Astounding Science Fiction, 1958

The 'Golden Age' of SF and Astounding Science Fiction is commonly regarded as being from mid-1939 until either the end of the 1940's or the early 1950's (the end is less well-defined than the start). However, Astounding Science Fiction in 1958 was certainly in its pomp, Campbell was in the middle of his tenure as editor, and almost all the big names in SF were publishing classic SF stories in the magazine. I recently acquired the complete issues of Astounding from this year, and reading through them is a real joy.

The 6 issues from January 1958 through June 1958 (above) feature stories from Pauline Ashwell, Murray Leinster, Frank Herbert, L. Sprague de Camp, a young Robert Silverberg, Fritz Lieber, Christopher Anvil, Gordon R. Dickson and Randall Garrett, as well as serials by Poul Anderson and Hal Clement that would both later be published as famous novels.

The July 1958 to December 1958 issues (above) contain some very famous stories from top SF writing talent, including stories from Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, James H. Schmitz, Clifford D. Simak, Katherine MacLean and H. Beam Piper as well as further tales from Christopher Anvil, Pauline Ashwell and Randell Garrett.

Astounding, January 1958

Pauline Ashwell - Unwillingly to School
This novelette was a finalist for the 1959 Hugo Award, and was the first SF publication by Ashwell, who went on the publish in Astounding/Analog Science Fiction right up until the year 2000. It was interesting to read Ashwell's first SF publication - it's written in the vernacular of a no-nonsense 'country girl' who helps her dad on his farm on a world dedicated mostly to mining. She has an innate ability to engineer behaviour in the rowdy miners and is encouraged to go to Earth (rather against her will) to attend college and study Cultural Engineering. The story gets more interesting in the latter section where Ashwell explores whether humans actually have any free-will. It seems that, like most of us, the girl might not have free-will, but she does appear to have free-won't . It wasn't a bad story, though the use of vernacular language become slightly tiring after 40 pages. 

Frank Herbert - Cease Fire
This short story was included in Damon Knight's 1962 anthology A Century of Science Fiction. Concerning a chemist who's stuck in a future war (manning a forward observation post in the arctic), he has an idea for developing a bomb that could be triggered remotely through clever chemistry. The imagery in the arctic is very good and the story is well written. It's interesting to see how reminiscent (or not) this is of Dune which Herbert published 7 years later. It's not very similar in tone or language in fact, displaying less mature writing, though its not at all bad.

Murray Leinster - Short History of World War Three
Leinster had been publishing SF for 40 years by this time, and would publish for another decade yet.  This story is told in a rather comic style. American forces intercept Russian military maneuvers, and ask if they can help, and offer them drinks, and so-forth. This rather undermines the Russian plans for World War III, which the American's have actually started early, in a war waged like none before it. It's quite entertaining, but not one of Leinster's best by any margin.

Randall Garrett & Robert Silverberg - All the King's Horses
Published under the collaborative name "Robert Randall", this was the top-rated story in the January '58 issue, as judged by Astounding readers, according to 'An Lab'. This was actually one of a series of Nidorian tales by Garrett and Silverberg. In this novelette, Earthmen have left Nidor, but the old ways have been lost to the native Nidorians. A new political leader of the Nidorian's, who blackmailed his way to power, proposes that the old sacred temple is rebuilt. However, he finds that once a way of life has gone, there's nothing he can do to reverse the change (as suggested by the stories title; "couldn't put humpty back together again"). This is indeed the best story in this issue - Silverberg's touch is readily apparent in the aliens, a certain sensuousness to their descriptions, and in the language and tenor of the piece. Drawing thoughtful comparisons with the real world of 'today', and the inevitability of change, this is a superior SF tale, and it's also the best written story here. 

Stanley Mullen - Guppy
Mullen wrote a few dozen short stories between 1947 and 1959, and by reputation they were pretty 'pulpy' fare. This story is not great, and employs a sort of pulp-fiction hyperbole that stands out in poor comparison to the tale by Garret and Silverberg that precedes it. The story concerns an artificial brain grown in a vat, that has been nicknamed 'Guppy". DNF.

Overall thoughts
This was not a bad issue, though maybe not a great one. If it came out today, it would be a very strong issue of Analog (numerous household names appear in the one issue) but the standard was undoubtedly higher in the late '50's. The Ashwell was interesting to read, as it was her first published story, but the style dragged it down slightly. The Herbert was entertaining enough but didn't ultimately maintain its strong and evocative beginning. The best story was the 'Robert Randall' novelette, and I'd agree with the AnLab vote. The editorial by Campbell lamented the loss of the race into space, 'won' by the Soviets, and he's critical of American assumptions of technological superiority, which he dissects in a post-mortem on 'Project Vanguard'. The book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller are intriguing - Jack Vance's Big Planet was highly recommended, as was Judith Merril's yearly anthology. Philip K. Dick's Eye in the Sky received a more lukewarm response, and Farmer's Green Odyssey didn't impress Miller at all.

Astounding, February 1958

Poul Anderson - The Man Who Counts (Part 1 of 3)  
This serial, featuring Anderson's galactic trader Nicholas Van Rijn, was subsequently published as a novel under several different titles including War of the Wing-Men (1958), The Man Who Counts (1978)  and The Earth Book of Stormgate 2 (1980, UK) . It has also been collected in omnibus editions of Van Rijn stories (e.g. Baen's The Van Rijn Method). In the story, Nicholas Van Rijn crashes in the sea on Diomedes, a planet that is twice the diameter of Earth, but with half the density, as it almost completely lacks elements beyond calcium in the periodic table. Van Rijn's group are rescued from their sinking craft by some of the native sentient beings - winged mammals with bodies rather like otters. A complication is that the humans cannot eat anything local and they must survive on their human food rations before they run out, and in this limited time, must find a way back to a human colony on the other side of the giant planet. The lack of metals and therefore technology, the biology of the flying aliens, and the character of Van Rijn, all make this an entertaining and interesting read. The serial continued in the March issue and concluded in the April issue, but I read the installments consecutively, so comments in the subsequent issues will be minimal. Overall, this was a satisfying early short novel from Anderson.

Eric Frank Russell - Brute Farce
Voted February '58 top story by readers, according to 'An Lab', and deservedly so, I would say. It's a little gem of a story, told in Russell's off-hand wry comedic style. A bowler-hat wearing 'fixer' attends to a long-running and exasperating war between two belligerent alien races, by thinking outside the square. It's well-written, engaging and entertaining, with something to say about the merits of unconventional thinking.

L. Sprague de Camp - Aristotle and the Gun
This novelette from de Camp has been heavily anthologised over the years (by Dozois, Asimov, Dann, etc.).  This is a time-travel tale in which, unusually, the time traveler specifically wants to alter the time line to improve scientific progress. The protagonist travels back to ancient Macedonia, to meet up with Aristotle, who was tutoring Alexander at the time. It's a lot of fun, and also seems to be quite well researched, with regard to the classical world. A hit, from de Camp. 

Robert Silverberg - No Way Out
In Silverberg's short story, overpopulation of Earth is the concern, with the Secretary General of the UN trying to convince representatives of the Mars, Calisto and Venus colonies of taking more immigrants, to relieve the pressure on Earth. I always find it interesting when I see stories of overpopulation from such a long time ago, as it clearly is a problem now, but I'm not sure how many, outside of SF writers, recognised the problem back then. Silverberg always writes well and engagingly, even in his earlier, more pulpy work, and this was an enjoyable read.

Christopher Anvil - Achilles' Heel  
This issue finished with a fairly pedestrian story about a war with aliens, who work best as a collective, and as a result therefore have a vulnerability that humanity can exploit. It's a fairly well-worn trope in SF, and while it was written in a fairly engaging way, and was perfectly readable, it wasn't a great story, lacking novelty or fresh ideas. 

Overall thoughts
This was an excellent issue of Astounding. Anderson's serial had a bright start, and the stories by Russell, de Camp and Silverberg were all rather good. The cover art appealed too - with an illustration for Anderson's serial, by H. R. Van Dongen, showing Nicholas van Rijn in his 'War with the Wing Men'. All-in-all, better than the January issue.

Astounding, March 1958

Dean McLaughlin -  The Man on the Bottom 
In this tale of a future Earth, many mining operations take place under deep-sea domes. When war breaks out, these domes are extremely vulnerable to nuclear attack. The only way to survive would be to not be in the war at all. In some ways this is a rather pedestrian tale, except that ultimately it has an interesting point to make, which is that the belligerents in wars are countries, not organisations or companies, and why should non-combatant civilians choose or agree to take part? So, it's philosophically interesting, by the end, and has something to say. McLaughlin (b. 1931) was interesting for having had work published in Astounding/Analog over seven decades, starting in the 1950's, and though never prolific he had the top voted novella in Analog in 1981, 1991 and 2008!

Randell Garrett - Penal Servitude
Highly prolific, Garrett was the most published author in Astounding in the 1950's, with 29 stories. This was okay, and quite entertaining. A group of political schemers plan to reinstall a past tyrant to power, while an undercover double-agent works against them to stymie their scheme. I quite liked some aspects of it, and it's quite immersive, but lacks the quality and depth of the following story.

Charles de Vet & Katherine MacLean - Second Game
An-Lab results for this issue of Astounding very clearly placed this story first, with all the other stories scoring less well and very similarly to each other. Having read the issue, I would agree. De Vet and MacLean wrote a super novelette in Second Game. A spy (and master chess player) visits the world of the technologically advanced alien race the 'Veldians'. Almost entirely like humans, the Veldians were intent on war and aggression against the human 'Thousand Worlds' alliance. But the game-playing spy has a plan to avoid bloodshed and win the seemingly unwinnable conflict. This is very well written, and clearly a notch above the standard quality of pulp SF. Parallels with humanities problems abound and the dialogue between the key characters is intelligent and engaging. Highly recommended. 

The novelette Second Game was later expanded, interestingly. It's success in the short form led to the authors expanding it for a 1962 novel Cosmic Checkmate, that made up one half of an Ace Double (paired with King of the Fourth Planet, by Robert Moore Williams). The novel version of the story received further revision and expansion in 1981, when it regained it's original title Second Game.

Fritz Leiber - Try and Change the Past
This was short but entertaining, outlining how a 'snake' soldier in the Change War discovered how hard it was to change his own past, due to the law of 'conservation of reality'. It's quite nicely done, the main character is a bit of a heel and it's one of those classic time travel tales that tend to stick in the memory. 

Poul Anderson - The Man Who Counts (Part 2 of 3)
Anderson's serial continued in this issue. This instalment slightly lacked the interest of the previous month's opener, but it was still entertaining, and was shaping up for an interesting conclusion in April.

Overall Thoughts
This was a good issue. The editorial wasn't all that engrossing (Campbell was still smarting about the poor performance of America in launching a satellite, relative to the Russians), and P. Schuyler Miller's book reviews didn't comment on books I was that interested in. But the stories were good, and it was a decent issue. Perhaps not quite as consistent as February, but probably better than January, and the long novelette by ​Charles de Vet & Katherine MacLean was really good.

Astounding, April 1958

Eric Frank Russell - Basic Right
Russell was back in the pages of Astounding, following his entertaining story, Brute Farce, in Feb '58. In this novelette, Earth is taken over by the alien 'Raidans' (the green race gracing the magazine's cover, by Kelly Freas). But rather than battle against subjugation, humanity accepts the takeover with complete equanimity. It's a reasonably nifty idea, I guess, but one can't quite imagine humanity presenting such a well coordinated ruse. This was less good than his Feb' story.

Jon Stopa - A Pair of Glasses
Stopa was essentially a fan writer, I understand. Hailing from Chicago, he wrote only a few stories in 1957-58, and another in the '80's. He was more associated with fandom and known for his work supporting WorldCons. This story, set in a dystopian future was quite well written but turned into a philosophical discussion, and wasn't very interesting. DNF.

Christopher Anvil - Revolt!
As with Russell, this issue saw Christopher Anvil back, with a novelette, giving April a not dissimilar lineup to February. This was hugely entertaining, with a battle of wits played out between an planetary development agency, who want to initiate a mining operation post-haste, and the local military commander who wish to take fewer risks on the high gravity planet. Revolt! was actually the first story in Anvil's long-running Federation of Humanity sequence, which has since been collected by Baen Books in two Interstellar Patrol volumes. Anvil wrote these stories between 1958 and 1978 (and with one last story in 1990).

Poul Anderson - The Man Who Counts (Part 3 of 3)
Anderson's serial concluded this month, and it was a satisfying end to the tale. The world-building was good, and van Rijn carried the show with entertaining bluster and bombast - frustrating and annoying to his fellow characters, but not to the reader, which is a sign of considerable writing skill.

Overall Thoughts
This was perhaps a slightly weaker issue than March, though it was no means bad. The Anderson serial concluded well, but took up a good deal of space, so there was only the three other stories (though two were quite lengthy novelettes). Both of these, the Russell and the Anvil, were entertaining, with the latter probably being the standout story this month. 'An-Lab' results published later in the year agree with me, which also placed the Stopa in last place. There was an interesting letter from Isaac Asimov in Brass Tacks, that critically considered American anti-intellectualism. In book reviews, Schuyler liked the new Andre Norton (Sea Siege) as well as the new Hoka book, Earthman's Burden, by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson. He was less complimentary about People Minus X by Raymond Z. Gallun, Hidden World by Stanley A. Coblentz, and particularly disliked Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Astounding, May 1958

Hal Clement - Close to Critical (Part 1 of 3)
As with the Poul Anderson serial that ran from Feb-Apr in this year's Astounding, I read all three parts of this Hal Clement novel directly after each other. This story is typical Clement, as the concept is based on the nature and challenges provided by a very un-Earth-like planet. In this case, the planet has a high gravity (approximately 3-4 G), surface temperatures of about 380 ˚F and extremely high atmospheric density (approximately 800 atmospheres). The end result is a world in which water is a superheated liquid with a density very similar to the air, and which that falls each night as slowly descending 50-foot raindrops. Living on the planet are 8-legged sentient beings at a stone-age point of development. A robot was sent to the planetary surface by human researchers circling the planet, and this robot 'raised' a collection of the indigenous 'people' to act as go-betweens for the humans and rest of the population. 

Set against this 'hard-SF' background, a shuttle craft crash-lands on the planet with two children on-board, and with no apparent way to get back into orbit, it takes the help of the natives to solve the problem. This serial started rather ponderously in this May issue, with lots of background, rather confusingly presented, and not a lot of excitement. It improved somewhat in the following issue, but ultimately ended rather weakly. It's strength is the concept of the planet, but this is not enough to sustain a novel-length serial, which was otherwise rather sterile. It didn't seem reasonable that the robot could raise the natives, the relationships between different aliens was simply not that interesting and the kids who had to be rescued were paper thin characters we don't care about that much. Characterisation was not one of Clement's strengths, as others have noted before, and overall this was not an especially good story. The illustrations by H. R. van Dongen were pretty nifty though.

Gordon R. Dickson - The Question  
This was great. A small band of humans are on the retreat on an inhospitable rocky world from a full platoon of the alien race they are warring against. The men hole up in an armoured and defendable redoubt in the mountains, but they don't have supplies to last for long and one of their number is wounded. The dialogue, pace, and alien setting is all well handled, making this highly readable and engaging. Dickson rarely seems to trip up in his tales, which tend, like this one, to have something to say about humanity's warlike nature and strength of purpose. This tale explores how the men all come to the same conclusions and implacable aims, each from completely different philosophies, suggesting there is an essential truth we all understand, even if we get there in different ways. 

Charles V. De Vet - Special Feature 
De Vet came up with a corker of a novella in his collaboration with Katherine MacLean in March '58. In many ways, this continues his purple patch, as its a neat idea, and is engrossing and exciting. A viscous predatory alien, from a catlike race, lands in snowy Minnesota and immediately starts to attack and feed off the people of St Paul. Taking a disguise, the alien masquerades as a human woman and holes up in a hotel between her ventures outside to feed. But unknown to her... she's on camera! A vast number of cameras cover city streets and the interiors of buildings, and a TV company leaps into action to accept responsibility for the alien from the police, and film her every move. The idea of the media assuming a role in dictating morality and being inescapably everywhere was ahead of its time, and seems prescient now. The only downside to this tale is the degree of sexism, which sticks out these days like a sore thumb. But that aside, and taking this as a '50's SF tale, it's still superior. Perhaps a further collaboration here with MacLean would have smoothed the rough edges off on that front, which would have made this a potential classic.

Frank Herbert - You Take the High Road 
In the far future, a great human interstellar empire broke apart from war, and led to many worlds regressing and then redeveloping in isolation, until they are rediscovered by new imperial investigators, seeking to reconnect lost worlds. One investigator on a seemingly peaceful world brings in a specialist as he doesn't trust that the people of the rediscovered world are genuinely peaceful. The idea is better then the execution, and would have benefitted from greater depth and world-building, perhaps in a longer tale. Overall, it's a little so-so.

Stanley Mullen - Fool Killer  
An innocent man, convicted of murder is sent to work in the asteroid belt - effectively a death sentence from radiation poisoning - and after a few years there he is given the news he has cancer and has a month to live. He learns the State are going to overturn his conviction and pardon him, but it's too late... until he's given a new chance at coming back to life through experimental medicine. At this stage, the tale takes a dramatic turn. Having started as a fairly typical SF story off-world, it turns into a stone cold classic of SF drama and speculation. A computer is given the job of deciding the right justice for his unjust incarceration. It's deemed fair that, as he paid the price for a murder he didn't commit, and no-one can take that pain away, he now gets one 'free murder' he can commit without penalty. Will he kill anyone, how does everyone react to him, is he safe? The concept and exploration of ideas through SF here is absolutely top-notch. This is, I think, a classic SF story, though I'd not heard of it before, and makes an entry into my top 50 SF short story list. An absolute blinder.

John T. Phillifent - One-Eye   
This was written under the pseudonym John Rackham, a name used by John Phillifent several times. I'm not sure why he would necessarily use a pseudonym here, because it's really good. A huge, strong, man of limited intelligence, a little like Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, can see into the future a few seconds ahead, prior to any violent injury occurring to others. But whenever he tries to warn people, they see him as a jinx, or the culprit of the accident. It's well written and an engaging premise. The idea presented here is that having any skill or ability outside the norm wouldn't necessarily be a good thing.

Overall Thoughts
This was a cracker of an issue. The serial was perhaps the weakest piece of fiction in it (with perhaps the exception of the Herbert), as the stories by Dickson, de Vet and Phillifent were all strong, good reads with great ideas, and the Mullen was exceptional. Overall, this was certainly the strongest issue of Astounding so far from '58. There was an interesting poll result feature toward the back that showed the demographic breakdown of Astounding readers. It made fascinating reading, especially as it recorded separate statistics for men and women.  Looking at educational level,  47.2% of male readers and 47.7% of female readers were college graduates (the same) and of these 21% of men majored in a physical science, and 17% of women in physical sciences. The interesting differences come in education and biological sciences - both clearly higher for women -and in engineering which 29% for men majored in, and which no women undertook. Clearly engineering was still a bastion of male bias. Overall, 88% of reader poll responders were male.