Article: Why I read and review 50s-70s Science Fiction

 

(A section of Karel Thole’s cover for the 1962 Italian edition of Starman’s Quest (1958), Robert Silverberg)

1. MAPPING A TERRITORY

As a trained historian, I am fascinating by the process of “knowing” and “mapping” a period in time. I am possessed by my own ambitions of encyclopedism and particularly enjoy the theme of encyclopedism within fiction—lists of invented articles, books comprised of collated knowledge, even Dune (1965) and its obsession with shifting between all perspectives. To steal a phrase from a recent book I reviewed, I relish in the act of creating a “morphology” of science fiction and its variables. Let us be clear, I am a believer in the process, not the possibility of such dreams actualized. The latter is impossible… But the journey across the inclines and declines beckons. 

2. FICTION AS HISTORICAL OBJECT

Unsurprisingly, I have favorite historical periods and themes. For example, cracks in 50s visions of suburban existence, demystifying the space race, the Civil Rights movement, the 70s political backlash… By extension, the SF produced in those periods holds special appeal. Many of the themes prevalent in late 60s SF tended to look inward (inner space!). Years ago for a SF Signal post I was asked to come up with an author blurb. Looking back at it a particular line stands out: “When SF tackles the greater morass of things and our oblique interiors he is happy.” This continues to hold through as I devour SF interested in exploring memory and trauma…. 

We must consider literary works within their particular contexts. Too often SF is dismissed as “no longer relevant” which suggests a variety of shoddy conclusions: 1) reviewers tend to equate value with whether or not social speculation or scientific invention has come to pass ignoring the historical context in which it was produced.2) reviewers thus assume a monolithic purpose of the genre — to “predict” 3) reviewers assume readers engage with fiction for the previous reason alone. 

Language is a social project. A keen reader will be aware of the society that spawned a particular vision… A particularly good piece of SF cannot be passed off as “timeless.” Personally, piecing together the historical context and engagement with the trends of the time must be part of the critical reading experience.

3. FUCK PREDICTION

I care absolutely nothing about science fiction as a predictive vision. Most cover blurbs and authors might doll up their vision as “possible” or “potential” but it’s mostly window dressing a story. This is not to say that some authors deeply aware of the currents of modern scientific thought and constrain their speculations within reason. As with film adaptation, the author must reinvent by translating one medium to another (speculation to narrative). The speculation could be satire, the speculation could be commentary on the author’s present, the speculation could be a warning…. Returning to point 2, historical context matters! The historical context created a particular speculation—I, viewing the past, do not judge merit based on what has coincidentally come to pass.

4. I DON’T WANT TO ENCOUNTER ONLY ME (white, ~30, middle class, Ph.D.)!

I read SF because of different perspectives. I try not to dismiss a book because I somehow didn’t “feel” for or connect at a personal level with the “struggle” of a character. I read BECAUSE people think differently, act differently, and have different backgrounds than me. I do not read to find copies of ME or some younger idealized polyp of me that never existed in a story. A deep joy emanates from within when SF welcomes authors from all backgrounds, takes on challenging and morally conflicted characters, speculates on radical future changes, tackles our own society’s challenges via the SF lens… This does NOT mean that characters don’t need to be well written or convincing—they must be to create a compelling vision.

I will not ruminate alone, desperate to re-conjure some nostalgic glow when I first opened the brittle pages of a “classic” lost in a move long ago. I relish how SF was and will be reworked, reconceived, reapplied.

(to be blunt: I’m bludgeoning attacks on diversity in SF and arguments about SF needing to return to a Golden Age)

(Uncredited cover for the 1970 edition of Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967), Clifford Simak)

5. THE WAY OF TELLING

I’m also drawn to the 60s/70s because there was a serious and conscience attempt to tell stories in artful ways: “literary” prose, radical structure/politics, non-standard SF characters/perspectives. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But it’s all fascinating. 

6. READING IS ACTIVE

I read to think. I do not read to sink into some comatose state. This is all to say, a plot and three fascinating ideas do not a novel make. I must be able to actively engage with the ideas, the characters, the world.

7. THERE IS NO GOLDEN AGE (sort of?) (hyperbole?)

A lot of readers of my site suggest in their comments that I must adhere to some sort of “all current SF is crud” and that is why Joachim Boaz sticks to his decades… I confess, I might have hinted at this in the past—snide comments aimed at the 80s occasionally crop up! But, there is plenty of fascinating SF published today (and yes, in the 80s as well). And I read some of it, secretly, under pillows, in closets. I am not trying to promote a Golden Age Syndrome of the glorious past, the decadent present, and apocalyptical “we must prevent the end” of “real” genre. I call bogus. We can (absolutely) prefer and admire particular decades over others.

__

Thoughts? Comments? Tangents? All are welcome.

(Cover by the Brothers Quay for the 1977 edition of A Scanner Darkly (1977), Philip K. Dick)

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33 thoughts on “Article: Why I read and review 50s-70s Science Fiction”

  1. Just glad you’re doing this. I’ve learned a great deal from your weblog.

    It was an interesting time, with SF still a literary ghetto, full of third-generation writers yearning for more respectability, a corpus small enough that the community of writers and fans could be familiar with virtually everything that had been published, and before Star Wars created a commercial boom and a wider cultural reach.

    And the baby boom counter-culture was hitting hard.

    I would like your reviewing to be extended to fanzines of the time, if you’re so inclined.

    1. Hello Paul, thanks for the comment! As of now, I probably will not be reviewing fanzines (it’s an endless rabbit hole!). At one point I was trying to seriously give reviewing the SF magazines of the day a go but discovered that I rather read the stories in anthologies or single author collections. Of course, some stories were not anthologies so I might try to track individual stories down….

      My immediate goals are to review all the SF I read. This a tall order as I have a pile of at least ten books waiting for a review!

      But yes, the historical context of the time created a fascinating environment for a momentous shift in SF with the New Wave Movement that I so adore.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. This really is a very good article.I think I can agree with most of it.SF was a starting point into books,but soon afterwards I began to realise it’s creative value,as well as it’s historical and cultural importance.It has existed for a long time in our civilised and literary heritage.That’s why I stuck with it,because I knew it could be just as good as any fictional forms,and yet it is different.It’s modern authors who rose during the SF paperback boom,responded to literary values,but developed it into something quite like yet unlike them.

    1. Hello Richard. Thanks for the comment. This is not a post you have to agree with — it’s my individual rationale for reading the SF I read. It certainly doesn’t have to be yours!

      1. Hello there again.No I don’t have to agree,but I just do!I thought what you wrote about the modern movement in SF was quite sound,and similar to my own thoughts about it.

  3. History is important. With the death of the mass-market paperback, we’ve also seen the death of any serious reprinting and/or exposure to the past in literature, and that includes westerns, action books, and mysteries. So sites like yours are important. I read a lot of pulp and gaslight fiction, especially in pulp facsimile reprints. It’s a way to read what has come before, especially before so many hard and fast rules as to what “genre” fiction is. Horror fiction in sf magazines, sf in mystery magazines, weird mysteries in horror ‘zines, etc. Whatever somebody thought would sell got published, and what got published influenced the oddest things. It wasn’t until the fifties, I think, that so many of the hard and fast rules as to what constitutes “genre” fiction came to be. As I read these facsimiles, I sometimes never know what is going to be read next. So I can understand where you’re coming from. Also, we all only have so much time to spend on our interests. I’m not a fast reader, and I’m never going to waste my time on a thousand page war novel by John Ringo, which may part three of a series, and which can’t be read on its own. All-in-all, a good essay. I knew there was a reason as to why I keep reading your posts. 🙂

  4. Yes, loved reading this! I especially feel the same regarding perspectives and ideas, writing style and themes, and active reading… Most especially active reading. I want to be challenged and have to consider consequences and figure shit out. Pulpy science fiction might be dated in many ways to today’s standards, but it’s still far superior in others.

  5. Joachim,
    Excellent article!
    Here’s my credit’s worth: The main reason I read science fiction is the same as when I began: Escapism. My favorite decade is the 1950s when I could open a book and be transported to adventures in outer space or time or explore the various apocalypses that might wipe humanity from the face of the Earth. I still enjoy the majority of these books with the warm feeling that I’m revisiting favorite places in my life, with that melancholy twinge that I know it’s impossible to ever regain that sense of wonder I felt 50 odd years ago. And I while rereading the old stuff, I found a few stories I’d missed originally, such as Wilson Tucker’s The Lincoln Hunters and C.M. Kornbluth’s Not This August, for examples. Discovering these and other stories was like discovering hidden gems and keeps me mining the old bookshops and online stores for more. Some consider this one decade to be the golden age of the genre. I disagree and think the era actually spanned nearly 30 years, until the exciting advancements, experiments and different directions of the 1960s finally withered away by the end of 1970s for the most part.
    In my opinion the trend that lead to this downturn and gave spawn to the blight of the 1980s that still exists today, and continues to prove Sturgeon’s Law that 90% of everything is crap, is when Fantasy, popularized by Lord of the Rings, supplanted the Fiction in SF.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It’s fascinating seeing different perspectives.

      Yeah, escapism is the last reason I read SF. That is not to say it can’t be diverting or engaging, but it has to be more than simply a good escapist story for me to be interested.

      1. My escapism is more being entertained by the story, location & characters as opposed to engaging in fantasizing for the purposes of escaping mundane reality. I also find it relaxing from the responsibilities involved in electrical design and much better than draining my IQ in front of the idiot box.

        1. Well, that sounds like all reading then — I am responding to the claim that people “read SF for escapism” — as in, a more passive type of reading for plot and action….

  6. Hi Joachim

    I loved your post. I do read science fiction for escapism and the themes I most enjoy differ from those you mention. But I love the historical aspect of science fiction. I love how it acts as a time capsule, reflective of the period and the culture in which it was written. So I have often picked up the novels and especially the anthologies you mention so I can experience new authors or themes. We both share a love of science fiction illustration as well and I have enjoyed a lot of the illustrators you feature. I have been working on a post about what I enjoy in science fiction it should be ready tomorrow, but it was reading your comments that got me off my butt to finish it. I am including a link to your post in mind, I hope you do not mind.

    Guy

  7. Hi

    At present in the current science fiction it is the diversity of voices and cultures exploring science fiction themes authors like Aliette de Bodard, and Ken Liu. For themes it is the far future space opera with it’s vast diaspora and the subsequent evolution of cultures and humans from authors like Alastair Reynolds and Greg Egan.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

  8. You’ve inspired me, when reviewing the older stuff, to talk more about the historical context.

    John Clute famously said there are three dates in every book: the year it was written, the year it’s set, and the year it’s really about.

    Favorite decade? Probably the 1950s for me though I’m obviously pretty unfocused in what I review.

  9. Hello Joachim,

    I am considerably older than you and grew up reading 1960s New Wave SF, so I’m really pleased to see someone of your generation enjoying the older stuff. As you said, sometimes the experiments worked and sometimes they didn’t, but at least writers were pushing the boundaries.

    I also like the 1950s SF, mostly what was published in Galaxy. But mostly Moorcock’s New Worlds just blew me away. I used to own a complete run of New Worlds, with all of the harder-to-find magazine sized issues. Then in a period of relative poverty and worry about what would happen to them if I died, I sold the entire collection. As the years went by I found that I really missed owning them and managed to replace them all from e-bay. It cost me a fortune, and I am still missing the ultra-rare no 186, but it gives me pleasure to own them again.

    I’m afraid that many of the stories are unreadable now, but I just love the attitude.

    Allan

    1. Hello Allan, thanks for the comment!

      I wish I had a full run of New Worlds (well, the later 60s and 70s editions)…. if only for all the interior art, editorials, non-fiction articles on art and culture.

  10. Hi

    Your question intrigued me so I thought I would expand on my previous comments. I started reading SF in the late 60’s but I realize now the libraries were stocked with material initially published in the 1940’s and 1950’s. That coloured the themes I followed, space exploration & colonies, aliens, rmutants, robots so the authors I followed who were publishing in the 1970’s were people like Cherryh, Niven, Le Guin, McCaffery, Zelazny etc. I realize now it was the straight forward continuation of the themes I had read earlier that their work represented that attracted me. So I was less likely to read people like Disch, Spinard, Lafferty, however I came to realize that these other writers were actually working with the same themes but perhaps approaching differently so I began to read Dick, Ballard, Brunner in ACE Doubles, a guilty pleasure to this day. Sites such as your which discuss different periods have encouraged me to try Compton, Watson, Bishop, Lew and Disch. I am still not sure if I have answered your question but this discussion of theme and the reading of new (to me) works and authors regardless of decade is something I will continue to do.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    1. Hello Guy, I see you’ve posted your article on why you read SF! I’ll comment in a bit.

      It’s weird, I guess, that the stuff I read as a kid I actively avoid to this day (Tad Williams, bad fantasy, some okay fantasy). I don’t look back on most of what I read as a younger teen with nostalgia (there are a few examples, Tolkein, Brian Jacques, and a handful of others). My SF reading habits developed in my late teens and early 20s.

      It’s always nice hearing that my site encourages reading. Goal = accomplished.

  11. Guy is correct about libraries, but it would be part of a bigger discussion on how powerful an influence libraries had on most older readers, before ebooks. Growing up in the sixties most libraries had “standards”, which meant that only certain books could be carried in the library system. In Detroit it was no paperbacks, and no “trash” or “lowbrow” literature. For instance, I could not get ANY Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew type books through the library system, my folks had to buy them for me, and then they got circulated throughout my family. Ditto for such lowbrow authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now, a great deal of great stuff is being published by small press and on demand, so these books never reach the library shelves. Which is why websites such as yours, which take the place of old time fanzines, are so important. Bringing to our attention old, and now obscure, books and authors. Ah, I miss the neighborhood used book store.

    1. I’m surprised to read your comment about library ‘standards’! I guess I had it easy at my local library, in Boston. When I was a kid the librarians seemed to want to get as many books out circulating as possible. I remember the librarian pushing Ray Bradbury books at me after I finished Eleanor Cameron’s ‘Mushroom Planet’ books, and then other authors after I was finished with what they had of Bradbury.

  12. One of the most insightful posts on the subject I’ve read! I think I started reading SF because of the predictive nature of some of it. But as I got older, I became more interested in reading for character development and how those characters react to unusual situations. I’m much more inclined to read about societal change or psychological analysis rather than technological change.

    Also it may be shallow, but as I work in advertising, I do appreciate carefully designed books, with an emphasis on the artwork and typography of the 50’s – 70’s. My wife asked me recently if I had read anything by Robert Silverberg, and it occurred to me that I had only read one of his books, mostly because the ones I’ve seen that were published in the 79’s have had awful cover art! Checking out recent reprints of Silverberg’s work has made me think there has been a vast improvement in design recently though. I will admit to reading VanderMeer’s ‘Annihilation’ because of the cover!

    1. I disagree that books are better designed… perhaps they are easier to read in some ways (larger interior font, etc.). But look at the Brothers Quay cover above for the 1977 edition of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977). The art is haunting, the colors perfect/muted/matching the tone, and the Doubleday’s general design scheme is smart and visually arresting!

      1. Oh whoah, wait a minute! I don’t mean to say that books now have better art than they did in the 50’s – mid 70’s, that’s the best time for cover art!!

        I’m referring to the late 80’s through the early 2000’s when publishers seemed to just throw out either a half dressed woman on the cover, or a simple CGI image – usually with no relation to content. Not all books from that time of course, there were still plenty of good artists at work, but a lot of books from that time have awful or mediocre cover art. Recently though it seems as though the quality of cover art has improved, even computer generated is at least much more creative than it used to be.

  13. Covers sell books, but a book rises and falls on its contents. I could always tell a book that was meant to be a bestseller. The book would have the blandest cover imaginable with only typography as some form of “artwork”. This would bleed over to many sf covers. This would be why the horror paperbacks of the eighties and nineties can be so collectable, or those lush historical romance covers. There were some hold-outs, like the Del Rey or DAW Book covers. A good example of a blah cover would be something like http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?194241. Thankfully we did have artists like Powers, Lehr, Gaughan, etc. to grab our attention.

    And if we were to read sf based on Prediction then we wouldn’t read anything with sf dealing with computers or time travel. And Asimov stated that sf’s Golden Age was the age of fourteen. Mine was much earlier, reading instead of drugs, but the meaning is clear. A Golden Age is when all is new, and all reading is a gateway to adventure/imagination.

  14. Point #4 really resonates with me. I think an effective SF book is one that takes a version of reality that is familiar/comfortable/mainstream and twists it, flips it, or simply reflects it back in a distorted manner (like a fun-house mirror or a cracked mirror). It seems that this is what a lot of SF from the 1960s was doing: inviting readers into a scenario that seemed familiar and then pulling the rug out from under them.

    Two examples of this “defamiliarization” (to use an old but still useful concept!) are the “alien” encounter/first contact motif, or the mad scientist/engineer character. Both LeGuin’s “Left Hand” and Lem’s “Solaris” do a masterful job of exposing the tendency for humans to (sometimes unconsciously) interpret the “alien” through an anthropomorphic lens. And as far as exposing the mad sci/eng to ridicule, you needn’t look any further than Lem’s “Cyberiad”: a hilarious send-up of scientific egomania and technological navel-gazing. (The tale about the “bard” robot stands out the most.)

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