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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The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe depicts a near-future in which death by old-age is the norm; almost all diseases have been eradicated, and it is only accidental death, or suicide, that usually ends a person’s life before the on-set of senescence. Occasionally, however, there is a rare disorder that cannot be cured, and such is the case with Katherine Mortenhoe, who is diagnosed with ‘Gordon’s Syndrome,’ and is told she has only four weeks to live.
Katherine MortenhoeEnter Human Destiny, a reality television show that offers the sufferings of the minority to the masses; the unscrupulous Vincent Ferriman, an executive at Human Destiny, wants to televise Katherine’s final twenty-eight days of life. And it is the intrepid reporter Rod (‘Roddie’) who is to bridge the gap between Katherine and the viewers. Rod has had cameras surgically attached to his retina; his eyes appear normal to others, but wherever he looks, he is filming (complete with sound). His trans-human enhancements have unfortunate side effect: his eyes are continuously perceiving, and he cannot sleep without drugs (hence the book’s alternate title, The Unsleeping Eye): Roddie cannot experience the dark; he carries a flashlight with him wherever he goes. Although the story is set in a future with significant medical advances and the possibility of cyborg technology, it has the texture of the 1970s British novel it is. The technological aspects are part of the set-up, but are not explained; this is not a hard science fiction novel, it is a character study of Katherine and Rod, two strangers who grow close in the midst of an emotionally charged situation. It is worth noting that Roddie’s sections are presented in first-person, while Katherine’s are written in third-person.
The novel is well-written; and, although the book is bleak, misanthropic, and sand-blasted with moral outrage, it is also buoyed with a pinch of hope.
A few scenes didn’t work for me, but I’m nit-picking: it is an intriguing novel.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (The Unsleeping Eye) was adapted into a film titled Death Watch  (by Bertrand Tavernier in 1980), staring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel; I haven’t seen the movie, but I think I’ll check it out (I always like to read the source novel before viewing the movie adaptation).

Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks

feersum-endjinn-cover-artFeersum Endjinn is a non-Culture Science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks (for those who don’t know, Mr. Banks has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: more information. A sad update:  Iain Banks passed from this realm on June 9, 2013).

The action takes place on Earth, far into the future. Reincarnation is a common occurrence, facilitated by the uploading of mindstates into a massive computer network known as the data corpus or the cryptosphere (often shortened to crypt). An individual is allowed a certain number of real-life ‘reincarnations’ and then their mindstate is uploaded into the data corpus for another series of virtual reality lives before being absorbed into the data-stream. There are also artificial intelligences within the cryptosphere.  

Long before the beginning of the novel, a large portion of humanity left the planet to seed the stars (The Diaspora). The remaining humans have lost the ability to understand advanced technologies; unfortunately, the solar system is drifting into an interstellar dust cloud (referred to as the Encroachment), which will weaken the amount of the sun’s energy reaching the Earth, resulting in an end to all life on the planet. There may be a device (possibly within a neglected space elevator) that will save the planet, but the knowledge of how to use it, or what it is, has been lost.  

The story unfolds in four threads that eventually converge. Each chapter reveals the progress of four principal characters: an enigmatic woman, possibly an emissary from the crypt (an asura), who’s powers are gradually unveiled; Hortis Gadfium, a high-ranking scientist who is a member of a group trying to uncover a secret that may save the world; Alandre Sessine, a General who is about to discover a conspiracy of the heads of state, is assassinated several times (in real and virtual lives), and is searching for answers in the cryptosphere; and last, but not least, Bascule, a young teller, a job that depends on submersion within the crypt (I should also point out that Bascule is dyslexic: his sections are spelled phonetically, like the book’s title. Some might find these sections difficult/annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed them).  

Mr. Banks does an excellent job of imagining a virtual reality world and the immensity of a space elevator: his canvas in this novel is extensive. It’s hard science fiction, but doesn’t always feel like it. The characters are likeable and interesting (particularly Bascule), but they were not plumbed to any great depth: the novel is plot and concept driven. Banks does a wonderful job of creating a believable world and dancing the reader through it. If you’re not a science fiction fan, you might think it is interesting, but unspectacular; but, for a hard science fiction geek, it’s amazing.