John Loyd: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch
When the Last Gods Die • short story by Fritz Leiber ♥♥
The Haunted Ticker • reprint short story by Percival Wilde ♥♥♥
O Ugly Bird! • short story by Manly Wade Wellman ♥♥♥
The Rats • reprint short story by Arthur Porges ♥♥♥+
Built Down Logically • short story by Howard Schoenfeld ♥
The Earlier Service • reprint short story by Margaret Irwin ♥♥♥
The Universe Broke Down • reprint short story by Robert Arthur ♥♥
Come On, Wagon! • short story by Zenna Henderson ♥♥
The House in Arbor Lane • short story by James S. Hart ♥
Skiametric Morphology and Behaviorism of Ganymedeus Sapiens: a Summary of Neoteric Hypotheses • short story by Kenneth R. Deardorf ♥♥
The Hyperspherical Basketball • short story by H. Nearing, Jr. ♥
Cover • by George Salter and Dirone Photography
Report from the Editors
Recommended Reading • by The Editors
Index to Volume Two—February 1951-December 1951
Editors: Anthony Boucher & J. Francis McComas
I mentioned in a previous review that there were signs that F&SF was changing into the magazine it would become in the early and mid-50s: this issue marks a significant step in that direction. Not only do we have the first appearances of Fritz Leiber, Zenna Henderson and Arthur Porges, but we also have the first of the ‘John the Balladeer’ stories from a previous contributor, Manly Wade Wellman.
Fritz Leiber would contribute and number of significant stories for F&SF over the years including a handful of award winners.1 When the Last Gods Die is described in the introduction as ‘a short mood piece,’ which is a fair description. It tells of a machine travelling to meet the remnants of humanity, who now appear to be gods:
Then the Machine (for such it was) spoke: “For a last time we implore you to reconsider your decision.”
One of the men, gray as Time himself, lifted his chin from his chest and answered. And since I can no more render his actual name than I can reproduce his language or more than hint at the breadth of his thought, and since he and his companions—with the Bacchic suggestion of their hoofs and hides—were faintly akin to some sculptured portraiture of the Greek and Roman Gods, I will call him Saturn.
Saturn answered, “Your plea is futile. We made our decision when we made you.”
The buried tendrils of the Machine wormed a little closer, pleadingly. “But we are your children, the children of your brains.”
Saturn shook his head slightly and, selecting across the eons the same ancient metaphor I have used, replied, “Minerva sprang full-grown from the brain of Jove. Does that mean her father must live forever?”
“But when man made the machine,” the Machine responded, “when he made the spear, the sail, the spaceship, he never dreamed it would end this way.”
“Perhaps not,” Saturn told him. “Dreams don’t foretell everything. The sun is sinking.” p. 4
I suspect that this theatrical piece is a stylistic break from Leiber’s previous writing, but I am not knowledgeable enough to say so authoritatively.
I also know very little about Arthur Porges’ work other than he was the writer of a story called The Ruum in a later issue of the magazine (and am aware of another called The Fly).2 The Rats (Man’s World, February 1951) is a tale about a man who is living in a restricted and abandoned area beside a atomic bomb testing facility. The reason why is brilliantly obvious:
In this region, wasteland to begin with, and now forbidden by law, a man would be safe. What enemy, he reasoned, cared to waste a gram of fissionable material on such a locality? Further, when the bombs fell, an eventuality he believed imminent, there would be no panicky mobs to pillage his supplies, menace his life blindly, and, in short, ruin his slender chance for survival. p.45
The only problem he has—apart from imminent nuclear war—is that the rats have had their food supply cut off with the closing of the facility and they are now eating his rations. So begins the story of his attempts to eradicate them, something that proves harder than expected given their unusual intelligence.
This is a pretty good piece and I suspect it has everything that you would want in a mens’ magazine story of the time: grisly and inhumane ways of killing rats, a cat and mouse (!) battle between the two, and a neat last scene.
Zenna Henderson won’t need any introduction if you have read previous reviews of F&SF here: she was, among other things, the author of the popular and well-regarded ‘The People’ stories which appeared in the magazine throughout the following decades. Come On, Wagon! was her first published adult fiction3 (according to the introduction, there had been poetry and a juvenile book previously) and is about a man who has a strange nephew called Thaddeus:
I was out by the barn waiting for Dad. Mom was making him change his pants before he demonstrated his new tractor for me. I saw Thaddeus loading rocks into his little red wagon. Beyond the rock pile, I could see that he had started a play house or ranch of some kind, laying the rocks out to make rooms or corrals or whatever. He finished loading the wagon and picked up another rock that took both arms to carry, then he looked down at the wagon.
“Come on, Wagon.” And he walked over to his play-place.
And the wagon went with him, trundling along over the uneven ground, following at his heels like a puppy.
I blinked and inventoried rapidly the Christmas Cheer I had imbibed. It wasn’t enough for an explanation. I felt a kind of cold grue creep over me. p. 80-81
Later, as the uncle is recuperating abroad from war injuries, he learns from a letter that there may have been a similar incident where Thaddeus exhibited his psychokinetic powers, although they weren’t recognised as such by the family.
The story sets up an ending (spoiler) that is fairly predictable (a tractor accident that pins one of the family underneath the machine). However, the resolution is not what I expected or would have preferred, and it is quite atypically downbeat for the period. Readers will fall into two camps about this one: some will find it appropriate; others, like me (and Horace Gold, probably), would have preferred something more upbeat.4
O Ugly Bird! by Manly Wade Wellman, as mentioned above, is the first of the ‘John the Balladeer’ stories, another popular F&SF series.5 These tell of a wanderer called John who plays a guitar with silver strings. In this story he wanders into a small settlement and sees a man called Mr Onslem extorting one of the settlers who lives there. Later, after Mr Onslem has left and John is talking to the man, a strange vulture-like creature lands and takes a sack of meal, lifting it with claws that look very similar to Mr Onslem’s hands . . . .
The rest of the story is fairly straightforward but its strength is in its modern American folk-fantasy setting. By the time I started reading F&SF in the mid-1970s, it had a long tradition of printing stories that involved American folklore. Wellman, and this series in particular, was perhaps the forerunner.
As to the rest of the fiction there are a couple of good reprint novelettes but the rest is pretty much a mixed bag. The first reprint novelette is The Haunted Ticker by Percival Wilde (The Popular Magazine, May 20th, 1923). This is about a mean old man who makes a financial killing when he develops a system for predicting the rise and fall of the 1920’s stock market. When he falls ill and has to remain at home, he installs his nephew in a stockbroker’s office and starts communicating to him using coded telephone messages. Although the uncle promises to instruct the nephew in his system he dies before he can do so—but then the codes start coming over the tickertape . . . .
I enjoyed this gentleman’s club tale, but it is mostly about the goings-on in a stockbroker’s office so it won’t be for everyone. The ending is somewhat predictable, too.
The other reprint of note is The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin (Madame Fears the Dark, 1935). This concerns the sixteen year old daughter of a vicar who is disturbed by something she senses in a corner of her father’s church. This develops with the later sighting of a figure, and also carvings discovered by a visitor that indicate one of the previous medieval priests may have been a Satanist.
At the end of the story (spoiler) the daughter observes a service involving strange cowled figures, and the final scene involves a temporal displacement/time-warp element that is unnecessarily telegraphed in the introduction by the editors.
This is a pretty good story, I thought, by a writer whose descriptive powers convincingly conjure up the mid-1930’s church family setting. I’d be interested to read more by this writer.
Built Down Logically by Howard Schoenfeld is presumably a sequel of sorts to last year’s Build Up Logically. It is an inconsequential piece where logical daisy-chaining once again makes things happen—in this case a very smart two year old disappears.
The Universe Broke Down by Robert Arthur (Argosy, 1941) is a story about a madcap scientist/inventor and his space-portal invention. Narrated by his friend, this is a pleasant story if a light-weight one, but it does have a good explanation of the machine’s effect:
Suppose two ants are on a sheet of paper—a two-dimensional world. Suppose they’re on opposite sides of the paper, and want to join each other. One of them will have to crawl clear across the sheet, over the edge, and clear back on the other side. That’s equivalent to traveling distance, or through space, in our three-dimensional world.
“But suppose one of the ants invents an apparatus for drilling a hole in the paper, through which it can crawl in an instant to join the other. That would be equivalent to my Spatial By-pass apparatus, which utilizes a pseudofourth dimension of its own creation to make it possible to move from one spot to another without traversing the intervening distance. p.72-73
The House in Arbor Lane by James S. Hart is a story about a young man and woman who are on trial for murder. During the trial we discover that the young man is an artist who had painted a picture of a house where the murder was committed several months previously. As he finished the picture he had a vivid dream about being in a room where an elderly woman stabs a young one. He testifies that it felt like he was there but he could not move. The story unfolds of how he later meets the young woman on the bus and ends up in the exact same room.
This is all rather contrived and unbelievable, and not helped by some corny writing, such as this after the revelation of a jury discussion twist in the tail:
A small cloud slid across the face of the sun and the room darkened. There was a hush that lasted for a full minute. p. 108
Skiametric Morphology and Behaviorism of Ganymedeus Sapiens: a Summary of Neoteric Hypotheses by Kenneth R. Deardorf is a short, clever and slight ‘non-fact’ article about hyper-dimensional beings. They appear to humans as single lines, and the story is illustrated with appropriate sketches.6
Finally, The Hyperspherical Basketball by H. Nearing, Jr. is the fourth of the ‘C. P. Ransom’ stories. This one has an almost unintelligible beginning where the mathematician Ransom explains making a circle out of a line, a sphere out of a circle and a hypersphere out of a sphere. This is not clearly explained.
The second part of the story provides some enjoyment in its story of a game of college basketball between the sports and academic masters using Ransom’s hypersphere—a basketball that not only changes size but sometimes appears in unexpected places. The game is refereed by Ransom’s long-suffering colleague MacTate.
As for the non-fiction, I think that this month’s Cover is my favourite Salter so far: certainly an eye catching piece that would attract readers at the newsstand.
Report from the Editors is a short half-page note about stories from F&SF that have been selected for the year’s best and other anthologies.
In Recommended Reading the editors review three Willy Ley books and, from the rest, recommend Rogue Queen by L. Sprague de Camp, The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt, and The Innocence of Pastor Müller by Carlo Beuf .
There is also a useful Index to Volume Two—February 1951-December 1951.
An interesting and significant issue.7
- Fritz Leiber had a number of award winning stories in F&SF (Ship of Shadows, Ill Met in Lanhkmar, Catch That Zeppelin!, Our Lady of Darkness/The Pale Brown Thing, etc. More details on ISFDB.)
- Arthur Porges’ The Ruum (F&SF, October 1953) was one of those early SF anthology stories that seared itself into my brain. I think I probably dreamed about being pursued by the ruum for months afterwards.
- Annette Peltz McComas’s book The Eureka Years: Boucher and McComas’s Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 1949-1954 includes some of the correspondence between the editors and Ms Henderson about this story (p. 91-92):
3 December 1950
Dear Miss Henderson:
We were deeply impressed with your story, COME ON WAGON! It’s fine fantasy, written in a neat terse style that we like a lot.
However, we don’t think you have fully developed your situation. We’d like to offer the following suggestions for revision, with the hope you’ll see fit to work on them and let us see what happens. If you can do a satisfactory rewrite, we’ll want the story.
There should be one more episode illustrating Thaddeus’ curious powers. It would be effective, I think; if this were written to the narrator, while he’s in the hospital, by his Dad. It should be written so that Dad is not fully aware of just what Thaddeus can do, or just how strange is the happening he relates, but the narrator is.
Then, leave the story as is until the tractor accident occurs, right up to the advent of Thaddeus. But, in your rewrite, have Thad refuse to help.
That makes for a stronger situation, stresses the gulf between children and adults, ends your story on a horrible question. Make sure that the reader understands that Thaddeus won’t help because he can’t.
Hoping to see a rewrite on this.
9 February 1951
Dear Mrs. Henderson:
Please forgive the extremely long silence on COME ON, WAGON—a complex matter of editorial illnesses and absences.
The rewrite’s a very attractive job, which we certainly want to use.
Has good luck been befalling you in the meanwhile, or is this your first sale? Purely selfishly, we hope that all your other stories have not sold (but will immediately after this); we like the smug satisfaction of being able to claim, years later, “Look, we discovered her.”
- I’d have liked a more upbeat ending to Henderson’s story but mutedly so. After a modified last scene:
We came close to losing Clyde in that accident. He was in the hospital for several months, and walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. Something else was lost though: I never again saw the light that had appeared in Thaddeus’s eyes when he said, ‘Come on, Tractor,’ and the huge machine rolled off of Clyde’s leg.
Yes, I know: I can’t write my way out of a paper bag. Why do you think I spend my time doing this?
- Annette Peltz McComas’s book also includes correspondence between the editors and Mr Wellman about O Ugly Bird! (p. 147-149):
Labor Day, 1949
It is with considerable interest I read what Benet’s Phoenix Nest says about you and your projected Magazine of Fantasy. More power to this effort to jack up the reputation and quality of the genre. My unsolicited opinion is that it will be tougher to do than Fred Dannay’s similar detective-story labor, for there isn’t quite the public for it, in spite of all the essays to that effect by Wolheim, Pratt, de Camp, et al.
Still, I’m somewhat of a laborer in the fantasy lodge myself. I’d rather write supernatural than science, and haven’t done so because of the limited and underpaid market. Tell me, if you care to, what about Magazine of Fantasy? Preferred lengths, taboos, special needs? Also, in a sordid vein, what are you paying? I doubt if these frontier and rustic latitudes will have your publication on the stands—how about sending me a copy?
Let me say at once that I am not writing this letter with anything in the way of a rejected dud to send you. I have absolutely nothing on the stocks at present in the fantasy bracket. But, erroneously or not, I think that once and again I’ve thrown away some terribly effective writing on such pulps as WEIRD TALES, where nobody would know good writing from bad with a fifty-power microscope.
Best of luck with the magazine, from
Manly Wade Wellman
12 September 1950
Once again you have written on hell of a story! [O UGLY BIRD!]
Three small points:
A) Are silver strings practical and feasible on a guitar? If you’re positive, we’ll take your word; if you have any doubts, we’d like to consult Ted Sturgeon, who knows all about guitars.
B) We’d like to go back to the original ugly bird; the overlap between Jesse Stuart’s public and ours is negligible.
C) (And the only really serious one) . . . the story bogs down pretty badly in a mess of explanations like a badly constructed whodunit. Can’t you reconstruct—planting a little of this earlier, paring the rest down to a minimum— so that there’s only a few hundred words between the destruction of Onselm and the curtain?
19 September 1950
Your letter on how to do the yam over arrived late Saturday, and I just bowed my neck and did the thing over. New title, as you see, O UGLY BIRD! I did it all except three of the early pages, and tried to fix those explanations at the end.
Answering your question about the silver strings, I went into that before ever I wrote. Silver strings were used before steel strings became good enough. Silver makes a good harmonious jangle, a la silver horns, etc. I checked again before I wrote, in Deems Taylor’s MUSIC LOVER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA, which has this to say under “Stringed Instruments”: Guitar strings today are sometimes silver wound on a steel or silk core. And under “Silver trumpet”, it says that silver is used for strings on many instruments.
To switch things around and plant ahead, I took up slack here and there to allow new inserts; but the story comes out just about as long as it was when you saw it last.
Good luck to you, and I really want to hear that this magazine makes the grade. It’s badly needed!
- An example of the illustrations for the Kenneth R. Deardorf story:
- I mentioned in my review of F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950, that Annette McComas selected three stories from that issue for her anthology. She selected three from this one too (the Henderson, Wellman and Deardorf).