Retrospeculative View, 1969

1969 was the first year the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards  were presented; like the Hugo, the award is presented for works published in the previous year, and the best novel award went to Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, a fine choice (see Retospeculative view, 1968).

Some of the interesting short fiction of 1969:

The Electric Ant, Philip K. Dick

Passengers, by Robert Silverberg, which won the Nebula Award for best short story

cover: Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (July, 1969)Not Long Before the End, by Larry Niven

Ship of Shadows, by Fritz Leiber, which won the Hugo for best novella

A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison, the Nebula Award winner for best novella

The Encounter (El encuentro) by Jorge Luis Borges

Winter’s King & Nine Lives, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Note: Samuel R. Delany’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones won the Nebula in 1969 (and the Hugo in 1970), but it was published in 1968 and therefore I included it in the Retrospeculative View for 1968.

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Some of the Speculative movies of 1969:

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870).

fellini_satyricon_a_lThe Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, a Disney movie in the mold of, and taking place at the same College (Medfield) as, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961, based on Samuel W. Taylor’s short story A Situation of Gravity).

Fellini Satyricon, an Italian fantasy written and directed by Federico Fellini. It is loosely based on Satyricon (the late 1st century AD), by Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter). The film is set in Nero’s Imperial Rome and involves a succession of rather lewd, satirical incidences.

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And some of the notable speculative novels of 1969:

The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. A techno-thriller; not my cup of tea, but it spawned a popular movie (1971), was a New York Times bestseller, and paved the path for Mr. Crichton’s career. An extraterrestrial virus creates havoc and a group of scientists struggles to stop its spread and/or develop a vaccine.

The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner, which won the BSFA Award (1970). The Jagged Orbit is somewhat similar to Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar: it employed experimental narrative techniques  to immerse the reader in a dystopian culture; however, it has not received the lasting attention as Stand on Zanzibar (which is generally considered to be his masterpiece) . Brunner’s experimental writing at this period in his career was intriguing, and The Jagged Orbit consists of various chapter lengths; most of them short and dense, with one chapter comprising only a portion of a word. The Sheep Look Up (1972, set in the late 1970s), Stand on Zanzibar (1968, set in 2010), and The Jagged Orbit (1969, set in 2014,) can be grouped as an unofficial trilogy of Brunner’s dystopian warnings (he was not predicting the future, he was explaining what he thought society was doing wrong. I think it would have behooved us to listen, he had some excellent points).

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier, who had three of her stories adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock (two novels: Rebecca (which won the Best Picture Oscar) and Jamaica Inn; and her short story, The Birds). In The House on the Strand, the protagonist, Dick Young, becomes a test subject for his friend; a biophysicist, Magnus Lane. The drug enables Dick to travel backward in time to the 14th century: he can view the past and be immersed in the day-to-day life of the people of the time, but he cannot control events. His travel is a journey of the mind.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which is considered by many to be his best book. Billy Pilgrim is a soldier, has met aliens (Tralfamadorians), and is disconnected from what we consider the normal flow of time. The novel uses a plain, but dense, style to mull over war (in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden), bullies, revenge, the meaning of time, and the immense forces that can affect an individual.

And my pick for Retrospeculative Novel of 1969 is…

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won the Hugo & Nebula Awards for the year. It is a extraordinary book, by a remarkable author: if Ms. Le Guin had only written this novel, and The Dispossessed, she would still rank among my favourite authors. Her body of literate work is considerable, and impressive (she has garnered numerous awards, but famously refused a Nebula award for the Diary of the Rose (a novelette) as a response to the SFWA’s conduct toward Stanislaw Lem). She has been cited as an influence by Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks, among others. But enough about the author, and on to her novel…

Cover: The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is a book that I find eminently re-readable; I’ve journeyed through it three times and, after thinking about the novel, preparing this post, I’d like to read it again. It is set in Ms. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle; Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen and he is on Gethen attempting to ascertain whether or not the people on the planet are ready for, and will accept, membership in the Ekumen’s intergalactic community. Genly Ai is male, but the Gethians are hermaphroditic; they are neuters that morph into male or female, depending on circumstances. The novel explores many issues (including politics, spirituality and, of course, gender), misunderstandings arise, and tension builds as Genly Ai and Therem Estraven (the other main character in the book) escape pursuit by embarking on an unforgettable journey across a frozen mountain pass. The novel is easy to read (some may find it dry: please persevere), but it carries a remarkable depth of introspective complexity.

The book is about many things; above all, it is an enduring  tale of friendship and love.

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Retrospeculative View, 1968

Some of the excellent Short fiction of 1968:

Harlan Ellison’s The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1969.

Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings, which won the Hugo Award for best novella in 1969.

Robert Silverberg’s Passengers, which won the Nebula Award for best short story in 1969

Poul Anderson’s The Sharing of Flesh, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1969

Samuel R. Delany’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette in 1969, and the Hugo Award for best short story in 1970

Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

Richard Wilson’s Mother to the World, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette.

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A few of the speculative movies released in 1968:

The Planet of the Apes, based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (the story was, in part, inspired by Clarke’s short story The Sentinel). Clarke wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey in parallel with the movie version and the novel was published after the film’s released.

Night of the Living Dead, a classic, independent horror (zombie) movie.

Rosemary’s Baby, a classic, psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski. The story was adapted by Polanski from Ira Levin’s 1967 novel.

Barbarella, a cult-classic starring a very young Jane Fonda (I assume she isn’t too proud of the movie at this stage of her life). It was a French-Italian film based on Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella comics.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, loosely based on Ian Fleming’s novel Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car. The film’s script was written by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes, directed by Hughes and produced by Albert R. Broccoli, who also produced many James Bond films, also based on works by Ian Fleming (though these novels were intended for a different readership).

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And some of the best speculative novels of the year:

2001, A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke. This book has odd beginnings; it was written at the same time the movie was produced. It was a good novel, but I prefer some of his other books.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. This novel is perhaps PKD’s most famous, presumably because of the film adaption, Blade Runner. If you’ve been following my posts you probably know that I’m not a big PKD fan, although I did thoroughly enjoy two of his novels, The Man in the High Castle, and A Scanner Darkly. I actually enjoyed the movie blade Runner, more than the novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). I think Dick’s ideas in the novel are superb (many of which never made it into the movie adaption), but I find his writing to be pulpy and uneven. I do, however, like the title of the novel better than the film.

The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I never read this when I was young, and it didn’t capture me when I was older (my loss); this is the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic YA fantasy series.

Pavane by Keith Roberts: an alternate history novel that I haven’t read, but it is usually compared favorably to PKD’s The Man in the High Castle. Robert’s novel spins out a tale that assumes the Spanish Armada was not defeated by England, and the Protestant religion did not weaken Catholicism’s power. Pavane is a classic of the genre.

Report on Probability A, by Brian Aldiss: written in 1962, but rejected by multiple publishers. It was first published in 1967, but an expanded/revised edition was published in 1968. The novel is an extrapolation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the premise that observation transforms what is observed, thereby resulting in the impossibility of a definitive point of reference (the novel also included other theoretical, quantum physics theories). Report on Probability A has been described as an anti-novel, but was influential in the experimental, ‘New Wave’ of British fiction. There is a schism around the novel; some believe it is a masterpiece, while others would toss it out with the morning’s trash. I must admit, I didn’t care for it when I attempted to read it years ago: perhaps I’ll give it another try…

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. A book that should be read while young, or young at heart.

Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg, which is an expanded version of his short story. I don’t recall reading the book (or short story): Hawksbill Station is a penal colony that uses time travel to send political prisoners into the past as a ‘humane’ substitute for capital punishment. It is an effective method for a repressive government to control its dissidents.

Picnic on Paradise, by Joanna Russ. Another novel I haven’t read, but Ms. Russ’s novel The Female Man is excellent, and I would have guessed that Picnic on Paradise examines gender issues; I’ve read that it also examines issues of technology, maturity, and bravery.

His Master’s Voice (Głos Pana), by Stanisław Lem. This novel explores many of Lem’s usual themes; it is an excellent philosophical science fiction novel, and is unsympathetic in regards to human intellect and ethics, and some may find it too cynical. An extraterrestrial message is received and a team of brilliant scientists is assembled to translate it. The novel shares some premises with Solaris (which I think is an even better Lem novel): in particular, if/when we meet up with a truly alien intelligence will we be able to comprehend it; indeed, will we be capable of deciding whether or not it is intelligent? His Master’s Voice is an exceptional, dense novel, and is readily available in English translation.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, which won the Nebula Award. It is a coming-of-age-story propelled by a moral dilemma. The Earth was being destroyed by war, and spaceships were built to transport people to new worlds. The spaceships contained the accumulated knowledge of Earth, but the crews decide to maintain their own colonies on the ships and parcel out tidbits of knowledge to the different worlds in exchange for goods. The colonies are technologically backward compared to the lives of the spaceship occupants, an inequality inherent in the system. It is a novel about morals, politics, and the maturation process a child experiences after absorbing viewpoints from outside the confines of the parental umbrella.

Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. Most descriptions of Nova probably indicate a standard space opera, but it is more than that. The protagonist fights the good fight against intergalactic evil: Captain Lorq van Ray is attempting to discover an economical energy-source so he can overthrow the Red family; unfortunately, to collect the energy, the only known process would involve a journey into the core of an exploding sun. Nova is a redemption tale, set against a backdrop of unfortunate choices. Delany was (and still is) an interesting author; within the plot of the novel he includes the Tarot, the physics of interstellar masses, cyborgs, the attempts of an outsider to integrate, investigations into the structure of narrative, drugs, and intriguing parallels to the search for the Holy Grail (the original, serious one, not the Monty Python version). In my mind, Nova was the Delany book that turned a literate corner, and a couple of novels he wrote after Nova (Dhalgren in 1975 and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in 1984) blew my mind. I enjoyed his earlier works, but this was — to me — the beginning of his maturity as a writer, and I really wanted to give this novel the nod as Retrospeculative Novel of the year, but I (reluctantly) chose another …

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Stand on Zanzibar coverJohn Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is, as he himself admits, a ‘non-novel,’ yet I’m choosing it as The Retrospeculative novel of 1968. The book is constructed with four distinctive chapter-types: Continuity, containing the plot (these sections form a ‘normal’ narrative as found in most novels); Tracking with Close-Ups, fleeting glimpses of Brunner’s future vision; Context, presenting Brunner’s world via media quotations (several by Chad C. Mulligan, a character in the book), and The Happening World, featuring snippets of information and news stories about characters. The book is written in a way that demands immersion and the style is apparently similar to John Dos Passos in his USA Trilogy.

Brunner has also sprinkled an urban slang throughout the book, some of which require some thought to sort out, but most are quite obvious. For example, Los Angeles has become Ellay (for L.A.), children are prodigies, men are codders, women are shiggies, a.m. is anti matter, and p.m. is poppa-momma.

The book was written in 1968, and the events take place in 2010. In reviews, many people obsess about what Brunner got right, and what he got wrong about the future in 2010; although this can be interesting, prediction isn’t the point. The book is an examination of society and its faults. Brunner is preaching as he explains what ails human society, and he is very critical, although he includes hope for humanity, attached to the criticisms via a thin tendril. The book fits the mood of a manifesto rather than a novel; it is an inspired work, but a little less proselytizing/pontificating, and more investment in fascinating main characters and plot would have made for a better ‘novel’. The world Brunner has imagined is interesting, vibrant, and quite frightening, but the two main characters he has the reader follow — Norman House and Donald Hogan —are rather dull in comparison: the story gets somewhat lost in the message. Some of the secondary characters are actually more interesting than the protagonists.

I have misgivings about the classification of this novel as a novel (although what else can one call it?), but it is a landmark in the development of science fiction as literature, and the depth of Brunner’s world-vision is awe-inspiring.  Every fan of science fiction should, at the least, peruse the book to acquire the mood of the story, the important messages within the chapters, and the richness of John Brunner’s imagination.

Stand on Zanzibar won the Hugo Award, The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and the Prix Tour-Apollo Award.

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The Last Dark, by Stephen R. Donaldson

Well, somehow I managed to acquire a copy of the final book in the Covenant saga — The Last Dark — before it is officially released (October 15). I got my copy on October 8, and I was initially planning to finish the novel and write a review this weekend; inTheLastDark_Coverstead, I’m enjoying the book like a fine single-malt scotch, and it will take me a couple of weeks to reach the end. I’m currently on page 60.

There is an excellent ‘What Has Gone Before’ introduction (19 pages) that quickly, and concisely, sums up the entire series, beginning with Lord Foul’s Bane (1977).

So far, the story is excellent, although I’m still occasionally annoyed with Donaldson’s worst propensities; too much despair, over writing, and telling (not always skillfully) instead of showing. But this feels like the book that will make the final series meaningful.  I’m about to give away a couple of things; so, even though they happen close to the book’s beginning, you may not want to read further… Continue reading