James Blish, The Issue at Hand, p.102-103
Lähettänyt Tpi Klo, Tpi’s Reading Diary
The Darfsteller • novella by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ♥♥♥♥
Armistice • short story by John Brunner [as by K. Houston Brunner]
Field Expedient • novelette by Chad Oliver ♥♥
Without Portfolio • short story by James E. Gunn ♥♥
Nothing New • short story by Eric Frank Russell ♥
Cover • Frank Kelly Freas
Interior artwork • H. R. Van Dongen, Frank Kelly Freas
Meaning Wanted • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory: October 1954
On Atomic Jets • essay by John R. Pierce [as by J. J. Coupling]
The Reference Library: Lost Adventure • book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller
Brass Tacks • letters
This issue of Astounding has the second Xmas Cover that the magazine used (the first had been the year before on the January 1954 issue). Perhaps Campbell or his art department had been encouraged by the use of these on Galaxy magazine. Whatever, this pleasant effort is by Frank Kelly Freas, the first of three he would contribute to the magazine.
The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller, Jr. is set in a theatre of the future where programmed mannequins have replaced actors onstage. The central character of this piece is Thornier, an out of work actor working as a janitor in one of these theatres. The first part details his tempestuous relationship with his boss D’Uccia, and his friendship with Rick who services the Maestro, the machine that controls the mannequins:
Rick finished feeding in the script tape, closed the panel, and opened an adjacent one. He ripped the lid from a cardboard carton and dumped a heap of smaller tape-spools on the table.
“Are those the souls they sold to Smithfield?” Thornier asked, smiling at them rather weirdly.
The technician’s stool scraped back and he exploded: “You know what they are!” Thornier nodded, leaned closer to stare at them as if fascinated. He plucked one of them out of the pile, sighed down at it.
“If you say ‘Alas, poor Yorick,’ I’ll heave you out of here!” Rick grated.
Thornier put it back with a sigh and wiped his hand on his coveralls. Packaged personalities. Actor’s egos, analogized on tape. Real actors, once, whose dolls were now cast in the roles. The tapes contained complex psychophysiological data derived from months of psychic and somatic testing, after the original actors had signed their Smithfield contracts. Data for the Maestro’s personality matrices. Abstractions from the human psyche, incarnate in glass, copper, chromium. The souls they rented to Smithfield on a royalty basis, along with their flesh and blood likenesses in the dolls. p.19
Later on that day Thornier bumps into the producer of the play that is about to start its run. Jade Fern is an old friend and she wants to speak to him later, but in the meantime she sends him to pick up a spare mannequin and tape.
While waiting to get the truck keys from his boss D’Uccio he hears him arranging for a new robot cleaner: Thornier feels a twinge of sadness. Even as a janitor he feels part of the theatre and will miss it when he goes. During the drive to the depot to pick up the mannequin he decides to sabotage the tapes for one of the mannequins in the hope of giving one last performance….
This is all developed at a leisurely pace as Miller introduces a number Thornier’s relationships throughout the story: after the antagonistic scenes with his boss (Thornier highly polishes the floor under his doormat after a disagreement, and D’Uccia later reciprocates with a robot cleaner), and those that have been mentioned already such as Rick and Jade, there is also an old relationship with an actress called Mela.
Running parallel to the story of these relationships is a significant amount of commentary about acting and, in particular, the method-acting technique that Thornier was known for—Miller coined ‘darfstellar,’ a corruption of the German word for actor, dafstellar, to describe a practitioner of that method. Another German word for actor, schauspeiler, is also used later in a different context. This is from an exchange between Thornier and Jade the producer, when she suggests he works for Smithfield, the tape company:
“Sorry, but you know me better than that.”
She shrugged, sighed wearily, closed her eyes again. “Yes, I do. You’ve got portrayer’s integrity. You’re a darfsteller. A director’s ulcer. You can’t play a role without living it, and you won’t live it unless you believe it. So go ahead and starve.” She spoke crossly, but he knew there was grudging admiration behind it. p.35
And there is this later:
When Rick rang the bell for the second run-through, it would be his entrance-cue, and he must be in-character by then. Too bad he was no schauspieler, too bad he couldn’t switch himself on-and-off the way Jade could do, but the necessity for much inward preparation was the burden of the darfsteller. He could not change into a role without first changing himself, and letting the revision seep surfaceward as it might, reflecting the inner state of the man. p.36
Although Miller perhaps fudges the ending, and is slightly sentimental or melodramatic at points, it is a sympathetic and engaging account of one man’s obsolescence in the future, and how he has singularly failed to adapt. Indeed, the final scene has a passage that is prescient even today:
“It’s too late to find a permanent niche.”
“It was too late when you were born, old man! There isn’t any such thing—hasn’t been, for the last century. Whatever you specialize in, another specialty will either gobble you up, or find a way to replace you. If you get what looks like a secure niche, somebody’ll come along and wall you up in it and write your epitaph on it. And the more specialized a society gets, the more dangerous it is for the pure specialist. You think an electronic engineer is any safer than an actor? Or a ditch-digger?” p.65
This story would go on to win Miller the first of his two Hugo awards.
The other long piece of fiction in this issue is Field Expedient by Chad Oliver. This starts on a peaceful future Earth that is run by a world government. However, humanity has become static and inward looking and desirous of protecting the status quo. There are signs like ‘Don’t rock the boat’ projected onto the sky.
A wealthy man called James Murray Vandervort has started a secret project that sends adopted children to Venus to start a different type of civilization, and this is done under the supervision of a select team and a number of androids. Keith Ortega is sent by Murray to Venus to personally supervise the project and report back.
Ortega goes there with his wife and the bulk of the rest of the story is about their time there and, later, what happens when an Earth Government spaceship arrives to investigate what is going on. At this point (spoiler) Ortega takes the Earth representative (and the reader) on a tour of the different settlements, the hunters, the industrialists, the ethicists, etc. He shows him the rituals that make all these tribes brothers, and brothers who will one day spread out to the stars ending the stasis of humanity….
The last section has Keith and his wife returning to Earth (and leaving their robot doubles behind with their sons) where they visit Vandermort, who is now 120 years old and dying. They finally discover his motivation for funding the project: he wants to be remembered.
This an OK piece overall but it is something of a curate’s egg: the Earth society setup at the start is clunky and unconvincing; the societal setup on Venus seems a little naïve. However, the final deathbed scene is quite good so it ends on a high.
Armistice by John Brunner is about Kerguelen being arrested and taken away for interrogation by Talbot. About half way through the story it turns out that Kerguelen is an alien with a plan to guide the human race, but Talbot does not react the way he hopes. Or something like that. Too long, too talky, too boring.
Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn tells of America and Eurasia on the eve of war and the American Secretary of State taking Mr Judy into a Senate hearing. When the committee questions Mr Judy (“Call me Stephen, or Steve…”) they find the government have contracted out diplomatic relations to his firm and he has declared war on Eurasia. The rest of the story is about how business methods bring the Eurasian government to heel. This is an OK satire and I imagine it was right up Campbell’s street.
Nothing New by Eric Frank Russell concerns a spaceship crew who are headed for an unexplored planet. En route they discuss the reason for their trip which is the possibility that the planet’s occupants may be immortal. Once they arrive they find a rural society and are met by a very slow moving alien who takes them by multi-cycle to an administrator (this section is the best part of the story).
The punchline (spoiler) is that this is not the first time they have been visited by Earthmen. This very slight premise is set up previously in the story by the ship’s archaeologist musing about what the state of human civilisation was before the Flood, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.
The Interior artwork is by H. R. Van Dongen and Frank Kelly Freas. My favourite illustration comes from Freas.1
Meaning Wanted by John W. Campbell, Jr. would appear to be, at the start, an editorial about science and facts, but it isn’t long before it turns out that this is a prelude to him doing a bit of axe-grinding about his latest hobbyhorse, Dr Rhine’s ‘psi effects’, and how the latter’s work is not being accepted by the scientific establishment.
This is a fairly tortuous read, a daisy chain of statements, analogies and half-baked assertions. I’m pretty sure there is a project here for someone who wants to go through these editorials and annotate all the errors of fact and reasoning.
In Brass Tacks Campbell’s editorial is followed by more of the same. Manly Banister contributes a three and a half page letter that is full of passages like:
Deduction is the work-horse that carries the burden of human thinking. And a sorry, idiotic work-horse it is, at that, for it labors just as genuinely on a false premise as it does on one that is accurate. For instance: All thieves have bushy hair. Joe has bushy hair. Therefore, Joe is a thief. p.157
Ah, no: your first premise would need to be ‘All people with bushy hair are thieves’ for you to deduce Joe is one. I think this letter is eventually (it meanders around all over the place) about conscious control of the human body’s processes but to be honest I’m not sure. The other two letters are equally as unrewarding (especially as both refer to previous ‘fact’ articles). One wonders to what extent readers of the time were buying the magazine only for the fiction and just ignoring Campbell’s editorials and the letters in reply.
In Times to Come plugs a new ‘Paratime’ story by H. Beam Piper and a cover by Frank Kelly Freas (his famous man-in-a-ladies’-bonnet-holding-a-knife one for a James H. Schmitz story called Grandpa).
The Analytical Laboratory: October 1954 has part three of Mark Clifton & Frank Riley’s (Hugo-winning) They’d Rather Be Right beating Poul Anderson’s The Big Rain by a nose; the other three names don’t mean anything to me.
On Atomic Jets by John R. Pierce is a science fact article that talks about space travel in the solar system. It examines (with formulae and graphs for those that like that sort of thing) the physics of this and concludes that we will probably require chemical engines to get into orbit, and atomic powered ion jets thereafter.
The Reference Library: Lost Adventure by P. Schuyler Miller leads off by reviewing an immortal woman/lost people novel called Lost Island by Graham McInnes and asks what has happened to the adventure in SF. Miller posits that after two world wars it may be something to do with people wanting security in their lives.
If you already have Miller’s story in a collection or anthology there isn’t anything else here worth reading the issue for.
- A lovely illustration by Freas: