weight, becoming muddled incoherence right when they should be making a point. Meanwhile, “Giantess” is more experimental with its ideas and structure, willing to push the envelope with its content; it’s more cerebral than titillating, and very canny at that.

The other theme I noticed in this issue was that of computer programming emerging as a science fiction trope. Sure, you had computers in ’50s and ’60s SF, but they operated more in accordance with Clarke’s Third Law and not as recognizable depictions of computers. Written by an electronics aficionado, “The Computer and the Oriental” shies away from a Hard SF level of detail, which to me helped sell it as a period piece from the late ’70s/early ’80s—still the future when the story was written—rather than as a flight of fancy. “Having It” also delves a little into computer programming near the end as its protagonist undergoes “reprogramming” to fix software bugs. Not surprising, both authors were programmers to some degree (Stearns was a professional, Williams a hobbyist).

So, is any of it any good?

“The White Otters of Childhood” is a brilliant story to back up that brilliant title. I’m not that familiar with Bishop, but I enjoyed this story (and some others) well enough that I’ll keep an eye out for his novels. One of the most unusual and memorable novellas I’ve read, and the best so far in 2014. “Come Dance With Me” is a solid story of the macabre and a fascinating reaction to the Vietnam War, and very enjoyable if you prefer a quieter, gentler type of horror. Those were the best of the bunch, both in terms of title but in story, and are well worth seeking out.

The rest of the mag ranged from close to a great story to oh god I want those minutes of my life back. “Bridge” was good, and I’d place it as third best in the issue; the other contender would be “Giantess,” unless you consider such things smut. “The Computer” has good writing and interesting setup without real focus, and mostly reminded me of the sound of the internet. “Film Buff” was a hot mess. “Having It” made “Film Buff” look good.

Not the greatest issue, but such things happen. I feel better having read “White Otters” and “Come Dance With Me” and recommend any interested parties seek them out, but there’s an abundance of chaff here. The puzzle feature hasn’t drawn enough of my ire, I think, though so many of the stories I found underwhelming that it’s hard to recommend this issue to anyone.

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