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.


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