John Boston & Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy 1950-1967 (72%, Page 293 of 364, Location 5089 of 7028 in the Kindle edition)
Hatchetman • reprint novelette by Mack Reynolds ♥♥
George • short story by Chris Boyce ♥♥♥
The Golden Coin of Spring • short story by John Hamilton ♥
Lords & Ladies • novelette by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥+
The Superstition • short story by Angus McAllister
Clay • short story by Paul Jents
Synopsis • short story by George Hay ♥
A Visitation of Ghosts • novelette by R. W. Mackelworth ♥
Cover • Keith Roberts
Guest Editorial • by Harry Harrison
With this issue the cover artwork has expanded to use around eighty percent of the cover as compared to the sixty per cent of the previous square artwork panel. Also, the lead story’s title now overlays the cover artwork. If this was an attempt to entice casual paperback buyers to pick up an issue you would have to wonder why they didn’t move the ‘Impulse’ title further up the page to between the ‘Compact SF’ and ‘3/6’ and extend the artwork to cover ninety per cent of the cover. That said, I think this cover design is probably more attractive than the older one.
The only non-fiction in the issue is an editorial. Bonfiglioli, who I suspect found editorials something of a chore, has handed over the space to a Guest Editorial by Harry Harrison. This is an interesting piece that speculates about the books that will be published in1968 but are being written now. There are some choice quotes about the direction the ‘New Wave’ is heading in:
Much has been made of William Burroughs, but it has not been pointed out often enough that he has failed. Clarity, conviction and content are hard enough to get across without mixing up your pages at random. p.101
Other writers could import the best of the outside world into our little cosmos. This does not mean rushing out to buy the most avant-garde novel to transpose into sf. It does mean that sf writers could profit by more catholic reading of fiction in the hope that new techniques might fill them with enthusiasm so that they could cast their ideas in newer forms. p.101
I think this can probably best be summarised as wanting to have your cake and eat part of it. It will be interesting to see what response there is. (Although there is no letter column at the moment, comments occasionally turn up in editorials.)
The fiction leads off with Hatchetman, a long ‘United Planets’ novelette by Mack Reynolds. This is a reprint of part of an Ace Double that appeared some months previously1 and initially it has a whiff of ‘first draft’ about it:
He was a slight youth, just past the pimply age, with a sallow face, dirty blond hair and baby-blue eyes—the traditional eyes of the man killer. His teeth were buckteeth enough usually to show through his lips. In spite of youth, he could never have been called good-looking. He was five-foot eight, weighed slightly less than one-fifty, and he moved with the grace of a girl—no, not a girl; with the grace of a panther on the hunt. p.5
This is essentially a crime story masquerading as SF. Billy Antrim is a teenage hitman from Palermo, a ‘mafia’ planet, who has assassinated an informer on Earth. Subsequently, Ronny Bronston, an agent of Section G, who sorts out problems on other planets, is given the task of capturing him.
Once I’d finished rolling my eyeballs at all this ‘mafia planet’ nonsense I actually found myself guiltily enjoying this chase story. Every time the police net closes in Billy manages to give them slip. That is until an ending (spoiler) that is a bit too pat, especially when Billy sees the light and tires of killing. A bit dated really but an enjoyable enough pulp story.
The first time I read George, Chris Boyce’s second published story,2 I was not impressed with it. This time around I rather liked it. It starts by showing us George, who is trapped in a bitter marriage at the start of an alien invasion, and tells of this in a light eccentric style:
“They’re back, George. Wake up. This is serious.”
“Stop sleeping and listen to me. I’ve just heard it on the radio. Hundreds of them, All over the place. They’re in London, George.”
“Wake up. I’m talking to you.”
So I gather. Honey sweet.
“People are being killed in swarms. George, they’re back!”
“For God’s sake will you get up off of the sofa and pay attention. I am your wife, you know.”
Could I but forget. Dovewillow. p.50
It continues in more staccato style as the alien invasion continues and the situation becomes brutal:
About four hundred yards away. Cloverleaf flyover. Small tented colony left in obscene ruin under the bridge. Dragon munching with great carnivorous chomps of blood drooling mouth. No survivors? Two running people there. Approaching. p.58
I found the combination of this odd style and bleak story worked well for me but suspect it will be a Marmite story: those who get on with the style will probably like it, those who don’t, won’t.
Boyce’s short story is followed by another by John Hamilton, The Golden Coin of Spring. This is a well enough told tale but revolves around a fairly daft idea (spoiler): over-literal aliens who have sent a coin-like sensor probe to Earth allow themselves to be convinced that Earthmen can do magic.
The second of three longish novelettes is the fourth ‘Pavane’ story, Lords & Ladies by Keith Roberts. This tells the story of Anne, who would appear to be the child of Jesse’s brother Tim and the barmaid Anne—who jilted Jesse in The Lady Anne. I’d actually forgotten about this part of the story, although it is not particularly important:
For the child’s mother too had been called Anne; her dad kept a pub out Swanage way and when he died and left her no place to live she’d been glad enough to settle for a man years her junior. Though it had cost Tim Strange his job and his home… But it hadn’t taken the woman long to tire of being the wife of a common haulier; two years later she’d run off with My Lord of Purbeck’s jongleur, and Tim had come trailing back with his scrap of a kid and Jesse had laughed quiet and long, made over to him the half of his business. But that had been in the long ago, before Anne grew a remembering brain. p.78
It tells of Anne’s childhood, and how as a young woman she becomes involved with the arrogant and impetuous Robert, son of Lord Purbeck:
Robert was brooding, silent, in a mood she hadn’t seen. A fire was burning up by the kitchens, the glow wavering on stone, limning the huge pile of the donjon. Flakes of ash were whirled up sparkling in the sky; he said to him they were like the souls of men moving through endlessness, shining awhile then vanishing in the dark. He didn’t use his born language; instead he spoke an old tongue, a clacking guttural she’d never realized he owned. She could answer him; she stood close giving sentence for sentence, trying to comfort. She spoke of the castle. “Rude, ragged nurse,” she said, “old sullen playfellow for tender princelings….”
He seemed surprised at that. She laughed, her voice muted in the night. “One of those minor Elizabethans, we had to do him at school. I forget his name; I thought he was rather good.” p.94-95
These recollections come to her as she sits watching her gravely ill uncle, Jesse Strange, while a priest performs an exorcism:
The group around the bed was utterly still, with the frozen stillness of sculpture. A single lamp, hung from a heavy beam, threw their faces into sharp relief, accentuated the pallor of the sick man as he lay with one end of Father Edwardes’ violet stole tucked beneath his neck, the fabric stretched between them like a banner of faith. The old man’s eyes rolled incessantly; his hands plucked and plucked at the bed-clothes. His breathing was short, noisy, obviously painful. p.70
Jilted by Robert, she has a vision of the old god Balder (who appeared in a scene from The Signaller) who partially prophesies her future. Like the scene in that previous work, this one is again slightly at odds with the rest of the story and I wondered if this—and some minor unexplained poltergeist activity during the exorcism—was the hallucination of an over wrought young woman.
It was a strange experience re-reading this. When I first came to the story it was the one I liked best after The Lady Anne. This time, although I still enjoyed it, it seemed a more uneven, less satisfying work.
The next three shorts are all fairly poor. The Superstition by Angus McAllister is a story that for the most part reads like an OK Astounding tale from the 1940s about an exploration team on an asteroid. Despite it being an asteroid there is supposedly enough air for the native Krett to exist. They believe in ‘Zungribs’ that prey on them from above. Sure enough, one of the team go missing… This finishes with a jarring omniscient synopsis detailing the Earthmen’s hackneyed end as well as a silly last line. This should never have made it out of the slush pile.3
Clay by Paul Jents is a tedious story about a teacher supervising three children’s thought sculpting. One of them misbehaves so the teacher gives them all ‘modelling clay’ and returns to see what they have made and mark their work:
“Ye-es, that’s very ingenious—I like that. You’ve developed those triangles well. As they grow older—how old do they live? Yes—as they grow they gradually expand into the third dimension. Cones and pyramids. Why the difference? Oh, the pyramids are male, of course. They propagate, do they? Prop-a-gate—it means breed,” she explained. “I see. Two-dimensional babies growing into the third.” p.116
After several pages of this we eventually move on to the misbehaving child and find he has made… Earth. Including the McAllister and the Hamilton, that is three cliched story endings so far this issue, and they are not even cliches worth reusing.
Synopsis by George Hay is marginally better than the last two but writing a story in synoptic and slightly satirical form doesn’t mask what is essentially a story outline full of stock ideas such as time travel, parallel worlds, spaceships, etc.
The last of the three long novelettes in this issue is A Visitation of Ghosts by R. W. Mackelworth. For most of its length this manages to balance its narrative abilities against an odd setting and plot. At the end however it overdoes the plot complications. It starts with a teacher at school thinking about the various characters—gardener, headmaster, children, etc.—who irritate him. He is also unsettled by a diagram in his possession that, when he looks at it, induces visions and then subsequently transports him to the future. So, after several pages of meandering through this set up, he finds himself in what would seem to be a post-apocalypse version of the school. He encounters a couple of the inhabitants, one a mutant, one a cripple, and ends up with the job of escorting a group of children out of the town and through the radiation belts, a task he accepts as one of the children looks like a woman he has seen in a previous vision.
Up to this point I was just about hanging in there but on the journey out of town they encounter creatures that live in the radiation areas. These are attracted to light and kill humans. Of course these creatures don’t affect him, and before much longer he is headed back to our present to deal with a teacher who has stored multiple explosive devices in the school. His intervention and rescue of one of the schoolchildren from an explosion creates another future but, by that point, not only was my disbelief unsuspended I was past caring.
A mixed bag of stories in this issue.
- This is what ISFDB has to say about Planetary Agent X: ‘Per the copyright page of Ace Double: “This novel originally appeared in Analog in two parts under the titles Ultima Thule and Pistolero“. Pistolero was the intended title, but it was never published. Instead, it was published later as Hatchetman in Impulse, June 1966.
- His second story yes, but from a genre viewpoint effectively his first. That one, Autodestruct, was published outside the field in International Storyteller in 1964 and according to SFE has not yet been traced.
- The use of so many reprint and slushpile stories in Impulse was obviously due to a shortage of material. Keith Roberts, who was with the magazine in a full-time capacity between July and December of 1966, recalled:
“I’d been working with Bon on the old Science Fantasy for eighteen months or so before I got lumbered with the editorship. His last act was to institute the name change that in fact marked the beginning of the end. My new Editor-in-Chief (curious designation) was Harry Harrison; but he was in southern Italy, from whence issued a stream of conflicting and frequently inoperable instructions.
Like getting rid of my slushpile, because the whole lot was Goddam crap. It wasn’t Goddam crap by any means; but even if it had been, I couldn’t have afforded to do it. At fifty bob a thousand, the mag largely relied on reprints and keen amateurs. Plus fall guys like me of course. But I had no option; I had to fill my seventy thousand words a month somehow.” Introduction to Keith Roberts: British Science Fiction Writers vol.2, 1983, edited by Paul Kincaid and Geoff Rippington