Friday, September 14, 2018

FFB: THE SHAPE OF THINGS edited by Damon Knight (Popular Library 1965); THE UNKNOWN 5 edited by D. R. Bensen (Pyramid 1964)

I've been ill for much of the week, so reduxing...with apologies...but these were among my less popular reviews of years past...

Friday, December 17, 2010

FFB: THE SHAPE OF THINGS, edited by Damon Knight (Popular Library, 1965)

from the Contento indices:
The Shape of Things ed. Damon Knight (Popular Library SP352, 1965, 50¢, 206pp, pb)
· Introduction · Damon Knight · in
· Don’t Look Now · Henry Kuttner · ss Startling Stories Mar ’48
· The Box · James Blish · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Apr ’49
· The New Reality · Charles L. Harness · nv Thrilling Wonder Stories Dec ’50
· The Eternal Now · Murray Leinster · nv Thrilling Wonder Stories Fll ’44
· The Sky Was Full of Ships · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Jun ’47
· The Shape of Things · Ray Bradbury · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Feb ’48
· The Only Thing We Learn · C. M. Kornbluth · ss Startling Stories Jul ’49
· The Hibited Man · L. Sprague de Camp · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Oct ’49
· Dormant · A. E. van Vogt · ss Startling Stories Nov ’48
· The Ambassadors · Anthony Boucher · ss Startling Stories Jun ’52
· A Child Is Crying · John D. MacDonald · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Dec ’48

This thin volume, without making much of a fuss about it, was the first (and [I incorrectly wrote back in 2010] perhaps still is the only) Best-of the Samuel Merwin and Sam Mines years of Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, the Other Good sf magazines of the late '40s and early '50s [Mines had actually published a The Best from Startling Stories that included fiction from TWS, during his run with the pulp titles]...magazines with not as distinct personalities as Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell's revolutionary magazine being challenged finally, in part by writers and editors developed and inspired by Campbell but also by (as, for example, Bradbury) writers who were never too compatible with the ASF ethos, or Planet Stories, by the end of the 1940s not only the home of elegant space opera and a regular market for Leigh Brackett and others, but by those years fully as good and about as diverse as ASF...and such magazines stressing sophistication and good prose as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and briefly also such others as Knight's own Worlds Beyond and Howard Browne's mixed bag of the early Fantastic and the upgraded Amazing.

But, for a while, Startling and Thrilling Wonder, as burdened by their pulp-era titles as was Astounding or Amazing (at least Fantastic, and its predecessor Fantastic Adventures, and Weird Tales had descriptive titles that had some specific relevance to their content), were publishing a range of often fascinating and innovative material, including the likes of Philip Jose Farmer's The Lovers, which dealt directly with tragic interspecies romance and helped establish Farmer's reputation, and the contents of this volume...ranging from James Blish's elegant technological "problem" story (how do you rescue a city encased in an impenetrable force-field?) to Ray Bradbury's whimsical notion of a woman who gives birth to an apparently healthy blue pyramid, to Charles Harness's typical blend of space-opera and mind-blowing philosophical and cosmological speculation...Harness is yet another underappreciated writer in the field, except among those who really love and know This Kind of Thing...his influence on his younger contemporaries Jack Vance and Poul Anderson, particularly, seems pretty clear to me.

I've read that on the strength of this kind of material, Startling managed to become for a while the best-selling of sf magazines, presumably outselling Astounding, just starting to drift due to Campbell's fascination with Dianetics, psi powers, and other matters from the fringes of science, and Amazing, just after Howard Browne dumped the lunatic-fringe-stroking Shaver Mystery material (akin to Ancient Astronauts and the more irresponsible UFOlogy coverage then just coming into vogue, with, as with Dianetics and other pop mysticism, some past-life regression elements) that Browne's predecessor Ray Palmer had used to put that magazine into the circulation stratosphere...and before the insurgence in late 1950/early 1951 of Galaxy.

And yet, these magazines from the Thrilling Group pulp chain, which had been morphed (essentially) into the paperback publisher Popular Library, had been so thoroughly eclipsed, a dozen years after the titles were merged and folded, so that the packaging for this book didn't even bother to mention opposed to highlighting the kinds of writers and fiction they were publishing. (Popular Library had published several Wonder Story Annuals in the '50s and '60s, to test the waters, apparently, for the old title.) That legacy stands...even if this volume is now as obscure, certainly to the average reader, as the magazines it draws from.

Also about Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and the Thrilling Group
Also about Damon Knight

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday's "Forgotten" Books: THE UNKNOWN 5 edited by D. R. Bensen (Pyramid 1964)

This fine and somewhat influential collection is for several reasons newly, sadly has a cover and a new (in 1964) illustration by John Schoenherr for the previously-unpublished story in the collection, the Asimov...but the other illustrations were from the pages of the original story appearances in Unknown and (its later title) Unknown Worlds, by the recently late (in 2009) Ed Cartier. (In fact, Schoenherr, best known for his Dune and other Analog and also wild-animal/landscape painting, is the [in 2009] only living contributor to the book.) (When Pyramid was bought in the latest ‘70s by HBJ, this anthology was re-issued with an absolutely hideous, by intention, Rowena Morrill cover.)

Also, it was published 45 years ago this month…in its turn 21 years after the folding of Unknown Worlds, in it's turn founded 70 years ago, with much nostalgic and not so nostalgic reminiscence in editor D.R. Bensen’s introduction, who notes that in the US-still-neutral WW2 years, the ads in Unknown and other fiction magazines lent themselves to suggesting ways to keep that $30/week job, rather than such late 1963 concerns as nuclear war (the introduction was clearly written before the Kennedy assassination). Today, of course, we’re much further along, and often most concerned with keeping that $600-900/week job.

Unknown, of course, was the fantasy-fiction companion to the hugely influential sf magazine Astounding, as mentioned in previous posts, and during its 3.5-year run it was the other major pole in fantasy-fiction publishing in the pulps and pulp-like magazines to the similarly legendary Weird Tales (in Unknown Worlds's later years, it was published in a larger size and with better paper than the pulps, with a fairly staid cover format that looked more like The Atlantic Monthly at the time than like the pulps…all factors which might’ve led to its folding in 1943, when paper supplies were getting tight and publisher Street and Smith cut back on several fronts.) Actually, 1939, when Unknown was founded, was a good year for fantasy magazines, with Ziff-Davis first offering Fantastic Adventures (though it was originally primarily a science fiction magazine), the Thrilling Group/Standard Magazines launching the shortlived Strange Stories, and the Munsey magazine group beginnin Famous Fantastic Mysteries, primarily a reprint magazine but publishing some notable original fiction. But in the early ‘40s, the post-Lovecraft/Robert Howard/Clark Ashton Smith Weird Tales and Unknown were the most prominent titles devoted exclusively to fantasy. It’s often been thus since—when Unknown folded, both WT and eventually Fantastic Adventures gained new, good contributions and contributors…even if the latter never completely shed hack adventure fiction cheek by jowl with the better work. When WT folded for the first time in 1954, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had arisen beginning in 1949 and continuing to the present, while FA was folded into the more ambitious new Fantastic in 1954…though, unfortunately, the tendency toward hack was simply transferred over to Fantastic for the next several years (the notable Beyond Fantasy Fiction sprung up for its run from 1953-1955 as a companion to Galaxy Science Fiction). However, F&SF and Fantastic remained the most visible and consistent markets for new fantasy till Fantastic’s first run ended in 1980 (it was merged with its sf stablemate Amazing Stories, and has been revived spottily since).

Which is a long way ‘round to get to the news that F&SF, now in its 60th year, is dropping frequency to bimonthly status for the first time since the early ‘50s, and that Realms of Fantasy, which has held that “other fantasy magazine" status for 15 years, has been rather abruptly folded by its publisher (April’s will be the last issue); the revived Weird Tales, probably the next most visible US fantasy magazine, seems to be continuing, even as Fantastic will supposedly be relaunched again.

In his headnote for one of the stories within, Bensen notes that the axolotl in the Cartier illustration included with the Sturgeon story is the adult form of the “mud puppy,” apparently the then fairly recent subject of a running joke in Mad magazine…which, coincidentally, is dropping its frequency this year from monthly to quarterly, as Time Warner cuts back at its DC/Mad comics division…

So, finally, to the book’s literary content, an attempt to, even more than with its predecessor The Unknown, concentrate on stories that had not been reprinted from the magazine…including a previously unpublished lead-off story by Isaac Asimov, “Author! Author!” This had been in inventory at Unknown Worlds when the magazine folded, and Asimov had never placed it elsewhere, and it's an amiable if slightly stiff tale of a writer literally haunted by his insufferable detective character, who attempts to steal his creator’s life.

Cleve Cartmill, busy over several decades as a ghost-writer for the likes of Leslie Charteris and possibly Henry Kuttner, as well as under his own name (and famously at the center of a WW2 investigation of his atomic bomb story for Astounding, “Deadline”), has a clever if perhaps excessively folksy deal with the devil story with “The Bargain”…Stephen Vincent Benet or Manly Wade Wellman might well’ve done a bit better with this story…perhaps this kind of thing requires a three-name byline.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Hag Seleen” follows (originally published, with some justice, as by Sturgeon and James Beard [not the chef]), a good example of Sturgeon’s work for the magazine, but not among the greatest (such as “It,” considered here previously as part of Knight’s The Dark Half, or “Shottle Bop”). Sturgeon’s child characters could sometimes be a bit cute, and this is an example.

Alfred Bester’s novella “Hell is Forever” might be the earliest published example of Bester’s devotion to “dazzlement” as a technique…keeping this, and such later work as The Demolished Man and “5,271,009,” moving at a breakneck pace with sudden flashes of invention and deft turns of plot. He hasn’t mastered it yet, in this tale of a Hellfire Club-like group who find themselves damned to customized private hells after they wade into deeper water than they expected…but the work is both rewarding fun and promising for what he would go on to do…including a number of other novels, the last and most purely criminous reconstructed by Charles Platt for posthumous publication, Tender Loving Rage.

And "The Crest of the Wave," Jane Rice’s tale of a murdered thug’s posthumous retribution for his murder, is a good, if unextraordinary, example of that kind of borderline crime-story horror, with fine detail.

In short, this gives a good sense of what a good issue of Unknown was like, if not (nor could it quite be) an example of the absolute best the magazine published.

It should probably be mentioned that Bensen’s one sf novel was named for the letter column in UnknownAnd Having Writ…

    The Unknown 5 ed. D. R. Bensen (Pyramid R-962, Jan ’64, 50¢, 190pp, pb)

For newer reviews of rather older books, 
please see Patti Abbott's blog...


pattinase (abbott) said...

Hope you are feeling better, Todd.

George said...

Many of my friends are suffering from allergies this time of year. And colds/flu seem to be spreading. I'm going to get my flu shot next month. Take it easy and get better!

I remember reading both of these books when they were published in the Sixties! I was a voracious reader back then and I loved SF and horror paperbacks. And, they were affordable! I used the money I made from mowing lawns for neighbors to start my paperback collection.

Walker Martin said...

With my sets of STARTLING and THRILLING WONDER, I have the two collections, THE SHAPE OF THINGS and THE BEST OF STARTLING, but I also have the anthology, MY BEST SCIENCE FICTION STORY, edited by Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend. I had forgotten why I put it with STARTLING and THRILLING magazines but looking at the acknowledgements I see why. Eleven of the stories are from STARTLING and THRILLING WONDER(Also one from CAPTAIN FUTURE). No other magazine title in the collection come close to these numbers.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Patti...I am, a bit...I have to quit alternating too much sleep with too much work to make up for the former, to break the cycle...I hope you, Phil, and everyone can soon feel better, too.

Thanks, George...yeah, I cadged money where I could for my early book habit, too. 50c might've had a similar spending power in 1964 to $9 today, but it still feels like $9 is a A Lot More....thus one of the crises of publishing, particularly in magazines and mass-market paperbacks.

I can see it, Walker...Margulies let Friend edit the book for him, clearly...Margulies had a habit of doing that...though he usually chose a better partner for his projects...even Moskowitz is higher in my estimation as an editor than Friend...I do enjoy ferreting out the "hidden" magazine best-ofs...or, at least, "drawn froms"...I managed to convince Dave Langford to add the Knight to the TWS and STARTLING STORIES articles in the SF ENCYCLOPEDIA...

Rich Horton said...

It doesn't seem to me that that selection of Startling/Thrilling stories is as good has it could have been. "The Sky Was Full of Ships" is the only one that I know that I'd have chosen. "The Box", as I recall, is pretty awful, Blish before he learned to write. The McDonald is good but I might have gone with "Spectator Sport".

Todd Mason said...

It's been some years, now, but I recall "The Box" as being a pleasant and clever problem story...I suspect Knight was angling for lesser-known stories, but I'd have to check his intro to see if he says as much...

Todd Mason said...

And I'm not sure there was a better Harness short with the Thrilling group than "The New Reality" but I should take a spin through AN ORNAMENT TO HIS PROFESSION, the NESFA Press retrospective of Harness's work...

Rich Horton said...

Actually, "The New RealitY" is an excellent choice.

It's been a long time since I read "The Box" but I recall thinking it quite bad.