Retrospeculative View, 1976

Some of the short, speculative fiction of 1976:

The Bicentennial Man, by Isaac Asimov, which won the Hugo Award (1977) and the Nebula Award for best novelette

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award (tie, 1977) for best novella

Russell Kirk’s There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding, which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1977)

By Any Other Name,by Spider Robinson, which won the Hugo Award for best novella (tie, 1977)

Piper at the Gates of DawnFantasy and Science fiction March 1976 cover, by Richard Cowper

The Diary of the Rose, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, by John Varley

Tricentennial,by Joe Haldeman, the Hugo winner for best short story

A Crowd of Shadows, by Charles L. Grant, the best short story Nebula winner

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Some of the movies of 1976:

Carrie, based on the 1974 Stephen King novel about a misfit teenage girl with telekinesis powers.

Logans_run_imageLogan’s Run , based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The novel portrays a dystopia in which humans are put to death at the age of twenty-one, whereas the movie is set in a post apocalyptic society and humans are put to death at the age of thirty. Some attempt to escape their fate, hence the title.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel. The movie’s protagonist, played by David Bowie, is an extraterrestrial being in search of a way to transport water to his planet, which is suffering severe droughts as a result of violent wars.

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Some of the notable novels of 1976:

Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg. I haven’t read this novel, but it sounds interesting. The novel is set in 2012, in Mongolia. Shadrach Mortecai is the personal physician to Genghis II Mao IV, the world dictator, who is attempting to achieve immortality through three significant Projects; Phoenix, Talos, and Avatar. Project Talos would involve an automated Genghis Mao and Project Phoenix would require a relentless challenge of brain regeneration. Project Avatar offers the greatest chance of success; it would transfer Genghis Mao’s personality into a younger body. Genghis Mao’s son, Mangu, who is admired by all who meet him, is selected as the subject of Project Avatar.

Brontomek, by Michael Coney, which won the BSFA. Not only haven’t I read Brontomek!, I hadn’t heard of it before. The author passed away in 2005, a victim of asbestos-induced lung cancer. There is very little information about the book on the internet, but I found the following description at Amazon: The planet Arcadia was on the verge of economic collapse. Its human colony had been decimated by the strange Relay Effect; in the aftermath, still more colonists were leaving for other worlds. The Hetherington Organisation promised to change that. If the remaining colonists put themselves entirely in their hands for a five-year period, they would transform Arcadia into the most prosperous planet settled by mankind, while preserving its great natural beauty. It was an offer the Arcadians could not possibly refuse, for the alternative, after all, was an accelerating slide into poverty and, eventually, savagery. Only when the Hetherington Organisation’s first cargo ships arrived, unloading a huge stream of brontomeks – huge robot agricultural machines, heavily armoured – and an army of amorphs, aliens who were capable of moulding themselves into human form, did the colony begin to realise what it had committed itself to. Brontomek! is a sequel to two earlier books, Syzygy and Mirror Image. Like its predecessors it is an ingenious, adventurous tale of the type which has rapidly made Coney one of SF’s foremost entertainers

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm, which won the Hugo Award and the Locus Award. The lovely title is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII, a muse regarding aging. It could be remarked (in a fit of snobbery) that the title is the best part of the novel, but that would be unfair; the novel has a wonderful heart and contains some vibrant descriptive prose, although I did find some of the writing awkward. The novel imagines a post-apocalyptic future in which the surviving humans — the Sumner family — use cloning as the only alternative to continue the future of several species. Pollution, famine, war, overpopulation, and a virulentvirus have combined to cause sterility in humanity along with many other species. The cloned humans mature into an unfamiliar species, fundamentally different from their ancestors. The communal psyche that develops is contrasted with the spontaneity and adaptability of an ‘unusual’ character, Mark, who was born the old-fashioned way and was raised apart from the clone-culture until the age of five. He is the messenger of a central theme; evolution is a necessary constituent of biological life.

Man Plus, by Frederick Pohl, which won the Nebula Award. I started this book, but wasn’t drawn in; the writing felt stilted and skewed too far man_plus_covertoward the soap opera for my tastes (a definite ‘genre’ novel). I will try it again someday because it is a classic science fiction novel, but for now I can only offer the book’s description: “…a desperate war for natural resources threatens to bring civilization to a crashing halt. Nuclear warships from around the globe begin positioning themselves as the American government works feverishly to complete a massive project to colonize Mars. Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new, a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier…but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.”

Doctor Rat, by William Kotzwinkle, which won the World fantasy Award. The novel has the sensibilities of a manifesto calling for social awareness; it is a depiction of humanity’s lack of compassion — cruelty — toward other species (in this case, experiments on rats); and, by extension, other humans. The protagonist, Dr. Rat, has run the maze too many times and he is quite insane. Dr. Rat describes a gruesome life within an experimentation laboratory, which is wretchedly similar to a concentration camp. The book paints a sinister picture of psychiatric research using animals; and, by extension, the often inhumane methodology of dealing with mankind’s mental illnesses. There are moments of humour, but the novel is often frightening and appalling. In the chilling words of Dr. Rat: “Death is freedom!

Triton, by Samuel R. Delany. The novel has since been published as Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, and is loosely connected to Delany’s Neveryóna series through the modular calculus, an abstract mathematical system that can purportedly be used to evaluate fictional construct theory (and perhaps the personality of the person reading the book?). The protagonist, Bron Helstrom, has moved from Mars to Triton. On Mars, he was a male prostitute; although life on Triton is much easier, Bron is still unhappy. He is an unusual protagonist; self-centered and quite unlikable, socially inept and quite skillful at finding others to blame as the source of his ennui. It is intriguing to note that Bron lived in a city called Bellona on Mars; Bellona is the setting in Delany’s Dhalgren, which supposedly takes place on Earth. Triton has some similarities to Delany’s Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand (Stars), but Stars has a superior structural integrity and a more likeable protagonist. I enjoyed Triton, but it felt slightly clunky compared to Delany’s more finely crafted works (Dhalgren, the Neveryóna series, and Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand).

And my choice as Retrospecualtive novel of 1976 is…

The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1977).  The Alteration is an alternate history/parallel universe novel in which the Protestant Reformation did not occur and Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I. An important alteration within the novel involves ten-year-old Hubert Anvil, a choir member with an exquisite voice. The Church decides that the boy must not lose the precious gift; therefore, he must be castrated.  Sexuality is a significant subject in the book, and the concept of the-alteration-coverart performed by a castrato, and the celibacy of Catholic priests, are central concepts.

In the novel, the word science is an obscenity — heresy — and inventions are rare: electricity is prohibited. The Roman Catholic Church’s rule in Western Europe is administered by the Holy Office, an oppressive regime. Women are definitely secondary citizens.

It is an excellent alternate history novel, ranking (IMHO) with PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is referred to in The Alteration as an alternate history novel (similar to the alternate history novel within PK Dick’s book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It is interesting to note that the PK Dick novel within Amis’ novel is different from the one that exists in our reality). Keith Robert’s Pavane, another excellent alternate history novel (which also dealt with Catholic despotism), is also mentioned, but renamed Galliard, after another European Renaissance dance.

The Alteration is very well-written, but it is a bit ‘over-starched’ in some sections, almost like a textbook; nevertheless, Amis obviously loves music, and his sojourns into melodic descriptions are delicate arias, allowing the reader to relax between the pedantic sections of the book. Amis also sprinkles the book with humour, thereby softening his academic portrayal of a dystopic society.

To fully understand the novel, it helps to have a solid knowledge of the Renaissance period; my education is woefully deficient, so I needed to peruse the web for background information. The Alteration is an enjoyable, intellectual book; my only quibble is a wish that he had ‘let loose’ a bit more; it would have made for an even more exceptional book.

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Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

In Jack Glass (The Story of a Murderer), Adam Roberts sabotages the golden age of science fiction and detective fiction. Genre conventions are used and abused as the novel slowly morphs into parody. There is a distinct postmodern style, which I often enjoy; but, after an interesting set up, I was disappointed with the novel’s unsatisfactory resolution. Jack Glass won the BSFA Award (2012) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (2013) for best novel.

Jack_Glass_Adam_Roberts_coverThroughout the novel, the word impossible is used as an ingredient for postmodern deconstruction; the impossible is merely very difficult. While reading, I was reminded of a line in The Princess Bride when a character (Vezzini) keeps using the word inconceivable, and another character (Inigo Montoya) responds by saying: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The book is divided into three sections, with (at least) one murder in each section. The novel’s intriguing introduction makes it clear that Jack Glass is the murderer in each section, but the why and how are the unknowns that provide the mystery elements.  Each successive section increases the scope of the novel, both in terms of setting, and plot convolutions.

The first section is quite brutal and grisly.  It takes place on a prison asteroid (escape is impossible); there are seven criminals on the asteroid and one is, of course, Jack Glass. The prisoners are left alone on the asteroid and they are supplied with some rudimentary equipment to help them carve out a livable habitat. It is a cruel sentence, and the chance of survival is low, but the authorities will return for them in eleven years; either the criminals will be dead, or they will have made a habitable asteroid that can be sold for a profit (the prisoners would be free, but they would receive no money).

The second section takes place on Earth, where two rich, genetically modified sisters — Diana (almost sixteen) and Eva (twenty-one) — have come from space to stay at a family manor; they have a retinue of servants, bodyguards, and a tutor. Jack Glass is in disguise, but his true identity soon becomes obvious to the reader. The Earth’s gravity makes simple movements awkward (for those used to the low gravity of space), a servant is murdered (Jack Glass’ part in the murder is specious), and there is much more going on than it first appears; among other things, there is a hint that a connection exists between supernovas and faster than light travel (of course, FTL travel is impossible). There is a great deal of unscrupulous political maneuvering between powerful clans. The plot thickens.

The final murder — a seemingly impossible event — takes place at Jack’s home in space.

In each section, Jack Glass is reinvented and each modification in his character causes the reader to redefine the novel’s conventions. A step-by-step stripping of Jack’s masked personas takes place; I suppose this is an attempt to evoke sympathy in the reader, but his raison d’être eventually succumbs to caricature (perhaps this is intended as another shot with the postmodern deconstruction ray-gun).

Jack Glass is well-written — some of the writing is excellent — but the novel is too smartassed for its own good. It is an enjoyable read, but lacks the depth required to sufficiently oil the postmodern gears that Roberts is so eager to grind.

I’ve read two novels by Adam Roberts (the other being Yellow Blue Tibia) and I think he has the potential for an exceptional book, so I’ll keep working through his oeuvre (although I may become impatient if all of his novels begin with great promise and end with inefficacy). He has written a new novel — Bête — that will be published later this year.

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Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was an excellent short story writer, but I’m not convinced he was a great novelist (More Than Human is his best novel, and it is really a three-part fix-up, expanded from the novella Baby is Three); he seems to have had issues with sustaining an interesting plot past the novella length (Sturgeon has a large body of short works, but his novel output was quite limited).

Venus Plus X (1960) is half story, half lecture, and there is a dated feel to the novel, which, in part, attempts to illuminate the shifting roles of VenusPlusXcovermen and women, but the book’s message is presented from a society fifty years in our past (the message still has importance, but society has moved forward slightly; err, well, most of us have, I hope). The book may have gathered greater resonance today if it had been written from a woman’s point of view; unfortunately, the book has the distinct feel of having been written by a man writing to other men.  A main message is that, in the grand scheme of things, men and women are much more alike than they are different; sex shouldn’t get in the way of commonality of understanding. Additionally, the novel expounds on the human need to feel superior, which drives the marginalization of women, as well as contributing to other forms of overcompensation and prejudice.  

The protagonist of Venus Plus X is Charlie Johns, a young man from the 20th century (circa 1960) who is apparently, without his knowledge or consent, transferred via a time machine to Ledom (model spelled backwards), a futuristic, utopian society. Ledom is a community of hermaphroditic beings, perhaps the next stage in human evolution. For an unknown reason, Charlie’s opinion of the society is important to the leaders of Ledom. Charlie’s experiences in Ledom are intermingled — as a comparison — with short scenes of two neighboring families living in the 1960s.  

Venus Plus X is a quick read, but I didn’t find it particularly edifying or satisfying; if you haven’t read any of Sturgeon’s works, I would recommend seeking out his short fiction, for example: The Man Who Lost the Sea, Slow Sculpture, Bright Segment, The Other Celia, Baby is Three (which was expanded into the novel, More Than Human), Bianca’s Hands, and Microcosmic God.

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Retrospeculative View, 1975

When I started planning this post, I was hoping that there was something of interest beyond Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War; well, there was more excellent prose than I could imagine: it was an exceptional year for speculative fiction. It was also the year I graduated from high school…

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TheBookOfSand (English trans. 1977) Before diving in with my usual Retrospeculative View post, I’d like to mention an excellent collection by Argentinean writer Jorges Luis Borges that was published in 1975: El libro de arena (The Book of Sand). I can’t read Spanish, so I was happy when the English translation became available because there are several standout stories; for example, the title story, Ulrica (Ulrikke), El Congreso (The Congress) and, in particular, El otro (The Other), my favourite story in the collection, first published in 1972 (the others were published in 1975).

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Some of the short fiction of 1975:

Croatoan, by Harlan Ellison, which won the Locus Award for short fiction.

The Borderland of Sol, by Larry Niven, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

And Seven Times Never Kill Man, by George R. R. Martin

The Companion, by Ramsey Campbell

Belsen Express, by Fritz Leiber, which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1976)

Catch That Zeppelin!, by Fritz Leiber, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best short story

San Diego Lightfoot Sue, by Tom Reamy, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

The Custodians, by Richard Cowper

The Private Life of Genghis Khan, by Douglas Adams and Graham Chapman

Home Is the Hangman, by Roger Zelazny, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best novella

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Some of the movies from 1975:

A Boy and His Dog, a post-apocalyptic society in which a boy survives with the aid of his telepathic dog. Based on Harlan Ellison’s novella.

rollerballRollerball, a dystopian movie based on a short story (Roller Ball Murder) by William Harrison

The Stepford Wives, set in a suburb in which the women are unusually submissive: something strange and disturbing is happening. Based on Ira Levin’s novel (1972). There was a remake in 2004.

Death Race 2000, the brutally homicidal, transcontinental road race in a dystopian America. The movie was based on a short story; the Racer, by Ib Melchior

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Some of the memorable novels of 1975:

Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson, which won the World Fantasy Award. The novel’s protagonist, Richard Collier, lives in the 1970s, but is obsessed when he sees a photograph of Elise McKenna, a stage actress from the 1890s. He researches the woman and discovers that she had an affair with a mysterious, unknown man. Richard becomes convinced that he was that man and, using a mind concentration technique, he travels into the past to meet the woman. The bittersweet story was made into a movie, Somewhere in Time (1980), and the movie’s title was used in subsequent editions of the novel.

 The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner, an early example of cyberpunk (before the term was coined), set in a dystopian future. The novel depicts computer hacking skills, and the concept of a viral worm is used (for the first time, I believe) to describe a program that proliferates within a computer network. The book’s title was inspired by Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. The protagonist, Nick Haflinger, is a programmer who is on the run from a government organization, Tarnover, a genetic engineering project that is secretly run by organized crime.

The Female Man, by Joanna Russ. The four main characters in the novel are the embodiment of each other in parallel worlds. They cross over to the other worlds, and any preconceived conception of gender and womanhood is inextricably altered.  Janet Evason Belin is from a futuristic world in which all men died in a plague; Jeannie Dadier is from a world in which the Great Depression never ended;  Joanna is from our Earth (or one just like it), circa 1970s; and Alice Jael Reasoner (Jael) is an assassin from a world in which men and women are at war. While reading, it is sometimes difficult to know which woman is the focus, adding to the intense milieu of feminism that drives the plot.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award (1976), and the Locus Award (1976).The novel is a lightly disguised depiction of Joe Haldeman’s experience of service during the Vietnam War and his return to an America he no longer understood (in the novel, the time dilation effect that leads to an unrecognizable society on Earth upon the soldier’s return is akin to the culture shock the soldiers encountered when they returned to America from service in Vietnam). This is one of the few military science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed, probably because it includes sections that detail the brutal bureaucracy of Warfare. The protagonist, William Mandella, suffers psychologically; he is a pacifist at heart, but he is an excellent soldier because he has the necessary skills and aptitude.

Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities), by Italo Calvino, a brilliant writer. In this book, Calvino sets up an intriguing dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marko Polo; the two create stories as they discuss the cities that Marko Polo has visited. But the two men speak different languages, which makes communication difficult, so Polo decides to use artifacts from each city to express his thoughts, and the reader must use imagination to build a mental image. Between each story of a city, there are interludes in which merchants provide Khan with information regarding his empire. Polo’s descriptions are lyrical, and the interludes are fascinating; apparently, the book is used by architects to aid their visualization of unique urban centers, and by artists as a source of inspiration.

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And my pick as Retrospecualtive Novel of 1975 is…

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. I was afraid of this book for many years because it is renowned for being difficult to read. It is quite a monster, but I’ve read some challenging books in the past decade, and I finally bit-the-bullet last year and immersed myself in Dhalgren’s Dhalgren_vintagepages. The book is very polarizing; some call it a masterpiece, while others shun it and would rather use the pages to light a fire than read the tome. I doubt that I’ll ever reread it (I will certainly re-sample many of my favourite sections), but it was a rewarding experience to follow the tortuosities of thought that Delany strung together. As I stated in my review, as a novel, Dhalgren doesn’t fit the mold: there isn’t a linear plot, events re-occur as echoes and distortions, it is unclear what the story is about, and the mind cannot easily detect a natural reading rhythm: it is classified as a novel, I suppose, because there is no other word to describe it (there is even hearty debate as to whether or not it is science fiction, but it is surely speculative fiction). Dhalgren makes the mind work (unless the reader gives up, throws the book into the fireplace, and picks up something else). As I read it, I became — in no particular order — confused, bored, angry, light-headed, disgusted, and enlightened (these states — in various permutations — were repeated throughout the reading experience). It is a brilliant piece of work, but it is not for everyone.

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This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny, was originally called …And Call Me Conrad (in shorter format, published in two parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1965); I prefer the original title, and apparently Zelazny did too. …And Call Me Conrad tied for the Hugo award in 1966 with Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune.

Zelazny_thisimmortalThis Immortal is set on a future Earth, a long time after a nuclear war. ‘Hotspots’ from the war still exist, and there are primitive human tribes and some strangely mutated, mythological-like animals that are large and dangerous.

A sentient, alien species, the Vegans, are curious about humanity and the Earth is a popular tourist location; Vegans have purchased some parts of the planet, which is not exactly popular with Earth-based humans. Vegans are blue skinned, have spiracles in their chests, and are generally haughty regarding their superiority.

The novel is revealed in first person narrative by Conrad, and his ‘voice’ makes the story endearing, though in the beginning sections of the novel Zelazny pushes rather awkwardly to make Conrad sound like a ‘happening dude’ (I suppose he can be forgiven; it was the 1960s); once past the first couple of dozen pages, the story settles in (perhaps I was simply inured to the vernacular by then).

It becomes clear early on that Conrad is at least centuries old; the reason for his extended lifetime is never explained, but is possibly due to a mutation from a hot zone. It is also hinted that Conrad may be the ancient God Pan.  Conrad was the leader of a resistance movement that attempted to protect the Earth from  infiltration by the alien Vegans, but those events were far in the past and Conrad is now a caretaker of Earth’s historical areas (his involvement as the resistance leader is not generally known; nor is his age).

The mutant animals in the story are a bit over-the-top, and many of the scenes are dated and pulpy, but there is also subtle depth in the novel. For example, there are brief scenes depicting the universe from the alien’s perspective (note: Conrad also has some telepathic abilities); I particularly enjoyed the Vegans’ ability to see deeper beauty in the ultra-violet spectrum, and it is sections such as this, as well as Conrad’s discussions with other characters (in particular, Hasan, the assassin), that enable the novel to rise above a propensity for superficial pulp fiction.

Conrad is tasked with the job of guiding an important Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, through a tour of Earth’s ruins in Egypt and Greece. Vegans are blue-skinned aliens who find humans intriguing, if a tad odd (why, for instance, would an intelligent species use nuclear weapons?). There is a group of humans who believe Myshtigo is scouting for ideal real estate on Earth, and they want to murder the alien, but Conrad believes there is something more to the alien’s visit and vows to protect the blue-skinned being as they travel in a group through historical areas and mutant-filled landscapes, and around hotspots. It is not until the end of the novel that the truth of Myshtigo’s visit becomes clear.

I enjoyed Conrad’s character, more so as the story unfolded. There is a bit too much pulp in the novel; nevertheless, it is a quick read, the intriguing sections made the whole a worthwhile experience, and the conclusion is satisfying.

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