American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s

Nothing drives home the fact of one’s advancing years like going into a vintage store and seeing the toys of one’s childhood labeled as “antiques.”  Such an experience provides a salutary moment of temporal lucidity.

I initially had a similar fleeting sensation upon picking up American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, the much-anticipated sequel to editor Gary Wolfe’s Library of America set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which I reviewed here some seven years ago. That first assortment of novels predated my earliest involvement with SF, although I had certainly read them all by the time I reached high school. But even back then they were historical landmarks, and so seemingly fitted for enshrinement as classics in the year 2012.

With the new set, however, I am facing novels I first devoured when they were only a couple of years old, or when they were actually making their debut in low-class 50-cent mass-market paperbacks, plucked fresh off the bookstore shelves by an eager teenage fan. These books are simultaneously the vivid tokens of my youth, and yet now, rightfully so, objects emblematic of a long-vanished era. The cognitive dissonance is hard to accept—but after all, I must admit that the start of that era is sixty years gone, and even its tail end is fifty years past. What else could these books be but mementos of antiquity?

Well, one other thing they could be—and which upon examination they most definitely reveal themselves to be—is living, still-potent and visionary narratives. All nostalgia aside, laboring with my utmost critical objectivity, I believe that readers old and young will savor these masterfully wrought books as eternal triumphs of the science-fictional Muse, just as entertaining and thought-provoking now as at the date of their release.

Steeped in the history of the field for many decades (his first book, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. appeared in 1979), Wolfe has again chosen wisely, arraying eight superlative books that not only crystallize what was happening in the genre over that decade, but which also retain all the speculative brio, artistic chops and idiosyncratic voices that their creators infused into them at birth.

In a sterling introduction, Wolfe lays down the parameters of the shifting marketplace and sociocultural forces that contoured these novels and their peers: a greater focus on traditional literary values, as well as a trending interest in experimentation and the avant garde. The ability for writers to conceptualize SF novels as complete and independent books from the start, rather than as serials or “fix-ups” of linked stories, thanks to newly expanded and venturesome publishing programs. A desire for topicality. The whole era is marked by a sensibility that Wolfe finds specifically in the work of Roger Zelazny, but which applies overall:  “the sense is less one of transition than of revolution.”

Wolfe’s selections do as perfect a job as possible within the given dimensions of this project (some essential texts excluded for reasons of length or balky permissions) of portraying the whole spectrum of what was happening. While one might lament the absence of anything from Robert Sheckley, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg, Thomas Disch, Edgar Pangborn, Larry Niven, James Schmitz, and others (a partial roll call indicating the richness of the period), the selections we do get do not betray the mission. (There’s nothing from two pivotal figures, Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick, specifically because they have their own Library of America volumes already.)

In a fascinating interview at the Kirkus website, Wolfe backgrounds his methodology and goals.

“I knew I wanted to convey some of the changes that took place—how was reading science fiction at the end of the decade different from reading it at the beginning?—while also establishing a sense of continuity. So the collection includes established writers who began their careers in the 1940s (Jack Vance, Poul Anderson) or even the 1930s (Clifford Simak), along with writers who seemed to be offering something radically new (Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ). Russ in particular presages the powerful feminist presence in science fiction that became much more evident in the 1970s and 1980s.

I was also interested in a balance between widely familiar ‘classics’ and less well-known novels. I expect most readers will already be familiar with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is widely taught in schools and was the basis of two movies, while far fewer will be aware of Jack Vance’s Emphyrio.

Finally, I wanted to represent a range of themes that science fiction explored, beyond the expected aliens and space operas. For example, the genre’s fascination with history is reflected in The High Crusade and Past Master—both of which also demonstrate SF’s sometimes underappreciated capacity for comedy and satire—while Flowers for Algernon examines psychology and the nature of intelligence, and Emphyrio touches upon the arts. Picnic on Paradise begins like a traditional planetary adventure, but finally turns that old pulp tradition on its head. Delany’s Nova does something similar with space opera, while anticipating much of what later became cyberpunk.”

Let’s step through the individual novels and savor their charms, while seeing what they reveal about that tumultuous and fertile decade through their science-fictional scrims. Our first volume spans the years 1960 through 1966.

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade is the most Campbellian tale herein, and in fact it was commissioned by Campbell and ran in his magazine, Astounding. The plot concerns the arrival of an alien spaceship in the small English village of Ansby in the year 1345.  In short order, the would-be interstellar conquerors, the Wersgorix, have all, save for one, been slain by the medieval knights, who then, under the leadership of the bold and glorious and somewhat vain Baron Roger de Tourneville, load their entire village onto the huge starship, livestock and all, and go out to conquer the galaxy. Chronicled vividly by a humble monk named Brother Parvus, the book blends derring-do and romance with droll humor, Arthurian myths with space opera traditions. While it checks off many of Campbell’s crochets—the unique superiority of humans; contrarian political stances such as the advantages of feudalism—it does so in a rather perfunctory, non-dogmatic manner. Anderson was too much his own man and too good a writer to churn out propaganda for his editor. His deep knowledge of history and appreciation for the grand Western tradition allow him to render this adventure straight-faced, with some surprising reverence for religion. The book’s meta-SF commentary—at last, a legitimate justification for swords in starships!—signals the genre’s growing sophistication.

The next selection, Clifford Simak’s Way Station, could not be more dissimilar from the Anderson, and thereby begins to illustrate the awesome range of the genre. Instead of a vast canvas and a huge cast, the action of the novel is basically confined to a single stage set, and centers on one man. Instead of being painted in broad, at times farcical strokes, Simak’s book is nuanced and multivalent, quiet and contemplative, yet not without a few action-packed setpieces. Self-assured combat is replaced with sensitive melancholy, victory with loss. Triumphalism has no place here.

Enoch Wallace is an immortal Civil War vet living into modern times. He has been secretly tapped by galactic civilization to run Earth’s assigned teleportation junction, hidden inside his converted old Midwest farmhouse. Aliens come and go in transit, and Enoch sips at the font of stellar knowledge, content with his lonely caretaker’s role. But his equilibrium is soon to be upset by the CIA’s snooping and by a human crisis involving a local girl, the deaf-mute savant named Lucy.  All the strands knit together n a perfect culmination, inevitable but startling.

Simak’s unshowy yet often incantatory, meditative prose proves to be the perfect medium to convey his messages of duty versus indulgence, individuality versus community, maturity versus juvenility, compassion versus hatred. Whereas Anderson’s Wersgorix were blithely handed the task of being the villainous Others, Simak’s aliens are brothers from another planet, any species differences real but inconsequential in light of a common spiritual sapience.

Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is surely the best-known novel in Wolfe’s assortment, thanks to its adaptation as the film Charly. It deserves its fame, being a superbly devised and seamless heart-tugger, full of pathos and nobility, all centered on its essential SF novum, surgical intelligence enhancement, a bit of brain engineering first practiced on the mouse named Algernon. Charlie Gordon, an affable man of thirty-two with an IQ of only 68, lives a constricted and limited life until he undergoes the same experimental procedure that Algernon got.  Gradually his intelligence increases, and his worldview and understanding transform apace, along with his language skills. But a superior mind brings him only grief, and when he learns that his new state is only temporary and that he will revert to his original “retardate” condition, just as Algernon did, his anguish is tempered with a kind of fatalistic comfort that he will no longer have to suffer the burdens of heightened self-awareness.

Taking his cue from Faulkner’s Benjy Compson and Steinbeck’s Lenny Small (and how telling is it that the Steinbeck volume is titled Of Mice and Men?), Keyes crafts pitch-perfect first-person journal entries for the subnormal Charlie, then crafts beautiful segues as the neurons begin to fire in overdrive, and then, for the bulk of the novel, convincingly depicts a genius at work, a task that many other writers, from Stapledon onward (Odd John) have essayed with mixed results.  Charlie’s decline, plain for all to foresee, is not overplayed either, taking up only a dozen of so pages at the end. Riffing on Frankenstein and The Incredible Shrinking Man, Keyes immerses his hero in a complex psychosexual stew, all while debating the virtues of intelligence versus those of simple kindness and affection, as well as dissecting scientific hubris. Surely Disch’s 1968 novel Camp Concentration, while in many ways utterly unlike Flowers, could not have been written without this landmark.

If the acerbic, super-smart, wry and free-associating outsider comedian Mort Sahl had ever turned his hand to science fiction, his output might have emerged sounding somewhat like the early work of Roger Zelazny. Full of intellectual conceits blended with pop-culture detournements, Zelazny’s fiction burst almost fully formed on the Sixties scene. Perhaps his only prior ancestor within the genre was a similarly endowed and inclined Alfred Bester.

In …And Call Me Conrad (sometimes known as This Immortal), the scenario, while vivid and tangible, is not startlingly fresh. Earth lies in radioactive ruins, its population much reduced and rife with mutants and ET invasive species, while alien overlords, the Vegans, flounce about like disaster zone tourists. Various underground human factions seek to overturn the status quo and reboot Earth’s glories. But if this milieu seems a little familiar, it receives a hot jolt of energy, joie de vivre and self-conscious Byronic weltschmerz from the narrator, one Conrad Nomikos. Conrad happens to be about a thousand years old, and a kind of Hopeful Monster, a Trickster-Pan-Psychopomp figure. As Minister of Arts, Monuments, and Archives, Conrad has been doing his best to preserve and resurrect mankind’s heritage. But his plans are threatened by the arrival of an important Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, on a possibly problematical mission. Given the task of escorting Myshtigo around the ruins, Conrad assembles a posse of exceptional men and women, all larger-than-life figures—one of whom intends to kill the Vegan. They embark on a Cook’s Tour of mutants, marvels and menace, and its violent culmination finds Conrad literally owning the planet.

The novel should possess a soundtrack by Dave Brubeck, with occasional narrative interruptions from young Hugh Hefner. Its dialogue-rich allusive playfulness overlays a deftness of plotting and plenty of revisionist takes on its old-bones SF armature. With its emphasis on Jungian archetypes resurfacing from the past, whenever the veil of civilization thins out, it expresses the burgeoning kind of Esalen inner-space vibe of an era searching for unconventional solutions in overlooked places.

Compressed into the second volume’s two years of 1968-1969 are four more books that all explore different aspects of the genre.

A. Lafferty’s Past Master might be described as a science-fictional remake of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine flick, with added theology and metaphysics.

It’s a wild fabulist ride with a solid philosophical core. The bulk of humanity now resides on the planet Astrobe, a world designed as—and functional as—a pretty successful utopia (with a couple of outlaw districts where dissident humanity can voluntarily live the old-fashioned nasty, brutish and short type of existence). But there’s a worm at the heart of the rose, and the rulers know it. Desperate for some lateral thinking from an outsider genius, they do just what you or I might do: send a mission back through time to kidnap Thomas More, Mister Utopia Himself, bringing him to the future to assume kingship over Astrobe. But before More will make up his mind whether to accept the role or not, he must undertake a tour of Astrobe, from the Feral Lands to the Electric Mountain, coming to experience more surreal and allegorical challenges and blessings than Christian Everyman does.

Lafferty—who broke into SF as a middle-aged devout former electrician whose love of drink was as legendary as his love of language—tells his story in the gigantic sweeps of the tall tale, rendering More and his companions as fallible demiurges out of the Mike Fink or Paul Bunyan mythos.  Oddball syntax, strange jumps of logic and weird locutions abound.

“Perhaps it is, green monk. It is an inner compulsion of mine, and I must do it. It is on this one thing that I fault the citizens of Golden Astrobe: they have never lifted up their eyes to the mountains. They are like blind men in this, but where are they mistaken? What if all in a world were blind to color except certain small boys? That, I believe, is the case on Astrobe; but it may make the color-gazing a mere boyish thing. What is the good of gazing at a pile of rocks? I will leave off such boyishness after I become world president. But this day I am hooked on the Mountain Bait.”

But beneath Lafferty’s charming bluster was a wounded sensitivity that comes across as a keen dissatisfaction with creation, and a desire to imagine new ways of living and new societies that would better reconcile man to the universe: one of SF’s categorical imperatives.

Despite being hardcore science fiction, there’s a charming hybrid hint of Fritz Leiber’s sword-and-sorcery duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser lingering about Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise. (An explicit reference to Leiber’s landmark volumes occurs in a separate Russ story devoted to Alyx.) That coloration derives mainly from the background of our heroine, Alyx. Once a sneak thief in the dim reaches of the Classical Era, she’s been inadvertently scooped up by a time machine and deposited in humanity’s galactic future, where she functions as a jack-of-all-trades secret agent. In this outing, she has to escort on foot a group of hapless tourists across a war-ravaged planet, to a safe house where they may be lifted off the globe. To put it mildly, things do not go well.

The decadent, over-civilized gadabouts are ill-prepared for the arctic rigors they must encounter. Dangers from nature, wildlife and fellow sentients abound. Alyx is a festering mass of resentment, anger, jealousy, disdain and superiority who nonetheless tries her best to safeguard her charges. Every death—and there are plenty—takes out a slice of her confidence and satisfaction in doing a good job. Yet she never gives up.

And despite these intra-party hostilities, Alyx and her wards bond in strange and surprising ways. Especially touching is the love affair that blossoms between Alyx and the young man named simply “Machine.” Alyx discovers she is susceptible to love and companionship despite her hard-nosed facade.

Russ’s depiction of the non-20th-century, non-Classical attitudes and beliefs of her future denizens is uncanny and weird, and the disjunction between them and Alyx adds black humor to the tragedy. The cruel tangibility of the frozen planet is palpable. And the sometimes oblique dialogue might have come out of a Beckett play.

Like some futuristic combination of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Russ’s novel is a test-to-destruction character study, as beautiful and disturbing as a dissection.

Grandmaster Samuel “Chip” Delany is the only surviving author in this collection, still going strong, garnering a recent Locus Award for his novelette “The Hermit of Houston.” With Nova—which critic Algis Budrys once hailed as the best novel the field had produced to date—he entered the prime of his career, with such milestones as Dhalgren still ahead.

In the 32nd century, several rival polities contend across the galaxy for dominance.  All are fueled by the miraculous transuranic element Illyrion, which exists only in quantities measured in kilograms. But Captain Lorq von Ray, of the rich and influential von Ray lineage, has a daring, half-insane plan to retrieve several tons of the substance from the heart of a star going nova, thus radically transfiguring the whole galactic balance of power. With a colorful crew of misfits and oddballs, he sets out to do the deed—despite having failed disastrously before.

A simple plot, it seems. Yet the novel offers an unprecdentedly rich tapestry of futuristic society and personalities. This encounter marks my third reading of the book, and my long-ago first two passes left me with the impression that the actual flight to the nova sun dominated the wordage. Not so. Instead I see that, thanks to chunks of intricate backstory, Delany was more intent on limning the Proustian, Flaubertian dimensions of his future. With his prose modeled on that of his idol, Theodore Sturgeon, Delany could delve deeply into character byplay and sensory trappings. In fact, the romance/rivalry among Lorq and the brother-sister team of Prince and Ruby Red recalls something like Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. (For good reason did the French cinematic New Wave lend its name to the cutting-edge science fictioneers of this day.) Splitting his attention between Lorq and the “cyborg stud” Mouse allows Delany to drift among different social strata and varied exotic venues.

His keenly honed style also facilitated action sequences that verged on prose poems.

“Through shifting links he saw she was masked again: glittering glass, her eyes; her mouth and nostrils, grilled. All expression was in her slim shoulders, the small muscles suddenly defined. She bent; her stomach creased. The adapter circuits magnified the strength in her arms some five hundred to one. Lorq was wrenched forward down the steps. He fell, caught at the wall. Rock and metal hurt his arms and knees.

What the links gave in strength, they sacrificed in precision of movement. A swell swept the web, but he was able to duck beneath and gain two steps. But Ruby kicked back; he was yanked down four more. He took two on his back, then one on his hip. She was reeling him down. Fog lapped her calves; she backed further into the suffocating mists, stooped till her black mask was at the fog’s surface.”

With its allusiveness to Grail myths, Tarot practice, and Melvillean obsessions, and deploying a showstopper Götterdämmerung climax, Delany’s novel, written before he was 25 years old, blew open the limits of space opera like a star blowing off its entire mass.

Wisely, editor Wolfe concludes with a novel, Emphyrio, by the master of estrangement and sense of wonder, Jack Vance, illustrating how even in this gone-by era of revolution and revisioning certain baseline virtues of the genre remained enshrined.

Vance’s novels seem timeless and eternal, concerned with archetypical matters of the heart and mind: duty and rebellion, art and illusion, chicanery and revenge. Blending the acutely observed and narrated grotesqueries of Dickens and Peake with a cosmopolitan attitude born of his own extensive travels, Vance crafted begemmed adventures with an armature of philosophical heft.  And yet he was not immune to topicality. The Gray Prince (1974), for instance, dealt with apartheid in disguise, and this novel, with its regimented world of welfare conformity and religious absurdities seems redolent of, at the minimum, Angry Young Man material, if not counterculture rage at the establishment.

We open with our hero, Ghyl Tarvoke, laid out helplessly on a torture slab, being questioned by the capricious rulers of his homeworld for unspecified misdeeds. Without further explanation, we jump back to 7-year-old Ghyl, and thus enter his bildungsroman. Growing up wild, wistful and ambitious, without a mother, he relies on his indecisive dreamer of a father, whose principled stances eventually bring doom upon the old man’s head for trespassing the codified rituals of their society. A young man when this happens, Ghyl tries to subsume his anger and grief in work. But at the back of his mind is always the image of the folk hero Emphyrio.

“Emphyrio has haunted me all my life. My father died on the same account; he thought of himself as Emphyrio. He wanted to bring truth to Ambroy. Why else did he dare so much?”

But such unthinking adulation leads him astray, into an act of near-terrorism that segues into a riff on Barrie’s famous shipwreck scenario from The Admirable Crichton. The narrative soon circles back to the start: Ghyl narrowly escapes death, gains wealth, and finds all his answers and melancholy victories more or less where he began as a child, as he assumes the mantle of his idol.

Baroque yet pellucid, pulse-rousing yet with deep gravitas, Vance’s tale casts omnipresent verities and dreams, laws of action and consequence and desire into unforgettable alien forms.

Gary Wolfe’s canny assemblage of these eight representative novels brilliantly encapsulates and adumbrates a celebrated decade in the history of science fiction, a time when the limits of life and literature seemed infinite, yet nothing was guaranteed.

American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s is available now from the Library of America.