Our peripatetic history of science fiction brings us to one of the more momentous decades in the history of the genre. The 1970s had been a decade in which no more than a handful of great writers emerged. The effects of the new wave slowly ran down, and the most important event in the history of sf was probably the release of Star Wars, which helped to initiate a new interest in space opera. By the start of the new decade, therefore, sf was in the doldrums. But it quickly emerged to a new burst of energy. The most important film of the decade was probably Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which grafted a classic noir plot onto a grittily realistic view of near-future Los Angeles. In this it helped set the tone for cyberpunk, which really emerged fully formed with the publication, just a year or two later, of William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk, as practiced in particular by Gibson along with Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, became the dominant mode of science fiction throughout the decade.
An alternative mode, known as humanist sf, as practiced by Gene Wolfe, Kim Stanley Robinson and later Karen Joy Fowler was originally touted as a rival to cyberpunk, though in fact the two forms complemented each other, often overlapping in concerns and approaches. Nevertheless, the sense of a rivalry between the two gave an air of vitality that helped to push along the innovations that developed during the decade.
Outside of science fiction, it was a decade in which right wing governments (Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the USA) came to power and locked the western world into a neo-liberal agenda. The sense that governments were at war with the marginalised, the disadvantaged and the poor created an atmosphere of fear and anger that often came out in the sf of the period. Here you will often find dystopias, stories of oppression, of minorities fighting back, worlds where humanity feels alienated. It was not always a pleasant time to live through, but it generated some dynamic and very interesting science fiction.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
There’s good reason to regard the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun as the very best work of science fiction in the last 50 years at least, so the first volume of the sequence has to be our pick for 1980. It’s set in our far future, when the Earth has changed, human society has declined, aliens walk among us, and there is strange technology that no one fully understands. In other words, in outline it is much like any other sf novel we’ve read. But it is told in an extraordinary language, so rich and strange that it is hard to realise that there isn’t a single made-up word in the book. And Wolfe is rigorous in presenting everything through the eyes and the understanding of his central character, Severian, and what he regards as familiar and commonplace is very strange to us, while what we would consider familiar (a photograph of the original moon landing, for example) is weird and extraordinary to him. The result is probably the most vivid and immersive experience in the whole of science fiction.
The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
If the New Wave of the 1960s saw the literary techniques of modernism finally begin to seep into science fiction, by the late 1970s postmodernism was following a similar course. Alasdair Gray’s brilliant Lanark, for instance, is a prime example of this, but The Affirmation is another very singular example. It tells the story of Peter Sinclair who has a breakdown and moves out of London to repair an old cottage and write his life story; but what he writes is about someone called Peter Sinclair who lives in a place known as the Dream Archipelago. Meanwhile, in the Dream Archipelago Peter Sinclair wins a lottery which grants him immortality treatment, but the treatment will wipe out his memory so first he must write his autobiography; but what he writes is about someone called Peter Sinclair who lives in an imaginary place called London. As if this wasn’t complex enough, there are a couple of revelations late in the novel that will make you question everything you have read so far. I know of no other novel that twists your perceptions quite as much as this, and keeps you on your toes all the time you are reading it.
No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop
If the Affirmation played tricks with our notions of dream and reality, story and truth, then much the same can be said of No Enemy But Time, but the result is a very different type of story. John Monegal is a modern American black man who has remarkably vivid dreams about our ancestors, homo habilis, in Africa. Just as he learns that his mother is about to publish a book based on his dreams, he gets the chance to travel in a time machine back to the time he has dreamed about. There in the distant past, John is taken in by a group of prehumans and learns to live just as they do. He even fathers a daughter, then he and his daughter are mysteriously returned to our present. There he discovers that he has lost his ability for vivid dreaming, but his daughter has inherited the same ability. Only in her case she dreams about the future.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
In the mid-1980s a group of writers, including Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, all of them close friends of Philip K. Dick, began to write novels that incorporated some of the narrative techniques and subjects of Victorian speculative fiction. In a jokey reference to cyberpunk, Jeter christened their work “steampunk”, though it was very different from the work we now associate with that term. The first and best of those early steampunk novels was The Anubis Gates. A modern day millionaire discovers a series of gates that allow him to travel back in time, and he arranges a trip, led by Professor Brendan Doyle, to go and hear Coleridge speak. But the gateways were a failed attempt by Egyptian magicians to let the old gods into the modern world. Doyle finds himself trapped in the past, where he has to take on the personality of the enigmatic poet Ashbless, while battling strange creatures unleashed by the gates and also thwarting attempts to change the past. The result is a rollicking, high-octane and very engaging story.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
What an extraordinary year in science fiction this was. Iain Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Kim Stanley Robinson and Lucius Shepard all made their debuts, and all with books that still stand out as among the very best of the decade. But the novel that really caught everyone’s attention, and that still stands as one of the most important novels of our time, was another debut, Neuromancer by William Gibson. This was the book that really set the style for cyberpunk, particularly with Gibson’s invention of cyberspace, the digital landscape inside a computer. It’s basically a heist novel, with damaged ex-hacker Case hired by a shadowy figure for one last job, which turns out to involve a powerful AI known as Wintermute. But at a time when personal computers were only just becoming available (Gibson famously wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter) and the internet still lay in the future, this was a radical opening up of a brand new and extraordinary landscape in science fiction.
Blood Music by Greg Bear
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was the novel that scooped all the awards for this year, but Blood Music is the book that has best stood the test of time, a novel that haunts the imagination even this long after it appeared. In many ways the idea of a maverick scientist who experiments upon himself is as old as time (remember, Newton inserted pins into his own eyes in his experiments on optics), but Greg Bear has combined the idea with a sense of body horror that has produced one of the most startling and enduring images in science fiction. When biotechnologist Vergil Ulam’s research is shut down, he injects the “noocytes” he has created into his own body. Then follows a radical transformation as the biological computers multiply, take over his body, improve his health, his posture, his intelligence, and then start to merge into a protoplasmic mass that eventually takes over the whole of North America. It is a work that is by turns hopeful and terrifying.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was already an established and acclaimed mainstream author when she produced this first venture into science fiction. Though it won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award, it was not universally welcomed in the sf community, but in the years since then it has established itself as one of the most significant works of its time, a book that is widely taught in schools and universities, and that has been adapted as a film, a stage play, even as an opera. It is a frightening account of an America taken over by the religious right, where women are debased, enslaved as sex partners for powerful men. Given the way the religious right in America has consistently and increasingly interfered in women’s rights, particularly over abortion and sexual health, this could well turn out to be the most prescient science fiction novel of its time.
Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
In the late 1980s, Lucius Shepard was one of the most powerful voices in science fiction, producing a lush prose that was positively alive with scents and tastes and smells. Usually set in tropical or sub-tropical locations, landscapes that were as threatening as any other dangers that featured in his stories, they were mostly works about men who had lost control of their lives, through crime or drugs or war, or sometimes all three. He was generally at his best writing novellas and novelettes, one of which, “R&R”, became the basis for this vivid and brilliant novel. It is set during a Central American war that is a clear analogue of Vietnam. Here the US soldiers are depersonalised by the technology they use, and dull their senses with drugs, but one soldier, Mingella, part of the elite Psicorps, finds himself on a journey deep into the jungle to unravel the real origins of the war.
The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
Feminist science fiction had grown considerably during the 1960s and 70s, but it probably reached its height during the 1980s. Feminist presses began to publish their own science fiction imprints, and new writers raised on the early work of Ursula Le Guin or Joanna Russ began to appear. At the same time, some of the oldest traditions of feminist literature got a new lease of life. There are, for instance, novels about all-female societies that date from the beginning of the 20th century, but this image began to recur in the sf of the 70s and 80s. Perhaps the finest example of the form is The Gate to Women’s Country, set long after an atomic apocalypse, with a women-only community where male children are sent outside the gates of the city to become warriors. But the community itself hides secrets that can only gradually be discovered.
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy
One strand of humanist sf, typified by Lisa Goldstein’s A Mask for the General and by Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After, brings in surrealist influences as a way not only of representing freedom but of fighting for it. In this novel, for instance, a plague has devastated the United States. A small community survives in San Francisco, composed mostly of artists. When they discover that a general, with dreams of reuniting the old USA, plans to use his army to take over the city, they realise that they cannot use conventional means to oppose him. Instead, they improvise tricks and traps, and use their art to demoralise the army. The result is a brilliant evocation of the anarchist hippy spirit so associated with San Francisco.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.