The Silly Season • short story by C. M. Kornbluth ♥♥♥
The Traitor • short story by James S. Hart ♥♥
Top Secret • (1948) • short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by David Grinnell] ♥
Built Up Logically • (1949) • short story by Howard Schoenfeld ♥♥♥+
A Room in a House • short story by August Derleth ♥♥♥
The Poetry Machine • short story by H. Nearing, Jr. ♥
Pamela Pays the Piper • (1949) • short story by Phyllis Lee Peterson ♥♥♥
Just a Matter of Time • (1948) • short story by Roger Angell ♥♥
Second Meeting • (1948) • short story by A. Bertram Chandler [as by George Whitley] ♥♥♥
Heritage • novelette by Charles L. Harness ♥♥♥
The Star Ducks • short story by Bill Brown ♥♥
Cover • by George Salter
Cartoon • by David Pascal
Recommended Reading • by The Editors
This fourth issue of F&SF has perhaps the widest range of styles yet. Although six out of the ten of the stories are SF the magazine doesn’t have that feel, probably because two of the SF stories use their subject matter for humorous effect and one gives a standard SF idea a New Yorker gloss.
The first of the two lighter pieces is The Silly Season by C. M. Kornbluth. This tells of a wire service journalist and ‘silly season’ stories of shining domes, black spheres and circular pits that occur in three successive years, and the public’s decreasing interest in such stories. However (spoiler), they end up being a ‘boy who cried wolf’ for a real alien invasion.
This story starts off with the action centred on a wire service and its associated journalists, and uses the dated language of that profession. I wonder what the twitterati will make of it.
The Kornbluth bookends the issue with, according to the editors, ‘a new kind of science fiction story, the homey interplanetary tale, written with quiet humor’. The Star Ducks by Bill Brown is another tale about a journalist, this time one who goes to a farm and finds a spaceship and two visiting aliens. After mentally communicating with the pair he realises that he is onto the story of a lifetime. However, they are just about to leave Earth and the journalist struggles to obtain proof that will substantiate his story….
I found this slighter than the Kornbluth piece, and both of them fairly lightweight. At the time of publication I suspect these would have been seen as novel and amusing takes on traditional SF tropes.
The third of these stories is Just a Matter of Time by Roger Angell (The New Yorker Magazine, February 7th, 1948). This is about a man out on the town who seems to briefly slip back in time to the 1930s. The content is mostly New Yorker-type social chat about socialising and his girlfriend.
The other three SF stories are conventional and, in the case of the Harness novelette, strikingly so. Heritage would probably not have been out of place in Thrilling Wonder Stories or the like (where several of his other early stories appeared).1
It is a space opera about a future race of umen on a spaceship and their unusual Captain:
He lifted the bottle of ethanol to his lips, and took a big swallow. He grimaced, both at the raw taste of the liquid and because it declared another of his abnormalities: he, Captain Lurain, was strangely influenced by the oral administration of ethanol. None of the other five thousand-odd umen under him, nay, not a single other uman in the galaxy, so far as he knew, was similarly defective.
Yes, he was an odd one. His physical responses were the slowest on the ship. In single combat with a Magellanic battleman he would have been burnt down before he could even make a motion toward the pistol that hung at his side. And every one of the five thousand under him was faster even than the Magellanics. p.94
Shortly after the story starts he is inspecting the spaceship, which is being converted for another mission under the supervision of a Proctor called Anthon, when he covertly observes another crew member who appears physically similar to him. Later, this person comes to his cabin:
The other’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t come here for that. Is it possible you haven’t guessed the nature of my aberration?”
“I know nothing about you.”
He was consumed by curiosity, but waited silently as his unbidden guest seemed to come to a vital decision.
The smaller figure seemed to grow in stature, to stand a little straighter. “I am a female aberrant—and probably fertile.”
“Impossible! All umen are pseudo-male, and sterile.”
The other grew perceptibly paler. “I am telling the truth.”
Lurain gazed at the creature with mingled horror and disgust. What monstrous gene defect in the vitaplasm had produced this … this animal, this atavistic echo of a forgotten, primordial day when even the highest species were reproduced in the bodies of the females? p.98/99
Both of them are subsequently involved in a power struggle between Anthon the Proctor, who wants to gather the female’s ova to further a bid for galactic domination, and the Undrud, the supreme leader of the umen, who requires all aberrants to be delivered to him for vivisection….
This is all fairly well done but it is a pulpier story than I would have expected F&SF to run and, from distant memory, not quite as good as the likes of Time Trap (Astounding, August 1948) and Stalemate in Space (Planet Stories, Summer 1949).
Top Secret by Donald A. Wollheim (Sir! Magazine, 1948) is a short squib about a man who bumps into some strange men in the State Department. I think the reveal at the end (spoiler) implies that they are aliens but I was not sure.
The Poetry Machine by H. Nearing, Jr. is about a mathematician that builds a computer to write poetry:
“Look,” said Ransom. “Suppose we want a poem, a great poem about, say, a man having trouble with his fiancée, which is what most poems are about. That’s an experience. You feed it to the tubes just like a problem, but instead of reducing it to factors they reduce it to words.” p.54
After the first poem is produced it stops working. A colleague suggests it may have been upset by a comment that Ransom made about the poem. I found the ending unconvincing and, as this is the first of eleven ‘C. P. Ransom’ stories that would appear in F&SF by end of 1953, hope they improve.
The fantasy stories in this issue do not have as wide a stylistic range as the SF ones. The most original is Built Up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld (Retort, Winter 1949). This is a clever, tricksy and entertaining piece about a writer who is a character in his own story and ends up fighting another character for control of the narrative:
“What is it?”
“The pulse beat of the universe. I can hear it.”
“My God,” I said.
He stood there listening to the pulse beat of the universe.
“Marvelous,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “But not for you.”
Frank tilted his head sideways, cupped his ear in his hand, and invented the universe. Getting the sound of its pulse beat, he built it up logically from the sound. It was the only universe that could have produced that particular pulse beat, and I was amazed at his blasphemy in creating it.
“Stop,” I demanded.
My demand went unheeded.
The universe and its contents appeared.
Frank’s face tautened. Beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead. Then he relaxed. His grin was ominous.
With a start of fear I realized my predicament. In inventing the universe and its contents Frank had also invented me.
I was in the unheard-of position of having been created by a figment of my own imagination.
“Our roles are reversed,” Frank said. “I’ve not only created you, but all your works, including this narrative. Following this paragraph I will assume my rightful role as author of the story and you will assume yours as a character in it.” p.41
The struggle continues.
There are no less than three ghost stories, two of which play it straight while the third takes a more light hearted approach.
A Room in a House by August Derleth is about two boys and the imaginary creature they create when they are sent to the store room by their parents as a punishment. It later starts doing their bidding when they want to get their own back. The narrative then skips forward a generation.
Second Meeting by A. Bertram Chandler (Town & Country, 1948) starts with two childhood gangs discussing a ghost who crosses a bridge and walks up the road towards a pub every night at ten fifteen. After much discussion and bravado about the likely truth of this tale, two individuals from each gang agree to stake out the area to see if the man really is a ghost.
The writing is quite atmospheric:
Once I ventured out of the mouth of the alley to peer up and down the road. The sky, over the buildings across the canal, was momentarily clear, and the moon, as Trant so aptly phrased it, seemed to be playing hide-and-seek among the roofs and chimneys of the ugly, jagged skyline. But it wasn’t the moon of the clean open spaces. Rather it was a white, polished skull, rolling in some devil’s game along the black, irregular ridge. p.88
After one of the boys lobs a brick at the ghost they all run away. The story then skips forward several years to a time when one of the boys returns to the town. Now grown up, Fido looks up one of his childhood friends and subsequently returns to the bar on his own. The twist ending is predictable perhaps but doesn’t detract from an entertaining tale.
Pamela Pays the Piper by Phyllis Lee Peterson (Canadian Home Journal, February 1949) is a light-hearted story about a Scotsman who is killed at Glencoe and becomes a ghost. After haunting an English family for a couple of hundred years, the last surviving daughter of the line emigrates to Canada with her army husband and the ghost decides to follow.
Finally, The Traitor by James S. Hart is an entertaining enough vampire tale until the conclusion, which baffled me. The protagonist (spoiler) somehow manages to cross running water.
The non-fiction in this issue includes the third cover on this theme by George Salter: they are not growing on me. The book review column covers an eclectic range of books: they really liked Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, but some of the other choices are surprising:
Stop press addendum: Despite all debates on dianoetics and colliding worlds, we feel that the year will not produce a factual book more important to science fiction enthusiasts (and possibly to all mankind) than Donald Keyhoe’s cogent, intelligent and persuasive THE FLYING SAUCERS ARE REAL (Fawcett)—a two-bit pocketsize original deserving more serious attention than most four-dollar hardcover books. This is your must of the month. p.83
There is also a cartoon, the first in a very long F&SF tradition that lasts to this day.
In conclusion, there are some pleasant enough stories in this issue but nothing really notable bar, perhaps, Howard Schoenfield’s story.
- Charles Harness at ISFDB.