Short Reviews – Final Command, by A.E. van Vogt

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Final Command by A.E. van Vogt appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

Different brains for different thinks…

Councilman Barr, Director of the Council, has been given a burdensome task: find out what the response would be from robots if the Council decided to shut down and destroy all robots.

::record scratch::

Humans have built and developed robots that have evolved to a point where they’re nearly their own species. Humans have used them for everything from fighting interstellar wars to directing traffic to even replacing actors—people go to the movies to watch robots pantomime human drama and romance.

Robots are like people; they think and reason, even if they don’t necessarily feel. They have some intrinsic desire for self-preservation, but they are able to rationalize their own extermination unless significantly prodded to “think” about it. And Councilman Barr must prod to find what they “think”.

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Short Reviews – Gulf (Part 1 of 2), by Robert Heinlein

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The first installment of Gulf, by Robert Heinlein, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be found here at Archive.org.

Gulf is a slow-burn sci-fi spy thriller. It’s very dark and atmospheric, and while the hook, some of the window dressing, and the MacGuffin are science-fiction, Gulf stands up as a fairly standard, if well-written, example of the spy-pulp genre. If the sci-fi elements weren’t there, it would still hold up as a spy story, as it doesn’t really rely on those tropes to make its narrative work.

An agent has three tubes of micro-film: two decoys, and one with top secret plans for something. He’s got to get them to the post office so they can be transferred with cold mechanical efficiency to the dead drop address. There’s a game of cat and mouse as those who want to get their hands on the film interfere with the agent as he tries to make the drop, and after he gets the tube off, he’s taken to a private jail on trumped up charges of passing a forged note to a waitress [his wallet had been stolen by a porter urchin and swapped with an almost identical fake].

His enemies try to no avail to discover the contents and destination of the tube, and the agent is “rescued” by an interested 3rd party [a fabulously wealthy helicopter salesman] who got himself captured to make contact and plan the break. The agent escapes only to find that he’s been burned by a double, the tube either went missing or never made it to the dead drop, and his agency thinks he’s the one who stole it.

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Short Reviews – Over the Top, by Lester del Rey

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Over the Top, by Lester del Rey, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. You can’t read it at Archive.org, because John Betancourt had it scrubbed. A little birdie told me it can be found as a .cbr here, though.

After that Asimov stinker, this issue of Astounding makes a fabulous 180 with not one, but two good stories in a row! (The second one, which I’ll talk about next week, was the first half of a Heinlein spy thriller.) Thanks, guy in the comments who said this was a good issue—you may actually be right!

A midget has been launched into space to make a manned landing on Mars; being an adventure SF story, something goes wrong and he gets stranded and unable to contact earth. While he has food for months, he’ll run out of air because of the damage to the filtration system that was going to suck oxygen out of Mars’ atmosphere and pump it into his ship. Why a midget? Because of economy of scale; smaller astronaut, smaller ship, fewer resource considerations.

The Mars of Over the Top is the Mars that still supports life but has expectations scaled back drastically. The vegetation appears homogeneous, is scant, and isn’t very good to eat. The one Martian animal lifeform the astronaut comes into contact with is a weird anemone-like thing that behaves a bit like a cat.

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Short Reviews – …And Now You Don’t (Part 1 of 3), by Isaac Asimov

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

…And Now You Don’t, by Isaac Asimov, was serialized in three parts beginning with the November 1949 issue of Astounding. It was later anthologized as the second half of the book “Second Foundation”. It can be read here at Archive.org.

It is exactly as exciting as it looks.

This is it, guys! One of the touchstone sagas of Campbell’s Astounding and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A hallmark series of one of the Big Three of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation!

And, oh my god, this is boring as crap!

40-odd pages of the first installment of “…And Now You Don’t”, and nothing happens!

Chapter 1: A girl writes a term paper on the Seldon Plan.

Chapter 2: Two telepathic egg-heads from the Second Foundation have a conversation about the Seldon Plan.

Chapter 3: Five non-telepathic egg-heads have a conversation about the Seldon Plan and the possible existence of and interference by a Second Foundation.

Chapter 4: Having done some math during chapter 3 when the First Foundation egg-heads were talking, the Second Foundation egg-heads have a conversation about the results of the aforementioned equations and their bearing on the Seldon Plan.

Chapter 5: After further discussion, it is determined that the stuttering Stanley of First Foundation egg-heads will go off to the Mule’s world and look into possible Second Foundation interference with the First Foundation under false pretenses. The girl from chapter one, however, had been spying in on daddy’s plans to save the once-and-future galactic empire and stowed away on the dork’s space-ship.

To be continued!

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Short Reviews – Defense Mechanism, by Katherine MacLean

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Defense Mechanism by Katherine MacLean appeared in the October 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be read here at Archive.org.

Defense Mechanism was tucked behind the book reviews and letters to the editor, so I almost missed it! Considering how influential its writer would go on to be, it’s ironic that her debut could go so easily unnoticed. And as far as stories in Astounding go, this certainly wasn’t the worst.

A writer has an infant/toddler son with empathic telepathy. The father is able to hear his own thoughts and the thoughts of others reflected back from his son. Mother is a bit concerned, particularly since the child is developing slowly, but dad, a bit of an empath himself, went through a similar phase as a late bloomer.

There are quite a lot of literal thinks being thought both at and around characters in this thinky-story. There is, however, an action-packed climax to this thinky-story of many thinks, so it has one-up on at least a couple stories from Astounding I’ve reviewed recently.

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Retro Fandom Friday (on a Monday) – Even the Letter Column in This Issue Was Boring…

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

There wasn’t anything all that special in Astounding Oct. 1949’s letters section, and since the letters haven’t caught up to where I’ve actually read yet, it’s hard to glean much from them. Typical mixed bag of “It’s great” and “It’s terrible”, though I’ve noticed that Lensman seems to be a really love-it-or-hate-it series, even in its own time. Also, for whatever reason there’s another story hidden behind the letters section which I almost missed. ::Shrug::

Warren Carroll says “With every issue, the 1949 Astounding grows better and better.” Of course, he hasn’t factored in any of the issues I’ve read so far, and I can’t weigh in, as I haven’t read the issues or stories he lauds.

R.J. Raven-Hart has low marks for the November 1948 issue (“Quite the poorest issue I have seen as regards to fiction; [but] far away the best as regards to articles”) and January (“Poor stories compared to your usual standard”) 1949 issue, with mixed for February 1949.

I am a wireless engineer myself, of the old days—I can claim to have seen a coherer, not actually in use, but in reserve to be switched in should the electrolytic detector fail—and was in radar during the war, and I had never realized the progress I had seen. Ley was, as ever, first-class; so was the Locke article. By the way, I note with alarm that recent letters from readers have suggested the discontinuance of articles—I hope this is not your policy. They should continue, if only to give the high-brow an excuse when found to be a reader of Astounding. Oh, and congratulations to van Vogt for doing something I thought quite impossible—writing something duller than the “Lensman” stories.

Insert “I read it for the articles” meme here.

Short Reviews – The Finan-Seer, by E. L. Locke

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Finan-Seer by E. L. Locke appeared in the October 1949 issue of Astounding. It is his only short story (Locke was primarily an essayist for the magazine), the story is something of a follow-up of his essay on cybernetics in the previous issue.

This is why we need Alt-Furry

This may have been the Astounding story that has defeated me. With the next issue, I’ll have reviewed a consecutive run of three, after which point I’ll be taking a break and reading something good instead.

The wolf is a metaphorical “wolf” of Wall Street. There are no mathmagicians or slavering wolf-men. The Finan-Seer is a story about a university that has screwed up its endowment and may go broke; a bunch of egg-head professors try to come up with mathematical models to game the market and get their investments back up.

It does presage the recent financial crises, in which computer models for investment management failed to properly calculate market changes—a situation in which massive sell-offs could be triggered—and the fact that once multiple computer models for investments were in place, certain advantages would be lost, and the mere existence of such a thing could cause unpredictable results from interfering with its own basis model… But god, I’m tired of reading stories about egg-heads talking and coming up with solutions via egg-headery.

You could read this story about professors sitting around and talking, or you could pre-order this story with space pirates, giant spiders, and alien dinosaurs.