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)


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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