Retrospeculative View, 1972

Some of the excellent short fiction from 1972:

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won the Hugo Award for best novella. Le Guin re-worked this novella into the novel FHOCpublished in 1976.

El otro (English translation as The Other, in The Book of Sand, 1977), by Jorge Luis Borges

The Gold at the Starbow’s End, by Frederick Pohl

The Meeting, by Frederick Pohl, with C.M. Kornbluth

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe

Goat Song, by Poul Anderson , which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award (1973) for best novelette.

Eurema’s Dam, by R.A. Lafferty, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1973)

When it Changed, by Joanna Russ , which won the Nebula Award for best short story.

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Some of the movies of 1972:

The Last House on the Left, an Americanized version of Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish film Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960, based on a thirteenth century Swedish ballad, Töres döttrar i Wänge). The Last House on the Left is an ‘exploitation-horror’ movie (not my cup of tea, but they appeal to many); there was a remake of the film in 2009

Frenzy PosterFrenzy, an Alfred Hitchcock film, based on Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. The film’s focus is a serial killer in London. Raymond Foery wrote a book about the movie: Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece (2012).

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), a German movie directed by Werner Herzog. The film became a cult classic in many countries around the world; and, as the years have passed, the film’s reputation has grown, and now many believe it is a work of genius. It is an account of a historical figure in a completely fictionalized story. Aguirre leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River, searching for El Dorado, the city of gold. As they enter further into the verdant, untamed jungle, the mood transforms into madness (apparently, Aguirre influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of Apocalypse Now).

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Some of the novels of 1972:

Watership Down, by Richard Adams. A classic work (it won the  Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize); a perfect book to read to your children. It is somewhat lacking in strong female characters, but my daughter fully enjoyed it, and the novel has a special place in my heart, as do many of the characters; in particular, Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel. The stories about El-ahrairah are wonderful.

The Book of Skulls, by Robert Silverberg. I’ve often heard good things about this novel, but haven’t read it, so I had to search the web for information. Eli, a college student, finds a document called The Book of Skulls, which is about a sect of monks from a monastery in Arizona’s wasteland. According to the document, the monks will bestow immortality to an acolyte if an initiation rite is successfully completed. Eli, and three of his friends (Ned, Timothy, and Oliver), travel to the monastery, are accepted as acolytes (Receptacles), and the young men face their inner-demons as they progresses through a set of bizarre initiation rites.

The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov, which won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, though I disagree with the choice: there was a far better choice this year (see my selection for Retrospeculative novel below). The Gods Themselves has three parts; Against Stupidity, which takes place on Earth and presents some questionable physics, contains a lot of typically poor character writing by Asimov, but isn’t too bad; The Gods Themselves, which takes place in an alien’s para-universe and is outstanding, some of Asimov’s best writing; and Contend in Vain, which takes place on the moon, makes the first part seem good in comparison, and is a disappointingly poor ending after the wonderful second section.

The Sheep Look Up, an excellent dystopian science fiction novel by John Brunner. His Jagged Orbit is concerned with interracial tensions, Stand on Zanzibar examines the effects of overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up portrays a disturbing, polluted future: all three novels are excellent, but if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend Stand on Zanzibar, his masterwork.

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin; the third novel in her Earthsea series. I didn’t read these when I was younger, and I’ve been unsuccessful in my attempts to enjoy the series as an adult; my loss, because Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favourite authors, and I’m sure this series is magnificent.

Piknik na obochine (English translation (1977); Roadside Picnic), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel is set in a time after extraterrestrials had visited Earth (the event is called the Visitation); they had landed at six different locations referred to as  Zones (a few square kilometers in area), stayed for two days, and left without attempting to contact, perhaps not even noticing, humanity. The aliens left items behind (whether by accident (garbage?), or purposely, is unknown) and the alien artifacts are beyond humanity’s understanding: some can be useful, while others are deadly. The Zones are protected areas, but there are some who journey into the Zones illegally; the stalkers, who sometimes become rich from the items they discover, but often end up dead or transformed by poorly understood phenomena. The sections describing the Zone evoke a believable otherworldly mood, and the protagonist, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, is a complex character (he reminded me of Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective Arkady Renko). The novel was adapted into a movie, Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. A new (2012) edition of the novel is readily available, translated by Olena Bormashenko, with a forward by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterward by Boris Strugatsky.

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And my choice for Retrospeculative novel of 1972 is…

cover dying insideDying Inside, by Robert Silverberg, which was inexplicably shut out at the Hugo and Nebula awards (both went to The Gods Themselves, a flawed novel: see above), but won a special John W. Campbell award for excellence in writing (at least somebody was paying attention!). Dying Inside is Silverberg’s masterwork, a novel ostensibly about a telepath who’s ability is beginning to fade, but the novel can be read as a metaphor for middle-age and/or writer burn-out, which I think Silverberg was facing (he retired from writing in 1975, but eventually began to write again, publishing Lord Valentine’s Castle in 1980). Dying Inside is one of the more literate science fiction books of its time and is considered a classic. I’ve written a review elsewhere, and I have nothing further to say here. This is the second year in a row that I’ve highlighted Robert Silverberg (Dying Inside is a much more literate work than last year’s choice, A Time of Changes): I think this period was the pinnacle of his output.

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Stars in my Pocket, Like Grains of Sand

If I’d attempted to read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Stars) when it was first published (1984), I would have undoubtedly thrown it across the room in frustration (I probably would have made it through the lengthy prologue, but the meat of the novel would have strained my patience to the breaking point). Stars inMy Pocket coverThankfully, I’m a much different reader now than I was then: it is a brilliant novel, but it’s certainly not for everyone (one review I read declared that the title was the only enjoyable part of the book). Stars was Samuel R. Delany’s final major work of science fiction, possibly due to disagreements with his publisher, Bantam, after they declined to publish the final volume of his Return to Nevèrÿon saga (Mr. Delany still writes fiction, and is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University). Stars is literate science fiction written by an author who understands the conventions of science fiction, as opposed to a science fiction novel written by a literate author. Chapter 10, A Dragon Hunt, is a wonder.

I’ve read several books by Delany (Empire Star, Babel-17, Triton, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and Tales of Nevèrÿon, as well as his short stories in Aye, and Gomorrah) and enjoyed them, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than most; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic. Dhalgren is quite another beast, best accepted as a separate entity). Stars is filled with themes, including: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass).

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the narrator, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family, and is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed, presumably by cultural fugue, which purportedly occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control.

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot moves slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1 is as an industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2 for visiting dignitaries” (p. ; apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in this Wikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation died due to two events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epic began, which impelled him to work on the Nevèrÿon cycle. Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it); nevertheless, as a work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, is able to stand on its own, and is probably my favourite work of his (although Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon books are also very inspired).

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I highly recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy challenging, literary science fiction.

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