Retrospeculative View: 1961

Some of the short fiction:

Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (Hugo Award, Short Story 1962)

Monument, Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

The Dandelion Girl, Robert F. Young

The Moon Moth, Jack Vance

Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, Cordwainer Smith

Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut

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Some of the movies:

The Absent-Minded Professor (based on A Situation of Gravity, by Samuel W. Taylor)

Mysterious Island (loosely based on The Mysterious Island (L’Île mystérieuse) by Jules Verne)

The Pit and the Pendulum, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

Atlantis, the Lost Continent

Il Colosso di Rodi (The Colossus of Rhodes) an Italian sword-and-sandal film

The Curse of the Werewolf  (based on The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the basis for the TV show that first aired in 1964

 .

And the speculative novels of 1961:

Catseye, Andre Norton. A YA novel about a young man who has the psychic ability to communicate with genetically engineered animals. Some interesting subject matter for a young audience: exploitation of the lower class, government corruption, and war crimes. This was the first of two ‘dipple’ (displaced people) books: the other was Night of Masks, 1964. The dipple books were connected to Norton’s Janus and Forerunner series.

The Secret World of Og, Pierre Berton (illustrated by his daughter, Patsy). A much beloved children’s fantasy, written by an author known for his non-fiction works of Canadiana and Canadian history. Apparently, the CBC (Canadian Braodcasting Corporation) adapted the book as an animated TV show in 2006, but I haven’t seen it.

A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke. A disaster plot enacted on the moon. The disaster involves a  sightseeing ship — the Selene — that skims over the dust contained in a lunar sea (The Sea of Thirst); during one of Selene ‘s scenic tours there is a moonquake, and the ship sinks into the dust. The Selene has a limited air supply aboard, and there is is no way for heat to escape (it is blanketed by powdery sand particles), hence a gradual buildup of heat within the ship. The plot revolves around the passengers and crew of the Selene as well as the rescue team. Apparently, this novel has the dubiuous honour of becoming the first science fiction book to be chosen as a Readers Digest condensed novel.

James and the Giant Peach, one of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s books. It was adapted into an animated movie (live action/stop motion) in 1996 (produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi). I’m not sure why, but neither of my daughters was enthralled with the movie: I thought it was quite well done.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein. I absolutely loved this book when I was a teenager, but it hasn’t aged well (or I’ve just gotten old, stuffy, and jaded). The set-up is quite good: the entire crew of a mission to Mars died, but a baby (born on the voyage) survived, and Martians raised the child. Many years later, the next mission to Mars brought the human back (the baby had grown and was, by then, a young man), the human/Martian becomes the center of a political conspiracy, a nurse ‘kidnaps’ the human/Martian to save him, and it turns out that the human/Martian has an intriguing philosophical outlook and some special abilities that were part of his Martian upbringing. So far, so good. But then the plot shifts gears, gets bogged down in Heinlein’s self-righteous prattle, and the story begins to fizzle out (there are still a few good moments, but they are few and far between). It doesn’t help that Heinlein’s sexual beliefs are a bit red-necked-wacko: one of the female characters declares that rape is almost always the woman’s fault (even as a teenager I was uncomfortable with that), and it is abundantly clear that Heinlein thinks that being gay is a ‘wrongness.’ This was an underground classic that I think gathered momentum because of scenes that concurred with the free-love theme of the 1960s, and also because of the far-out ESP concepts that permeated the book. There is some decent material, but the negative aspects, an inane, scattered plot in the novel’s second half, and Heinlein’s pedestrian prose left me flat when I re-read this ‘classic’ of science fiction: I no longer grok it.The more Heinlein I re-read, the less I respect his oeuvre; a sad thing, because he used to be one of my favourite authors.

Riders in the Chariot,  Patrick White. I haven’t read this novel, but Voss (also by Patrick White) was excellent, and Riders in the Chariot seems to explore some of the same themes (e.g.: shared visions). Patrick White received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, so it’s probably a good read.

And my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1961 is…

tumblr_mdeikxUQWa1rjv4gro1_500Solaris, by Stanisław Lem. There are several books by Lem that I’ve enjoyed, but Solaris is possibly his most memorable novel (remarkably, two other Lem novels were published in 1961: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and Return From the Stars).  Solaris examines the possibility that humanity, in its zest to investigate space, might discover an intelligent being so alien that it displays no resemblance to our pre-conceived ideas of sentience. If we can’t understand it, how can we communicate, study, classify; and, ultimately, control it?

A research station orbits Solaris, a planet almost completly covered with water. The researchers are documenting the behavior of the planet’s waves, which transform into incredible patterns that defy scientific explanation. As they gather data, the researchers become haunted by enigmatic, impossible ‘visitations’ seemingly pulled out of their individual psyches. Is the ocean of Solaris attempting to communicate? If so, is humanity ready for the encounter?

There have been two movie versions of Solaris; one in 1972  (which was quite interesting), and another in 2002 (which was not very good), but I highly recommend reading the novel before digesting either film version.

Solaris is an extraordinary novel, first published in Polish in 1961, and published in English in 1970 (a Polish, to French, to English translation).

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