Editor, John Campbell; Assistant Editor, Kay Tarrant
“… And A Star to Steer Her By” • novelette by G. Harry Stine [as by Lee Correy] ♥♥♥
Quiz Game • short story by Frank M. Robinson ♥
Impostor • short story by Philip K. Dick ♥♥♥♥
Mission of Gravity (Part 3 of 4) • serial by Hal Clement ♥♥♥+
Cover • photograph by Lee Correy
Interior artwork • by H. R. Van Dongen, J. Dreany, Pawelka
The Villains of the Piece • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
The Reference Library: “Modern Science Fiction” • book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller
In Case of Fire • science article by Wallace West
Whirligig World • science article by Hal Clement
Brass Tacks • letters
The Analytical Laboratory: March 1953
“… And A Star to Steer Her By” by G. Harry Stine was his second published story for Astounding (and third in all),1 and it is the kind of thing that would have appealed those readers of the magazine who felt the outward urge—or as the first (and also last paragraph) puts it:
In every age, in every time, there have been those who are not content to settle down. They miss the kick of the wheel, the wail of the wind in the rigging, the exotic sights and smells of a harbor half across the world, the roar of engines cutting through the slipstream, and the powerful, body-shaking thunder of the jets. It is to these restless men with the wanderlust that the human race owes a priceless debt as the wanderers push the horizons out to the stars— p. 47
The story opens on Mars with a jetman called Garver talking about his new mechanical arm to the Captain of a spaceship he used to work on. He tells the captain that he will return to Earth as, after his accident, he has no future career in space. As he reflects later:
He knew his power and jets, but a one-handed jetman was worse off than a one-handed piano player. Most skippers would rather have the Venusian Wet Rot.
He might sign on a liner as a master-at-arms or a steward, but he did not have the decorum necessary for such a job. As a first mate, he’d handled people differently. “Besides, you fool,” he told himself, “you know you’d go nuts sitting midships while some other guy brought her down on her tail.” p. 9-10
Garver eventually gets a job in a bar until he gets a lucky break and is employed by a ship that has lost their jetman during an emergency landing. Much of the remaining story is about the detail of the trip back to Earth, and the nuts and bolts of what spaceflight might entail (as least as viewed from the 1950s). Some of this is fairly mundane stuff but it has its moments, such as when the ship’s cat plays with a ping-pong ball in zero gee, or the take-off for Earth after a lot of repair work:
He nudged four switches, and the power room was filled with the incredible noise of the pumps. He checked back-pressures as the needles climbed out of the red segments of the dials.
“Forty-five seconds!” The pumps were up to speed and the fuel pressure normal.
“Minus-30 seconds!” The flick of a switch dropped the magnetic clamps of the ground tackle. The Fafnir was now free to lift.
“Steady, now . . . steady,” Garver soothed over the scream of the pumps.
“Minus-20 . . . 19 . . . 18 . . . 17. . . 16—”
“Come on, baby! We’re going home!” he whispered to the heart of the Fafnir.
“10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7—”
He didn’t pray; it seemed useless against the radioactive fire below him.
The ship was suddenly a straining entity of its own instead of a complacent fabrication of metal.
“Five!” He threw a switch. A relay whacked closed.
“Four!” Automatic controls, now out of Garver’s jurisdiction, raised the firebox temperature.
“Three!” Another relay threw. The tank valves snapped open.
“Two!” The pumps took up the load and shifted into main stage, “One!” Lights winked solid green
across his board.
“UP SHIP!” p. 21
This passage appealed to me considerably more than it probably should have . . . .
When the crew get back to Earth the skipper retires and Garver opens a restaurant. After a period of successfully building his business (spoiler) he decides to buy the skipper’s ship and go back into space. We later discover, of course, that the skipper had deliberately not sold the ship as he knew that Garver would eventually want to buy it from him.
This story is a little creaky but it’s quite good for the time,2 and it is perhaps notable for its diverse crew: apart from Garver being partially disabled, they have a Dutch skipper, and their electronics man is a Muslim from Greater New York (who needs to regularly know where Earth is while they are in flight for his daily prayers).
Quiz Game by Frank M. Robinson starts with a scientist at a family meal. His son asks him about the aliens who have just landed, as the father is in charge of asking the questions that will be put to the aliens when their language is deciphered. The rest of the story is an extended (and fairly dreary) set-up about the questions that are going to be asked. When they find that the aliens are dying the list is winnowed down considerably. The weak ending (spoiler) is that the aliens spend all their remaining time asking us questions.
Impostor by Philip K. Dick is a very good early piece that, with its war-weariness and suspenseful paranoia, is perhaps an archetypal 1950’s SF story.3 Moreover, it deals with one of the recurrent themes that can be found in Dick’s work: the reliability of memory and identity.
Olham, a research scientist on an Earth at war with the Alpha Centaurans, is abducted by a work colleague and security officer and taken beyond Earth’s protec-bubble as they believe he is a robot-bomb. Oldham is convinced he is human. . . .
In this issue’s instalment of Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, the crew are powerless before the tidal swell of a hurricane and end up beached miles inland. On their way back to the sea the glider-flying race they encountered earlier encircle them, and demand to know who they are and what they are doing. The majority of the instalment is about this encounter. There is an amusing observation from one of the crew about the gliders when Barlennan considers acquiring one for his collection:
“The day I climb onto one of those flying machines will be a calm winter morning with both suns in the sky.” p. 137
I don’t know why but this made me smile. Quite a good instalment.
The Cover is a photograph is credited to ‘Correy,’ and looks like something that would be more at home on an astronomical or aviation publication: it is a bit dull for an SF magazine.
The Interior artwork is by H. R. Van Dongen, J. Dreany, and Pawelka, with the best coming from, as usual, Van Dongen.4
The Villains of the Piece by John W. Campbell, Jr. is an editorial that makes a couple of obvious points about the limitations of statistics. He then goes on to do some axe-grinding about telepathy, and how we should not write it off because the research statistics don’t provide evidence to support the phenomenon.
The Reference Library: “Modern Science Fiction” by P. Schuyler Miller starts with a look at Modern Science Fiction, edited by Reginald Bretnor. Miller discusses the essay by Philip Wylie, and quotes him at length:
“Science fiction potentially can abet human wisdom but . . . the bulk of its present production has the opposite effect,” he states. We have created a psychologically invalid false mythology of stereotypes and cliches with about as much relation to reality as Conan’s world has to the real past—or to real myth. “The bulk, unlike the old legends, contains no germ of human truth whatsoever.”
These are bitter truths to face, if they are truths, and I do not intend to do more now than face you with them and leave you to think about them. Perhaps we can then come back to them and examine them with more leisure. But first I must let Mr. Wylie speak for himself a little further: “If science fiction plays any large part in leading the minds of men toward new goals, the goals toward which it has led most of its addicts to date are more evil than those of their less well-informed forebears . . . wild adventure, wanton genocide . . . gigantic destruction and a piddling phantasmagoria of impossible nonsense . . . . The fiction is of a perverse order in that it departs from what is scientifically known of man’s nature.
The science is most commonly employed either ignorantly or for sadistic melodrama . . . .
“(Writers) are nearly all ignorant of one area of science as large as all the rest: psychology . . . Yet, without (this) science . . . what they write is irresponsible, in the sense that it pretends to be ‘modern’ whereas it is contemporary in detail only—and inevitably, in meaning, archaic . . . . They but create a new and sinister folklore, in which the latest facts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are superimposed on a human insight hardly more developed than that of Bushmen.” p. 76-77
In the review of The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty , Miller states:
The 1952 collection—stories printed in 1951—outdoes the three that have gone before, and the vast strides science fiction is taking are shown by the fact that for the first time none of the eighteen selections comes from ASF. Undoubtedly when the next edition of the “Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels” appears, the omission will be remedied, for this magazine shines in its longer stories. p. 77
I found the lack of representation from Astounding a little surprising.5
In Case of Fire by Wallace West starts with this rather startling statement:
Three-quarters of a billion dollars’ worth of homes, factories and materials went up in smoke throughout the United States last year. That is a stiff levy on a country already saddled with huge foreign aid payments and Cold War costs, even if one discounts the eleven thousand or so lives lost and the additional thousands of persons who were maimed by fires.
There are, however, two even more disturbing factors involved: the uninterrupted rise in the fire loss rate and the fact that it seems next to impossible to get people to do much about the situation. p. 82
There is another interesting quote at the end, but unfortunately the two are separated by a long and ultimately boring article about the history of fire brigades and various modern methods of firefighting.
Skyscrapers are not “fireproof.” No man-made structure can be. But they are highly fire-resistant and liberally equipped with hand extinguishers, hose and plentiful supplies of water. Most of them have automatic sprinkler systems. The proof of their safety came when a B-25 bomber dived into the Empire State Building several years ago and drenched the interior with gasoline. There was a nasty fire, of course. It gutted most of the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth floors. But, because only the furnishings burned and because the New York Fire Department had drilled itself for years to meet just such an impossible situation, it brought the flames under control within nineteen minutes! p. 1006
Whirligig World by Hal Clement is an interesting article about the research for his novel Mission of Gravity. There are a number of interesting snippets, including the fact that Mesklin was inspired by the then current data about the object 61 Cygni C (subsequently shown to be spurious7). He also made a model of the planet Mesklin:
The model I have of it is six inches in diameter and not quite two and a half thick; if I added the ring, it would consist of a paper disk about fourteen inches in diameter cut to fit rather closely around the plastic wood spheroid. (The model was made to furnish something to draw a map on; I like to be consistent. The map was drawn at random before the story was written; then I bound myself to stick to the geographic limitations it showed.) I was tempted, after looking at it for a while, to call the story “Pancake in the Sky,” but Isaac Asimov threatened violence. Anyway, it looks rather more like a fried egg. p. 110
He finishes with this:
The trouble was, I couldn’t possibly think of [everything] in advance; time and again a section of the story had to be rewritten because I suddenly realized things couldn’t happen that way. I must have missed details, of course; that’s where your chance to win the game comes in. I had an advantage; the months during which, in my spare hours, my imagination roamed over Mesklin’s vast areas in search of inconsistencies. Now the advantage is yours; I can make no more moves in the game, and you have all the time you want to look for the things I’ve said which reveal slips on the part of my imagination.
Well, good luck—and a good time, whether you beat me or not. p. 114
Brass Tacks is pretty dull as usual, or at least I can’t remember anything about the letters and forgot to make notes. A couple of them are about February’s stories (mostly about Null ABC by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, although I note that both correspondents place Walter Miller Jr.’s Crucifixus Etiam in third place).
The Analytical Laboratory: March 1953 has Thou Good and Faithful by John Loxmith (John Brunner) as the winner of the March issue.
This is easily the most interesting of the three 1953 issues of Astounding I’ve read so far; I suspect that will still be true after I’ve read the entire year.
- G. Harry Stine at ISFDB.
- SFE states that, under his Lee Correy pseudonym, ‘it is his best known tale.’
- Imposter, as well as perhaps being an archetypal 1950’s SF story, was (it was pointed out to me) the only one that John W. Campbell Jr. bought from Philip K. Dick. The writer recalls his dealings with Campbell in the story notes for Oh, To Be A Blobel! (The Minority Report, Citadel Twilight, 1991):
At the beginning of my writing career in the early Fifties, Galaxy was my economic mainstay. Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on. So Galaxy provided a latitude which Astounding did not. However, I was to get into an awful quarrel with Horace Gold; he had the habit of changing your stories without telling you: adding scenes, adding characters, removing downbeat endings in favor of upbeat endings. Many writers resented this. I did more than resent this; despite the fact that Galaxy was my main source of income I told Gold that I would not sell to him unless he stopped altering my stories—after which he bought nothing from me at all. p. 379
(Thanks to Fred on the Classic Science Fiction Yahoo Group for finding the quote.)
- A double page spread from Van Dongen for “… And A Star to Steer Her By”:
And one from A Mission of Gravity:
- The contents lists for the two Bleiler & Dikty volumes for 1952 can be found on ISFDB: The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952 and Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952. The latter collection, as Miller suggests, has contributions from Astounding: three of its five stories are from the magazine. It is instructive to compare the contents lists of the two Bleiler & Dikty volumes with the later The Great SF Stories #13, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg. There is only one story (!) that appears in both volumes. If I ever manage to read all (or the vast majority) of the stories from 1951 it should make for an interesting essay comparing the contents lists. Well, an interesting essay for about half a dozen people on the planet maybe . . . .
- It is worth reading the Wikipedia article about this horrific accident. One of the injured women was transported in a lift that had weakened cables and plummeted seventy five floors when they broke. She survived!
- The section ‘Claims of a Planetary System’ in the 61 Cygni Wikipedia article states that the idea of a massive third body was shown to be spurious in 1978.