The First World of If, 1957


Guest review by John Boston

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Fiction (all reprint short stories):
Watershed • by James Blish
Captive Market • by Philip K. Dick
Disqualified • by Charles L. Fontenay
Last Rites • by Charles Beaumont
The Cyber and Justice Holmes • by Frank Riley
The Battle • by Robert Sheckley
Franchise • by Isaac Asimov
The Last Crusade • by George H. Smith
Laboratory • by Jerome Bixby
The Rotifers • by Robert Abernathy
Shock Troop • by Richard Bolton
The Drivers • by Edward W. Ludwig
The Margenes • by Miriam Allen deFord
The Twilight Years • by Kirk Drussai and Garen Drussaï
Journey Work • by Dave Dryfoos
The Small World of M-75 • by Ed M. Clinton, Jr.
First Stage: Moon • by Dick Hetschel
A Cold Night for Crying • by Milton Lesser
A Pattern for Penelope • by Robert F. Young
Let There Be Light • by H. B. Fyfe [as by Horace B. Fyfe]

Cover • Mel Hunter

“Science Fiction at It s Finest!” (sic) says the strapline above the title, prompting the suspicion that somebody discovered a misplaced apostrophe at the last minute and removed it without having time to re-set the line.  But back in 1957, publishers knew their apostrophes—didn’t they?  Not like now.

However that may be, The First World of IF (1957) is a digest-sized publication with a Mel Hunter wraparound cover, 160 pages (40 more than the magazine had at this point), and an audacious 50-cent price tag (it would be a couple more years before any of the SF magazines would dare break the 35-cent ceiling).  It contains “20 Great Stories” (as the blurb beneath the title puts it) by a variety of well-known and less- (or not-) known authors, all reprinted from IF issues from 1952 through 1956, some much-reprinted and familiar, most not.  The copyright notice says “Edited by James L. Quinn and Eve Wulff,” who were respectively Editor and Assistant Editor at the time.  (It also points out that the stories are presented in the chronological order of their appearance.)  So it’s an anthology that looks and was presumably marketed like a magazine, its contents appropriately indexed both in the Index to SF Anthologies and Collections and the SF, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazine Index.

The cover boasts that the “20 Great Stories” are by “Isaac Asimov * Charles Beaumont * Jerome Bixby * James Blish * Philip K. Dick * Milton Lesser * Edward W. Ludwig * Frank Reilly * Robert Sheckley and others.”  Mostly not surprising, but . . . why headline Edward W. Ludwig?  Probably because at the time he had just published 13 stories in the SF mags in fairly quick succession and might have looked like a bona fide member of the Class of Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, et al.  After 1956, he vanished for several years and then published only a handful more stories before he was done.  Frank Riley, of course, still basked in the background radiation of the Hugo awarded to They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Riley.  Aside from that, he had only published four stories before 1957, and managed three more in 1957-58 (all of them in If ) before he fell or was pushed off the map .

This is an attractive package, chiefly because of the striking colors of the Mel Hunter cover, depicting a group of near-naked primitives with spears, seemingly in celebratory mood, on a beach or in the water as a big bright sun, clearly not our own, is beginning to set (or rise, I suppose).  Turn the magazine around and you’ll see why they seem in such a good mood: the back of the wraparound shows what appears to be the rear end of a crashed spaceship, decorated with human skulls and bloodstains, with another indigene standing on top brandishing a spear and a tomahawk.

The inside covers are more subdued, bearing depictions of what looks like a rudimentary spaceport on the Moon or other locale with little or no atmosphere, rendered in shades of green-gray and significantly obscured by an editorial blurb—the equivalent of jacket flap copy, and fairly clearly directed towards people who haven’t read much sf.  E.g.: “For when you really think about it for a while, IF is science fiction!  For instance, any science fiction story you read is really: ‘What would happen if—?’ ”

As for the contents, there are indeed 20 stories in the allotted 160 pages, none of them very long.  There are no departments or other editorial matter aside from the above quoted blurb from the inside covers, just the stories.  And the stories are surprisingly . . . OK, mostly written with competence and without excessive mannerism, and in most cases bearing some reasonable degree of substance.  (Spoilers Galore to follow.)

The prevalence of near-horizon cautionary tales is striking; this collection briskly catalogues the anxieties of the 1950s.  (Not that those anxieties have all gone away.)  Some of the stories are outright dystopian.  Milton Lesser’s A Cold Night for Crying (If, December 1954) seems to be a faint genre echo of Darkness at Noon: after the invasion by the Karadi (it’s studiedly unclear whether they are from the planet Karad or perhaps the land of Comrades), everybody lives in paranoid misery, much of it inflicted gratuitously by our new overlords.  The protagonist’s son is reported killed in military service to the Karadi, but the neighbors in the Underground, the ones with the short-wave radios, tell protagonist it’s not true, he’s captured by the Resistance, and safe.  After wild gyrations of ambivalence, he decides not to believe their story, and heads for the police station to turn his neighbors in.  Journey Work by Dave Dryfoos (If, January 1955) presents a dystopia of geriatric paranoia: in the future, everybody who hits 70 without relatives to take care of him is consigned to a Home for Seniles, except for the many who evade this system by working for a pittance off the books, at constant risk of being turned in.  86-year-old Ollie Holveg narrowly avoids this fate, escaping without his belonging and only a few dollars to his name, and riding the rails in pursuit of a want ad seeking “OLDER MEN without dependents needed for dangerous scientific experiments”; turns out they want attendants for largely automatic interstellar spaceships.  In one of the happier endings to be found here, it is disclosed that he makes it back after photographing the planets of Arcturus.  The same gong is rung but the characters do not fare so well in The Twilight Years by Kirk and Garen Drussoi (If, June 1955): in their world, people over 60 are eliminated by masked death squads, whose activities are covered by television crews and broadcast live as a show called “Manhunt,” which everyone watches.  Anybody who can’t stand the wait can declare themselves “fair game” and go out onto the street to be hunted.  The old couple of the story get to watch on TV as their murderers approach and enter their building and kill them, though they are not around long enough to hear themselves thanked for playing their parts on the show.

War and apocalypse receive considerable attention here as well, albeit from different perspectives.  Horace B. Fyfe’s Let There Be Light (If, November 1952) is a sardonic post-apocalypse tale; after the unspecified destruction, some automatic systems still function, and the remnants of humanity engage with them by felling trees across the road so the robot repair crews will come out and the people can ambush them and drain their oil to burn in their lamps.   Philip K. Dick’s familiar Captive Market (If, April 1955) is more unrelievedly bleak and also more gimmicky.  Here we are in Dick’s familar ash-covered post-nuclear scene of the 1950s, with a group of despairing survivors trying to fix up a surviving rocket to escape to Venus (!); they obtain necessary supplies and equipment from a woman in the pre-war time who runs a country store and, via one of the grotesque psi talents also typical of ‘50s Dick, is able to drive her pick-up truck into the future loaded with goods, for which she is paid in large quantities of the money that has become useless after the war.  The survivors make the mistake of telling her that they are ready to go, so they won’t need her services any more.  It turns out her psi talent doesn’t just involve driving her truck into the future; she also selects the future from the various possibilities, so she picks the one in which the rocket crashes on take-off and the diminished number of survivors will remain dependent on her. Philip K. Dick’s knack for the comprehensive bummer has rarely been so well employed.

Ongoing war, rather than its sequelae, is featured in The Last Crusade by George H. Smith (If, February 1955), which reads like an early dry run for Barry Malzberg’s Final War, perhaps as rendered by Damon Runyon.  Our boys, decked out in “mecho-armor” anticipating the fighting suits of Starship Troopers, have been “crawling back and forth in what used to be Paris,” mixing it up with the Peoples Federal Democratic Eastern Republics, though no one can quite remember why.  One of the soldiers appears to be brain-damaged, doesn’t know who he is, knows he’s been captured and changed sides but can’t remember where he started, and is prone to babbling, including recounting his dream about “not being any more Western Federation or any Eastern Republics . . . no more America . . . no more Russia . . . just two self-perpetuating armies . . like hoards [sic] of maggots crawling across the corpse of Europe.”  General Fightin’ Joe Mac Williams shows up in his luxurious armored vehicle staffed with blonde WACS, with television crew, to brief them about their next assignment, taking a big building full of the enemy, which they do, only to receive orders shortly thereafter to return to their prior positions.  The brain-damaged guy runs back into the building just in time for it to be bombed, because he saw a picture in it that reminded him of something—maybe a hint that the building is or was the Louvre.  This is as Stygian a black comedy as ever appeared in the SF magazines (well, it’s competitive with The Twilight Years).  Robert Sheckley sends the whole subject up in the even more broadly satirical The Battle (If, September 1954), in which our generals are fighting the battle of Armageddon by deploying our hordes of robot infantry and automatic tanks against the legions of Hell.  When it’s all over and the good guys have won, God, here denominated the Presence, descends to the battlefield and proceeds to resurrect the machinery.  This one is clever enough and short enough that one wonders why it didn’t appear in one of the more upscale markets that Sheckley frequented; but Boucher and Gold were probably afraid of offending the pious.

Another recurring theme is our machines getting out of hand in one way or another.  The Battle could be seen as one example.  The Small World of M-75 by Ed M.Clinton, Jr. (If, July 1954), involves a “servomech” in a nuclear power plant, one of three robot/computers that inhabit the “Hot Room” and control the operations of the reactor.  M-75 attains self-awareness in some unspecified fashion (Groff Conklin picked the story for Science Fiction Adventures in Mutation but I’m not convinced), abandons its post, and goes lurching out in search of adventure and enlightenment, to everyone’s consternation for several reasons including that M-75 is at this point radioactive as hell.  It makes it outside and watches the sun set before the demolition squad arrives and blows it up.  Isaac Asimov’s Franchise (If, August 1955) is his well-known election story: in the future, American elections are conducted by Multivac, which identifies a single individual as representative of the entire electorate.  This person is the Voter, who “votes” by being questioned by Multivac for several hours, after which the computer announces who the electorate really wants as President: “In this imperfect world, the sovereign citizens of the first and greatest Electronic Democracy had, through Norman Muller (through him) exercised once again its free, untrammelled franchise.”  Yeah, right.  Charles Beaumont’s Last Rites (If, October 1955) proposes that the machines may be hiding among us right now: a priest is visiting a guy who has been a real asset to the community, though nobody much known; he says he is dying but won’t say of what; he starts off on a “what if” tangent about the possibility that someone who seems to be human is really a robot, even though he has learned to pass, as it were; would the robot have a soul?  An afterlife?  Should he get the last rites?  The smell of burning oil becomes more noticeable as this conversation progresses, and after he expires the priest gives him Extreme Unction.  I believe the question presented here seemed considerably more urgent in the 1950s than it does now.

The pushy machines are put in their place in The Cyber and Justice Holmes by Frank Riley (If, March 1955), a variation on the John Henry story, and a fairly annoying one at that.  Judge Walhfred (sic) Anderson is much exercised by the campaign for “Cyber Justice,” i.e., to replace him and his kind with machines.  The District Attorney who is running for higher office on a Cyber Justice platform hauls in a guy on fraud charges; he’s putting on performances purporting to show that he can perform Cyber functions more efficiently than the machines.  So they have a trial by demonstration (ordered by the appellate court, which is already Cyber-ized), and this Professor Neustadt proceeds to best the most powerful Cyber the DA can wheel into court at answering questions like “What is the percentage compressibility of caesium under 45,000 atmospheres of pressure, and how do you account for it?”  After his performance, the Professor is allowed to put a question to the Cyber: “What are the magnitudes of a dream?”  Answer:  “Problem unsolved.”  Next: a lecture from the Prof about how Man (sic) can dream and machines can’t, but they can help us with the scutwork.  And how does Justice Holmes get into the act?  Judge Anderson has a picture of him on the wall, which he winks at covertly every morning, and, at the end of this smarmy paean to conventional sentiments: “Then, in full view of the cameras, Walhfred Anderson turned and winked boldly at Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

Somewhere between dystopia and mechanophobia is Edward W. Ludwig’s The Drivers (If, February 1956), which absurdly proposes that automobiles have become obsolete for practical purposes, apparently because of the efflorescence of public transportation, but they have become mandatory for young people (or young males—it’s not explicit) as a way of channeling youthful aggression.  Drivers get decorations for collisions, special ones for fatalities.  Young Tom Rogers wants no part of this system and reluctantly presents himself a couple of days before his 21st birthday, the legal deadline, and receives his license and a jet-propelled automobile, along with some words of wisdom: “But remember, don’t try to make a killing your first day.  Most drivers aren’t out to get a Ribbon every day either.  They just want to get to work or school, mostly, and have fun doing it.”  But somebody tries to run him off the road his first day on it, he performs a desperation maneuver that causes the other driver (who had 32 accident ribbons with 21 fatalities) to be killed.  He’s a hero, and decides he likes it.

Another 1950s preoccupation, the invisible enemy all around us, appears in Robert Abernathy’s The Rotifers (If, March 1953), in which the accountant paterfamilias, who wants better for his intellectual son, buys him a high-powered microscope and brings him some pond water to look at.  The rotifers in the water turn out not to like being looked at and not to like the idea that they are not alone, and they make the kid very sick; big trouble for humanity may be in store.

After all this foreboding, one might well be moved to ask:  “Dude!  Where’s my sense of wonder?  Where are the vistas of deep space and long time, the exotic worlds and their strange inhabitants?”

Well, they are there, but not entirely satisfactory.  You want space and time?  James Blish’s Watershed (If, May 1955), which became the last episode in his fix-up The Seedling Stars, is a talky and severely virtuous tale of an expedition to old Earth carrying a contingent of Adapted Men (adapted from seals by means of pantropy, or panatropy as this publication renders it), since humanity has made the Earth environment uninhabitable for standard humans.  The standard humans on the ship all hate the Adapted Men to one degree or another, and the story is mostly a series of conversations leading up to the seal-man’s proposition that realizing that now Adapted Men are better suited for old Earth than are the standard humans will destroy the latter’s delusons of centrality.  Noble sentiment, especially coming as it did the year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, but it does not redeem the lack of a story behind the essay.  In fairness, this probably read a lot better as the conclusion of The Seedling Stars, which as a whole certainly can’t be faulted for lack of story, than it does in isolation.

Brief and didactic is succeeded by brief and inconsequential in Charles L. Fontenay’s three-page Disqualified (If, September 1954),  in which the Solar Council’s Planetary Aid agent, inspecting a colony planet for admission to the Solar Council, deduces the hidden presence of slavery and cannibalism.  The same is true of Dick Hetschel’s three-plus page First Stage: Moon (If, December 1954), told entirely in dialogue, astronauts returning from the first voyage to the moon anticipate their warm reception and lionization, but are met with a bomb.

Aliens?  There’s an alien visitor in Robert F. Young’s slightly twee A Pattern for Penelope (If, October 1954), in which Miss Haskell, elderly and in penury, can’t pay her milk bill and is about to be cut off, meaning curtains for the cat Penelope.  But the strange kid she invites in out of the cold, who seems to need everything explained to him but is much taken with Penelope, proves to be a winner in the galactic “My Favorite Primitive Planet” essay contest, and for the “alteration” that he is permitted to make in his pet world as a prize, he proposes cancelling the milk bill.  There are more visitors—billions of them—in Miriam Allen de Ford’s The Margenes (If, February 1956); they look like miniature doughnuts, and are delicious and nutritious—while they last, after which civilization collapses.  Jerome Bixby’s Laboratory (If, December 1955), the longest story in the collection, exemplifies a strain of silliness that was all too common in the ’50s magazines: gigantic tentacled invisible alien scientists Gop and Pud are using a remote planetoid for their researches when Johnny and Helen make an emergency landing in their meteor-holed spaceship.  Gop and Pud try to move their equipment (also invisible) out of the humans’ way as they move around the planetoid, but the humans still fall into the tharn-field, and blunder into the dimensional-warp, and one of them falls through the intra-spatial doorway to the other side of the planet, and to remedy the resulting mess Gop and Pud send them back through time by way of the third flud-subcontinuum, etc. ad tedium.  And the final item, Richard Bolton’s Shock Troop (If, October 1956), is the very familiar one about the aliens who encounter humans, misunderstand what’s going on, and flee in terror—in this case, the invasion party has shown up just in time for an American Legion convention with parade.

So it’s hard to know what to make of this package.  The emphasis on near-future terrestrial threats and travails, combined with the inside cover blurb, suggest that the editors were trying to convince non-SF readers that this is a responsible literature relevant to the things that they worry about, not all that Buck Rogers and space squid stuff they’ve heard about—but if that’s the case, why all the cartoony aliens?  And why the lurid extraterrestrial cover?

We’ll presumably never know.  But despite its conceptual and promotional peculiarities, it was certainly worth half of an Eisenhower dollar.

There are a handful of lesser known writers here.  Edward Ludwig and Frank Riley are mentioned above.  Dick Hetschel (First Stage: Moon) has three other credits in the SF magazines of the 1950s.  Ed M. Clinton, Jr. (The Small World of M-75) had a dozen from 1953 to 1966.  Dave Dryfoos (Journey Work) had a shorter but more intense career: 22 stories from late 1950 to early 1955.  (Both Dryfoos and Clinton lived into the 21st Century per the SFFWF Index.)  Of Kirk and Garen Drussai (The Twilight Years), Garen was the powerhouse: five stories, 1952 through 1956 (two of them in the same issue of Vortex), Kirk Drussai collaborating only on this one.  Richard Bolton (Shock Troop), no other credits in the SF mags.  Cast a cold eye!
© John Boston 2016

John Boston has read and reviewed the first 141 issues of New Worlds, and all 93 issues of Science Fantasy/Impulse. He and Damien Broderick have collected these reviews in three volumes, and they are also the editors of three collections of the best stories from Science Fantasy/Impulse. All are available in paper and digital editions: Amazon UK, Amazon USA.

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