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.


Retrospeculative View, 1959

Some of the short fiction published in 1959:

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (Hugo Award, short story 1960)

 CordwainerSmithNow: Zero, by J.G. Ballard

When the People Fell, Cordwainer Smith

The Man who Lost the Sea, Theodore Sturgeon


Some of the movies/TV shows from 1959:

Plan 9 from Outer Space, a truly bad movie by Ed Wood

Sleeping Beauty, a minor Disney Classic (based on the fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant, by Charles Perrault).

On the Beach (based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute), directed by Stanley Kramer, with an all-star cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (based on Jules Verne’s 1864 novel), starring Pat Boone, James Mason and Arlene Dahl.

Sampo (Сампо), a joint Russian/Finnish film loosely based on The Kalevala, an epic Finnish poem. In North America, the original film was never released; instead, it was decided to offer a heavily edited version called The Day the Earth Froze.

The Twilight Zone first aired on television. As Rod Serling said, “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”


And the speculative novels of 1959:

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein. This novel is often cited in ‘best of’ lists; but, to me, it’s over the-top preachy and puerile. I read this novel about a year ago, and it is one of my least favourite Heinlein books. Enough said.

Time out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t read this particular novel, but I’ve had my fill of Philip Kindred Dick, and I don’t think I’ll bother reading any more of his stories. I thought The Man in the High Castle was brilliant, and I enjoyed A Scanner Darkly (which has a distinct personal quality), but the rest of his stories don’t work for me. There are some wonderful ideas in his novels, but his general prose style annoys me, and his ideas are quite similar from book to book (2013-08-14: after rereading this it occurs to me that I sound like a curmudgeon).

Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank. I read this a few months ago, and, although the story is related fairly well, it wasn’t strong enough to draw me in. It is a story about a community — lead by a strong-willed man — that survives a nuclear war: there is some good information in the novel, and I might just put it in my disaster kit. As a novel I thought it was okay, but not notable.

The Beast Master, By Andre Norton. This YA novel holds a special place in my heart; it was one of the first books to turn me on to science fiction (so pardon me if I get carried away here). It is the story of Hosteen Storm, a Navajo and former soldier in the war against the Xik, a malicious, alien species. Storm has empathic /telepathic connections with a team of four genetically enhanced animals (Surra, a dune cat; Baku, an African Black Eagle; and Hing and Ho, two meercats). Storm travels to Arzor with vengeance in his heart: he still harbors anger toward the Xik (who destroyed the Earth), and he has sworn revenge on a man named Quade for his father’s murder. He finds more than he could ever have anticipated on the outpost world of Arzor, which has human settlements, and also an indigenous, sentient species. I read many novels by Andre Norton when I was young, but this was my favourite (closely followed by its sequel, Lord of Thunder).

Immortality, Inc. Robert Sheckley. A short book (of novella length) with an intriguing concept — used often now — of transferring a consciousness into a donor body. The pilot episode of Futurama sites a scene from the book in which the protagonist, Tom Blaine, is transferred from 1958 to 2110 and ends up in line for a suicide booth. Sheckley’s wit is evident in the book, but I prefer his absurd, capricious short stories.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, the fourth work in his Gormenghast series. I haven’t read this book, but if it’s anything like the rest of the series, it is well worth the time invested in reading it.

Psycho, Robert Block. This is the novel that spawned Hitchcock’s famous horror-thriller. The movie was fairly faithful to the book, but there is more depth to the characters in the novel, and a few scenes are slightly different (e.g.: the infamous shower-scene: in the book, Mary Crane’s murder is a fair bit grizzlier). Psycho is not my preferred type of fiction, but the author certainly uses his craft skillfully.

The Investigation (Śledztwo), Stanislaw Lem. I really enjoyed this metaphysical murder-mystery, but it’s not the sort of thing for everyone. The story includes shades of Franz Kafka, mixed with epistemology (what is knowledge, and how can it be gathered to ensure the knowledge gained can be justified as true?). Initially, I found the book slow and plodding, but I was eventually pulled in and my mind was fully immersed in Lem’s thought-experiment. There were some truly remarkable, surreal, metaphysical sections.

And my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1959 is…

The Sirens of Titan front coverThe Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. This is an early Vonnegut novel, but it’s one of my favourites, filled with the author’s wit, imagination, and sparse, effective prose. The protagonist, Malachi Constant, travels from Earth to Mars, to Mercury, back to Earth, to Titan, and finally, at the end of the novel, back to Earth; along the way, the novel nudges out themes of free-will, omniscience, and history, with a plot involving an invasion of Earth by Martians. There are other characters of note in the novel; in particular, Winston Niles Rummford, who at one point entered a chrono-synclastic infundibulum (where all the different kind of truths fit together) and Silo, a robotic, Tralfamadorian explorer with a spacecraft that is powered by the Universal Will to Become (UWTB, which causes matter and organization to want to appear from nothingness, and was responsible for the creation of the universe). I read somewhere that The Sirens of Titan was inspiration for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I can certainly see the conection.

Vonnegut’s best books are easy to read, but have surprising depth. Sometimes, when my mind is in neutral, I’ll hear the call of a snare-drum from Mars, demanding action from a soldier via a small antenna implanted in his head:tralfamadorian

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a rented a tent.

Kurt Vonnegut is not suited to all tastes, and some snooty people have informed me that he is juvenile and frivolous; a writer that is to be enjoyed while in college, but shunned by full-fledged adults. Apparently, I refuse to grow up (I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that one of the ‘adults’ that pooh-poohed Kurt Vonnegut thinks Dan Brown is a wonderful author). I do agree that Vonnegut is not as brilliant as I once thought he was, but he is clearly a more sophisticated writer than all but a very few of the science fiction writers of the same vintage (I suspect this is why his novels are catagorized as general fiction rather than science fiction).