Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: stories by Robert Bloch, Alice Sheldon ("James Tiptree, Jr."), David Bunch and Juan José Arreola, from the 28th Anniversary issues of FANTASTIC, edited by Elinor Mavor (July 1980) and THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Edward L. Ferman (October 1977)

 Prismatica  Samuel R. Delany · nv
  34 •   ReviewStolen Faces by Michael Bishop • review by Richard   Delap
  36 •   ReviewA Little Knowledge by Michael Bishop • review by Richard Delap
   39 •   ReviewNew Dimensions 7 by Robert Silverberg • review by Richard Delap
    41 •   ReviewUniverse 7 by Terry Carr • review by Richard Delap
43 · What You See Is What You Get · Robert Bloch · ss
56 · The First Stroke · Zenna Henderson · ss
61 • Films: Star Wars • [Films (F&SF)] • essay by Baird Searles
64 · The Man Who Could Provide Us with Elephants [Mr. Secrett] · John Brunner · nv
95 · Brother · Clifford D. Simak · nv
113 · Caretaker · Manly Wade Wellman · ss
123 · Leaps of Faith · Michael Bishop · ss
139 · Science: The Subtlest Difference · Isaac Asimov · cl
150 · Time-Sharing Angel · "James Tiptree, Jr." (Alice Sheldon) · ss

Twenty-eight years is a slightly odd birthday for a magazine to celebrate, but as I've noted before here, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) liked to have an "all-star" birthday issue every year, in the '70s and later not least to help soften the blow of a new newsstand price rise in some (many) years, while Fantastic was usually more blasé, even with "major" anniversary years...though this was to be the penultimate issue of the magazine, before its folding into the stablemate Amazing Stories, and not too long before the end of Ultimate Publications, which had published both titles and various spun-off magazines since 1965; Amazing (combined with Fantastic) would soon be sold to Dungeons and Dragons game publisher TSR, and would see a further cash infusion from Steven Spielberg renting title rights and options on the magazine's fiction for his (rather bad and shortlived, but guaranteed two seasons by NBC, which honored the contract) tv series Amazing Stories.  Despite 
title, these last few issues of Fantastic didn't feature very much sf, buthe publisher was quite sure sf magazines always outsold fantasy magazines...and they usually had (I continue to suspect this is because fantasy readers were less likely to be aware there was a  literature of fantasy that could be seen as differentiated from fiction as a whole than sf or even horror readers leastill J. R. R. Tolkien began outselling everyone else in the '70s).

F&SF was edited and published in 1977 by Edward Ferman, who had inherited the business from his father, and by this point ran the magazine from his family's house in Cornwall, CT; younger Ferman had been editing since 1964, publishing beginning in 1970. While in 1980, Elinor Mavor was just settling in as the editor of Fantastic and Amazing, having had her first issues of the magazines assembled hurriedly after long-term publisher Sol Cohen retired at the end of 1978, and turned the reins over to his junior partner Arthur Bernhard, who had never seen eye-t0-eye with 1969-79 editor Ted White, and who replaced him with the illustrator and staff layout person Mavor, who had a certain lack of confidence going in, even more so than her most widely-hailed predecessor at the magazines when they were published at Ziff-Davis, Cele Goldsmith Lalli (Mavor even signed herself "Omar Gohagen" to begin with, thinking women editors were unlikely to be accepted in sf and fantasy circles...not particularly true ever, but particularly not by the '70s).

And for whatever reason, I'd not actually picked up either of these issues and given them a read-through, despite a good line-up of genuinely all-star contributors to the F&SF issue, and a not-bad selection of writers in the Fantastic. While the F&SF had the standard, illustration-free (except for Gahan Wilson's monthly cartoon, and the column headers Wilson had devised for the rotating-cast book-review, Asimov science-essay, and Baird Searles film and related media review columns) easy to read if a bit staid text-laden pages, Mavor was trying, as best the minimal budget she had would allow, to mix in not only illustration (White's issues had had often excellent illustrators and cover artists) but to remake the layout more in the fashion of most magazines at the turn of the '80s, with some filler nonfiction devoted to contributor biographies and (instead of the story headnotes White would provide, or Ferman, in their magazines) short ending notes that detailed what drew her to take the item the reader had just photographs included when handy. 

So, I chose for this week's entry to check out two stories in each issue, the F&SF's Robert Bloch ("What You See is What You Get") and Alice Sheldon ("Time-Sharing Angel"), still signing her work (mostly) "James Tiptree, Jr." and the Fantastic's David Bunch ("New Member") and a translation, by Marijane Osborn, of a 1952 story by Mexican fabulist Juan José Arreola, titled rendered in English as "Parable of Barter".

Consistent readers here will know that I'm a lifelong fan of Bloch's and might recall I've liked Bunch's work nearly as long...sadly, both men's entries here are not close to their best work. The Bloch is simply a misfire, a gimmick story that telegraphs its final twist (which is as at least as old as the telegraph, despite being a story about a sort of haunted Polaroid camera); the Bunch is drowning in his love of alienating small details, so much so that his usually pointed critique is all but lost. One can enjoy them as very minor examples of what these artists could do, but one will enjoy almost anything else they wrote more readily.

The "Tiptree" and the Arreola are better; the Sheldon story is not her best, but it does demonstrate the bleakness of her assessment of humanity's probable fate, as well as taking a suitably (and not atypically) off-the-wall means of staving that fate off; it's included in a couple of her key collections. The Arreola gives us a sense of why his work is compared to that of Borges, though perhaps less (at least in this translation of this story) exacting in his vision, but at least as playful, and if anything (like Sheldon!) with a somewhat dimmer view of human foibles, and the means of being (not quite literally) damned if one does or one doesn't.

There are other features and fiction that look promising (certainly more so than the killer B stories) in the two issues, even if Richard Delap is probably my least favorite of the recurring book reviewers in 1970s F&SF issues, and my interest in role-playing games is limited (nice to see this early interest from a pro fantastica magazine, even one on such a tight budget, in this then-growing field).

And then, after seeing the link to this post on a Facebook discussion group, Darrell Schweitzer was moved to comment (and graciously gave permission to reprint that comment here):

Interesting to see something of mine (the serial in FANTASTIC) showcased like this. It makes me feel like a museum piece. But it was ... yikes!... forty-three years ago. As for how stretched the budget for FANTASTIC was, Elinor Mavor asked me to cut "The White Isle" by 13,000 words, because they could not afford to pay for a 53,000 word story. I made a simpler counter-offer, that they should pay for what they could and take the rest for free. Nothing could be more attractive to the editor of a starveling magazine that the prospect of about 15 pp. of free copy. Not a comma was dropped. When Arthur Bernhard proposed to fold the magazine with the April 1980 issue, I also (from obvious self-interest) wrote to him and argued that as a fantasy magazine, FANTASTIC served a very special purpose and should be allowed to continue. So it limped on for two more issues, finished my serial, and ended with an "excerpt" (actually the first installment) of Marvin Kaye's THE AMOROUS UMBRELLA.  [I replied that, in a sense, Darrell had, as part of the staff, with George Scithers, editing the TSR Amazing Stories incorporating Fantastic, he was in a way editing Fantastic himself not too long after.]

And for more of this week's Short Story Wednesday entries, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

And, just for swank, here's what quarterly Fantastic and monthly F&SF were offering at about the same time as the reviewed issues of their counterparts above:

Fantastic, December 1977, edited by Ted White

Not actually the 26th Anniversary issue (which would be the July 1978 issue)...

This might be my least-favorite David Hardy painting...even Jove nods...
A far better Hardy painting, more typical of his work.


George said...

I remember reading these issues back in the day. Now, it's been years since I've purchased an issue of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION.

pattinase (abbott) said...

These writers wrote so extensively I don't know how they came up with new plots in this plot-heavy genre.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Patti, that's at least as true of crime fiction, generally...the groaning obviousness of the Bloch story's "twist" really is too easy to see from about where it's set up for. Fantasy isn't inherently in need of a Novel Plot in every story, but half-assed twist endings are part of what made, say, THE TWILIGHT ZONE kind of a drag for most viewers who first encountered it as adults, particularly if they had read much in the way of fantasy or sf beforehand.

George--you can still purchase a new F&SF to give it a spin, and even a copy or two's sales won't hurt their feelings any...albeit, inflationary times are upon us, and a copy of 2023 issues runs $10.99 before whatever discounts one might have available (as opposed to $20 for THE PARIS REVIEW's current issues, among other littles on the newsstands).