Tuesday, December 27, 2005

If -- Worlds of Science Fiction, January 1954

I won this issue of If on eBay the other day. If was probably never thought of as one of the major SF magazines of the '50s, but it was a favorite of mine. After reading this issue, I can't see why it wasn't more highly regarded. The lead "short novel" is "Malice in Wonderland" by Evan Hunter, and it's a dilly. It's almost as if Hunter had been been reading Alfred Bester. The ending is weak, but maybe Hunter fixed that when he expanded the story into a novel called Tomorrow and Tomorrow, published under the Hunt Collins name. I have two or three copies of the novel, but I've never read it. The narrator of the story is a literary agent, which made it interesting right off the bat. His society is divided between the Vikes and the Rees, and the Vikes are required to shoot up with dope on a regular schedule, wear as little clothing as possible, and avoid marriage and having children. The Rees are opposed to the Vike way of life. It's a fast-moving, interesting story, and I guess I'll have to read the novel.

The issue also contains Damon Knight's "Anachron," which has become something of a classic time-travel story. I'd almost be willing to bet that no SF magazine that appeared in January 1954 had two stories of equal quality.

Admittedly, however, the Mack Reynolds story, "Off Course," is minor. Very minor. It's one of those stories that you read and say, "I could write a better story than that." Maybe you couldn't, but you'd like to think you could. It's supposed to be humorous, but it's only trite.

James E. Gunn's "A Word for Freedom" is a little preachy, and it has a basic idea very similar to "Malice in Wonderland." It suffers a little by comparison, but it's still not bad.

Harry Harrison contributed a very short story called "Navy Day," which is not much more than a shaggy dog story. The best thing about it is that it's funnier and better written that the one by Reynolds.

Richard Wilson's "Double Take" is another story that reminded me a little of "Malice in Wonderland." Maybe it's just me. It also reminded me of a far superior story, "Spectator Sport," by John D. MacDonald. It has a twist ending that you might not see coming if you've never read an SF story before.

Alan E. Nourse has the third-best story, "Letter of the Law," which reads like a story written for, and rejected by, John W. Campbell. It's about a trader on an alien world where all the natives are accomplished liars. The trader has violated their laws and is on trial for his life. He can survive only by astounding them with a bigger lie than they've ever heard before. He does, of course, but there are consequences.

The cover is by Ken Fagg (I'm not making that up).

All in all, this issue of If was a lot of fun to read. I miss the days when I could go to the Corner Bookstore in Mexia, Texas, and find a new batch of SF digests every month. Those were the days.


Anonymous said...

IF was one of my favorite SF digests especially after Fredrick Pohl became the editor.

George Kelley

Gormania said...

Them were the days, my friend, and don't let nobody tell ya different

Anonymous said...

Well, Bill, IF was pretty well-respected in the 1950s, and this was one of the issues from the period where Larry Shaw, formerly of the Futurians and eventually of Lancer Books, was essentially the editor, although publisher Jim Quinn kept that title for himself. You know, I haven't finished that Hunter story...there's just something about it that doesn't convince me (the new slang doesn't help), and in putting down "Malice" I haven't picked it up again to read the others, aside from the Knight I've read elsewhere more than once--I agree that that's a classic, one of Knight's best. But IF got off to a bad start--I read some of the first, 1952, issue, edited by Paul Fairman, as one of the first old digests I picked up via mail order as a kid in his sfnal golden age of 13, and it's a pretty dismal affair...even the Sturgeon story is Extremely minor, and an undistinguished novella by Howard Browne takes up a good chunk of the issue (as with the Palmer and Hamling publications hatched while they were at Ziff-Davis, IF was being treated as a new colony for ZD talent. But Quinn had the good sense to get rid of Fairman pretty quickly, and Shaw for a few years and Damon Knight very briefly were on the editorial staff and did some solid work for the magazine...and then Quinn, in the post ANC collapse and post Sputnik fallout, decided to sell the title to the Galaxy group/Robert Guin, and Quinn contented himself with crossword puzzle magazines mostly for the next decade or so. Meanwhile, Frederik Pohl, ghost-editing for HL Gold and then on his own ticket, built it rather accidentally into the Hugo-winner it was in the latter '60s and probably George Kelley's fondest memories of it. Guin selling the Galaxy group to the Award Books/UPD people did it no favors, though both Ejler Jakobssen and particular James Baen published some interesting work before the folding/merger with GALAXY at the end of 1974. One abortive revival since, as I recall.

And if you and Ed have a B&N or other store with a good newsstand nearby, you can still step over to the racks and see F&SF, ASIMOV'S, ANALOG, and this semi-pro APEX hanging with EQMM and AHMM (though I hardly ever see HITCHCOCK'S on newsstands around here any longer)...the digests might not be in quite as large numbers as previously, but they still await you...or at least me, particularly when the Post Office has chewed up my subscriber copies...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great comment, Todd. It's tough to find those digests on the stands around here. Most stores just don't seem to carry them, so subbing is the way I get mine. And the mail serove really does tear them up now and then.

clark said...

Mention of Robert Guin in the mileu of Galaxy/If springboarded thoughts to the writings of Wyman Guin (Norman Menasco) which are oop, seem to be pretty much
forgotten, and deserve revival.

And despite my great fondness for Evan Hunter, Richard Marsten, and Ed McBain, I also found "Tomorrow and Tomorrow"an unfinishable misfire,

Unknown said...

I came to the digests in the late '50s early '60s. IF was always my favorite of the lot, but I read all I could get my hands on.

Unknown said...

I read all I could get, too. Which wasn't always many in the little town of Mexia, Texas.