A Retrospeculative View: 1964

Short Fiction:

Semley’s Necklace, by Ursula K. Le Guin: this story became the prologue for her first novel, Rocannon’s World. The Word of Unbinding, by the same author, was also published in 1964, the story in which her Earthsea realm was introduced (another Earthsea short story, The Rule of Names, was also published in the same year).

The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal, and The Dead Lady of Clown Town, by Cordwainer Smith

La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas (Blame the Tlaxcaltecs), Elena Garro

Oh, to be a Blobel!,  by Philip K. Dick.

Little Dog Gone, by Robert F. Young

Soldier, Ask Not, by Gordon R. Dickson (Hugo Award fo short story, 1965)

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TV shows:

VertiPod-Quest-hovercraftJonny Quest, one of my favorite TV shows when I was a wee lad. It was produced by Hanna-Barbera, but the artwork and characters were portrayed with more realism, if not more frames per second, than Hanna-Barbera’s other cartoons. Jonny and Hadji were brave, adventurous kids, and ‘Race’ Bannon was the coolest dude ever, an ex-secret agent and expert on just about anything (weapons, fighting techniques, machinery…) necessary to protect Johnny’s father, the famous scientist, Dr. Benton Quest. The theme song and opening credits instantly transport me back in time…

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a perennial favorite in my family, was first broadcast in 1964. The stop-motion classic was filmed in Japan and recorded in Toronto, Canada. Johnny Marks adapted Robert L. May’s story of Rudolph into the oft-sung classic, which Gene Autry parlayed into a Billboard No.1 in 1949 . Autry’s recording eventually sold 25 million copies and it was the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the 1961 movie), in which the atomic submarine S.S.R.N. Seaview’s official mandate was deep-sea, marine research, but the crew had a secret mission to protect the world from threats (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial) in the ‘futuristic’ world of the 1970s. This show lasted longer (1964 – 1968) than any other science fiction TV show of the 1960s (yes, including the original Star Trek (1966-1969)).

 

Some of the (many) speculative movies of 1964:

Mary Poppins, based on the books written by P. L. Travers. Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance.

Dr. Strangelove, a brilliant black comedy about the world-wide fear of a possible nuclear apocalypse.

Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a horror-thriller.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a strange movie that was adapted from  Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), in which an extraordinary circus arrives at a small, southwestern city and has interesting effects on the inhabitants.

First Men in the Moon, based on the H.G. Wells novel.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a live action/animated movie starring Don Knotts, who is spontaneously transformed into a talking fish and is therefore able to help the US navy sink German boats during WW II.

The Time Travelers, which inspired the short-lived 1966 TV series The Time Tunnel as well as a 1967 remake Journey to the Center of Time

The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna), adapted from Kōbō Abe’s famous novel (1962).

 

And the speculative novels of 1964…

 Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car, by Ian Fleming, better known for his James Bond novels. Flemming wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang for his son, and the story was originally published, with illustrations (by John Burningham), in three volumes. The story was later adapted for a movie version in 1968.

Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This is one of the Strugatsky brother’s most popular novels, but I haven’t read it and the English translation is out of print (update: this book is now in print and available). The novel’s protagonist, Anton, is a human from the far future who travels to an alien planet to study the alien’s society, which is equivalent to Earth’s Middle Ages. Anton is to study the aliens secretly by pretending to be one of them and he is forbidden to interfere with the society’s development. His compassion makes it increasingly difficult to follow the rule of non-interference after observing the oppression and cruelty inherent in the society.

The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber. The ‘wanderer’ is a planet that suddenly materializes in our solar system and appears to consume the moon, causing tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The story includes flying saucers and feline aliens. The Wanderer won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1965.

The Burning World, by J.G. Ballard. I haven’t read this novel, but the synopsis sounds like an alternate take on Ballard’s post-apocalyptic novel The Drowned World (1962). In the Burning World, the oceans become contaminated with too much industrial waste and a barrier was formed on the ocean that prevents evaporation and blocks the water cycle, thereby causing planet-wide drought conditions.

The Invincible, by Stanislaw Lem. The English edition (1973) was translated from the German translation from the Polish (Niezwyciężony), which was published in 1964. I enjoy Lem novels, but I haven’t read this one, and it seems to be a difficult novel to acquire (even used copies are a bit expensive). To find information about the novel, I checked out Wikipedia and some on-line content from a very interesting book called The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, edited by Peter Swirski. Apparently, The Invincible was one of the earliest novels to examine the concepts of nanobots (micro-robots), AI, artificial swarm sentience, and necroevolution (Lem’s word to describe the evolution of cybernetic devices).

The Planet Buyer, by Cordwainer Smith (the first half of Norstrilia). To fully appreciate this book, I recommend reading all of his science fiction output, which has been published by Baen Books in two volumes: We the Underpeople (which contains the novel Norstrilia and the short stories connected with the novel) and When the People Fell (which contains the rest of his short stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind). Cordwainer Smith is a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger, who was a very interesting man.

My pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1964 is…

GreybeardGreybeard, by Brian Aldiss. This is one of the more literate science fiction novels of its time.  An apocalyptic event was initiated during nuclear bomb tests  in Earth’s orbit, which caused the sterilization of the planet’s mammal population, including humanity. The novel is easy to read, written with a simple, refined prose not found in many post-apocalyptic stories. The final act of humanity is as an aging society that slowly dies off and becomes extinct. Greybeard isn’t a book to read if you’re expecting a lot of action; it’s an introspective novel that is mainly centered around the life of Algernon (Algy), and his wife Martha: together, they witness the twilight of humanity. Parts of the story occur when the youngest humans on Earth are in their fifties: the other sections of the story gradually trend backward in time, with the final chapter of these sections describing a time just after the cataclysmic event.  Evocative, and worthy of inclusion in the Masterworks series. Some may find the book dull, but the writing is sparse and liquid, and the novel should be savored for its mood, not for the thrill of the plot, which is slowly and seamlessly stitched together.

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Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

against_a_dark_backgroundAgainst a Dark Background (1993) was Iain M. Banks’ fourth science fiction novel published, and the first that was not set in his ‘Culture’ universe (The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, and Transition are also non-Culture science fiction novels). Against a Dark Background is essentially a quest novel: the plot follows the protagonist, Sharrow, and her comrades as they search for the Universal Principles (an ancient book), which will then help locate the last Lazy Gun (a weapon that distorts reality), which will result in Sharrow avoiding an assassination/execution by soldiers of the Huhsz, a crazed religious organization.

The book often feels like a RPG with its meandering plot and haphazard cohesion. There are several short flashback sections — momentous events from Sharrow’s past — that add texture and back-fill, but the transitions between sections is sometimes jarring: perhaps this was intentional, but I found it confusing at times. The novel’s title has an interesting meaning, and Banks does a nice job of world-building, although much of it seems superfluous. I didn’t form an attachment with any of the characters, which is a good thing, because most of them don’t make it to the end of the book; in fact, I think I enjoyed an android’s personality the most, and it didn’t appear until well into the story. There are some wonderful sections in the novel; but, as a whole, I found it a bit disjointed and unnecessarily long, and the ending is somewhat predictable.

Some readers found the ending abrupt: it didn’t particularly bother me, but for anybody interested, Iain M. Banks wrote a short epilogue that is available on-line, which is not included within the confines of the novel (and there is no hint in the edition I read that an epilogue exists).

Against a Dark Background was re-worked from an early novel (written in 1975), and I think the immaturity can be glimpsed through the cracks in the re-write. To be fair, however, I should note that this sub-genre is not my favorite (i.e.: a quest novel). Others might enjoy Against a Dark Background, especially if you enjoyed Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which is similar in construction (I enjoyed some sections in Consider Phlebas, but it is one of my least-favorite of the ‘Culture’ novels). I checked on-line and found several glowing fan-reviews for Against a Dark Background, some even declaring it as their favorite Bank’s novel. There is some inspired writing but, in my opinion, much of the material was sub-par for the author.

If you’ve never read Iain M. Banks, I’d suggest trying Player of Games (a short ‘Culture’ novel, one of his lighter books, possibly my favorite); and, if you enjoy that novel, then try Use of Weapons (also possibly my favorite Culture novel, though longer, and much darker in tone than Player of Games); and if you like that, I’d be glad to recommend more….

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Retrospeculative View: 1963

Some of the short stories:

A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Roger Zelazny. I’m not a big Zelazny fan, but this story is exceptional.

No Truce With Kings, Poul Anderson (Hugo winner for short story 1964)

The Days of Perky Pat, PK Dick. The two main characters in the 1999 film eXistenZ eat from containers marked Perky Pat’s

In Television:

Doctor Who, the first season of the seemingly perpetual British television show

My Favorite Martian, an early sit-com starring Ray Walston (as the Martian) and Bill Bixby. The theme song was played on an electro-theremin.

The Outer Limits, a science fiction spin on The Twilight Zone (which had a more widely based speculative theme)

battling skeletons from Jason and the ArgonautsSome of the movies:

The Birds, a suspense/horror film by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier.

Jason and the Argonauts, with its remarkable (for the time) stop-motion-special-effect creatures; in particular, the battle against the skeletons.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, starring Ray Milland (and Don Rickles appears in an anomalous, dramatic role).

The Raven, based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe, and starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Jack Nicholson

The Sword in the Stone, a Disney film based on the first section of T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King.

And the speculative novels of 1963:

Planet of the Apes (La Planète des singes), Pierre Boulle (who also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai). The novel launched a movie franchise: Planet of the Apes in 1968 and four sequels; and another Planet of the Apes film in 2001 directed by Tim Burton; and yet another movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in 2011.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis. I haven’t read this book, but have seen the movie (starring David Bowie), which seems to have modified the story slightly. In the novel, the protagonist, Newton, is one of the last three-hundred aliens from Anthea, a planet suffering extreme drought conditions as a result of nuclear wars. Newton travels to Earth hoping to find a means for the rest of his people to make the journey, thereby saving his species from extinction. The novel examines the politics of the cold war, but also touches on themes of loneliness and the effects of alcoholism.

The Game Players of Titan, PK Dick. I haven’t read this PKD novel, and probably won’t: the synopsis I’ve read leads me to believe this is similar in structure and content to other novels he’s written. There are a couple of his novels I’ve enjoyed (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly), but most don’t interest me.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut. If you enjoy Vonnegut, then Cat’s Cradle (named after the finger-string game) is a must-read: I think it’s his best novel (yes, better than Slaughterhouse-Five). The novel’s narrator, John, begins the story by writing: “call me Jonah,” a nod to Ishmael’s opening words in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jonah from the bible: this opening seems to promise a whale of a tale; and, although it is a short novel, it delivers. Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have much faith in humanity, but he has some fun during this novel’s journey to the apocalypse. The novel begins with the narrator doing research for his non-fiction book, The Day The World Ended, about the actions of important people the day America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. During his research he is lead to the discovery of ice-nine, a ‘polymorph’ of water that is solid at room temperature. Ice-nine is a seed-crystal: if it comes into contact with ‘normal’ liquid water, the ‘normal’ water is converted to the ice-nine polymorph. Along the way, Vonnegut invents a new religion, Bokononism, which has many cynical beliefs, but benevolent rituals. In 1971, Vonnegut received his Masters in Anthropology from The University of Chicago for Cat’s Cradle.

I almost gave the nod to Cat’s Cradle as Retrospeculative novel of the year, but I so-named a Vonnegut book already (see The Sirens of Titan, 1959, not quite as good; oh well…); so, somewhat reluctantly (though by no means begrudgingly), The Retrospeculative novel of 1963 is…

Old Earth Books: coverWay Station, by Clifford D. Simak (Hugo Award 1964). I became a fan of Simak through his short fiction; The Big Front Yard, Drop Dead, Huddling Place, and Grotto of the Dancing Deer, to name a few (his other famous novel, City, is actually a ‘fix-up’ of a group of short stories with common themes). Simak’s prose is serviceable and sometimes meanders into the realms of pulp; nevertheless, he writes with a mature, ‘pastoral’ quality that draws the reader into the story. Simak isn’t well-known now, but he won three Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, an International Fantasy Award, was recognized as the third Grand Master by the Science fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement (from the Horror Writers Association): not bad for an author who seems to have disappeared from the book-store radar (Note: Old Earth Books  recently published hardback editions of The City and Way Station). The protagonist of Way Station, Enoch Wallace, has been entrusted — by an alien — as the curator of a secret interplanetary station on Earth. A ‘way station’ to alien civilizations is an interesting concept (an idea of Simak’s I first encountered in his novella The Big Front Yard), but it is the juxtaposition of the bucolic, humanitarian personality of Enoch and the descriptions of his rural setting set alongside an alien ‘Way Station’ that make the tale worth reading.

Retrospeculative View: 1962

Two Tales And Eight Tomorrows, Harry Harrison (Sphere 1976): cover, Jim burns

Jim Burns cover art

Some of the short stories:

The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, Cordwainer Smith

Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth

Kings in Darkness, Michael Moorcock

The Lonesome Place, August Derleth

The Streets of Ashkelon, Harry Harrison

The Switchman (El Guardagujas), Juan José Arreola

The Dragon Masters, Jack Vance (Hugo Award, short story, 1963)

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On Television:

Fireball XL5, a black and white British science fiction children’s show about the adventures of the spaceship Fireball XL5, which was commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. The show used AP Film’s ‘Supermarionation’ puppetry technique. I don’t recall Fireball XL5, but I certainly remember its descendant, Thunderbirds (1965)

The Jetsons, the first program broadcast in color on ABC-TV, starting September 23rd: the show only lasted one season (24 episodes), but the original episodes have been in syndicated rerun mode ever since…

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Some of the movies:

The Day of the Triffids, based on the 1951 novel by John Wyndham

Dr. No, the first of the Bond films, based on the novel by Ian Fleming.

Gorath (Yosei Gorasu), a Japanese science fiction tokusatsu (‘special effects’) film

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And the speculative novels of 1962:

The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R. Delany’s first novel. Delany will get more attention in future posts.

Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper. A popular YA novel (adults have enjoyed it too!) about an endearing ‘fuzzy’ species (the Ewoks in Star Wars may have been modeled after them). In the novel, the creatures are discovered on planet Zarathustra, and the plot revolves around whether or not the fuzzies are sentient. There is an unscrupulous company that would rather not admit the fuzzies’ sentience, and an age-old struggle between the haves and have-nots ensues. Henry Beam Piper was a mysterious man who appeared out of nowhere to become a successful writer. He was previously employed as a railroad yard night watchman; unfortunately, he took his own life in 1964, but his fiction lives on, and can be accessed through Project Guttenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/).

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. I loved this novel when I was young, but when I read it to my daughters I was surprised with the religious references within the story (mainly Christian, but Buddha is mentioned at one point). I must admit, the novel didn’t impress me as an adult; nevertheless, many of the characters are locked in my permanent memory: Meg (of course, she is the protagonist), Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, Mrs Which, IT (the terrifying, telepathic brain), and The Black Thing (pure evil). The novel won a Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.

Island, Aldous Huxley. I found this novel, which is full of idealistic proselytizing, rather unsophisticated. It is full of good intentions, but felt flat.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess. I haven’t read this novel yet, but someday I will. I watched the movie when I was too young and it haunts me.

The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a flooded, future London. Extraordinary solar activity results in increased temperatures, which melt the polar caps and cause world-wide flooding. The Drowned World is unusual for a book of its genre; rather than the standard tropes, the novel examines the changes in the world and humanity in a scientific manner. The central character, Dr. Robert Kerans, is fascinated by the transformations that humanity is undergoing as a result of the rise in temperature and flooding of the planet. He develops a theory that humanity is undergoing metamorphosis (similar to that experienced by insects) due to the environmental pressures of increased isolation forced on individuals. It is a novel, and not a scientific treatise, so Ballard has provided an interesting plot filled with tension and conflict.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury. Just before Halloween a carnival rolls into Green Town, a sleepy Midwest city. Two teenage boys, Will and Jim, are ecstatic until they realize there is something truly ominous about the carnival; soon, the proprietors of the carnival turn their evil intentions toward Jim and Will. Ray Bradbury has a gift for evoking the smells, sounds, and textures of a Midwest town in autumn, and he creates an incredible mood in this novel.

The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna) Kōbō Abe. An allegorical, Japanese novel. An amateur entomologist, Niki Jumpei, heads out for a weekend bug-hunting expedition and encounters a  village in which the inhabitants homes are within deep sand pits. The entomologist is deceived and ultimately imprisoned with an unnamed woman in one of the pits, and he must shovel the constantly seeping sands that threaten to bury the entire village. This novel is written/translated in potent, sparse prose, and is a metaphor for the modern human condition.

And my pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1962 is…

originalThe Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (Hugo Award, 1963). I’m not a big PKD fan, but I thought this novel was exceptional, and it was instrumental in defining the sub-genre of alternate history. Philip Kindred Dick was always able to conjure a novel overflowing with ideas, but he was fueled by amphetamines, which I think undermined his prose; however, in The Man in the High Castle, he managed to layer his story in a lucid, refined manner. The novel’s premise is that the Axis won WW II and America was divided between Germany, Japan, and Italy. The plot has odd shifts (as in all PKD books), but the transitions work in the context of the whole, and there is a mythology about the book that maintains that Dick ‘threw’ the I Ching to resolve plot-points (the I Ching is quite prominent in the story). There are several characters, either working for or against the authorities, but most characters are not as they appear. There is also the typical PK Dick theme that asks: how do we know what is real? (One character uses the example of faked antiques. If you put the real and the well-fashioned fake beside each other, how do you tell them apart? They may have different histories, but what makes them different to the perceiver?). Within the book, Dick has also embedded another alternate history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is closer to the history of our world: the Allies won the war. But the history in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is also different from that of our reality (only a few details are given about the contents of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is a proscribed book. Several people, for different reasons, are searching for the author). The novel ends abruptly, and some find it unsatisfactory, but I think it is apropos. In this novel, PKD was able to transfer the extraordinary ideas from his mind to the page with a coherent, concise, and graceful flair.