Retrospeculative View, 1974

Some of the memorable short speculative fiction:

The Day Before the Revolution, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won the Nebula Award for best short story. The story is a prelude for Le Guin’s exceptional novel, The Dispossessed, also published in 1974 (see below)

Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos Sticks, by Karl Edward Wagner, a story which belongs within the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P Lovecraft

Born with the Dead, by Robert Silverberg, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

If the Stars are Gods, by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

The Hole Man, by Larry Niven, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1975)

A Song for Lya,  by George R. R. Martin, which won the Hugo Award for best novella (1975)

Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans, by Harlan Ellison, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette (1975)

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Some of the movies & TV of 1974:

Young_Frankenstein_movie_posterYoung Frankenstein, Mel Brook’s black & white comedy, inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus)

Flesh Gordon, a bizarre, erotic science fiction-adventure-comedy loosely based on the Flash Gordon character (originally, a comic strip by Alex Raymond; later, adapted for film, television and animated series).

Zardoz, a forgettable  science fiction-fantasy that starred Sean Connery (of James Bond movie fame).

Phantom of the Paradise, a cult musical written and directed by Brian De Palma; a very loose adaption/combination of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust.

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Some of the notable novels of 1974:

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip, which won the World Fantasy Award. A story of magical beasts and remarkable people; a short book, but delightful, romantic, and well-developed. A young adult read that even older adults might enjoy.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1975) for best science fiction novel. I haven’t read this PKD book, but I’ve heard it’s one of his better novels.

 A Midsummer Tempest, by Poul Anderson, which won the Mythopoeic Award. I haven’t read the novel, but I looked it up on Wikipedia and it sounds interesting. It is an alternate history novel in which Shakespeare was a Great Historian and all the actions from his plays are, instead, historical accounts. There are other differences: the English Civil War (1642 – 1651 in our history) and the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1830 in our history) occur at the same time in the alternate world of A Midnight Tempest, and the technological level is notably higher in Anderson’s novel than it was in our history. As hinted in the title, the story, for the most part, represents two Shakespeare plays; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

 The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The title is a Biblical reference (Luke 6:41–42 and Matthew 7:3–5), but it also describes the view of a star from a recently colonized planet in the story. The book is a first-contact scenario with an alien civilization, the Moties, who are fundamentally different from humans; the scope of the differences becomes more obvious as the novel proceeds.  There are intriguing ideas, but I found the characters too cookie-cutter, and the dialog hackneyed. I enjoyed it when I was younger, but it hasn’t aged well.

 334, by Thomas M. Disch, which is a dystopian view of New York City in 2025. The book’s title refers to a housing project at 334 East 11th Street Manhattan, and the year 334 AD; an association between the United States of the novel and the decline of the Roman Empire. Technological development has stagnated, with the exception of advances in medicine, which spawns a proliferation of enhanced, recreational drugs. Overpopulation is a problem (a recurring theme in 70s Science fiction), resolved by enforced birth control, eugenics, and a welfare state, which creates a class stratum between workers and welfare recipients (the haves and the have-nots). The novel was ‘patched’ together by combining five of Disch’s novellas that share the same setting, but involve a different sets of characters (The Death of Socrates, Bodies, Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire, Emancipation, and Angouleme) and a new work, 334, which consists of short segments that follows  characters a family through the years 2021 to 2025.

The Inverted World, by Christopher Priest, which won the BSFA Award. The novel began life as a short story, but Priest decided it required more territory so he expanded it into a novel, which includes a prologue and five parts. The first, third and fifth parts are first-person narration from the point of view of the protagonist , Helward Mann, an apprentice Future Surveyor for the City Earth. In the second part, Helward is the focal character, but the story is presented in third person. In the prologue and the fourth part, Elizabeth Khan (who comes from somewhere else) is the focal character, and these sections are written in third person. Earth is being slowly pulled along a set of four railway tracks, but most of the inhabitants know nothing of the tracks, or what ‘chases’ the city from behind. The tracks are removed from the city’s wake and freshly laid ahead of the city, which is travelling through a wasted landscape filled with savage tribes. The land ahead must be surveyed to ascertain the best route; the city must move toward the ‘optimum’, and stay ahead of the devastating, slowly moving gravitational field that distorts life and causes certain death. It is an unusual novel; a hallucinogenic puzzle that twists and turns along the curves of the city’s tracks.

And my choice for Retrospeculative novel of 1974 is…

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award (1975) and the Locus Award (1975). The Left Hand of Darkness is arguably Ursula K. Le Guin’s best novel, but The Dispossessed is the one I’ve always enjoyed the most. The novel is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and the book garnered respect in literary circles for its erudition and range of themes (and there is an interesting non-fiction collection The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin — that examines concepts introduced in the novel).

The Dispossessed; Avon (2003) coverThe structure of the novel is unusual: the book’s chapters do not follow a chronological order; if placed in time sequence, the chapters would form an even-odd series: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

In The Dispossessed, Ms. Le Guin has designed an interesting social system and contrasted it against one that bears more than a slight resemblance to the society of the United States. The novel is within her Hainish Cycle; chronologically, it is the first of the Hainish novels. The protagonist, Shevek, is a mathematical genius who lives on Anarres, Urras’ habitable moon, the home of a revolutionary, socialist society. Shevek worries that the government on Anarres is eroding, and he travels to Urras — against sturdy opposition — to attempt to unite the societies of moon and planet and share his General Temporal Theory, which is a combination of mathematics, physics, philosophy, and ethics. The novel investigates the problems he encounters on Anarres (in even-numbered chapters) and Urras (in odd-numbered chapters).

The Dispossessed is an intriguing novel, and I suddenly want to re-read it; after all, “…true journey is return.” Highly recommended.

I would be remise if I didn’t mention Samuel R. Delany’s excellent criticism of the novel, To Read The Dispossessed (it can be found in a collection of essays in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction). I disagree with quite a bit of what Delany writes in his essay (in fact, I think some of his criticisms could equally be directed at himself), but the way he structures and manages the criticism is impressive.  .

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Eden, by Stanislaw Lem

Eden (1959 in Polish; English translation 1989), by Stanislaw Lem, is set on a jewel of a  planet, somewhere far from Earth. The crew of a spaceship is captivated by the planet’s beauty and they decide to take a closer look; unfortunately, the Captain approaches too closely and they crash-land. There are  Stanislaw Lem_Edensix men on-board (apparently the novel was written before male authors realized that women can do things too); with the exception of one member, the men are identified by their titles only: the Captain, the Doctor, the Cyberneticist, the Physicist, the Chemist, and the Engineer. It is only the Engineer, Henry, who is called by name (I think it is only the Doctor and the Captain who use Henry’s name): if anybody has a theory about why the Engineer is the only one named, I’d be interested…

I think it’s worth pointing out that Eden is not a hard science fiction novel: Lem makes no real attempt to create futuristic, technical jargon; the terminology used was, for the most part, common when the book was written. Some of the technical language he used probably felt dated — particularly to a science fiction audience — when the book was published in 1959.

The novel begins as an exploration story on a fascinating planet and evolves into a first-contact novel. The human crew first explores the marvelous landscape and plant life (Lem spends many pages describing the wonders the humans see), then they happen upon a factory that appears to produce complex parts only to recycle the finished product and begin a new process. Eventually the explorers meet the planet’s intelligent species, the ‘doublers’, who seem to consist of two symbiotic life-forms. Lem’s aliens are always something truly alien. The doublers come in many different configurations, and they too seem to be ‘recycled’; perhaps some of the doublers are born defective and die naturally, perhaps there are different species of doublers, or maybe the doublers are part of a poorly designed genetic experiment.

As the novel proceeds, there is a growing sense that something furtive and sinister is occurring. The shocking truth regarding the doubler society becomes clear by the novel’s conclusion.

Stanislaw Lem is often quite merciless in his attacks on humanity’s shortcomings; in Eden, he seems to be issuing a warning, or at least a message for us to ponder. Although the doublers are, at first, truly bizarre, they are really not so different from us, and their plight is a terrifying concept.

Eden was slow to develop, and I don’t think it is one of Lem’s best works,  but it was well worth the time invested reading it.

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Retrospeculative View, 1973

Some of the short fiction of 1973:

L’incendio della casa abominevole (The Burning of the Abominable House), by Italo Calvino

Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, by Robert Aikman, which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1975)

The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), which won the Hugo Award for best novella (1974)

Collected Stories of James Tiptree, JrThe Deathbird, by Harlan Ellison, which won the Hugo for best novelette (1974)

Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death, by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), which won the Nebula Award for best short story

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won the Hugo for best short story (1974)

With Morning Comes Mistfall, by George R. R. Martin

The Death of Doctor Island, by Gene Wolfe, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, by Vonda N. MacIntyre, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

 

Movies/new TV shows:

SleeperSleeper, a slapstick, science-fiction parody by Woody Allen.

Soylent Green, a dystopian movie that was loosely based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! The movie modified quite a bit of the novel, including the plot-point that spawned the infamous line  “Soylent Green is people!”

Westworld, a science fiction thriller written by Michael Crichton. Westworld is a part of a high-tech, robotic theme park for adults. Unfortunately, there is a glitch in the robotic software…

The Six Million Dollar Man, the TV show that made Lee Majors a pop icon.

Some of the speculative novels of 1973:

Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke, which won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. This is a big dumb object (BDO) novel that I loved when it first came out. An immense spaceship enters our solar system: a team of humans lands a spaceship on it, they manage to get inside the alien craft, which begins to ‘wake up,’ and the adventure expands into geek nirvana. The idea still fascinates me, but I’m not keen on the presentation; Clarke’s prose has not aged well.

The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart, the second in her Arthur series; it is a first-person account from Merlin’s perspective, and spans the time from Arthur’s birth to when he is crowned king.

Crash, by J.G. Ballard. A disturbing, controversial novel, narrated by James Ballard, but the pivotal character is Dr. Robert Vaughan, a man who has a car crash fetish (to my surprise, there is a word that identifies a disaster-induced sexual fetish; symphorophilia). Vaughan is the focal character in a cluster of post-traumatic crash victims who are devotees of his bizarre obsession to re-enact celebrity car accidents as an experiential, technologically-based sexuality. Vaughan’s ideal sexual scenario would be a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor.  The novel was made into an equally controversial movie by David Cronenberg in 1996.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman: a fantasy, romance, comedy, adventure, satirical fairy tale. Much of the novel’s charm is Goldman’s tongue-in-cheek claim that the book is an abridged form of S. Morgenstern’s book (purportedly written during the Renaissance), as well as Goldman’s abundant remarks throughout the novel (there is a ‘reunion’ scene in the novel that was, according to Goldman, cut: Goldman added a note to the text that encouraged the reader to send a letter to the publisher asking for a copy of the cut scene, and I sent a letter and got a comical letter back, explaining why, for legal reasons, the scene could not be divulged. I don’t know if the publisher would still honour the commitment Goldman promised, but might be worth a try). The main story is the true love story involving Buttercup (a beautiful farm girl) and Westley (a farm hand), but many adventures and obstacles stand in the way of their ultimate happiness. There are odd  characters aplenty: the Dread Pirate Roberts, Prince Humperdinck, Vizzini (a Sicilian master-criminal), Inigo Montoya (a master swordsman), Fezzic (a giant Turkish wrestler), Count Tyrone Rugen (an evil, six-fingered man), Miracle Max (a magician), and others. Before Buttercup and Westley can have any hope of happiness, Westley dies; fortunately, he is only mostly dead, and the story continues. The novel was adapted to the big screen by Rob Reiner (Michael Stivic (meathead) from T.V.’s All in the Family); both the novel and the movie are well worth the time invested: light and enjoyable entertainment.

My pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1973 is…

Katherine MortenhoeThe Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (aka The Unsleeping Eye), by D.G. Compton, which introduced a macabre reality T.V. show (way back in 1973!). In a future England, when medical science has cured almost all diseases, a woman — Katherine Mortenhoe has been told she has only a few weeks to live. Her final days will be recorded by Roderick (Rod), a man who  befriends her, but who has hidden cameras implanted in his eyes. The setting is the future, but Compton has written scenes that contain the texture of England of the 70s. This novel was just shy of brilliant in my opinion: some sections were too prosaic, and I would have enjoyed a little more depth and back-story; the novel felt too brief, but I’m nitpicking: it is well written, intriguing, and the characterizations of the two main personalities are excellent (Rod and Katherine are well-drawn, but some of the others could have been provided with more depth). There are a few twists, some of which I thought could have been explored in more depth; I would have appreciated a longer work, a complaint I have with many older science fiction works. D.G. Compton had other excellent novels (he was named the 2007 Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), but this is generally considered to be his ‘masterwork.’

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, is a hard science fiction novel from 1970 (the novel was expanded from a 1967 short story, To Outlive Eternity). The characterizations and dialogue are a bit pulpy for my tastes, but Anderson’s imagination is wonderful, and the science is interesting, if somewhat dated (e.g.: in 1978 Thomas Heppenheimer demonstrated the design flaw in Bussard’s ramjet design: when charged particles decelerate, bremsstralung radiation is produced, and the losses associated with the bremsstrahlung process are massive compared to any power that would be produced by the Bussard ramjet. The Bussard design may be ideal for braking a starship, which is, ironically, the problem encountered in Tau Zero). Before reading Tau Zero, I hadn’t read any of Anderson’s works in a long time, and I don’t have any particular memories of his novels, but I recall being fond of some of his shorter works; in particular, Goat Song and Call Me Joe (which should have been given credit by James Cameron for his movie Avatar).

Poul_Anderson_tauzeroIn Tau Zero, twenty-five men and twenty-five women are sent on a reconnaissance/colonization mission aboard a starship (the Leonora Christine) that is propelled by a Bussard ramjet. The ship suffers damage en route and it is impossible to decelerate and stop the vessel at the destination solar system. The crew decides to keep accelerating until they reach an empty portion of space, where they can effect repairs and then find another suitable planet for colonization. They continue to accelerate and the time dilation effect — the relative time on-board ship compared to the Earth they left — becomes ever greater. Everything they left behind — even the rest of the human race and their home solar system — no longer exists.

Psychological problems develop: an iconic, pulpy, alpha-male takes control and the first-officer, a woman, finds the need to sleep with a couple of men in order to alleviate their ennui. I’d prefer more thoughtful leadership in a novel depicting the future; old-fashioned roles are easy solutions for an author. 

Tau Zero is an easy book to read and it contains some interesting concepts, but I found it a bit too pulpy for my tastes, and the ending is convenient, but implausible.

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The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks

The Hydrogen Sonata is Iain M. Banks ninth, and final, Culture novel (another novel, Inversions (1998), has possible unstated ties to the Culture, and Banks also published some short stories in State of the Art that were set in the Culture universe).

HydrogenSonataThe Hydrogen Sonata is set within the Gzilt civilization, which is about to Sublime; to step out of our classic, 4-dimensional life and join with the combined sentience of the higher dimensions. There are hundreds of pages of Banks’ imaginative prose and I’m glad I read it; the novel strikes me as a little flat compared to some of his earlier works (particularly Player of Games and Use of Weapons), but any fan of the Culture series should enjoy it.

The demystification and dismantlement of religion is common in the Culture books; in The Hydrogen Sonata, a Gzilt religious tome was planted by an older civilization as a sociological experiment. The truth is about to come out, but a megalomaniacal Gzilt politician censors the message via murder, mayhem and mass destruction, in an effort to ensure his fame and the successful sublimation of his civilization. The Culture (in the embodiment of several ship-Minds), with its interest in all things (in particular, Subliming), becomes ‘involved.’

The novel’s title refers to a nearly unplayable sonata, T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata for An Instrument Yet To Be Invented (the elevenstring, an acoustic instrument played from inside, preferably by a person with four arms), commonly called The Hydrogen Sonata. The sonata has little to do with the plot, other than connecting the protagonist, Vyr Cossont, with an important character, Ngaroe QiRia (Tursensa Ngaroe Hgan QiRia dam Yutton, to be precise). It is details such as the elevenstring instrument, discussions regarding the composer of the sonata, specifics about the composition, and Vyr’s attempts to play the piece, that make Banks’ novels interesting to read (within the novel, one critic described the music as sublime, whereas another suggested that it should only be played in a vacuum so it will never be heard).

There are many sections from the POV of Minds, and more than a few references to the Interesting Times Gang (the ITG), from Excession, which is the only Culture novel I haven’t read (this will soon be rectified…).

There is none of the vengeance that — IMHO — scarred some of Banks’ other novels (e.g.: Look to Windward, an excellent novel with a brutal, vindictive ending). The Hydrogen Sonata ends with gentle susurrations; additionally, the antagonist — Septame Banstegeyn — is less of a B-movie villain than those in some other Culture novels (he is, however, a nasty character).

The novel is infused with a gentle message of acceptance: “It would be far preferable if things were better, but they’re not, so let’s make the best of it.” [p.211]

There will be no more Culture books, and it was fitting that the final novel was about Subliming.

Iain  Banks passed from this realm in 2013. He will be missed.

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