John Boston & Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy 1950-1967 (70%, Location 4954 of 7028 in the Kindle edition)
The Circulation of the Blood • novelette by Brian W. Aldiss ♥♥
High Treason • short story by Poul Anderson ♥♥♥
You and Me and the Continuum • short story by J. G. Ballard
A Hero’s Life • novelette by James Blish ♥♥♥
The Gods Themselves Throw Incense • short story by Harry Harrison ♥♥♥
Deserter • short story by Richard Wilson ♥♥
The Secret • short story by Jack Vance ♥♥♥
The Signaller • novelette by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥♥
Cover • Judith Ann Lawrence
Editorial • Kyril Bonfiglioli
This first issue of Impulse was actually Science Fantasy #82 in disguise, a magazine that had been running since 1950. By early 1966 its relatively new owners, Roberts & Vinter Ltd., had owned the magazine for about eighteen months and, with this month’s issues, both Science Fantasy/Impulse and its sister magazine New Worlds increased their page count from 128 pp. to 160 pp. The editor of Science Fantasy, Kyril Bonfiglioli, used the size change as an opportunity to change the magazine’s name to Impulse, of which more later.
Both magazines also increased their price from 2/6 (12.5p) to 3/6 (17.5p): a 40% increase in cost for a 25% increase in page count. As Kyril Bonfiglioli would comment in his editorial:
The change of price will help to provide a larger budget so that the rewards of writing for us will be more substantial. p.2
The contents page reinforces this name change by stating ‘The NEW Science Fantasy’. Another notable change is the listing of Keith Roberts as ‘Associate Editor’ (as opposed to ‘assistant editor’ in the editorial) to replace James Parkhill-Rathbone, who had gone off to start his own literary magazine. The standard Bonfiglioli disclaimer at the bottom of the page remained: ‘All terrestrial characters and places are fictitious’.
The introductory editorial mentions the magazine is a continuation of Science Fantasy, and comments on the name change:
We feel that jettisoning the old name enables us to broaden our frame of reference to embrace any kind of speculative and unusual fiction which is of the quality we are looking for. p.2
This is quite different from what he had written, in part, a month earlier in Science Fantasy #81:
I simply felt shy about asking at a bookstall for this magazine—I always felt that the assistant might give me an odd, sidelong look, as though I were a curate buying the latest number of Frilly Scanties. Lastly, although the cover-designs were always very good of their kind, I must confess I was careful to tuck them inside my newspaper when in public. All this is, I agree, very stuffy and pompous and cowardly of me but I cannot help feeling that there is a large potential market for our product amongst the stuffy, pompous and cowardly—after all, they seem to make up some seventy per cent of the population. p.2
What isn’t touched on was that Bonfiglioli had originally wanted to rename the magazine Caliban.1 Also, after the above comments about the appearance of the magazine you would have to wonder, whatever you think of the merits of Lawrence’s cover, at the choice of something that makes the magazine look like some sort of horror anthology.
As to the fiction in this launch issue it is largely an All-Star affair as Bonfiglioli had commissioned stories from several writers on the theme of ‘sacrifice‘. I have minor reservations about this as a theme, but more of this later.
The first story is The Circulation of the Blood by Brian W. Aldiss, which I had remembered as being quite a good piece and up to the level of several others he produced for Science Fantasy/Impulse.2 This time around I found it much more of a curate’s egg. It tells of Yale, a marine scientist working for the World Waters Organisation, who has been investigating the superabundance of several ocean species: herring, blue whales, etc. After a year working away he returns to the tropical island where his second wife and son from his first marriage live. This initial section has a good sense of place and convincing character conflict between Yale, his wife Caterina, and his son Philip, such as when there is an after dinner row that results from Yale talking about an ocean current that they followed on the Kraken. When Caterina finds out the current is going to be named after her first husband who she loathes, she loses her temper and slaps Yale in front of his son:
Philip flushed a slow red. “I’ll leave you to your capers. I have to go and pack.” As he turned, Yale caught his arm. “You don’t have to go. You are almost adult. You must face violent emotions. You never could as a child—but they’re as natural as storms at sea.”
“Child! You’re the child, father! You think you’re so poised and understanding, don’t you? But you’ve never understood how people feel!” He pulled himself away. Yale was left standing in the room alone.
“Explain and I’d understand,” he said aloud. p.18
It materialises that the superabundance of the species that Yale had been investigating (spoiler) is due to massively increased longevity caused by a virus. If man can be infected by this virus, near-immortality may be achievable.
At his point though, it all gets a bit silly (spoiler). Catarina’s first husband, the head of the WWO, turns up with an ineffectual gun-wielding helicopter pilot determined to suppress the secret that Yale has uncovered. He explains:
We’ve kept our secret for five years. There are fifty of us now, fifty-three, men with power and some women. Before the secret comes into the open, we are going to be even more powerful: an Establishment. We only need a few years. Meanwhile, we make investments and alliances. Take a look at the way brilliant people have been attracted to Naples these last few years! It’s not been just to the W.W.O. or the European Common Government Centre. It’s been to my clinic! In another five years, we’ll be able to step in and rule Europe—and from there it’s just a short step to America and Africa.” p.30
All you really need on the end of that is “Mwuh, mwuh, mwuh,” he laughed evilly. Interesting to note that Aldiss still hadn’t completely jettisoned his pulp influences by this stage in his career.
Next up is High Treason by Poul Anderson. This is a fairly good if rambling story about an officer waiting to be spaced, put out of an spaceship airlock, for treason. His account, as told to a futuristic recording device, tells of the Morwain, an alien species at war with man, and the mission he is given to destroy one of their planets.
You and Me and the Continuum by J. G. Ballard is one of his ‘concentrated’ stories, of which the author says:
The theme of sacrifice led me to think of the Messiah or, more exactly, the idea of the second coming and how this might take place in the twentieth century. In my version, which I would describe as a botched second coming, the Messiah never quite managing to come to terms with the twentieth century, I have used a fragmentary and nonsequential technique . . . and have tried to invoke some of the images that a twentieth century Messiah might see. You’ll notice that the entries are alphabetised. p.53
Some of the sections/images reflect this but as a whole the piece doesn’t make much sense. I can see why the first concentrated story, The Terminal Beach, may have made for an interesting experiment but I fear the law of diminishing returns will apply to this continuing authorial obsession.
A Hero’s Life by James Blish, with its galactic empires and Traitor-in-Chiefs, has a plot which either doesn’t make much sense, or is hard to follow, or both. However, for all that it is quite entertaining. The story starts with the traitor Simon de Kyul emptying his poisons into a basin on the planet Boadicea. He is living under a period of immunity in the Traitor’s Quarter of this strange planet:
Half the buildings in Druidsfall glistened with their leaves, which were scaled with so much soft gold that they stuck to anything they were blown against—the wealth of Boadicea was based anciently in the vast amounts of uranium and other power-metals in its soil, from which the plants extracted the inevitable associated gold as radiation shielding for their spuriously tender genes. p.63
He meets a playwoman and spends time with her, only to find her dead one morning from a black fungal growth: his period of immunity is over. If he is going to sell High Earth’s secrets he will need to survive first, so he takes a transduction serum which changes his appearance and also starts to change the way he thinks. He then finds the woman’s half-brother and enlists him in a plan to take revenge on the Guild of Traitors. Much skulduggery and intrigue follows including the appearance of a shape-changing voombis, aliens who serve The Exarch, ruler of half the Galaxy!
If you are in the mood for, say, a dark, dense, slightly sadistic Jack Vance story then you will probably like this, as I did.3
The Gods Themselves Throw Incense by Harry Harrison is a story I really liked the first time around. This time the bones of the plot show through and the characters seemed rather one-dimensional. A spaceship explodes between the Moon and Earth and three people make it into the escape pod. Unfortunately, they have a three week journey and only two weeks of air. Lots are drawn to decide who has to take a suicide pill and go out the airlock, but matters proceed in a far from straightforward manner.
One thing that occurred to me (spoiler) about this The Cold Equations variation is that it always seems to be the woman that goes out the airlock. A couple of other related problems: first, the theme of ‘sacrifice’ probably isn’t going to make for the most jolly of magazine themes (that is two people out of the airlock so far this issue); second, don’t use spoiler blurbs like:
Specially written for this issue on the theme of “sacrifice”—a slightly involuntary one in this case. . . p.87
Deserter by Richard Wilson is an OK story about a young man and woman who get married just before the War starts but they are separated before their wedding night. Subsequently we follow the man, Bill, through training and it materialises that this War is between men and women. This is all a bit artificial and strikes me as the kind of satire that could have been in Galaxy in the 1950s.
The Secret by Jack Vance tells of a young man on a tropical island who has a seemingly idyllic life. However, one by one, the oldest members of his community build catamarans and sail off to the west. This is a fairly good allegory about growing old amongst other things, and the last line has a nice spike to it.
The highlight of the issue is the first published story in Keith Roberts’s parallel world story cycle Pavane. The Signaller by Keith Roberts is set in a world where Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Spanish invaded and conquered England. The Reformation has never taken place, the Catholic Church still rules, and technological progress is anathema. As there is no electricity in this world, signals are passed by huge mechanically operated semaphore-like signalling stations in line of sight of each other.
The story opens with Rafe, a member of the Guild of Signallers:
One such copse crowned the summit of the knoll; under the first of its branches, and sheltered by them from the wind, a boy lay face down in the snow. He was motionless but not wholly unconscious; from time to time his body quivered with spasms of shock. He was maybe sixteen or seventeen, blond-haired, and dressed from head to feet in a uniform of dark green leather. The uniform was slit in many places; from the shoulders down the back to the waist, across the hips and thighs. Through the rents could be seen the cream-brown of his skin and the brilliant slow twinkling of blood. The leather was soaked with it, and the long hair matted. Beside the boy lay the case of a pair of binoculars, the Zeiss lenses without which no man or apprentice of the Guild of Signallers ever moved, and a dagger. The blade of the weapon was red-stained; its pommel rested a few inches beyond his outflung right hand. The hand itself was injured, slashed across the backs of the fingers and deeply through the base of the thumb. Round it blood had diffused in a thin pink halo into the snow. p.127-128
Because I liked the story so much—even more than on previous occasions— there are pages of this I want to quote: so this is going to be a (spoiler) ridden review.
After binding the worst of his wounds, Rafe struggles back to the signal station he operates and slumps into his bunk. Roberts’s characters are frequently badly-used and it appears as if this story will be no different.
Most of the rest of the narrative is told in flashback and begins with Rafe as a young boy watching the local Avebury signal station when he is discovered by the Serjeant in charge. The Signaller takes the boy under his wing, and soon Rafe is spending a lot of his time at the station. There is Roberts’s usual immersive level of detail in his description of the signal station:
The varnished wooden spars shone orange like the masts of a boat; the semaphore arms rose and dipped, black against the sky. He could see the bolts and loops near their tips where in bad weather or at night when some message of vital importance had to be passed, cressets could be attached to them. He’d seen such fires once, miles out over the Plain, the night the old King died . . . p.136
In the centre of the room, white-painted and square, was the base of the signal mast; round it a little podium of smooth, scrubbed wood, on which stood two Guildsmen. In their hands were the long levers that worked the semaphore arms overhead; the control rods reached up from them, encased when they passed through the ceiling in white canvas grommets. p.137
These scenes from his childhood let Roberts do some convincing world-building.
Rafe eventually takes and passes the exam to enter the Guild of Signallers and leaves Avebury to undertake his training:
The arms of the Silbury tower were quiet; but as he passed they flipped quickly to Attention, followed at once by the cyphers for Origination and Immediate Locality. Rafe turned in the saddle, tears stinging his eyes, and watched the letters quickly spelled out in plaintalk. “Good luck . . .” p.142
The Signaller training is physically hard:
There was a trick to the thing, only learned after bruising hours of practice; to lean the weight of the body against the levers rather than just using the muscles of back and arms, employ the jounce and swing of the semaphores to position them automatically for their next cypher. Trying to fight them instead of working with the recoil would reduce a strong man to a sweatsoaked rag within minutes; but a trained Signaller could work half the day and feel very little strain. p.145
After a period of Signaller training there is a gruelling test to pass, and not everyone completes it. Rafe does and shows his willpower after he has successfully transmitted the set text:
And then, in black rage, he did the thing only one other apprentice had done in the history of the station; flipped the handles to Attention again, spelled out with terrible exactness and letter by letter the message ‘God Save the Queen’ Signed End of Message, got no acknowledgement, swung the levers up and locked them into position for Emergency-Contact Broken. In a signalling chain the alarm would be flashed back to the originating station, further information rerouted and a squad sent to investigate the breakdown.
Rafe stared blankly at the levers. He saw now the puzzling bright streaks on them were his own blood. He forced his raw hands to unclamp themselves, elbowed his way through the door, shoved past the men who had come for him and collapsed twenty yards away on the grass. p.147
Rafe is then posted as a Signaller to a private house and a year later (spoiler) he is sent to a lone post at a D-class station. It is now that we find out how he was so badly wounded: he was attacked by a catamount, a large wild cat, while out walking.
The last section has Rafe regaining consciousness to find he is being tended by a young woman—one of the Old Ones, The Haunters of the Heath. She tells him a long creation myth while she cares for him:
Into the void, He came; only He was not the Christos, the God of Mother Church. He was Balder, Balder the Lovely, Balder the Young. He strode across the land, face burning bright as the sun, and the Old Ones grovelled and adored. The wind touched the stone circles, burning them with frost; in the darkness men cried for spring. So he came to the Tree Yggdrasil—What Tree, Rafe’s mind cried despairingly, and the voice checked and laughed and said without anger ‘Yggdrasil, great World Ash, whose branches pierce the layers of Heaven, whose roots wind through all Hells . . .’ Balder came to the Tree, on which he must die for the sins of Gods and Men; and to the Tree they nailed him, hung him by the palms. p.156-157
Times passes; Rafe appears to have recovered and leaves the station with the woman.
The coda of the story (spoiler) has a Captain and Corporal of Signals approaching the signal station. They notice that the exterior has been covered by marks:4
The mark. It was everywhere, over the door, on its frame, stamped along the walls. The circle, with the crab pattern inside it; rebus or pictograph, the only thing the People of the Heath knew, the only message it seemed they had for men. p.159
When they go inside the station they find more of the marks. Rafe is lying in his bunk bed, dead from his dreadful wounds. The Captain orders the Corporal to send a heart-breaking signal:
In his mind’s eye a map unrolled; he saw the message flashing down the chain, each station picking it up, routing it, clattering it on its way. Down to Golden Cap, where the great signals stood gaunt against the cold crawl of the sea; north up the A line to Aquae Sulis, back again along the Great West Road. Within the hour it would reach its destination at Silbury Hill; and a grave-faced man in green would walk down the village street of Avebury, knock at a door . . . p.160
This is an impressive, near-excellent piece of work, and for much of the story I was completely lost in it. As I said previously, it has an immersive reality that nothing else in the issue comes close to matching. If, though, I have a minor criticism of this story it would be of the creation myth section which, to me anyway, doesn’t entirely gel with the rest of the piece and is also too long. However, I am quibbling here.
I also have a criticism of Bonfiglioli the editor: this was the second story in Pavane when the book came out and I think it would have been better if that order had been maintained in the magazine also. There isn’t enough background information about the world in this story for it to stand entirely on its own whereas the first Pavane story, The Lady Margaret, which would appear in the next issue, has a prologue that starts with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I and proceeds to introduce this parallel world. It seems Bonfiglioli changed the story order so it would fit in with his ‘sacrifice’ theme.
It’s well worth searching out this issue as it is probably the best Science Fantasy/ Impulse that was published.
- Mike Ashley: Transformations – The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970. p.245 Although the Caliban title wasn’t used, the sudden name change badly damaged the magazine’s distribution.
- There were a number of good Aldiss stories in the later Science Fantasy/Impulse: Man in his Time (#71), The Eyes of the Blind King (SF Impulse #9), Just Passing Through (SF Impulse #12).
- The John Boston review above alerted me to an—supposedly—expanded version of this story: at the time of commissioning the author was restricted to a 10,000 word limit and later thought the story too compressed. So I dug it out the other version and started reading it. However, apart from the addition of a page and a half of turgid introduction, A Style in Treason (Galaxy, May 1970) seems to be the same story as A Hero’s Life. It is hard to be precise because of word count errors caused by the differing quality of OCR between the versions I have, but if you strip out the introduction in the later version, and take out the manual carriage returns in MS Word and set them to the same font size, they both run to seven and a half A4 pages—to within a line or two of each other.
- The mark of the Old Ones is shown above the Pavane title: