Retrospeculative View, 1959

Some of the short fiction published in 1959:

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (Hugo Award, short story 1960)

 CordwainerSmithNow: Zero, by J.G. Ballard

When the People Fell, Cordwainer Smith

The Man who Lost the Sea, Theodore Sturgeon

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Some of the movies/TV shows from 1959:

Plan 9 from Outer Space, a truly bad movie by Ed Wood

Sleeping Beauty, a minor Disney Classic (based on the fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant, by Charles Perrault).

On the Beach (based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute), directed by Stanley Kramer, with an all-star cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (based on Jules Verne’s 1864 novel), starring Pat Boone, James Mason and Arlene Dahl.

Sampo (Сампо), a joint Russian/Finnish film loosely based on The Kalevala, an epic Finnish poem. In North America, the original film was never released; instead, it was decided to offer a heavily edited version called The Day the Earth Froze.

The Twilight Zone first aired on television. As Rod Serling said, “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

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And the speculative novels of 1959:

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein. This novel is often cited in ‘best of’ lists; but, to me, it’s over the-top preachy and puerile. I read this novel about a year ago, and it is one of my least favourite Heinlein books. Enough said.

Time out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t read this particular novel, but I’ve had my fill of Philip Kindred Dick, and I don’t think I’ll bother reading any more of his stories. I thought The Man in the High Castle was brilliant, and I enjoyed A Scanner Darkly (which has a distinct personal quality), but the rest of his stories don’t work for me. There are some wonderful ideas in his novels, but his general prose style annoys me, and his ideas are quite similar from book to book (2013-08-14: after rereading this it occurs to me that I sound like a curmudgeon).

Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank. I read this a few months ago, and, although the story is related fairly well, it wasn’t strong enough to draw me in. It is a story about a community — lead by a strong-willed man — that survives a nuclear war: there is some good information in the novel, and I might just put it in my disaster kit. As a novel I thought it was okay, but not notable.

The Beast Master, By Andre Norton. This YA novel holds a special place in my heart; it was one of the first books to turn me on to science fiction (so pardon me if I get carried away here). It is the story of Hosteen Storm, a Navajo and former soldier in the war against the Xik, a malicious, alien species. Storm has empathic /telepathic connections with a team of four genetically enhanced animals (Surra, a dune cat; Baku, an African Black Eagle; and Hing and Ho, two meercats). Storm travels to Arzor with vengeance in his heart: he still harbors anger toward the Xik (who destroyed the Earth), and he has sworn revenge on a man named Quade for his father’s murder. He finds more than he could ever have anticipated on the outpost world of Arzor, which has human settlements, and also an indigenous, sentient species. I read many novels by Andre Norton when I was young, but this was my favourite (closely followed by its sequel, Lord of Thunder).

Immortality, Inc. Robert Sheckley. A short book (of novella length) with an intriguing concept — used often now — of transferring a consciousness into a donor body. The pilot episode of Futurama sites a scene from the book in which the protagonist, Tom Blaine, is transferred from 1958 to 2110 and ends up in line for a suicide booth. Sheckley’s wit is evident in the book, but I prefer his absurd, capricious short stories.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, the fourth work in his Gormenghast series. I haven’t read this book, but if it’s anything like the rest of the series, it is well worth the time invested in reading it.

Psycho, Robert Block. This is the novel that spawned Hitchcock’s famous horror-thriller. The movie was fairly faithful to the book, but there is more depth to the characters in the novel, and a few scenes are slightly different (e.g.: the infamous shower-scene: in the book, Mary Crane’s murder is a fair bit grizzlier). Psycho is not my preferred type of fiction, but the author certainly uses his craft skillfully.

The Investigation (Śledztwo), Stanislaw Lem. I really enjoyed this metaphysical murder-mystery, but it’s not the sort of thing for everyone. The story includes shades of Franz Kafka, mixed with epistemology (what is knowledge, and how can it be gathered to ensure the knowledge gained can be justified as true?). Initially, I found the book slow and plodding, but I was eventually pulled in and my mind was fully immersed in Lem’s thought-experiment. There were some truly remarkable, surreal, metaphysical sections.

And my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1959 is…

The Sirens of Titan front coverThe Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. This is an early Vonnegut novel, but it’s one of my favourites, filled with the author’s wit, imagination, and sparse, effective prose. The protagonist, Malachi Constant, travels from Earth to Mars, to Mercury, back to Earth, to Titan, and finally, at the end of the novel, back to Earth; along the way, the novel nudges out themes of free-will, omniscience, and history, with a plot involving an invasion of Earth by Martians. There are other characters of note in the novel; in particular, Winston Niles Rummford, who at one point entered a chrono-synclastic infundibulum (where all the different kind of truths fit together) and Silo, a robotic, Tralfamadorian explorer with a spacecraft that is powered by the Universal Will to Become (UWTB, which causes matter and organization to want to appear from nothingness, and was responsible for the creation of the universe). I read somewhere that The Sirens of Titan was inspiration for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I can certainly see the conection.

Vonnegut’s best books are easy to read, but have surprising depth. Sometimes, when my mind is in neutral, I’ll hear the call of a snare-drum from Mars, demanding action from a soldier via a small antenna implanted in his head:tralfamadorian

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a rented a tent.

Kurt Vonnegut is not suited to all tastes, and some snooty people have informed me that he is juvenile and frivolous; a writer that is to be enjoyed while in college, but shunned by full-fledged adults. Apparently, I refuse to grow up (I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that one of the ‘adults’ that pooh-poohed Kurt Vonnegut thinks Dan Brown is a wonderful author). I do agree that Vonnegut is not as brilliant as I once thought he was, but he is clearly a more sophisticated writer than all but a very few of the science fiction writers of the same vintage (I suspect this is why his novels are catagorized as general fiction rather than science fiction).

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