Science fiction when I was born: a review of IF Magazine from June 1955

What was science fiction like when I was born? I got a copy of the June 1955 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction at a Science Fiction Outreach Project giveaway. The digest-sized pulp magazine was yellowed, and the pages included a scribbled phone number and some crumbs, but otherwise it was in great condition.

You can read this magazine online at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/1955-06_IF

Here’s what I thought of the stories.

“The Strangers,” a novelette by Algis Budrys

A young man, Spencer, is celebrating his twenty-fourth birthday by getting drunk and regretting his failed life, when a mysterious stranger sits next to him and says that Spencer’s former mysterious benefactor has died. This benefactor had, since childhood, set Spencer up “to be something more than a man” until an injury shattered the young man’s hip and left him “half a man.” (I’ll refrain from commenting on the ableism.)

After a series of further encounters that might not be accidental, Spencer comes to understand that non-physical entities from another universe were trapped on Earth long ago and have been using Earth life forms, especially human beings, as chrysalises of a sort to wait out the chance to leave. Spencer discovers he has a superhuman mind and can send the aliens home, so he does.

Overall, it’s not a bad story or badly written, but there are plot holes and a deus ex machina ending. A cool idea didn’t get its due.

The cover art of the magazine, by Frank Kelly Freas, apparently depicts the main character of this story. Note the crutch. However, the story explicitly says the character is 24 years old. The art seems to be of an older man.

Another work by Algys Budrys that I’ve read is the novel Rogue Moon, and I was not impressed. My Goodreads review gives it two stars.

“Bright Islands,” short story by Frank Riley

In the recent past (relative to 1955), a young woman is being used by the Nazi government to breed a child with superpowers. She’s about to give birth, but she’s stolen a poison pill. Should she take it? This simple narrative runs deep with distilled emotions, probably even more intense in 1955, ten years after the end of World War II. Well done.

You can read “Bright Islands” as a free ebook at Project Gutenberg.

“Your Time Is Up,” short story by Walt Sheldon

“What year? It’s 1955, of course.”

“Why,” he said, “this is remarkable!”

“It is?”

“Do you know what I think has happened? A quantum inversion.”

The story involves a change to the Pentagon telephone system that accidentally allows a colonel to call someone in the far future who explains that there will be a Final War… I could guess the twist well before the ending, but the lively narration kept me entertained anyway. I was a little flummoxed by the primitive telephone system, though. Live operators? They were gone by the time I was old enough to use a phone.

“Men of the Ocean,” a novelette by R. E. Banks

A portion of the ocean floor has been used for mines and kelp farms for half a century, keeping the land and sky fed. But the world has changed, and now there’s a complicated, murderous plot to get the title to that land on the ocean floor. With sharply drawn characters, an inventive narrative with lots of twists and solid pacing, this is one of the better stories in the magazine. I think I’m an R. E. Banks fan now.

Of course, there are the occasional anachronisms, like pay phones and important documents available only as a single paper copy, but that’s forgivable. It’s one thing to imagine an automated mine. Imagining mobile phones and automated e-ticket systems might have been too much back then.

“Until Life Do Us Part,” short story by Winston Marks

On one level, it’s a story about two men fighting over a woman, and one of them kills the other. (I’ll refrain from commenting on the sexism.) The story tries, however, to explore the idea of immortality. “It’s a long life … the price of immortality is caution, patience, temperance…” but “if there was one activity that immortal, 28th Century Man could no longer afford, it was the luxury of falling in love.” The story lightly skims the surface of an interesting idea.

“The Twilight Years,” a short story by Kirk and Garen Drussai

An over-60 couple gets very anxious at sundown, and the reason turns out to be terrifying: young people resent old folks for having “outlived their usefulness … especially if we are a burden and there are too many of us.” The story also anticipates live reality television, and the couple are hunted down and killed as they watch it happen in their own living room. It’s chilling, but shallow characterization undermines the premise.

“Freeway,” a short story by Bryce Walton

Opening paragraph: “Some people had disagreed with him. They were influential people. He was put on the road.”

A man has been condemned to drive endlessly with his wife up and down the highways of the United States. “There were thousands now on the Freeways, none of them had any real criminal labels. They were risks. They might be dangerous.” He can’t get off the road. The man’s wife is being driven mad by this punishment, and he’s trying to find her help, but no one wants to help people like them.

[Spoiler!] The man is a danger because he taught nuclear physics at a university. “You taught other guys how to build hellbombs.” In his search for help, he finds an escape from the road to join a secret village of other condemned intellectuals. “So we’re off there waiting now. Waiting and studying. Someday they’ll need us again. And we’ll be ready.”

Bryce Walton apparently wrote prolifically for the SF pulps. If all his short stories are as good as this one, he should not be forgotten.

“Forced Move,” a short story by Henry Lee

Earth and invaders from outer space are locked in an unwinnable conflict, but one man knows the winning maneuver — if he can find a way to get into the Pentagon to carry it out, and getting in may cost him his life. His gambit forces the invaders to make a fatal mistake, although the Earth forces suffer tremendous losses. Still, the long stalemate is over.

As far as I can tell, this is the only fiction Henry Lee ever published. Too bad. From the first sentence to the last, the tension holds steady. Or maybe this is a pen name for another author who already has a story in the issue, a common practice at the time. Pulps paid the bills, and some writers were prolific.

“Pioneers,” a short story by Basil Wells

A small but determined group of people have left Earth to travel to Sulle II, an uninhabited, Earthlike planet, to homestead and send food back home. Despite jealousies and hardships, they survive, build cabins, and hunt and farm. One woman seems to be driven insane by the loneliness and runs off, and the pursuit reveals [spoiler!] that they’re still on Earth, far from the domed cities where most people live.

At times, the story depends on what feels like manufactured conflict to me, but the shocking reversal is well hidden.

***

Overall, how does it compare to SF stories today? The technology, of course, reflects the 1955 imagination of what the future would be like. Some of that imagination is impressive, if odd, compared to what actually happened.

The big difference lies in another kind of imagination. With one small exception, everyone in the stories is white, and the protagonists are men. Women are wives, girlfriends, and mothers — they exist only in their relationships to men. All but one story takes place in the United States.

The world is a bigger place now than it was when I was born … the world that we write about, that is. Now we tell stories about more kinds of people and places, and those people can do more in their lives. Back in 1955, science fiction could not anticipate that kind of future, wider and more free.

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