Saturday, 29 October 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Sixties

Now its getting really hard. Heinlein, Clark and Asimov were still busy, the former writing his best stuff. But there were new kids on the block, and a very new style of writing.

At the heart of this revolution was a British magazine called New World's, especially after Michael Moorcock took over editorship in 1964. It never made any money, and was funded by the success of the Elric books (and apparently by the regular sale of dirty jokes to Playboy magazine written by Christopher Priest), but it helped launch a whole galaxy of sci-fi greats; J G Ballard, Brian Aldis, Harlan Ellison, George R R Martin, Norman Spinrad, John Brunner and Philip Jose Farmer. However when it comes to the best book of the decade I'm torn between three Yanks and a Brit.

Firstly there's Kurt Vonnegut, maybe not Slaughterhouse 5, but the rather better Cat's Cradle. Having survived the fire bombing of Dresden whilst a POW and then been sent to search for survivors using candles made from victims of the death camps, Vonnegut has a certain view on life. However he leavens his grim stories with ironic humour. He also introduced us to the world's best science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, but unfortunately he's fictional so can't win.

Then there's Ursula Le Guin. Best know for Earthsea, her science fiction books are at least as good. Her debut novel, Rocannon's World, gave us Lord of the Rings in space, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and everyday tale of life on a planet of gender-shifting humans in which the king gets pregnant.

The final American is Philip K Dick. Drug addled and by the end of his life arguably clinically insane, his books resemble the decade as a whole: brilliant and revolutionary, confusing and conservative all at the same time. Unlike some of the space operas and nuts-and-bolts sci-fi stories his tales of warped realities and fractured identities have aged well and are as unsettling and believable today as when they were written. His stand out stories of the decade include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that became Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle, an outstanding alternative history (or is it an alternative reality?) story.

The token Brit is the scandalously underrated John Brunner. He wrote a lot of mediocre storied for money, but he also wrote four absolute classics and in the sixties these were Jagged Orbitt and Stand on Zanzibar . The first gave us a twenty-first century America where arms manufacturers and racial tensions had stoked an arms race in personal weaponry, whilst the second gave a grim vision of the world in the year 2010. This is a planet straining under the weight of 7 billion people, a place characterised by random spree killings, anti-technological eco-terrorists, an obsession with cosmetic beauty treatments and powerful corporations.

Picking a winning out of these is going to be tough.

Whilst I was planning this blog I was sure Stand on Zanzibar would be the winner. If sci-fi is about predicting the future then the winner has to be Brunner.

However he is typical of the decade only in so far as he represents that strand of the New Left who still clung on to rationality whilst everyone else went to discover themselves by meditating in an Ashram in California.

But if sci-fi really reflects contemporary themes then it's got to be Philip K Dick. Picking his best book is difficult, but my personal favourite is The Man in the High Castle. Alternative history, life in fascist state, five overlapping sub-plots, a book-within-the-book and a meditation on the nature of reality, Philip K Dick shows us why this was the decade that the sci-fi book grew up and became serious literature.

It was also massively ahead of it time. Psychedelia, opposition to the Vietnam War and the whole counter-culture thing were years in the future in 1962. So Dick isn't just a product of his time, he is, as much as Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, a foretaste of the wackiness and rebellion that was to come. And it was to be quite a trip.

Winner: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)

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