HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION - CHAPTER SIX - THE SIXTIES REVOLUTION
The 1960’s revolutionized Science fiction in many ways. This was the age of changing attitudes towards sex and sexuality. There were highly volatile protests against capitalism, and the US involvement in the Vietnam War. It was the age of Rock And Roll, Beatlemania, black rights activism. Recreational drugs were becoming more prevalent in their fashionable usage.
British Science fiction author Michael Moorcock was the first to see the potential new direction SF could go to capture and reflect this mood. He began editing New Worlds, which showed SF with a stronger subversive edge. There was also a growing move towards character based Science Fiction. Up to the 60’s people had been very badly represented in science fiction, - they played second fiddle to the ideas, robots, spaceships, etc. Wells’s heroes were usually just witnesses to extraordinary events, rather than memorable in their own right. Many writers had maintained that approach. All that was about to change.
The Sixties saw the full emergence of the most poetic writers of Science Fiction; Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut Jnr.
Philip K Dick's haunting 'Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep' (1968) , or Bladerunner as the excellent 1982 film was called, depicts a world where live animals are rare; people covet artificial stock. One man, Bounty hunter Rick Deckard gains money for his dream menagerie by capturing and killing replicants, humanoid synthetic androids; often implanted with false memories of a past they never lived. Deckard rd is filled with a conscience about these near living creatures; Frankenstein monsters produced on a massive scale but he also wants his animals. Social status is measured here by keeping up with the Jones's. Feelings can be manipulated by the use of a Penfield Mood Organ, which can fill you with the desire for many things; long deserved pence, the desire to watch TV, no matter what is on, or as Deckard's wife uses it, for six hour bouts of self-accusatory depression. K. Dick wrote with a pathos never seen before in the genre. Do Androids is funny and earnest at the same time. Deckard is torn between coveting and lamenting life; he realises the artificial nature of his own social surroundings. His is a world of despair. The androids appreciate life more, but they get ‘retired’ early by bounty hunters like Deckard.
Dick wrote many other wonderful stories, notably The Man In The High Castle (1962) a terrific alternative history (probably the first) work depicting a world in which the Nazis won World War Two.
Kurt Vonnigutt, is truly remarkable. Many of his works take digs at religion as a force for controlling humanity. In The Sirens of Titan, (1968) a Gideon Bible salesman is exploited by the religion calling itself The Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and the book concerns the control by aliens of human destiny for one purpose alone; to get the spare part far one of the alien group's spaceships. The conclusion Vonnigutt comes to is that God is more present for other beings in the Universe than he is to us; and we should laugh at the absurdity of our existence. In Cat’s Cradle (1963) Vonnegut creates Ice Nine, a powerful freezing agent intended for use in freezing mud so soldiers and tanks don’t get bogged down in waterlogged battlefields, but the substance has the potential to freeze any and all water, so it is deemed too dangerous to use at all, but of course, it’s escape is inevitable. At the conclusion, even the seas are frozen solid, and the world is doomed. Cat’s cradle also gives us the Calypso religion, a bogus belief that sings its dissent to all; "all religions are false, including this one," is its central assertion.
Vonnegut survived the Firestorm that destroyed d the city of Dresden in WW2 and this serves as a powerful reference and starting point in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five (1969) in which Billy Pilgrim is caught in a time loop that snatches him between captivity as a POW in Dresden (Vonnigut’s own experience) and being a sex slave on the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is expected to mate for the amusement and study of his alien captors. Vonnegut argued that the wonders of the imagination and the horrors we can imagine are nothing compared to the wonders or horrors of the reality of life.
Vonnegut dislikes being thought of as an SF writer at all, but merely as a writer. His finest work is in fact a non-SF novel Mother Night, about an American living in Nazi Germany who is trapped into performing a Lord Haw haw style role sending out treasonous messages on propaganda radio, under the belief that the messages will carry coded messages for allied intelligence. After the war, he finds himself hunted as a war criminal and a traitor, and his only friends are the neo nazis who still venerate him. Captured, and sharing a cell block with Adolph Eichmann, the hero finally finds a chance to prove he is no nazi, but he sacrifices himself tot he myth instead, believing that the atrocities blamed on him deserve remembering more than himself and any pretensions he has to innocence. Mother Night is as fantastic in conception as any SF work Vonnegut presented, and shows that any SF writer is as capable of transcending the medium to write any other kind of literature.
Slapstick 1976, (subtitled Lonesome No More) is one of SF’s most original and unlikely works - a hideously ugly ape like figure, Wilbur Swain, a virtual Elephant Man style freak of nature, is separated from his twin sister when it is discovered that they are not only ugly, but also highly intelligent. His campaign and his sense of tragic poetry and his offbeat social theories propel him towards US presidency. Swain argues that America has fallen into decline because the Nuclear Family has stopped us being essentially social animals. We are too busy looking after the limited needs of a few, rather than the need s of many. Swain., influenced by his own intense loneliness at the loss of his sister, argues that everyone must become a member of a new family, and designates everyone with a personal family name at random. He argues that you may be more inclined to give aid to a beggar in the street if he was one of your own family. Swain himself becomes a member of the Daffodil family, and his ‘Lonesome No More’ campaign bags him the presidency. It sadly never gives him back a cure for his own loneliness however.
One of the most controversial novelists to emerge was Robert A Heinlan, who had shocked society with the fascist satire of Starship Troopers, (1959)in which military cadets are virtually stripped of humanity and pity to be able to fight a brutal merciless war against an alien army of insect like locusts hell bent on stripping planets of all life throughout the galaxy. Fans are bitterly divided on what Heinlan’s own political views might be regarding this novel. Heinlan began the 60’s with a major work called Stranger In A Strange Land (1961) which creates a whole myth around its Martian, John Valentine Smith. Efforts to Humanise the alien result only in the Martianizing of humanity; with its strange but touching water sharing ceremonies; its explicit sexuality; its very sixties feel. It's language of Grokking, or total instinctive comprehension became very influential on beat generation people, the drug culture, and on Charles Manson in particular. Valentine Smith learns of Earth based religion from a notorious atheist, Jubal Hawshaw, who is appalled to learn that Smith veneratss him as a demi-God in his own very off-beat but strangely captivating belief system. Stranger is a wonderful read even today. It shocks at times for its casual sexual imagery and the ease with which Smith makes people he feels threatened by simply vanish, and it ends with a somewhat blasphemous, cannibalistic reworking of the Catholic mass when Smith effectively allows himself to be martyred and devoured by his friends, living on within their psyche in a perverse form of resurrection exercise.
Norman Spinrad would be equally controversial; tackling paranoia in its most extreme form in Bug Jack Barron, (1969) before presenting his most extreme work in The Iron Dream. This dark and somewhat humourless satire suggests that Hitler gave up on politics after the abortive Munich Beer Hall putsch and decided to write Science Fiction. The Iron Dream claims to be Hitler’s Hugo award winning novel. It has to be remembered throughout that Spinrad writes as if he was Hitler. The Iron Dream is a Hitler like figure’s battle to save his world from the genetically impure misfits surrounding him (obviously modelled on Hitler’s perception of the Jews). Once they are eliminated, the hero sends off a fleet of spaceships to spread his sperm throughout the universe and literal propagation of the iron Dream becomes a sickening reality. ,
More overtly humorous was Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat, (1961) which introduced the famous habitual convict anti-hero, Slippery Jim DiGriz, (there are many sequels) who is captured and forced to work for the galactic, police, but who continues to walk the edge between law enforcement andlaw breaking, seeing the two as largely indistinguishable from one another. In a more serious vein, Harrison also gave us Make Room, Make Room a potent study of over-population which was filmed as Soylent Green. (19???) In this, the world’s food supplies are running low. Everyone believes hat the Soylent Green food supplied to them is plankton based, but it is actually, as the hero discovers to his horror, processed human flesh.
The 60’s also saw humanity reach the Moon, and effectively the dreams promised in SF of galactic conquest received their first confirmation in reality. We began to believe we would master interstellar travel within our lifetime. There was a major re-interest in the conquest of Mars in particular, though satellite study shows that any but the most primeval of life in our own solar system is highly improbable. SF rarely also challenges the biggest criticism of all levelled against true space race activity; its economic cost.
Frank Herbert's epic Dune 1965 creates a whole range of extraordinary belief systems. Arrakis, the desert world, with its unique drug, Melange; that is rare and highly priced in the Universe, competed over by a series of warring factions. Based heavily on on Lawrence Of Arabia’s Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, , with strong influences of Islamic literature, Dune is phenomenal reading. Here is complex religious and social philosophy in a sprawling soap opera setting. The Messianic hero, Paul Atriedes, The Quzzats Hadderach, rides into battle on a mile long sand worm. Amidst its immensely complex narrative, and wonderfully depicted action set pieces, Dune argues against State rooted authorised religion.
"We should've realised we weren't supposed to introduce uncertainties into accepted belief, that we weren't supposed to stir up curiosity about God. We are daily confronted by the terrifying instability of all things human, yet we permit our religions to grow more rigid and controlled, and conforming and oppressive".
Human evolution may take us forward into new levels of ability or intellectual accomplishment, or it could potentially backfire on us. The first Planet Of The Apes movie is a cautionary tale of reverse evolution where man is second in intelligence to monlseys. Dire sequels forgotten, the first film is a useful way of introducing us to Darwinism, and that final anti-nuclear message is legendary; as Charlton Heston finds the ruins of The Statue Of Liberty on what he assumed was another planet.
70's sci-fi gets complex, ingenious sophisticated, and even more interested in the people who witness its wonders. ,
Increasing liberation meant that there were also a modest number of women writing SF in this era. Doris Lessing, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and of course Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin offers one of the Genre's best Utopian worlds, the planet Urras, in The Dispossessed; (1974). Shevek is a citizen of Anarres, who is exiled to Urras where he learns of a very different, socialist life style, and attempts to reintroduce those kind of values in his homeworld to reconcile the two worlds. It is a doomed and heroic venture.
Other sci-fi writers picked up on the need for human character
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale depicts a brutal world
order where the few remaining fertile women are reduced to surrogate
motherhood for the gentry; forced to lie on the bed of the wife, held down
by the wife while being impregnated by the husbands, in an emotionless mechanical act of rape, business-like and dispassionate. Sex is reduced to an act of control and necessary business. The heroine, Offred, (literally Fred's property), seeks real love, real passion, and, unusual in such dystopian books, she finds it.
In conic boolc sci-fi, the two dimensional hero of unlisited
messianic powers was waning in popularity. Superman was old hat; he is truly a god of course; a mysterious birth; totally strong; able to turn up, commit a rescue, or violently despatch the villains, and fly away angina as mysteriously as he came; living in human guise, as a man of steel posing as a meek, mild human, reporter; later he learns to suffer; Kryptonite can hurt him, but he survives the pain and suffering to do more omnipotent and patriotic good; in the 1990's the messiah aspect is sent full circle; a villain called Doomsday fighting with one hand tied behind his back, literally kills Superman, who comes back from the dead; a resurrected God; and boring as hell. In the 1950's Stan Lee created a new kind of superhero, a human with limited but effective powers, but also a personality; he is young; he likes girls; he lives with his granny; he feels guilty over his Father's death; he has acne and other human problems as well as his scrapes with super villains; the hero is Peter Parker, Spiderman, the first purposely
humanised superhero; fallible and young. Few realise that he was first drawn purely as an anti-dote to such messianic Superman. Today, even he seems old hat; a tired concept; new sci-fi comics serve best as parodies, and pastiches of former styles. That particular branch of the genre has run out of steam; lets hope its temporary.
Novels and short stories still show promise; William Gibson's Neuromancer created a whole new sci-fi Genre, The Cyberpunk era was on us; dark, cynical exploitation in global, if not interstellar information computer network, where people are programmed &
manipulated as much as information. The heroes of Cyberpunk works survive, and make a few bucks if they are lucky. Cyberpunk creates a plausible and extremely dangerous future, one with little room at present for Humanise, other than as a warning of worst case scenario proportions. From Neuromancer; "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one finger permanently on the on the fast forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without trace; but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone with nothing left of you but some vague memory."
This is a future where people can jack their brains directly into a world-wide Internet-like computer network, just as we plug in a mouse or a printer today, but where the brain is just as susceptible to hackers and computer viruses. This is a corrupt dog eat dog world where mace spray gives way to home made cancer bombs; "Death, not now, but in six years time, so I'd put the gun down now if I was you.... " (a paraphrasing of a typical Cyberpunk style line)
Is the future brutal, decadent and violent; as society and civilisation give way to greed and barbaric anarchy; or is it to be enlightened, and Humanistic?
More pleasant visions are rare at present in sci-fi; the best humanism comes in the form of Terry Prattchett's Discworld stories. Discworld is a world that exists only because its inhabitants believe it exists; Gods are as real as the postman but die of if belief in them fails. This creates all kinds of delightful absurdities that truly challenge our world's sore literal beliefs; Take Dios, High priest of the Discworld's Egypt like Djelibelian culture. in Pratchett's Pyramids:
"And Dios knew that Net was the supreme God, and that Fen was the supreme God, and so were Hast, Set, Bin, Sot, Io, Dhek, and Ptooie; That Herpetine Triskeles alone ruled the world of the dead, and so did Syncope, and Silur, the catfish-headed God, and Orexis Nupt. Dios was maximum high priest to a national religion that had fermented and bubbled for seven thousand years and never threw a god away in case it turned out to be useful. He knew that a great many mutually contradictory things were all true. If they were not then ritual and belief were as nothing, then the world did not exist. As a result of this sort of thinking, the priests of the Djel could give mind room to a collection of ideas that would make a quantum mechanic give in and hand back his tool box."
Science fiction, more than any other medium asks and tries to answer the question, what will become of Humanity tomorrow. If we do conquer, terraform, or inherit another world would we cease being Humanists, and become instead, Venusianists? or Martianists? Then again, will we survive at all? Will we destroy ourselves, or attain a new Renaissance?. This is an area long explored by the best science fiction writers. We, as Humanists should be investigating the same barely charted territory.The main essay ends here, (hope you found it useful) but many authors and works, including films and TV shows, receive individual study throughout my web site, so check up the following for further study
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