SF Digest #1, 1976

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Fiction:
Trading Post • short story by Michael G. Coney ♥♥
In the House of Double Minds • reprint short story by Robert Silverberg ♥♥
The Junk Shop • short story by John Bronsan ♥
Last Orders • short story by Brian W. Aldiss ♥♥♥
The Second Generation • short story by Rachel Pollock ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cover •  David Bergen
Interior Artwork •  Tim White, John Higgins, Andrew Stephenson, Christos Kondeatis,
Guest Editorial: SF on Screen • essay by John Brunner
A Consumer Guide to Science Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein • by Maxim Jakubowski
The Unimaginable Future with Dr Christopher Evans • interview by Peter Linnett
Pull-out Poster • David Bergen
What Are They Doing Now? • news column by Maxim Jakubowski
Science Fiction Super Quiz
SF Digest Questionnaire
News • by Maxim Jakubowski
A Consumer Guide to Science Fiction of Issac Asimov • by Maxim Jakubowski
A Consumer Guide to Science Fiction of A. E. van Vogt • by Maxim Jakubowski

Well, here’s a magazine we don’t discuss every day… I suspect it will be not that well known to British and Commonwealth readers and virtually unknown to those in the States and elsewhere. This title, which was announced as a replacement for the large size Science Fiction Monthly poster magazine, was something of an oddity in that (a) it wasn’t a digest — SFE describes it as ‘small A4’ — and (b) it was DOA.1 New English Library, a book publisher, had decided to get out of magazine publishing about the time this appeared so there were no further issues. A pity: although nothing in this is particularly noteworthy in this issue, it could have become something worthwhile, but more of that later.

The five pieces of fiction are OK pro-level stuff with the exception of the squib by John Bronsan: The Junk Shop is one of those universe-in- a-bottle-in-a-junk-shop stories that should have been left in the slush pile, and probably would have been if Bronsan hadn’t been a regular non-fiction contributor to Science Fiction Monthly. Apart from the naff idea at the core of this, the dialogue sounds odd.2 Can I suggest that if Sturgeon’s first law is ‘Ninety per cent of everything is crap’ his second law should be ‘Ninety-nine per cent of all short-shorts are crap’?

The rest of the fiction includes Michael G. Coney’s Trading Post, which involves Rodney Black (the narrator), Trader Jack and an alien called Bo-8 who run an antiquated cartwheel space station as a business. They are left with some strange freight (the maguffin) and are subsequently overrun with refugees and pirates. All ends well. This has the feel of a series story and is pleasant enough, but the motion of cogs and wheels rotating is obvious in a way that it wasn’t in his better work. With the likes of The Girl with the Symphony in her Fingers (Galaxy, January 1974) and The Cinderella Machine (F&SF, August 1976) you weren’t aware of the mechanisms till they snapped shut at the last line and took your fingers off.

Robert Silverberg’s In the House of Double Minds is an unacknowledged reprint of a story from Vertex (June 1974). It tells of a group of future children who have the left and right halves of their brains separated before their training as oracles. One of the children, Runild, starts behaving erratically and becomes a problem for the institution. This is fine as far as it goes but it rather peters out at the end and reads like the first part of a longer work.

Last Orders by Brian Aldiss is an apocalyptic tale of a shattered moon causing the destruction of the Earth and the latter’s evacuation. One of the rescue workers finds a couple in a bar but they never get beyond having one more drink for the road… I found the nihilism of this more attractive than when I first read it many years ago and it is probably the best of the issue.

Finally, there is Rachel Pollock’s The Second Generation, which has a teenage boy and girl popping pills to change sex, something commonplace in the future world they live in. One of them subsequently changes into an intersex person, gets frightened and eventually changes back: end of story. OK, but I couldn’t really see the point.

As for the non-fiction, there is an editorial by John Brunner, which (rightly) bemoans the standard of film and TV SF of the time, and an interview with Dr Chris Evans by Peter Linnett (it is like reading an interview with Ballard: you can see how they became friends). There is a quiz and several pieces of colour artwork — the magazine is part coated and part uncoated stock — including quite a good Tim White space scene for the Micheal Coney story.  The centre pages contain an almost A3 size poster of the cover.3 There are also several non-fiction items by Maxim Jakubowski: a news page, a What Are They Doing Now? page that tells of forthcoming material from writers4 and three Consumer Guides to Asimov, Heinlein and Van Vogt.

The Consumer Guides fascinated me in 1976 and still do today. What we have in these guides5 is basically a grid with the books of the respective author down the left hand column and a list of various critics/reviewers along the top. The body of the table is a matrix of star ratings. Higher rated works are at the top, and lower at the bottom. I am sure all reviewers are horrified at something so simplistic but it is reader gold!
There were several things that I found intriguing about this feature: first off, you get the wisdom of the masses in one glance. Alternatively you can follow an individual critic or reviewer.6
Other things stand out: M. John Harrison has read only a little more Heinlein than me (not much) and seems to have hated most of it. Andy Ellsmore likes nearly everything! The final observation I would make is that just because something is hailed as a classic you may only be hearing from the people that liked it and not from the ones who didn’t (both MJH and Peter Weston hated The World of Null-A).

To conclude, I think this might have been quite an interesting magazine given time, a few more pages, bimonthly schedule and perhaps a letter column. The connective tissue supplied by Maxim Jakubowski certainly pulls it up a notch or two.

          1. It is 202mm by 276mm (7.9″ by 10.8″). A4 is 210mm by 297mm. It is actually ‘B5 Extra’ size, 201mm by 276mm. Yes, I vanished down an Internet black hole there for a few minutes…
          2. I originally criticised this for being by a British writer using a faux-American accent until it was pointed out that Baxter is Australian. Oops, I think I knew that once.
          3. David Bergen’s cover for Harry Harrison’s In Our Hands, The Stars.
          4. I shamelessly ripped off this idea for a BSFA Matrix magazine column in the late ’70s. This column refers to three subsequently unpublished works by Langdon Jones. As far as I know they still haven’t appeared. Pity: I didn’t always get his work but liked The Garden of Delights, The Great Clock, etc. enough to seek it out.
          5. Here is an example:
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            I would so love to see the publication of a book of these things covering, say, the top 100 SF writers.
          6. Yes, I know. I looked at Amazon ratings: not the same, the spread of average scores is a lot tighter, and you can’t easily track one reviewer’s scores. At the time I used the high rating of Double Star in these guides to pick it as the next Heinlein to read after Glory Road and the half of Stranger in a Strange Land I had managed. My bubble was punctured when I had a lukewarm response to that novel. Now I look at the matrix and see that John Clute (or at least the John Clute of 1976) seems to have the closest rating response to what I have read of Heinlein so far. Consequently, The Puppet Masters or The Star Beast is next for me.

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