Editor: John Campbell; Assistant Editor: Kay Tarrant
Medicine Show • novelette by Robert Moore Williams ♥♥
Multifarious • short story by Algis Budrys ♥♥
Lady with a Past • short story by Irving E. Cox, Jr.
Operating Instructions • short story by Robert Sheckley ♥
Mission of Gravity (Part 2 of 4) • serial by Hal Clement ♥♥♥
Cover • by Austin R. Baer
Interior artwork • by J. Dreany, Pawelka, Paul Orban, Schecterson, H. R. Van Dongen
Thinking Machine • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Space, Time and Education • essay by John E. Arnold
The Analytical Laboratory: February 1953
Pi Equals Anything But 3.14159 . . . • science essay
The Reference Library: First Reader • book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller
Brass Tacks • letters
This issue leads off with Medicine Show by Robert Moore Williams, which is about a small town doctor and a medicine show that rolls into town. When the doctor finishes his rounds he goes to visit and is taken by one of the men to be examined by a strange machine. He is then given two pieces of metal, one to put in each pocket, to cure his hay fever.
The rest of the story is very predictable—another of the town’s doctors is hostile to the show and gets the sheriff to arrest the men. Meanwhile, a young girl develops a life-threatening infection. It’s considerably more accessible, readable and convincing than the other stories in the issue, and has the occasional piece of quite effective writing, such as when the young girl has a fever:
In the corner, the puppy whimpered. On the bed, the little girl moaned and twisted. She was not in contact with this world but with some other world in which strange shapes came and went like ghosts across a wasteland. In this other world were sights that frightened her. p. 39
. . . although you could probably get rid of one of those repeated ‘worlds.’
Multifarious by Algis Budrys is about an alien arriving on Earth. He quickly meets a human, and there follows a game of cat and mouse. The alien wants to get as much information as possible from the Earthman, including details of the helmet he wears—which among other things provides shelter and food—before he kills him. It materialises (spoiler) that the humans have discovered the secret of matter transmission, and they are happy to provide the technology to the aliens to help them overcome their competitive culture.
This is generally an OK piece, and the avoidance of an ending where the Earthman kills or otherwise bests the alien makes a change.
Lady with a Past by Irving E. Cox, Jr. is set several hundred years after the Suicide War, and starts with the narrator seeing a rocket or asteroid plunging into the forest he is monitoring. He goes to the crash site and finds a woman there. After much running around we find out (spoiler) she is part of an offworld colony that was set up after the war, and has come back to set up ‘receptors’ that will enable her colleagues to take over Earth. How this is supposed to happen isn’t explained convincingly as the story is more interested in the minutiae of the logical and well-adjusted post-war society that has developed. This is an unconvincing piece that verges on the ludicrous at times (the scene concerning the operation of the receptors, for example).
Operating Instructions by Robert Sheckley is about a psi being taken on a (normally) three man spaceship to assist the engines on a trip to Mars.1 The story makes much of these rules in handling the unreliable psi:
“Operationally, the psi may be considered a unit of tricky, delicate, powerful machinery. Like all machines, certain maintenance and operating rules must be observed. To function, any machine must be:
Taking these in order we find:
1. In order to function at all, a psi must feel at home, secure, wanted.
2. Praise must be afforded the psi at frequent intervals. Since the psi is unstable, his ego must be periodically boosted.
3. Understanding and sympathy must be used at all times when dealing with the psi.
4. The psi must be allowed to run at his own pace. Excess pressure will break him.”
Powell looked up and smiled. “That’s all there is to it.” p. 78
Except that, of course, it isn’t: the psi pushes much harder than expected and the spaceship ends up beyond the orbit of Saturn. The rest of the story is mostly about the histrionics of the psi when he discovers he can’t ‘push’ any more, and the captain’s attempts to get him working again. The very weak resolution is (spoiler) that the captain eventually treats him like any other piece of equipment, i.e. orders him to push. I’m sure this went down a storm with Campbell, given its ‘men-as-reliable-as-machines (if only we can get them sorted)’ theme.
Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement has a weaker second part, but I still enjoyed it. The expedition encounters a strange bowl-shaped city with tunnels. The natives, after a spot of trading, try to roll rocks down onto the crew, who are all forced to confront their fear of heights and jump on the tank to save themselves. This section struck me as rather contrived encounter.
Better is the episode where they encounter a sixty foot cliff-edge just before the river, and with no way around. The raft has to be dismantled, winched down—with the crew!—and Lackland and his tank are left behind. Finally, Barlennan and his crew meet another set of natives, who again cause the crew problems.
The artist for this Cover is Austin R. Baer, a student at MIT2 and one-time contributor to both Astounding and the SF field. I’m not sure what happened to Astounding’s covers in 1953 but they were of a very variable standard.3
A number of artists contribute Interior artwork this issue, and the best of it comes from long time contributors Paul Orban and H. R. Van Dongen.4
The editorial, Thinking Machine, by John W. Campbell, Jr. suggests these components for an ideal thinking machine:
Suppose we have the following components to start with:
1. An infinite data-storage device.
2. A set of perceptic devices, specifically including a device capable of searching the data-storage system and perceiving the data there stored.
3. A logic computer, working on binary digital mechanisms.
4. A GG unit (explained below).
5. A set of actuator units.
I propose that such a device, started with bad data, having faulty actuators, and faulty perceptors—save the internal data search mechanism—will, given time, be able to solve all the problems of the total Universe. p. 6
This ends up being one of those exhaustingly reasoned and unconvincingly contrived Campbell editorials. A GG unit is a ‘good guesser’ unit by the way, or ‘magic box’ to you and me.
Space, Time and Education by John E. Arnold is an interesting article about a course MIT has started to teach creative thinking to engineering students. Part of the course gets them to build vehicles for aliens on a planet different from ours. There are a number of eye-catching passages, including the following:
No man today can defend the democracy that Washington and Jefferson established, because America has developed, has learned greater wisdom and invented new social ideas, the “heritage” of Washington and Jefferson is forever gone!
For example, in their day, their concept of democracy held that no man who owned less than five thousand dollars worth of property had a right to vote. Their concept of democracy has long since been changed; they would never have accepted the idea of woman voters.
The very fact that men are idealists, and will fight for their ideals, makes social inventions extremely difficult under our present-day understanding of what actually constitutes “our heritage.” The more strongly and deeply idealistic a man is, the more genuinely and sincerely he holds his honest beliefs, the more valiantly he will defend these “truths” that are, to him, self-evident.
Social inventions are most desperately needed today— and are hardest of all to make, because each man, within himself, has limited his own creative thinking. By failing to find the fundamental core of his ideals, he may sacrifice everything in a pointless defense of a nonessential.
Fifty years ago, the engineering student was considered something of a second-class citizen of the college campus; only the Liberal Arts student was considered a true student. A social invention was making its way, however. Where major corporations and businesses were uniformly directed by lawyers and Liberal Arts students only one generation ago—today the technical man is taking a bigger and bigger part in executive control.
Educational methods, more than any other single factor, will determine what our world is like in another half century. Of all possible forms of education, it seems to me that the most critical is education to understand, use, and evaluate creative thinking. p. 9-10
The Analytical Laboratory: February 1953 not only gives the results for the previous issue but suggests a more intelligent, if more complicated, scoring system for stories:
In the March Brass Tacks we published a letter from Charles Leedham suggesting a new system of rating stories; several of the readers who voted for their choices in the March issue used that system, scoring stories on an all-time basis, rather than on a relative-to-this-issue basis.
I’m in full agreement that we do need a scoring system which would be based on a long-time relative basis, rather than the this-issue basis; the problem is to get enough of the readers to agree on it. Temporarily, at least, I’ll have to continue to use the simple system of voting for relative standing of best, next best, etcetera, in the current issues—but I ‘d very much like to have those of you who will take the trouble to do so, rate stories also on the long-term basis, where rating a story 10 means you feel it’s an all-time, long-term classic, 9 means an exceptionally fine story, and so on down to 0, meaning it should never have been published. On this basis, a story rating 8 should mean “a good story, and worthy of first place in any ordinary good issue of the magazine.” Then in some exceptional issue, a story might rate 8, and still not be first, because of some 10-point classic.
If this were Heaven, of course, I’d print issues full of nothing but 10-point stories, and all authors would always write classics. Since it isn’t, an 8-point story deserves a bonus; when reader letters indicate that the situation of a 10 point classic and an 8-point bonus-worthy story both appear in one issue—both stories will get a bonus. p. 47
Pi Equals Anything But 3.14159 . . . is a half-page filler that looks at the value of pi for non-uniformly curved surfaces.
The Reference Library: First Reader by P. Schuyler Miller starts off with a long review of a book about space medicine, Physics and Medicine of the Upper Atmosphere by Otis Benson and Clayton S. White, before covering a number of others, including one by Schuyler himself and, more puzzlingly, Asimov’s The Currents of Space, which the magazine had just finished serialising four months earlier.
Brass Tacks has a couple of letters that have interesting snippets in them. John Gilson of Minneapolis, MN finishes his letter with this:
Your articles are the first thing I read when I get the magazine—right after I read the editorial and Brass Tacks. The editorials, together with your fine articles, form almost a pocket education.
Your editorial on “The Laws of Speculation” will probably start a lot of speculation so why not start a department of—or for—the practice and advancement of speculation? Call it the Spec Dept.—John Gilson
The Spec Dept. is called “Astounding Science Fiction.” [Campbell] p. 154
There is also a long letter from new reader Herbert Taylor from Duluth (also MN) which has, amongst other things:
During the last two weeks, while invalided with a broken leg, I have read fourteen back numbers of ASF from cover to cover. It was my maiden experience with your magazine, or any like it, although I have read a quantity of hard-cover stf previously. Like Mr. Keats perusing Chapman’s Homer, I felt like “some watcher of the skys when a new planet (in this case, several dozen planets) swims into his ken.”
[. . .]
Fiction: The best to be found between soft covers. But I am in consistent disagreement with the Analytical Lab. For me, the short stories pack the biggest punch, say most with least verbiage, are more thought-provoking than the longer pieces. I think the readership often votes for quantity instead of quality. I think your format is well-balanced, however, and I enjoy the novelettes and serials; I am merely stating a preference. p. 157-8
He finishes with a pitch for verse in Astounding, which Campbell appears open to, and he asks for reader feedback.
A mediocre issue saved from being even worse by only the serial and some decent internal artwork.
- Sheckley would use to the idea of humans as ‘pushers’ much more fruitfully in one of his best stories, Specialist, which was published in Galaxy in the same month.
- A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers, p. 202
- You can see all of Astounding’s 1953’s covers at ISFDB. A motley crew apart from the four Van Dongen contributions and the classic October contribution from Frank Kelly Freas (and maybe the two from Miller). The March cover from Pawelka must be in the running for the worst Astounding cover ever.
This varying quality was probably due to the retirement of artist Hubert Rogers from the field in 1952. He had been a mainstay of the magazine, contributing seven covers in 1951.
Also, note the three changes in typeface for the magazine title. This issue’s design seems to have won, although I personally prefer the typography on the March and April issues.
- The illustrations from Paul Orban:
And from H. R. Van Dongen:
- Lest you think I am being harsh, the only short fiction from this issue that has been reprinted is the Sheckley, and not in one of his own collections. See ISFDB.