Saturday, 29 October 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Seventies

In the sixties the sci-fi novel had managed the quantum leap to serious literary style, but still nobody took them seriously. Still it was a strong decade for the genre.

In 1970 Larry Niven gave us Ringworld, an artificial habitat the size of three million earths. Unfortunately it's an idea bigger than his imagination and instead of a thriving civilisation of several trillion people we land in an almost abandoned desert, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Another big concept novel is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke, a welcome return to top form by the British master. Once again though the idea is bigger than novel and once it's all over we are not much wiser about Rama or its designers.

One writer who could take the Big Concept and run with it though was Philip José Farmer, who in 1971 gave us To You Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series. Here we had everyone who had ever lived brought back to life and youth for some unknown reason on a specially made planet whose surface is a 20 million mile long version of the Mississippi.

Eventually pretty much everyone would turn up in Riverworld, from Herman Goering to Jesus. Framer himself even has a cameo under pseudonym. The series would run to five books and an anthology of short stories and although such high concept stuff often disappoints in the final real, Farmer does a pretty good job of bringing it to a conclusion. Basically the Buddhists were right.

Meanwhile back in Blighty John Brunner had two more classics left in him. Sheep Look Up gives us a vision of environmental apocalypse with corrupt corporations, a compliant legal system and a President chosen because the "public obviously wanted a figurehead who'd look good and make comforting noises."

Then he wrote Shockwave Rider, which looked at the social effects of technology. A natural disaster reveals the truth, quickly suppressed by the authorities, that people are actually happier with less gadgets. The hero then sets out to destroy the corrupt system by means of a computer program that reproduces itself - the first computer virus in sci-fi. I'd dearly love to give Brunner an award, but I will once again have to pass him over.

Another writer from the sixties still knocking them out was Philip K Dick, and this decade he produced A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears The Policeman Said. The latter is set in a future police state in which a television star wakes up an finds he no longer exists. Boy, aren't there a few people I'd like that to happen to in real life.

Another author I feel guilty about not manging to give a winners medal to is Ursula Le Guin. Having started strongly in the sixties, in the seventies she gave us The World for World is Forest, which is Avatar for grown ups. She also wrote The Lathe of Heaven , a moral tale about being careful what you wish for, and Eye of the Heron, a feminist view of both men who oppress by violence and those who choose to get themselves beaten up by opposing them.

Best of all she wrote The Dispossessed, a political novel that compares a planet split between capitalism, with the anarchists who live on its moon. It's clear where the author affections lie, but fair play to her she gives her opponents a fair hearing and her capitalists are environmentally friendly whilst the authoritarians do seem to actually be trying to be a Dictatorship of the Proletarian. However its the anarchists who are the interesting ones. Two hundred years into their experiment centripetal forces are threatening to create hierarchies and everyone is still dirt poor.

But my winner is neither a grim prediction of the future or a meditation on political realities, but something completely differnet. Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is really a radio show, but it turns into a decent book (or decent pair of books really as it makes very little sense without The Restaurent at the End of the Universe.

I started my review of the decade by discussing authors who went for the Big Concept, and you don't get many bigger questions than the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. You also don't get many better answers than 42.

Winner: The Hichhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams(1979)

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