Homecalling • novella by Judith Merril ♥♥♥
Women’s Work • short story by Murray Leinster
Tools of the Trade • short story by Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg [as by Robert Randall] ♥
The Messiahs • short story by Alfred McCoy Andrews ♥
The Stretch • short story by Sam Merwin, Jr. ♥
Women’s Work • cover by Emsh
Internal artwork • Frank Kelly Freas, Emsh, Randall Garrett, Luton
Next Time Around
Parodies Tossed: How to Succeed at Science Fiction Without Really Trying • poem by Isaac Asimov
Editorial: A Fact Is a Fact is a Fact…. • by Robert A. W. Lowndes
There were a couple of reasons I picked up this one: first, I’d read most of it already, given that the Judith Merril novella was reprinted a decade or so later in Impulse #2 & 3, which I’ve read; secondly, and more importantly, Science Fiction Stories is one of those magazines that I’ve always found hard to get a handle on given its very complicated publishing history, so I thought it would be worth writing a crib I could refer back to in the future.
The magazine was first published as Science Fiction in March 1939 and had three publishers in short succession, ending up in the hands of Columbia Publications before being merged with its companion title Future Fiction in late 1941 to form Future Combined with Science Fiction (although there were several minor variants of the title). The last two issues of this magazine (April and May 1943) reverted to the Science Fiction Stories title but they were technically a continuation of Future magazine as they kept its volume numbering.
Future Combined with Science Fiction Stories was subsequently resurrected in 1950 (with a fresh start on the volume numbering). In 1953 the Science Fiction Stories title was separated and two digest issues published as a trial of that format for Future Science Fiction. The results were ‘apparently encouraging’1 as Future Science Fiction changed to digest size. However, Science Fiction Stories was considered the stronger title so Future Science Fiction folded after the October 1954 issue and was replaced with the title currently under consideration from January 1955.
As Science Fiction Stories continued the volume numbering of Future Science Fiction this would normally have been considered as a title change but, of course, matters were further complicated by the publisher reviving Future Science Fiction at the end of that same year. It too continued its original volume numbering.
For those that are still with me, and haven’t decided to check into a Dignitas clinic, there is only one more source of confusion. From the September 1955 issue ‘The Original’ was added to the Science Fiction Stories cover title to link back to the original pulp (although it escapes me why you would want to link back to a magazine that lasted for two years/a dozen issues a decade and a half previously). The magazine subsequently became known as The Original Science Fiction Stories although that was never its formal name (the publishing indicia on the contents page have Science Fiction Stories as the title).2
And so to the issue in front of us. As we can see from the title lettering it is obvious why the magazine came to be known as The Original Science Fiction Stories: perhaps if the font size and colour of the ‘Stories’ had been the same as the ‘Science Fiction’ there would have been less confusion. Whatever you think of the titling it sits above a good cover by Emsh.
The fiction leads off with Homecalling, Judith Merril’s long novella (it is over 80pp. and constitutes around two-thirds of the fiction in this issue). I have reviewed this elsewhere,3 but is worth noting that this story about two young children crash-landing on a planet where there is a telepathic and matriarchal alien society stands head and shoulders above the rest.
I’ve read speculation elsewhere about what Merril must have thought about having what she presumably considered a major piece of work appear in the bottom end of the market.4 Surely she must have realised that the combination of its length (too short for a book publisher), its very young child protagonists (presumably unsuitable for Astounding, Galaxy and F&SF) and a sympathetic portrayal of aliens (Astounding) would leave it nowhere else to go? Unfortunately, there is no further information about the circumstances of its publication in her memoir.5
The rest of this issue’s fiction starts with Murray Leinster’s Women’s Work. This is one of those stories that isn’t just bad, it is actively awful. Two women who operate a remote missile warning post discover a male intruder who claims he is a downed pilot. Of course, the two women haven’t seen a man for months so obviously they are an hormonal mess and can’t think straight:
Corporal McGinnis trembled slightly as the man passed close to her. Sergeant Wilmot knew exactly how the younger women felt: Enormously intent and enormously fascinated—and bitterly ashamed because of it, despising herself because she was shaken and agitated by the sight of the first man in months. p.95
This kind of rubbish—I could have quoted much more of this type of thing—permeates the rest of a dreary story about Cold War missile attacks. I know it is easy to take pot-shots at this kind of thing fifty years on but I suspect this would have been risible even then. Leinster was a big name at the time (Asimov refers to him as ‘the dean’ in his poem/verse later on) so presumably Lowndes bought this so he could use his name on the cover.
There are three other minor stories. Tools of the Trade by Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg is about a poet at a party. It materialises that all art in the future is produced by using robots, and that human created art is a scandalous idea. After the poet fails to pick up a girl he goes home (spoiler) to his broken robot….
The Messiahs by Alfred McCoy Andrews (his only story listed on ISFDB) is about an Earthman exploiting natives on an alien planet to mine a precious metal. Perhaps noteworthy (spoiler) is using an ex-junkie doctor to turn the aliens into addicts to control them:
“Dr. Marlin, big man, big ethics; well, don’t forget this. You were a disbarred bum; a snow-bird hooked on the needle, till I picked you out of the gutter.” p.122
Also, at the end, and after a religious missionary’s visit to the planet, the Earthmen are crucified. I thought that the first time this plot device was used was in Harry Harrison’s The Streets of Ashkelon (New Worlds #122, September 1962).
The Stretch by Sam Merwin, Jr. initially made me think I was back in Murray Leinster territory given that it is about women’s corsets, but it does better by the end. A girdle making executive takes a particularly uncomfortable garment home to his wife, she wears it, is particularly impressed with how trim it makes her look, and later disappears leaving the corset behind. This phenomena is repeated several months later with the executive’s mistress and finally (spoiler) when he wears it himself to secure a date with a younger woman. He ends up in fourth dimension to be confronted by a wire like being who wants him out of her house before her husband comes home.
I know I said better than the Leinster, but not ‘much better’.
There is not much in the way of non-fiction in this issue. Most of the internal artwork is contributed by Frank Kelly Freas but it in the style of his more juvenile/humourous work. I’m not sure this is a good match for the Garrett/Silverberg story, and it has the unfortunate effect of emphasising the fact that the Merril is essentially a juvenile.6
Parodies Tossed: How to Succeed at Science Fiction Without Really Trying by Isaac Asimov is two pages of verse about plagiarising the best writers in the SF field, and has an appropriate illustration by Randall Garrett.
Robert A. Lowndes7 has an editorial at the end of the magazine, A Fact Is a Fact is a Fact…., in which he bangs on at great length about facts versus opinions while touching on an interview with John W. Campbell in the Saturday Review. I didn’t really understand what he was getting at. SFE states that ‘Lowndes [ ] wrote some thoughtful and insightful editorials’. I don’t think this was one of them.
Finally, I should mention there are a number of house advertisements for Columbia Publications’ magazines: Future Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly and Double Action Detective Stories.
Worth a look for the Merril but I’d give the rest a miss.
- This quote is from Galactic Central, from which I have cribbed freely, as did I SFE.
- The publishing indicia for this issue is at the bottom of the page:
- Homecalling was previously reviewed in Impulse #2 and #3.
- The speculation about Merril’s feelings in respect of where this story ended up was in Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-1967 by John Boston & Damien Broderick:
Homecalling first appeared in Robert Lowndes’ Science Fiction Stories for November 1956, where it was ignominiously displaced from the cover by a meretricious Murray Leinster short story, despite running 87 pages and appearing pretty much at the peak of Merril’s writing career. Also the precipice—this was the 20th piece of magazine or anthology SF under her name during the first eight years since her first SF story, and she had also published Shadow on the Hearth and two novels and a short story with Cyril Kornbluth under the Cyril Judd pseudonym during that time. After this, her productivity dropped sharply. She published only five more stories and The Tomorrow People under her own name, plus three stories as by Rose Sharon, from 1957 to 1963, and that seems to have been it except for a vignette in 1974. I suspect that having this long, careful, and substantial piece bounced from all the major markets (which must have been the case—given its theme, I’m sure she sent it to Campbell as well as to Gold and Boucher) and ultimately buried in a penny-a-word salvage market was a sort of negative turning point in Merril’s writing career.
Homecalling is quite good, if dated. A married couple is out exploring the galaxy with their eight-year-old daughter and infant son in tow (evidently in the future, there will be no Bureau of Child Welfare). They crash-land, the adults are killed and the children survive, on a planet with breathable air that is populated by an intelligent bee-like species. The story is alien contact from the perspectives of the alien queen and an eight-year-old. By today’s standards it’s probably hopelessly naive. But by the standards of its time, it’s a tour de force, both affecting and well worked out. (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, since it is the title story of the NESFA compendium of Merril’s short work.) p.287/288 of 365 (Kindle version)
- Better to Have Loved: the Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary.
- One of the three Freas illustrations for Homecalling:
- ‘Doc’ Lowndes had a long editorial career in magazines that lasted, on and off, from the 1940s to the 1970s. In his third incarnation at Health Knowledge Inc., he not only reprinted a lot of otherwise forgotten weird and horror fiction but published the first stories of Stephen King and F. Paul Wilson (Starling Mystery Stories).