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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
by Dave Truesdale

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Reviews of Alfred Bester (Oct. 1960-Aug. 1962)

There was no Book Review or "Recommended Reading" column in the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949. With its second issue (and a retitling to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Winter-Spring, 1950), co-founders Anthony Boucher and J. F. McComas began a Recommended Reading column. Both editors shared reviewing duties until it was announced in the August, 1954 issue that McComas was leaving the magazine to travel and write, which left Boucher the sole Book Reviewer until he too left the magazine in 1958, whereupon Robert P. Mills became the magazine's editor. Following a gap of several issues in the Recommended Reading column, the November 1959 issue saw the first of Damon Knight's reviews. Astute, sometimes pithy, but always interesting to read, Knight's run as Book Reviewer lasted a mere eleven issues, his last column appearing in the September, 1960 issue.

This is when things began to get interesting for F&SF's Books column, for with the October, 1960 issue Alfred Bester was named as Knight's replacement. His official tenure lasted 23 issues—one issue shy of two full years—and ended with the August, 1962 issue.

But it was a rocky, controversial two years for Bester's column, which eventually led directly to his resignation.

Column #1: October, 1960

Bester offers his reviewing philosophy thusly:

"This department will entertain any fiction that is a Flight of Fancy from the reality of Now . . . any imaginative flight into the future, the past, or the para-present; any arresting concept based, perhaps, on a scientific premise, a philosophic foible, a cultural conceit (using "conceit" in the architectural sense), or even a bit of technical bravura.

"If any book attempts such a Flight of Fancy, it should be welcomed by the reader; and it would be foolishly small-minded to object on the grounds that a work does not fit into some particular definition of fantasy or science fiction. We offer here, then, a warm welcome, that most delicious offering of the artist . . . imagination."

He then proceeds to review four books: The Worlds of Clifford Simak (favorably), remarking that "His style is gentle and rambling; one never knows where he's headed. This means his stories never suffer from the mechanical working out of plot which enables the reader to predict the action and resolution after the first two pages." And, "This is the way his imagination is colored; and the results, far from being repetitive, are always charming."

Mark Clifton's novel Eight Keys to Eden he is less enamored of, observing gently that "Mr. Clifton has hung the body of his novel on a skeleton barely strong enough to support a short story." This after praising Clifton's short story "What Thin Partitions," which he calls "a delightful classic in fantasy writing."

L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's The Incomplete Enchanter he also praises, saying "the book holds up amazingly well after twenty years."

When discussing Judith Merril's collection Out of Bounds, he opens with:

"It's been suggested that most women fail to write significantly because the female mind is viscerotonic, and occupied almost exclusively with the moment-to-moment reality of emotions. If this is true, literature's loss is science fiction's gain, for Out of Bounds, Judith Merril's collection of short stories, is a warm and colorful rendering of the minutiae of the future."
Following brief, one-line comments on eight of the stories, he then concludes with:
"Let the men write about the Big Decisions, if they're so equipped; we still need more of Miss Merril's art to keep reminding us that fantasy and science fiction must be based on human values."
Four books are reviewed in three pages. One novel and three collections. Three are given praise, one a gentle rebuff.

Column #2: November, 1960

Seven works reviewed in three and a half pages. Quips which drew my interest:

"This department devoutly believes that Theodore Sturgeon is too fine a writer to devote himself to science fiction exclusively. Certainly he is one of the greatest of the living science fiction authors, and we always welcome his books. His latest is Beyond, a collection of short stories, some new, some reprints, all put together with Mr. Sturgeon's unique magic."

"Robert Sheckley is, without doubt, the most sophisticated and finished performer in science fiction, as he proves again with Notions: Unlimited, a collection of one dozen sparkling stories. Whenever Mr. Sheckley appears on stage, we settle back comfortably, confident that this precise craftsman will make his flawless points with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of brilliance."

"Isaac Asimov, a giant in science fiction, gives us Nine Tomorrows, a collection of stories garnered mostly from the pages of . . . shall we say . . . the lesser science fiction publications. All authors fail occasionally to bring off stories at their usual level of accomplishment. These they either destroy, cannibalize, or sell to less demanding markets. Mr. Asimov has done the latter with his discards, and now collected them."

Column #3: December, 1960

Six works reviewed in three and a half pages. Quote of interest:

In reviewing James Blish's A Clash of Cymbals, Bester opines, "Mr. Blish's theorizing about the conclusion of space and time is original and arresting, and the steps his characters take to cope with this ending are equally remarkable. But unfortunately this department must continue and old debate with Mr. Blish; we feel he is too brilliant an intellect and too constrained a human being to do justice to the fiction half of science fiction. His characters lack emotion, conflict, reality; it is impossible to believe in them, feel for them, identify with them. He refuses to conceive of a story in terms of human values. We urge Mr. Blish, for the sake of his formidable talent, to abandon intellect and take to drink, drugs, seduction, crime, politics . . . anything that will shock him into experiencing the stresses that torture people, so that he will be able to write about them with the same lucid dedication which he presently reserves exclusively for science."

That last line cracked me up when I first read it. Imagine Alfred Bester (with tongue heavily in cheek) exhorting James Blish to get drunk or stoned, or turn to crime or politics, in order to learn about what it's like to be human--all in the service of his fiction. Everyone knows what a heavy drinker Alfie was, and an international party guy to boot. He was, in his own ineffable manner telling Blish to take the stick out of his backside and loosen up a bit. But in a review column, in public as it were. If one is familiar with Bester's brand of humor, you just gotta love it.

[Tangent #6, Winter 1977: How do you get along with people with no sense of humor?

Bester: I can't. I forget'em. I find myself trying harder and harder to get a laugh out of these cats and I end up feeling gauche, awkward, and it gets worse and worse and I make a goddamned fool of myself, and it's a real mess. So I just don't worry about them anymore.]

Column #4: January, 1961

Five works reviewed in three pages. A couple of quotes worthy of note:

"This department is so angry with Theodore Sturgeon that we hesitate to review the source of our anger, his latest book, Venus Plus X. Claiming to be a novel, [it] is actually a long exploration of Mr. Strugeon's attitude toward sex and mores in America; their foibles and furbelows, their dilemmas and disasters." There follows a short paragraph in which Mr. Bester hastens to add that in the entertainment business in which he is involved he has learned to accept all sorts of "versions and inversions of sexual practices as mere commonplace," by way of letting us understand that he is definitely not a prude.
Bester finishes his review with some advice for Sturgeon: "Mr. Sturgeon, whom we admire as one of the most brilliant and perceptive of American writers, has permitted himself to blunder into the trap that undoes so many lesser American authors . . . a deadly and stultifying seriousness about sex. On other subjects Mr. Sturgeon writes with warmth, wit, and a deft light touch; but when he dedicates himself to sex he writes like an unfrocked clinician."

As with his comments for Blish, Bester also desires that Sturgeon lighten up and let it all hang out; and this advice concerns the topic of love/sex (!), which everyone knows is Sturgeon's fictive forte. Again, you gotta love Bester's brass and candor, again touched with an edge of humor.

"Andre Norton, a science fiction author of only mediocre attainment, finds her forte in the historical novel with Shadow Hawk, an interesting and meticulously researched novel about the struggles of the Egyptians to drive out their Hyksos conquerors some two thousand years before the birth of Christ."
Bester finishes with the following observations, which will eventually come back to haunt him: "We have only one small criticism to make: Miss Norton was forced to compress her scholarship into too small a compass. Occasionally her details clutter up the narrative. And we have one question to raise: Can a woman really write convincing action?"

Though perhaps over-sensitized to such a remark today, it still, for all its innocently-intended frankness as an honest question, raises an eyebrow, and elicits an immediate reaction. To be fair, Ms. Norton had yet to hit her stride, popularity and fame at this point in her career and maybe the action in this particular book wasn't very convincing, but it's Bester's generalizing of the question to include all women writers that tips the scales, and will lead to controversy down the road.

Column #5: February, 1961

One book reviewed glowingly, Judith Merril's The Year's Best SF 5, and then the fireworks begin. Bester uses the remainder of his three and a half pages to angrily admonish sf authors for the poor quality of their writing. He is frustrated and lashing out, and I wish we could reprint the whole wonderful rant. But we can't, so I'll include a few of the better snippets.

"The rest of the books sent in for review this month were so bad that we've decided to ignore them." " . . . many people want to know why. Publishers, editors, and the public have been blamed. We disagree. We think authors are responsible."

"The average quality of writing in the field today is extraordinarily low. We don't speak of style; it's astonishing how well amateurs and professionals alike can handle words." . . . "No, we speak of content; of the thought, theme, and drama of the stories, which reflect the author himself. Many practicing science fiction authors reveal themselves in their works as very small people, disinterested in reality, inexperienced in life, incapable of relating science fiction to human beings, and withdrawing from the complexities of living into their make-believe worlds."

"Their science is mere repetition of what has been done before. They ring minuscule changes on played-out themes, concepts which were established and exhausted a decade ago. They play with odds and ends and left-overs."

"His characters behave inexplicably in a bewildering situation; little by little he lifts a corner here and a corner there, and leads the reader down the garden path of curiosity until at last he removes the cape with a flourish to reveal . . . nothing. This is literary larceny, and it's being practiced more and more today."

"The appeal of science fiction has always been its iconoclasm . . . But in order to be an iconoclast, an author must be more than merely aware of the idol he wishes to destroy. He must be intimate with it and understand it in all its aspects. This means that he must have devoted serious thought to it, and have beliefs of his own which will stand up in the place of the broken idol. In other words, any child can complain, but it takes an adult to clash with accepted beliefs . . . an adult with ideas."

"We're not merely shooting off our mouth when we say that it is the authors who are killing science fiction. We know how and why science fiction is written today, and are prepared to state a few hard truths. Outside of the exceptions mentioned above, science fiction is written by empty people who have failed as human beings.

"As a class they are lazy, irresponsible, immature. They are incapable of producing contemporary fiction because they know nothing about life, and have no adult comment to make about life. They are silly, childish people who have taken refuge in science fiction where they can establish their own arbitrary rules about reality to suit their own inadequacy. And like most neurotics, they cherish the delusion that they're 'special.' "

"To the patient, long-suffering public, our blessings. To the weary editors, sorting through the third-rate submissions for an acceptable MS, our sympathy. To those of our colleagues who have earned our respect and admiration, our apologies for this attack which was not directed against them. But to those who deserve this attack, our curse."

Whew. Heady stuff, much of which is, to our eyes, yet relevant today--perhaps more than ever (especially in the magazines).

Column #6: March, 1961

Following on the heels of the fiery diatribe in the previous column, Bester reviews nothing in this column, instead offering the reader this:

"Last month we complained rather bitterly about the poor quality of contemporary science fiction and its authors. Although we were careful to point out that there were exceptions to our attack, we fear that angry fans may have overlooked this. So we would like to take advantage of this month's All Star Issue by putting together a composite All Star Author out of the colleagues we admire most. Unfortunately, space limits us to a selection of seven, but we beg you (and the authors who must be omitted) to remember that our admiration includes far more than that number."
All but the final graph is taken up with listing the great qualities of seven authors. The final graph combines them into one All Star Author thusly:
"Our All Star Author, then, would be made up of the dramatic virility of Robert Heinlein, the humanity of Theodore Sturgeon, the gloss of Robert Sheckley, the dispassion of James Blish, the encyclopedic enthusiasm of Isaac Asimov, the courage of Philip Farmer, and the high style of Ray Bradbury. He would be edited with the technical acumen of John W. Campbell, Jr., the psychoanalytic perception of Horace Gold, and the sparkling sophistication of the Boucher-McComas team. And publishers would beat a path to this door."
Column #7: April, 1961

One non-fiction tome, reviewed favorably, Isaac Asimov's The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science.

That was it.

Column #8: May, 1961

Six books reviewed, all favorably. Nothing to raise or lower an eyebrow about this somewhat flat, tame column (given the past several, that is).

The Fifth Galaxy Reader, ed. H. L. Gold
Some of Your Blood, Theodore Sturgeon
Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, Zenna Henderson
The Milky Way Galaxy, Ben Bova
Twilight World, Poul Anderson
The Unexpected, ed. Leo Margulies

Column #9: June, 1961

One book reviewed, Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon. The column has expanded to five-plus pages this time around, in order to accommodate a double review of the book. Bester leads off and James Blish closes, taking up the bulk of the space. Before his short (but highly favorable) review of Rogue Moon, Bester prefaces the column with this:

"The Kindly Editor (to quote the Good Doctor Asimov) has requested this department to explain our reviewing policy to readers and authors.

"In the first place, there is no editorial control over the book reviews. We review what we please, when we please, and how we please. Our spelling and syntax are occasionally revised, but always most apologetically. Our opinions are often contradicted, but only after they are safely in print.

"We review only those books which we admire. We feel it would be unfair to authors to publish completely adverse criticism, so we prefer to ignore the books which we dislike. The only exception to this policy are those authors of such standing that they cannot be ignored; but we deeply regret the necessity to handle them roughly.

"We have been reproached for our severity to authors. We do not feel that we're being severe. No book is perfect; no author is a perfect craftsman, although we would all like to be. Nothing would give this department more pleasure than the opportunity to review the perfect story by the perfect author, but we have yet to find this miracle in science fiction, and this most emphatically includes our own work.

"Therefore, as a colleague, we feel obliged not only to point out the admirable qualities of a book, but to indicate its weaknesses as well, hoping that it will help the artist. We must accept this responsibility. We've said before that no one but a writer can understand another writer's problems. We must attempt to do for our fellow craftsmen what we hope they will do for us."

Looks like Alfie got taken to the woodshed, or at least told to head that way.

Column #10: July, 1961

Seven books reviewed, a quote from Damon Knight's collection Far Out the only (minor) item of interest.

While admiring the collection, Bester offers this observation of Knight's work in general:

"We would prefer to let our review stand on the preceding paragraph, but Mr. Knight is too important an author to be dismissed with a mere notice. Consequently, we must mention what we feel to be a weakness in his work; he is interested in situation rather than character. All thirteen stories are splendid examples of the art of an expert author in the colorful development of situation, but with the exception of a touch here and there, very little attention is devoted to character development.

"This by no means implies that Mr. Knight is incapable of character writing. We remember with deep emotion a magnificent character study which Mr. Knight published in this magazine last year, 'What Rough Beast.' We wonder why he has not pursued this line further; for Art must explore Man to rise above mere cleverness. In his collection Mr. Knight proves himself to be one of the cleverest of science fiction authors. We hope and believe that some day he will rise above this."

Nothing outrageous or mean-spirited about the above; merely honest, cogent criticism at the tag of a favorable review. It appears Bester has not allowed the "reproach" to bother him, or shake him from his reviewing philosophy.

Column #11: August, 1961

Unexpectedly, there is no Books review column in this issue. Only a brief explanation by editor Mills that the absence is due to "a sudden, unexpected deadline on a script for another medium. Mr. Bester will definitely be back next month. . . . "

Approximately halfway through his stint as F&SF Book Reviewer and already Bester has ticked off the fans, been reproached by his editor, and has missed a column altogether. Never mind his excellent insights into the craft of writing, his humorous suggestions to Blish and Sturgeon on how to improve their writing by becoming more human and less serious about sex, respectively, and his brilliant rant against most of the authors in the field.

One can only trust the editor's explanation, and promise of Bester's return in the September, 1961 issue. But one wonders if Bester will take another month (or more) off—while still officially listed as Book reviewer. Has his frank, outspoken nature betrayed him? Soured the editor and readers against him, such that the frustrations he had already endured will prove too much and he will throw his hands up and quit?

Will Judith Merril have anything to say about his comment that it seems Men write about the Big Stuff and Women the Small?

What reaction did Andre Norton have to being labeled mediocre? And what of the question Bester raised about women not being able to write convincing action scenes? Are there more battles abrewing? How (if at all) will Bester deal with them?

All of these questions and more will be answered next month, in Part Two of "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Reviews of Alfred Bester."

*     *     *

Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.


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